NALO HOPKINSON: WRITING IS BELIEVING

Drawing on her Caribbean heritage, Nalo Hopkinson has made a stir in the science fiction and fantasy world with her novels

––Courtesy Warner BooksNalo HopkinsonNalo. Photograph by David Findlay

There are a few phrases in the English language that cause my brain
to bleed. “Science fiction” is one of them. I’m in New York’s Central Park,
lost in a sea of 7,000 orange flags — the installation of saffron-coloured
fabric panels otherwise referred to as The Gates — prepping for
an interview with Caribbean writer Nalo Hopkinson. Walking in the park
ranks high on my list of favourite pastimes. But, covered with snow and
altered by Christo and Jean Claude’s artistic vision, my beloved Central
Park looks like laundry day on Mars. And it’s here in this familiar environment
now turned surreal that the dreaded phrase leaps at me from a sheaf of
hastily Googled articles. “Nalo Hopkinson is a science fiction writer.”
You’ve got to be kidding me.

The dreadlocked, brown-skinned woman smiling up at me from
the pages doesn’t mesh with my image of science fiction; an admittedly
irrational and woefully stereotypical slideshow of pasty-faced teenage
boys in thrift store Star Trek costumes, hunched over thick tomes with
unpronounceable titles. Its growing commercial value aside, the sci-fi world
has always seemed to me to be the purview of those who aren’t doing so well
in the real one. But Nalo Hopkinson looks like a sisterfriend. The cool
woman who runs the art gallery down the street.  The poet stepping
up to the microphone at a slam in Brooklyn. There is a wisdom in her eyes
that tells you she has something to say, and a grace that makes you want
to hear it. But science fiction? I’m stunned to find a Caribbean woman dwelling
in a genre I perceive as foreign and inaccessible. But I’m thrilled to find
yet another unexpected area where a Caribbean national is holding the flag
high.


Speaking by phone from her home in Toronto, Hopkinson laughs at my preconceptions
of her preferred genre. She sounds as well-adjusted as she looks, speaking
in an easy calm voice that lilts in defiance of her 28 years in Toronto.
Hopkinson is the best known of a small group of writers putting a Caribbean
accent on the science fiction and fantasy genres.  She has published
three novels and edited anthologies of Caribbean and African diaspora writing
in science fiction and fantasy, all to strong critical reception. Her work
draws heavily on Caribbean life and culture: social trends; syncretic African
religions like pocomania, vodun, and santeria; the works of other Caribbean
writers, like Derek Walcott; lyrics from old calypsos; Caribbean heroes
like Granny Nanny, or characters drawn from Carnival masquerades. It’s a
mélange that’s winning over both science fiction fans in the US
and Canada and, more slowly, Caribbean readers.

The small cabal of Caribbean writers in the genre includes Tobias Buckell
from St Thomas and Haiti’s Claude-Michel Prevost. But don’t call them
the vanguard of the Caribbean science fiction genre. “There’s no such
thing,” says Hopkinson. “People have started describing me as a Caribbean
science fiction writer, and I think that’s a crock. I’m a Caribbean writer
of science fiction. Sometimes I don’t write about the Caribbean, because
the Caribbean is not all of me. There are Caribbean writers of science
fiction and stories set in the Caribbean. Nowhere near enough of them
— the writers or the stories.”

Hopkinson was born in Jamaica in 1961, but moved constantly between
Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, and the United States until age 16, when her
family settled in Toronto. Her first foray into writing came during one
of her early stints in Trinidad.

“I was between nine and eleven years old. Our English teacher asked
us to write a mystery. I wrote something that was a combination of a murder
mystery and vampire tale . . . about a Catholic priest and a cross and
holy water and ting and ting. That was the first story I ever wrote.”

Before her teacher’s prompting, the young Hopkinson hadn’t even realised
she was interested in writing fiction or fantasy. The inspiration for
that first story had been subtle, the product of a wildly diverse reading
list. “To be reading children’s literature means you’re reading fantasy.
Children’s literature is one of the places where it is still permissible
to write fantasy and nobody tells you you’re being escapist. So I was already
reading a lot of fantasy. And a lot of folktales — Caribbean, Chinese,
European. My parents gave me free rein of their bookshelf, and I was reading
at a pretty adult level very early on. I was reading anything that had
some element of fantasy in it — C.S. Lewis’s children’s stories or Gulliver’s
Travels or Homer’s Iliad, which I was reading when I was quite young.
My mother worked as a library technician and brought her books home. My
father [the late poet, Slade Hopkinson] was a teacher and writer, and very
much involved in the literary space. So from a very young age I had exposure
to this very wide world of literary production.

“A lot of their friends were also wordsmiths or artists in one way
or another. People like Dennis Scott and Kamau Brathwaite were people my
brother and I got to know early on. My parents would take us to museums,
plays, art galleries . . . [they] taught me that love of the thing you
create yourself. There’s a lot that they gave me that makes it possible
for me to even conceive of being an artist.”

Her creative spark lay dormant for years. After that first short story,
she wrote nothing, save a few health and fitness articles for Word,
a black Canadian magazine, and a poem at age 15 that she describes as a
“groaner” — a long science fiction pun on the phrase “nothing can sustain
life forever.” From 15 to 33 there was nothing. “It hadn’t occurred to me.
My father was a writer. In the back of my mind I sometimes thought I might
like to, but I didn’t know how to figure out what it was I wanted to say
or even what to write about. I was a bookworm. I lived mostly in my head.
I didn’t know how to express myself or even what I wanted to express.”

In 1993, the year her father was dying, the spark returned. On a whim,
she penned a six-page story to enter a workshop being held by noted science
fiction writer and editor Judy Merril.

“Often the way I work is that I don’t realise I’m going to want to
do it. I just try to do it and then if it’s possible, I figure I can do
it.” The workshop never ran, but Merril assembled the six students she would
have accepted and taught them how to workshop each other’s work. The group
continued to meet every other week for six years.

In 1997, she sent the first three chapters of what would become Brown
Girl in the Ring
to Warner Aspect. When the publisher wrote back,
wanting to shortlist it for its best first novel contest, Hopkinson wrote
at a blistering pace and finished the book in two months. The book won
the award, and Hopkinson’s writing career was born.

 

Her attempt to meld Caribbean and science fiction influences has always
been instinctual rather than intentional. When she began writing Brown
Girl,
she’d been reading a lot of science fiction set in contemporary
and near-contemporary settings, and realised that it drew a lot on Western
culture and folklore. “I felt that Caribbean culture and folklore offered
an equally robust source from which to draw,” says Hopkinson. “As I built
the plot I realised there were similarities to Derek Walcott’s Ti-Jean
and His Brothers. I decided to make that explicit, so the characters’
names are feminised versions of the three brothers’ names. In Walcott’s
work, the three brothers are fighting the devil. In Brown Girl, three generations
of women are fighting the same evil that has affected all their lives.”

In her work since then, Hopkinson has found that science fiction and
fantasy provide the perfect meeting ground for her divergent interests.
Her third novel, The Salt Roads, for example, drew its inspiration
from a collection of articles on such seemingly disparate topics as Haitian
deities and Jamaican dancehall. “I was reading those while on a plane,
and I don’t travel very well, so I was on Gravol, which means I didn’t
really need the plane to fly . . . I pulled from all three to write a [book]
proposal that would be about the birth of an Afro-Caribbean deity.”

Today, Hopkinson lives in Toronto, where she credits the strength of
the Caribbean community and the cohesiveness of the science fiction community
for providing her with a rich cultural support system that both nourishes
her identity and feeds her writing. She is a self-described undisciplined
writer.

“I have no discipline. I have no habits beyond avoidance of work,”
she laughs. “I describe my process as throwing myself at the computer
often enough that writing happens. Ideally, I would try to write two pages
a day. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If I write a paragraph, I’ve
had a successful writing day. Everything after that is brawta.”

Her new book, currently titled Mammalian Diving Reflex, is again
set in the Caribbean. It centres on a woman in her mid- 50s grappling with
isolation and the onset of menopause. In this world, however, every hot
flash makes something magical happen, something the protagonist does not
intend.

So does Hopkinson’s new work imitate life? Hardly. Reality, she scoffs,
is the last thing she’d write. “I know how reality goes. I’m already caught
up in an interesting life. I don’t need to write about it,” she says,
laughing. “I prefer fantasy and science fiction. They’re genres that actively
say that change is possible.”

Maybe I’ll even become a science fiction fan.


“Identity is kind of a mailbox”

Nalo Hopkinson talks to Kellie Magnus

Do you identify first as a Caribbean author or a science fiction
author?

It depends on who I’m talking to and what I mean to say about how I
identify. I am a science fiction writer. I am also a Caribbean writer, a
woman writer, a black writer. I am many things.

Do you pay attention to those labels?

Labels are very important to me. They’re a way of finding community
and a way of community finding you. If people are looking for my work because
they’re looking for the work of another woman or the work of a science fiction
writer or a black writer, it helps if they know that I am that. For me,
identity is kind of a mailbox.

When you’re wearing the Caribbean label, what does that mean
to you?

It means where I was born, how I speak, the place of my heart, the
kind of food I like. It means language and a sensibility about language
— a sense of playfulness and inventiveness about language. The kind of
trees, the animals, and again, the food!

How do you define science fiction and fantasy?
Science fiction is a literature that explores the fact that human beings
are part of social systems and that social systems change. It explores
social change and the human change that both drives it and is affected
by it. Fantasy, which I write more than I write science fiction, is a literature
that explores the stories we tell to explain the inexplicable. It also
explores human nature. Fantasy pays homage to folklore and folklore talks
a lot about archetypes. Fantasy explores those archetypes and also explores
the way we tell stories to explain things like why there’s a moon in the
sky or things that we have no explanation for, but we believe. Fantasy
explores what we believe.

How has the science fiction community responded to the Caribbean
element in your work?

Very, very well. We live in a racist world, and there’s no less racism
[in the science fiction community] than anywhere else. But the nice thing
about the science fiction community is that it’s very accepting of a challenge,
of something new. We’re all a community of eggheads. We like knowing stuff.
For the most part, [sci-fi readers] open the book and . . . get very interested
in the language and the world and culture I’m talking about.

At Calabash 2003, you read an erotic short story. What prompted
your foray into the genre?

[One of Hopkinson’s idols as a writer is Samuel R. Delaney, the first
black science fiction writer.] I found [Delaney’s] work fearless because
anything his intellect is interested by, he will write about. His work is
often very sexually explicit. Reading people like James Baldwin [made me
realise] that, if you’re an artist, there’s no reason not to make art out
of anything. Sex is a big part of the human experience. It’s something that
we’re hardwired to think about. Why would you avoid making art about something
that is so all-encompassingly important to human beings?


A Nalo Hopkinson chronology

1998 Published her
first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, which won the Warner Aspect
first novel contest
1999 Won the John W. Campbell award
for best new writer for Brown Girl and her short stories published
to date
2000 Published her second novel,
Midnight Robber, which was named a New York Times
Notable Book of the Year Edited the fiction anthology Whispers from the
Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction
. A collection of short
stories by Caribbean writers drawing from fables, Whispers was named
one of the best books of 2000 by the Vermont Book Professionals’ Association
2001 Published the short story
collection Skin Folk
2003 Published her third novel,
The Salt Roads
Edited the fiction anthology Mojo: Conjure Stories
2004 Co-edited (with Uppinder Mehan)
the fiction anthology So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Visions of
the Future
2005 Money Tree, her first
stage play, opens in Toronto this spring. Co-edited (with Geoff Ryman) a
forthcoming Canadian science fiction and fantasy anthology, Tessseracts
Nine

 


On her bookshelf

Nalo Hopkinson’s favourite Caribbean and science fiction books

Caribbean

Shani Mootoo, Cereus Blooms at Night
Patricia Powell, The Pagoda
Kamau Braithwaite, Mother Poem
Pamela Mordecai, Certifiable
Olive Senior, Discerner of Hearts

Science fiction

Samuel Delaney, Dhalgren
Ursula LeGuin, Always Coming Home
Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen
Molly Gloss, The Dazzle of a Day
Candace June Dorsey, Black Wine