This roundtable took place over the course of a month via a online communication. We hope you'll join us in the comments to continue the discussion begun by our three experienced and generous roundtable participants:
Brent Ryan Bellamy studies science fiction and the cultural politics of fossil fuels. His work has appeared in Mediations, Paradoxa, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. You can read Flying Cars, Dino-Power, and Energy in SF in Strange Horizons.
Portia Subran is an artist and writer living in Trinidad and Tobago. She has illustrated children's novels and her work has been featured in various art magazines. Her short stories have been published in the anthologies Jewels of the Caribbean (2014) and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculation Tales from the Caribbean (2016).
Kevin Jared Hosein is a writer living in Trinidad and Tobago. He is the Caribbean regional winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His most recent novel, The Repenters (Peepal Tree Press), will be released in July 2016.
What sort of recurring themes do you see in Nalo’s work, and have they changed over time? Do you see her writing as contending consistently with certain concepts or ideas?
Brent: Hopkinson’s work walks a fine line between social and imaginative worlds. Thinking back to Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), the premise of a blasted city core where racialized people are gathered for the harvest of their organs walks this tightrope between dystopian future and present reality. Obviously Brown Girl does not literally describe life in Toronto along the lines of a more realist novel like Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For (2005), and yet it names the power dynamics of late capital on a more global register. There really is an actually existing black market for organs and it does tend to target racialized people. What I see happening in Brown Girl is a critical assessment of the unevenness of social life in a city like Toronto--it takes what has been seen as a global dynamic and explores how it works in a city setting. This approach to storytelling balances a critical assessment of social reality with a dystopian nightmare world that lets readers think through the beauty and horror of the real world. I find this balance of the fantastic with realistic settings or events pervades Hopkinson’s writing.
Kevin: As Brent said, Hopkinson has certainly maintained certain themes since she published Brown Girl in the Ring in 1998. The absence of guidance, racism, social and economic disparity, displacement of community and identity - all set within dystopia. Some themes take precedence in certain works, of course. Domestic violence and rape for Midnight Robber; implications of a great social divide in Brown Girl; racism and enslavement in The Salt Roads. What I thought was interesting was the shift from using obeah as a plot device in Brown Girl, to its eradication in the subsequent Midnight Robber. Nanomites and technology began serving a similar function. Downloading data to the brain replaced telepathy and visions. Spirits and spirit worlds replaced by AI's and astral planes. Of course, the fantastical hadn't disappeared permanently, but I surmise somewhere in between novels, Hopkinson believed she was onto something. A meshing of folklore and industrial arts.
Portia: There are some themes that remain consistent within Hopkinson’s work such as the feeling of forced independence among children. In Falling in Love with Hominids (2015) – specifically "The Easthound," these children are thrust into isolation because their parents have “sprouted” into wolf-like monsters who prey on the children. The events cause them to abandon whatever was left of their childhood to fend for themselves in the world. This, along with her other stories, is heavily symbolic of the breakdown of familial relations, or children having to actively fend against their parental figures. Hopkinson also sneaks in little tidbits of Caribbean history with names and landscape. Cockpit County, Granny Nanny, Toussaint and Ti-Jean are all names that sent me back into my high school history days and had me recounting their importance within our shared Caribbean past.
Brent: I really like that motif, Portia, of being forced into the world. It makes for exciting plot and for great character development. I’m thinking in particular of the fact that Ti-Jeanne carries the baby around for basically the entire novel in Brown Girl in the Ring. When I was reading that book for the first time, the fact of the baby struck me as a really smart way to diverge from other dystopian/apocalyptic stories--this was no fragile character, but one that dealt with both the immediate world of parenthood and the larger world of plot as required.
As a follow up to recurring themes: How do you see diversity in gender and sexuality represented in Nalo’s works? What about the representations that go against socioculturally dominant ideas?
Kevin: I like to think of it more as inclusion, rather than a response to a dearth in black, Caribbean and female characters and settings in the genre. If I remember correctly, in an interview Nalo was asked why black people in the future are hard to imagine. Her response was, "They think we're not smart enough." I'd also say that the ideas don't go against socioculturally dominant ideas. The times are changing. The resistance against inclusion right now is weakening. Many issues are tackled within the genre, but there are always different sides to a story, and different players within a story. To get the full picture, we need to include everything.
Brent: Right! And I recently heard Hopkinson on the radio attributing the limited visibility of science fiction about and by people of colour to the fact that there are very few strong examples of this kind of fictional futurity in existence. I’d even say I notice a real pushback against the better representational politics of 90s television in more recent, much more white-washed television. This isn’t always the case with sf, but I think Hopkinson is on to something. And this is why it is just so excellent that Hopkinson, and others like, say, Junot Diaz, are vocal about their craft and teaching.
That response comes at the question from the outside, though. I think one of the things that really draws me to Hopkinson’s short stories is the way they take up and subvert conventional tropes and modes. They play right at the cusp of the believable. In “Whose Upward Flight I Love,” it is plausible that city workers would need to keep unruly trees at bay, but that those trees fly away creates a sense of wonder (even in the face of the plain dialogue between the people). Or, in “Emily Breakfast,” the chicken has been stolen--plausible--the chicken can breath fire--implausible! I’m sure others can think about more examples of this kind of play, right at the cusp.
Portia: Following suit with Kevin, I would have to agree, it is more inclusion than going against our current norm. The issues that many of the female lead characters experience have always been there, Hopkinson has merely showed us their side of the story. Perhaps within media, it is unusual to have such strong women as lead characters, however, these women actually exist in the real world. It is important that their experiences are shared.
In what ways do you see Nalo’s works being especially relevant today (geopolitically, environmentally, etc)?
Brent: I see Hopkinson’s work engaging a number of social justice conversations today. Falling in Love with Hominids in particular, develops a broad array of narrative perspectives from the human and the non-human to the post-human. It raises questions about what it means to be companions and what it means to be strangers on this shared planet. While Hopkinson’s stories tend to avoid the proleptic, through the sheer difference and multiplicity of positions Falling in Love gets at a bigger picture of what it means to live together. This occurs within stories (for instance, the story about the alien sent back from the future to collection the shells of snails and her human interlocutor) and across the collection (for instance, what might the couple whose fire-breathing chicken gets stolen have to say to the character receiving flying lessons or the transfigured, horrifying bodies of adults in the opening story?). All of this is to say that I think Hopkinson’s work is vital and germane to the present because of its intervention across a number of genres and storytelling modes, all of which push readers to expand their sense of what living here on the Earth in a good way looks like or can be, even as these stories recognize the boundedness of each character’s experience and perspective.
Kevin: Hopkinson's dystopias do not fall in line with the usual descriptors of the setting, however. It is quite easy for dystopia to fall in line with banal, "tried-and-true" truisms and axioms. Even the apocalypse cannot disestablish the systems and behaviours that plague us in the modern day. Police brutality still occurs in The Chaos, for example. Technology can do little to stymie the oppressions those of low social status experience. Many of the protagonists, young, female and black, must fend for themselves. Sexual abuse and child abuse are common conflicts. In a sense, sometimes there isn't much difference from the experiences that many go through in the modern day, even with our constantly evolving technology. Perhaps Nalo’s work shows that the world right now is a dystopia for some, and will continue to be if we don’t address certain issues.
Portia: Although there are the elements of technology and folklore deeply entwined within her work, what really resonates with me as a reader are the social issues and interactions that are so familiar to me. In the previous discussion question, I spoke about children being forced to grow up quickly which is definitely something that happens today. In Midnight Robber, Tan Tan is sexually abused by her father for years and this is a crime we see being uncovered a lot right here in Trinidad and Tobago. Discrimination due to class, race or in Midnight Robber’s case, species, is something that absolutely happens within the world today. It is also crucial to examine the roles of servitude that people of colour play in Midnight Robber. Dealing with slavery and colonization is also explored. One example of this that struck me is the literal colonization of a planet in Midnight Robber.
Let’s talk about influence. What literary influences do you see in Nalo’s works, and where do you see her influence in other writers? Kevin and Portia, as creative writers yourselves, how has Nalo’s work influenced yours?
Brent: I’m not sure about this. I am curious to see what other people have to say. I tend to think about genre and genre writing as a massive ongoing conversation, but one that gets partially constructed by the reader(s). So what I might see as influence, could just be something I look for in particular way rather than a kind of subterranean passageway between texts. In order to reach a reading of particular text, I tend to want to work from within it, rather than placing it within a constellation of other works. An anecdote might serve to illustrate this point. My sister is a film maker. After a seeing her film Peculiar Ms. Perkins, people often ask her about Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily,” which she has never read. When she told me about this, I suggested that people made the connection because Faulkner’s story is so often a feature of first year English courses. I might just as easily declare a gothic connection between Perkins or Faulkner and Hopkinson’s stories. All of this is an elaborate way of not raising Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, or James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) and of avoiding what I take to be obvious--though a little under thought through on my part. Anyone else?
Kevin: Hopkinson’s work is populated with douens, jumbies and duppies of all natures. The characters speak in West Indian Creole. There is such a wide range of literature that embodies folklore and told through the Caribbean dialect, that is difficult to pinpoint a specific work that could have influenced these. I can also see Kurt Vonnegut’s narrative eccentricity in her characters and settings. Vonnegut played a role in showing me the true range of science fiction. Nalo’s work has expanded that feeling for me. I would have never thought to combine the reflections of my ancestors' imaginations with the clean, neat, calculated perspective of technological advancement. However, I discovered Nalo late into my writing life and only have one short story right now that is directly influenced by her work - where a Papa Bois robot is commissioned to clear a village out from a forest. A story like that might’ve happened before hearing of Nalo’s work, but maybe much later on.
Portia: Her work pushes through like an epic journey of encounters and self-transition. It harkens back to the works of Tolkien. Midnight Robber is constantly moving forward, set across a vast landscape, pausing only for confrontations with other characters. Her work doesn’t aim to reinvent the genre but aims to offer a different perspective. Perhaps moving to a different country pushed her to do that, to re-explore her own culture and place it in fiction. As a writer, it inspires me in the sense that speculative fiction doesn’t have to be relegated to a few science fiction and fantasy variables. Midnight Robber changed my own perspective on how our Caribbean folklore and history can be incorporated into speculative fiction. The douen is no longer the twisted footed duppy who lures children to the river side, but an alien species that is friendly and wise. We can create our own truths based on these traditional figures.
With the caveat that Nalo’s works are all wonderful: do you have a favorite piece from her? Which one and why?
Brent: I think my favourite is the story I mentioned above, “Whose Upward Flight I Love,” it is just so short and beautiful. It really reveals Hopkinson’s power as writer--it’s only a page long, but it builds this whole world. I really like how it leaves me asking questions and with a feeling of contentment and hope. I guess I just love that image of the roots chasing after the trees as they float into the sky.
Portia: Midnight Robber would probably be my favourite since it was the first time I saw the integration of many Caribbean vernaculars being used so interchangeable. It was interesting to me to see the Trinbagonian phrases being used together with Jamaican and Guyanese phrases, forming very rich dialogue and setting. It was also really fascinating to see how our local folklore and history could be used so intricately in world building for a speculative fiction novel. I also enjoyed Falling in Love with Hominids, especially "The Easthound." It’s always interesting to me how children cope on their own which is a reality for many children growing up in the world today.
Kevin: While Midnight Robber is a very broad, epic work of Nalo’s, I would like to go Brent’s route and highlight a particular short story, "Old Habits," in Falling in love With Hominids that struck me. "Old Habits" is primarily about three ghosts in a mall that relive their deaths every day. They can leave the mall but beyond the doors lies only an expanse of darkness. None of the ghosts overcomes their fears by the time the story ends. I am a big fan of ghosts, and any fiction that explores their mindsets. While this wasn’t totally original, the setting elevated the story. It’s set during Christmas, where jingles and colours contrast against the lack of sensation for the ghosts. Nalo does a terrific job bringing sound and smell to life near the second half, making the reader yearn for these senses as much as the ghosts.
What questions do you have for one another? Are there burning ideas or inquiries you have regarding any of Nalo’s works that you want to offer up to the group?
Brent: I’m curious to know what books, stories, or poetry the rest of you might recommend that follows similar lines to Hopkinson’s but has a lower profile. What would you recommend to someone who is really taken with Brown Girl or Midnight Robber? Sub-question: if you were to lead a reading group, a workshop, or teach a class what would you pair with Hopkinson?
It’s only fair to answer my own question! I just finished reading The Xenogenesis Trilogy by Octavia Butler and it was odd to have this conversation in my head at the same time as reading about Lilith and Akin and Jodahs. Also, Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones I cannot recommend highly enough! As for reading, workshops, teaching: I really want to pair Brown Girl with Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For--both are Toronto-focused, both diverge greatly in terms of genre, but there are some interesting consistencies.
Portia: My question would be if anyone had difficulty understanding the Caribbean vernacular used within her work and if so, how did you overcome this difficulty? First, I will answer my own question. There was a bit of difficulty for me at first with some of the dialect, as each Caribbean island has a different local vernacular. I was okay of course for the parts with Trinbagonian words and sentence structures, however there were some of the Jamaican and Guyanese structures I needed to read out in order to get a better understanding. It was a strange sort of adjustment to be reading all of these different dialects in the same paragraph. However, in time, I got used to it and was able to appreciate the many languages found within our own little Caribbean community with their own subtle differences and similarities.
To answer Brent’s question, I would have to go a very totally different route and pair this to ongoing graphic novel series, Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples. Narrated by a girl whose parents are of two warring alien races, she tells the story of how they meet and the trials they endure to keep alive as their relationship is considered taboo. This work and Hopkinson's work include very strong female leads, integration of local “alien” dialect and with Midnight Robber in mind, many interesting interactions with alien species. Like Hopkinson’s work, Saga touches on similar issues affecting young girls such as sexual abuse and being forced to grow up quickly due to surrounding circumstances. Saga also has the epic journey feel that much of us has referenced during this discussion.
Brent: Portia, while I can "read the context," I am certain that I miss a lot of the richness and nuance of Hopkinson's use of Caribbean vernacular and myth. Though I really hold that novels, stories, and poetry offer lessons on how to read them through their form. What I am missing, isn't plot, it's history, which isn't to say that I don't find these text wonderfully rich and dense and compelling. I really like what you said above, "We can create our own truths based on these traditional figures." This seems to be the broad intervention of Hopkinson's work all around. It shakes up my generic expectations as well and teaches me a few things along the way.
Kevin: To answer Brent’s question, I’d probably choose The Gunslinger by Stephen King, the first from his Dark Tower series. I know this choice may seem out of left field, but it’d be my class/workshop, right? From a pure plot storytelling point, a book like Midnight Robber is about a journey - constant movement and pursuit. Perseverance, in a sense. The Gunslinger is like that as well. Very cat and mouse. They both deal with themes of revenge, salvation and have musings of insanity. I am a fan of King’s Americana style and his unapologetic use of its slang and culture in this fantasy. Nalo does the same with the Caribbean. Like Portia, I am also interested in knowing if there was difficulty understanding the Caribbean (namely Trinidadian and Jamaican) vernacular. As a writer, I try to make the language as clear as I can, and the choice to use Creole English had always plagued me, worrying that it would “spoil” my attempts to be clear to readers. Now, I write in Caribbean Creole without worry after being exposed to other writers doing the same. I’m just wondering if how much ‘work’ it takes for a reader to fall in line with it.