Nalo Hopkinson is one of the most original and talented authors writing today. Her novels are taut, adventurous and flavorful. Besides, what other writer do you know who can sing parang (Trinidadian-style mumming)?
With such wonderful novels as The Salt Roads, Locus Award-winning Brown Girl In The Ring, New York Times Notable Book of the Year Midnight Robber and short story collections Skin Folk and Mojo: Conjure Stories, Nalo has established herself as a literary force to be reckoned with. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick and James Tiptree, Jr. awards, and she won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, the John W. Campbell Award and the Ontario Arts Council Foundation Award for Emerging Writers. Sheís even written a couple of plays including the stage monologue "Bitter" for the Toronto World Stage Festival, in Toronto, Canada.
I have heard certain critics say that her novels are too ethnic for the mainstream. I couldnít disagree with them more. Speculative literature, actually literature in general, is supposed to take the reader to new places, to allow them to experience new social milieu and cultures, and see the world through anotherís eyes. Writers such as Arundhati Roy, Khaled Hosseini, Ishmael Reed, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jhumpa Lahiri do this effectively without such criticism, probably because they are considered literary. Nalo Hopkinsonís work is on par with the above writers at every level. She writes magical realism better than just about anyone does. Charles Saunders once called her Octavia Butlerís true literary child. I think sheís up to the challenge.
Michael Lohr: Book Magazine, that thankfully former bastion of literati butt-kissing, made a practice of panning every genre novel that came along. Everything from Clive Cussler and Anne Rice to Greg Bear to Dean Koontz was shot down as derivative twaddle. It became seriously annoying. Gladly the magazine has now gone the way of hair metal. Do you believe science fiction and fantasy fiction will ever receive proper respectability from the mainstream? What about genre fiction in general?
Nalo Hopkinson: Maybe I should care, because I don't want to stay broke. But I'm not particularly mainstream myself, and I'm not sure I want to be. I think it'd be more fun if the mainstream joined us, rather than the other way around. Boy, there's a confusing metaphor, if ever there was one. Still, I don't mind it that my chosen genres are considered disrespectable by some. I think so many genres could stand to get more disrespectable.
ML: Does it offend you when someone says that you are "a great black writer" or you are one of the "best women writers" around, instead of just saying that you are a great writer?
NH: Depends on who's saying it, from what community, and in what context. Blackness is significant; living in black skin, I'm reminded of it every day. So is femaleness. And queerness. And Caribbeanness. And so is writing. And so on. If my various communities (and I've only named a few of them here) want to acknowledge me as being part of them, that feels good. I'm not going to say to them, "No, I'm not one of you." On the other hand, I do get cranky when people say that because I write out of those experiences, I am limited to only those audiences. That's a crock.
ML: Have you ever considered writing a horror novel?
NH: Some people say that I have, with my first novel Brown Girl in the Ring. But I get scared easily and badly; we're talking no sleep for days and jumping at every shadow. For that reason, I have trouble even reading horror. I keep trying, because so many of the stories are so tempting. I can get through some of them. But with many of them there comes a point where I need to just close the book. I tried reading Stephen King's It a few years ago. (Spoiler alert:) When I got to the part a few pages in where there was a sneering clown in full makeup in the storm drain, calling the little boy, I closed the book. I'm even worse with horror films; can't watch them at all, not even a little bit. Yet I do manage to get pretty dark sometimes with my own writing. My imagination can go there very easily. Perhaps that's why I scare easily.
ML: Your stories oftentimes are peppered with Caribbean and Jamaican folklore. Is this something that you spend a lot of time researching or being of Caribbean heritage is it something that was part of your upbringing and thus second nature?
NH: A little bit of both. Canadian writer Larissa Lai once said, "It always amuses me when people ask if I learned these stories from my grandmother; that desire for the authentic, wise, folklore-spewing celestial. The answer is no, I just went to the library." I laughed so hard when I read that, because I could so relate! A lot of my early exposure to Caribbean folklore came from seeing it on Caribbean television. And my mother is a library technician, so I grew up spending a lot of my life in libraries. And my father was an English and Latin teacher, and an actor and writer, so our bookshelves at home held everything from Louise Bennett's Jamaica Labrish to Homer's Iliad. And I was a bookworm, so I read them. But of course, having been born in the Caribbean and growing up mostly there until I was sixteen, some Caribbean speech patterns, culture and food are native to me. Now, know that I'm not pointing this next comment at you, because I'm quite aware that sometimes interviewers ask questions deliberately in order to give the interviewee a chance to speak to a particular misapprehension: It's a difficult question to answer, because it's an odd question, if only because it gets leveled predominantly at people who are seen as somehow "other." And it seems to presuppose that we get our artistic inspiration in a way that is different from how other people do. I must ask Kelly Link if she ever gets asked if her heritage is second nature.
ML: Your late father, Slade Hopkinson, was a famous Guyanese poet and playwright. Do you have any plans to publish a compendium of his works?
NH: I don't know that he was famous. He's well-known in some circles, and fairly small ones, at that. No, it hadn't occurred to me to publish a compendium, and I don't think it's occurred to my brother or mother, either. It's an intriguing idea, though, so I'll file that for further consideration. Thank you.
ML: You are indeed welcome! I have actually read some of Slade Hopkinsonís poems and enjoyed his writing very much. I think publishing a collection of his work would be a wonderful thing.
You once said that science fiction is the literature of social commentary. Do you still believe this to be true?
NH: I said it was arguably the literature of social commentary (or, if I wasn't smart enough to say it then, that's how I've phrased it since). Yes, I think it's one of the things that science fiction and fantasy can do: examine social systems and the process of social change, and how they affect individuals and populations. Any form of art or inquiry can do this. But I think that science fiction and fantasy specialize in it.
ML: You were the editor for a collection of stories entitled Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction. This is one of the best short story collections that Iíve ever read. How did this project come about?
NH: I'm glad you liked it! I was attending the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts, in either 1999 or 2000, I think. It may have been the first time I'd attended. The editors of the then-new press Invisible Cities approached me and asked if I'd ever thought of editing an anthology. I said that I had, but that an interesting framework and a suitable opportunity hadn't yet come to me. They said, "What about fabulist fiction?" I said, "What's fabulist fiction?" And we were off to the races. The cool thing about Whispers is that it gave me the opportunity to approach writers I knew of from my father's days as a writer, and ask them to submit work to the anthology. The scary thing was that I then had to do what an editor does, and select some stories and turn away others, some of them by people who are my elders, in talent as well as years.
ML: In your short story "A Habit of Waste" [online excerpt--ed.] your main character was a young black woman struggling to conform and adapt to vulgar social conventions; was this purely speculative on your part or was there a hint of self-portrayal within?
NH: This is from Frances Trollope, who apparently got asked the same question as well: "Of course I draw from life—but I always pulp my acquaintance before serving them up. You would never recognize a pig in a sausage." This is the type of question that stumps me every time. I'm a forty-five-year-old chunky black woman, and I've been a thirty-year-old chunky black woman. How would I go about not drawing on personal experience with a story like that? I got into work one morning, and I was already having a bad body image day. I said to a co-worker, "I just saw someone getting on the streetcar with the body I used to have." She replied, "That sounds like one of your stories." And I realized it did. I'm not sure how much I got done that day of the work I was being paid to do. I think that was in the days before I had a computer at home, but I did have a computer at work. I am curious in what sense you're using the word "vulgar"?
ML: I was using the word vulgar to mean coarse or pretentiously double-standard. Because you are a minority things can be more difficult. It was in this regard that I meant vulgar. Instead of a more utopian ideal that merit and ability alone would allow you to succeed without the inclusion of biases such as ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, etc.
What was your primary emotional motivation for writing Brown Girl in the Ring? I know you were facing a contest deadline, but what was the creative source for your main character Ti-Jeanne?
NH: No one source. I was writing articles on health and fitness for a local black paper at the time (I used to be a fitness instructor). In my research I'd come across an article on schizophrenia in Caribbean male immigrant populations in the U.K. So that was bouncing around in my brain. And I'd written six pages of…something to submit to a fiction course being taught by Judy Merril; first time I'd dared try to be a fiction writer. So there was that. I think I was already reading about Afro-Caribbean religious systems because I'd recently realized that there were non-Christian religions in the Caribbean, and I was intrigued by the notion of deities that looked like me and came from where I came from. I decided to spring off from the ring game in Brown Girl in the Ring because, well, because it gave me an idea that I thought I could develop. And some time after I'd begun to try to write the novel, I decided that my three women fighting the same central evil in their lives could be three generations of women, and that made me think of Derek Walcott's play "Ti-Jean and His Brothers," and so it went. I was stuck on that story for the longest while, until I thought to ask myself how the young woman and the old woman sitting in a cheap apartment watching bad television earned the money to do so. A few years later I attended Clarion East, and was very pleased when Samuel R. Delany advised us to figure out how our protagonists earned their livings. It seems self-evident to me now that one needs to do that, but then, it was a revelation.
ML: Did you find the time you spent as a writing mentor and instructor for the Master of Arts in Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction program rewarding? Do you find most of your academic appointments rewarding?
NH: I started out as an SHU student in their Master's Program in Writing Popular Fiction. I was already on my third novel contract, but I figured that anything I could do to develop a teaching career on the side was not a bad idea. And I knew that The Salt Roads (then called Griffonne) was going to be the biggest writing challenge I had undertaken up till then, and I was scared spitless by it. So I figured that having a mentor couldn't hurt either. As a mentor, writer James Morrow was perfect for me. He was amazing. He went several extra miles to help midwife me through that novel, and he pushed me to go thousands of extra miles myself. In some ways literally (he helped get me invited to France for a few days as a guest at Utopiales, and I was able to do a bit of research while I was there). Once I'd graduated, Seton Hill asked me to be a mentor in the program, which I did for awhile. And I've done the Clarion hat trick (taught at Clarions East, West and South), and I teach creative writing here in Toronto. I find teaching creative writing equal parts aggravating and rewarding. Oh, and challenging. It can be wearying to go through manuscript after manuscript and see the same missteps year after year and wonder if you're doing any good at all. It can be disheartening when you try to help someone see where they've misstepped, and you realize that you've stepped on their joy in writing. But then there's that rare moment when a light goes on in someone's eyes, and they've understood something about their craft that they hadn't before. That's a sweet moment. And the passion that the students have can re-infect me with passion for my own writing. When I'm in the zone, it's not about whether someone's writing efforts are clumsy. It's the glee of feeling a bit like a co-conspirator, because they are trying to do something undervalued and difficult, but by god, they're going for it! And sometimes I can help to urge them on.
ML: You are involved with an organization called the Speculative Fiction Foundation. Could you tell the readers about this foundation and its mission?
NH: I'm not very involved. I'm on their advisory board, and they don't much need my advice. I am much more involved as a founding member and board member of the Carl Brandon Society. The Society is currently running two inaugural awards; the Carl Brandon Parallax Award for speculative fiction in English by a writer of color, and the Carl Brandon Kindred Award for speculative fiction in English that deals with race and ethnicity. Stuff has been written elsewhere about the CBS, so I'll point you to it, here: http://www.carlbrandon.org and http://carlbrandon.org/blog.
ML: You were an instructor at the Royal Ontario Museum for the "Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids" exhibition, which was an exposition of 5,000-year-old artifacts. What is your opinion on the origins of the Egyptian god Bes? Iíve heard some say Bes originated from Phoenicia while others say he comes from Babylon or the Hittites.
NH: I was a tour guide for high schools visiting the exhibit. We were taught about the artifacts in the exhibition, and there were experts on hand to provide more information. Honestly? I don't remember the god Bes ever coming up in the instruction I got. That doesn't mean he didn't; I may just not have been paying attention that day. What was interesting to me about that exhibit is that nowhere in the two extensive floors of exhibitions was the word "Africa" written. Even the map of Egypt showed Egypt floating in space, surrounded by nothing. I was curious about that, so in my spiel I began asking the students where Egypt was. The answers I got? "It's in India." "It's in China." "It's somewhere down south." "It's nowhere. It's just Egypt." A few students did know that Egypt is in Africa, but they were in the minority. So then I went into a bookstore, because I was doing research for The Salt Roads, part of which is set in Alexandria, fourth century CE. The section for books on Africa contained no books on Egypt; they were all filed under "The Middle East." I once heard a writer from Egypt say, "When did my country leave Africa and become part of the Middle East?"
It got even more eldritch. I have a chronic pain disorder, which at the time was giving me enough trouble that I asked to be allowed to sit in between tours. The museum provided me with a wheelchair for that purpose. And it was cold in the climate-controlled galleries, so I always had a favorite wrap with me. When I wasn't moving around, I would sit in the wheelchair with my wrap tucked around my shoulders. I would stand when a class came in to be taken on a tour. Every so often, one of the few students who did know that Egypt was in Africa would scream when I stood, because they'd assumed that I was one of the artifacts. That part was only amusing, and it allowed me to get into the discussion that most fourth century CE Egyptians would not have looked like me, unless they were of Nubian background. (Handily enough, one of our tour guides was Egyptian, so I could point to him and say, "They would have looked more like him.") But then, after the exhibit had its last day and the tour guides were being given a farewell party, one of the permanent staff in the ROM's Education Department came up to me and said how cool it was that I had been giving added value to the exhibit by "dressing up in African costume." I hadn't the foggiest idea what she was talking about. "Like today," she said, indicating the clothing I was wearing. "This costume." I was wearing a plain cotton dress from a local chain, a t-shirt, and my wrap, which is West African mudcloth. "You mean my clothes?" I asked her. "Yes," she replied. "Such a lovely costume." She went away before I could ask her if she thought of her everyday clothing as a costume, and if she thought that ancient Egyptians thought of their everyday clothing as such. Never mind how she figured that a piece of cloth from a country in twenty-first century west Africa would somehow be a good way to teach anyone about a country half a continent away from there, and 7,000 years removed in time.
Even so, it was an amazing experience to spend four months being able to get close to art that was made by human hands 7,000 years ago. There was a huge limestone statue of the architect Hemiunu that had been so lovingly wrought that you could see the folds in the man's belly button. It would probably have been painted, but the paint was 5,000 years gone. In the dim lighting of the gallery, the limestone gleamed like skin. Then there was the fragment of papyrus on which someone had written a detailed accounting of the artifacts a temple owned Ė including one lamp, broken.
ML: A reviewer once stated that your novels have a mystical and esoteric feel to them. I would tend to agree with this assessment. Is this something you set out to purposefully do or is this effect more a side effect of speculative nature of the fiction?
NH: I think it's more an "and" than an "or." You won't get too many binaries out of me. I write science fiction and fantasy; of course there's a mystical and esoteric feel to some of my work.
ML: You once said that speculative fiction has repeatedly reinvented itself over the years through the visionscapes of feminists, cyberpunks and queer writers. At the time you hoped that speculative fiction would also open up to communities of color. Do you still feel this is occurring?
NH: Yes, it is, and a little more every day. It's still just a trickle, but it's growing.
ML: So, whatís the story about you skinny-dipping in Thoreauís Walden Pond?
NH: It was a blistering hot summer. I was attending Readercon in Boston. A bunch of friends of mine were there, and one of them had talked a lot in the past about skinny-dipping at night in Walden Pond. But the park is closed to the public at night, so you know, I couldn't possibly have challenged him to take us there. We couldn't have made the trek down the path in the dark. We couldn't have stripped off our clothing and waded into water so pellucid that even in the dark, you could see right down to the bottom. We couldn't have heard the quiet laughing and conversation of other groups of people swimming in other parts of the pond. We couldn't have bobbed around in the water, talking about books and science fiction and heaven knows what else. When the sky began to rumble with thunder and we saw the first lightning flash preceding a rain shower, we couldn't have run laughing out of the water, changed back into our clothing, and left, refreshed. Too bad, because it would have been a great thing to do.
ML: Nalo, it was a pleasure. Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions.
If you want to explore the world of Nalo Hopkinson further please stop by her web site. While youíre there, download a few excerpts from her many novels and see why I and everyone else with a sense of talent says she is one of the most talented and distinctive voices in speculative fiction today.
She also has a blogspot.
When next we meet up with Nalo Hopkinson we will be assisting her on her mission to loudly accost stupid museum employees about their clothes, bad breath, and wretched grins.