Nalo Hopkinson’s latest short story collection, Falling in Love with Hominids, came out in August 2015. It includes eighteen stories, each accompanied by a short preface, a bit like sleeve notes, in which Hopkinson tells her readers about the finds that inspired them, and sometimes about their creative process.
As a fan of Weird fiction, which is a genre that has long been dominated by Old White Men, I can only recommend this book. I picked it up as soon as I saw the cover—an illustration of a dreaming young black woman with awesome hair and also fully dressed, which is still not something you automatically get with your generic SFF anthology or short story collection. I was so smitten with the stories contained therein that I changed the reading list for my upcoming course on Weird short fiction to incorporate "The Easthound" (the first story in the book), which offers a fascinating twist on zombie tropes, a children’s commune, solidarity, oral storytelling games, and world-building based on mondegreens. Like Angela Carter (but more radically so in my view), Hopkinson picks up old myths and fairy tales—in her case mostly Caribbean ones—and revives them using contemporary topics and characters with transcultural, postcolonial, feminist, and/or LGBT backgrounds. Her stories are very much about finding one’s place in the world, about battling hierarchies and systems of oppression, and about empowerment. Female readers need voices like hers, LGBT readers need voices like hers, and so does the genre of Weird fiction.
So what can you expect to find in this book? Here’s a sampling:
"Soul Case" is a scene from the creative process of Hopkinson’s novel Blackheart Man, literary magic based on real-life autonomous zones created by former slaves. "Left Foot, Right" is a dark spin on (or rather off) Cinderella, inspired by Kelly Link, about a young woman left traumatised after her sister dies in an accident. It’s about loss, mourning, guilt, self-punishment, and self-perception; in the end, it’s about healing and reconciliation. "Flying Lessons," meanwhile, is a short, dark story about escapism—and what children sometimes need to escape from. Not unrelatedly, "Whose Upward Flight I Love" is a piece of flash fiction about trees flying home for the winter: it was inspired by the author's move to Canada from the Caribbean as a teenager, something that she claims she still hasn’t quite recovered from (p. 241). And "A Young Candy Daughter" is a Christmas story of sorts, inspired by the question "What if God was one of us?"—but, Nalo Hopkinson adds, "maybe ‘us’ looks a little different from my side of the sandbox" (p. 162). God, by the way, is still a child, and her name is La’shawna.
Common to all these stories is a sense that there are different perspectives on the universe, and our own happen to be anthropocentric (and wrong). In the end, what does that mean? "Message in a Bottle" is a story with a (cisgender straight) male narrator who uses words like "grok" and "geekspeak" and who doesn’t want kids. Maybe he’s a bit of a big kid himself. The character with whom he’s interacting most is a friend of his, the adoptive mother of a problematic (deviant) child. Hopkinson juxtaposes their worlds, their values and priorities: worries about bringing up a child and the endless small details of a parent’s day vs. making art, building computers, and having wild sex. Is the narrator refusing to grow up? (And is there a metaphor in the child’s not growing?) And what’s the difference between "normal" and "abnormal" children from an adult’s perspective? The Weird twist in this story is a big reveal connected to cloning, time travel, and post-humanity—all arranged around the central idea that everyone wants their legacy (however that is defined) to live on. There are different ways to achieve that. Or not.
"Old Habits" treads similar ground in a ghost shopping mall. All the people who died at a shopping mall are now haunting it, telling each other stories about ghosts who "stepped outside," beyond the blackness they perceive outside the mall’s doors. In addition to the thrill of these very different urban legends, we also get an interesting narrator, a gay male character who used to be married and had a child, back when he was still alive.
We’re playing "Things I Miss."
[ . . . ] I say, "The warm milk smell of my husband’s breath after his morning coffee."
"Fucking faggot," grumbles Jimmy. It’s an old, toothless complaint of his.
I shrug. "Whatever."
"Hey," says Jimmy, in his gruff, hulking way. I know he’s still talking to me because he won’t quite meet my eyes, and his face does this defensive thing, this I’m a manly man and don’t you forget it thing. He says, "That’s the closest you’ve come to talking about a person you used to . . . you know, love. [ . . . ]"
For the umpteenth time I wonder, what kind of name is Black Anchor Ohsweygian, anyway? Jimmy thinks maybe she’s Armenian. He says that Armenians all have names that end in "ian." Some day I’m going to point out to him that some Armenians have names like "Smith." (pp. 91-93)
I really enjoyed how at the ghost mall all kinds of characters from different backgrounds and with different worldviews (from all age groups, straight, queer, bigoted, prejudiced) bond over the one thing they have in common and that they can relate to: emotional ties, missing the people they love. Missing the messages conveyed by their lost senses: smell, taste, touch. And the dark side of their desires.
Most commonly, however, Hopkinson tackles our myths. "Blushing," for example, starts like the fairy tale in which the heroine is allowed to enter every room in her husband’s house but one, which holds his murderous secrets. In this case, the heroine is the young bride of a rich white man. The description of her walk through the neighbourhood, tentatively in search of a key that fits, is filled with dark omens. It features first a red herring of a plot twist, and then the actual surprise ending, playing with the readers' expectations all the way there.
"The Smile on the Face" is a story that brings two fairy tale themes together: trees and tree mythology on the one hand and dragons on the other. It’s also a story about a young girl trying to cope with the onset of puberty, getting accustomed to her newly developing body, and desperately trying to fit in with her crowd of peers, to be exactly like everybody else, so she’d never be the centre of unwelcome attention. There’s an old wives’ tale that says that swallowing a cherry stone will make a tree grow inside you. And after accidentally swallowing a cherry stone from the tree in her front yard—a tree which she swears is talking to her at night—the protagonist Gilla starts hearing a voice inside her that gives her advice on how to handle her new femininity, adding third thoughts to her newly emerged second thoughts. When she thinks that her thighs are too heavy, her new inner voice adds, "But must not a trunk be strong to bear the weight?" When she deems her belly too round, the new voice says, "Should the fruits of the tree be sere and wasted then?" When she finds her hair too nappy, the immediate reply is, "A well-leafed tree is a healthy tree" (p. 67). The voice is also calming her anxieties about friendship with a boy potentially turning into another kind of intimacy, whispering, "By your own choice, never by another’s" (p. 61). It tells her how to react when a boy who has been bullying her is touching her without her consent: "Simply this: you must fight those who would make free with you. Win or lose, you must fight" (p. 67). And the myth has her back—in more ways than one.
Indeed, in "Delicious Monster" the narrator Jerry goes to visit his dad and his dad's boyfriend to see an eclipse. It's a modern story about the Garuda, a mythical bird creature from the Mahabharata. According to the epic, when Garuda first emerged from his egg, he appeared as a raging inferno equal to the cosmic conflagration that consumes the world at the end of every age. Frightened, the gods begged for mercy. Hearing their plea, Garuda reduced himself in size and energy. He is also described as the god Vishnu's mount. Hopkinson turns this story into one about the fear of seeing your parents change, deviate from the image you had of them as a child, even though they might be a lot happier now, more themselves; even though—or maybe because—they resemble you, and you can see yourself in them. And finally, it is also a story about love.
Love is a recurring theme. Hopkinson calls "A Raggy Dog, A Shaggy Dog," for instance, her "fantastical paean to the trials of geek dating, and to imaginatively overcoming them." It is written as a monologue, directly addressing the reader in the second person singular, which takes some getting used to but also serves a purpose. You see, the reader is also in the story—and eventually turns out to be a strange new composite creature, resulting from a parasitical orchid having invaded a rat. The narrator, who has strange habits and is very antisocial, is in the process of tattooing her contact info on the rat's ear, so she can use it as a sort of dating ad. At first this story was almost uncomfortable in places, because it doesn’t try to be nice and to follow any kind of narratological convention, and/but it makes some very good points, which I’ll come back to.
"Emily Breakfast" is a really strange and very funny fantasy story, in which the protagonist and his husband are on a search for their missing chicken, Emily Breakfast. It features a cat with wings and chickens descended from dragons, and very matter-of-factly mentions a "play room" with blindfolds and paddles, and a neighbourhood kid with three parents, thus setting alternative standards for "normal," which almost made me do a little airpunch.
Disrupting accepted versions of events is a common Hopkinson manoeuvre. "Shift" is a retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest as a new Caribbean myth, from the point of view of Caliban (and his sister Ariel). It focuses very much on postcolonial identity and its representation through other, privileged points of view. Without resorting to any dubious "male rights" arguments, Caliban is revealed as doubly oppressed because of his race and gender, constantly changing shape according to what people see in him, expect him to be. Racism is shown as being inherent in power structures as well as in the romanticisation of the Other.
"Ours Is the Prettiest" is Hopkinson’s contribution to a shared world fantasy anthology (set in the world of Bordertown), rendering a theretofore little described character a black man and also providing hints that the Fairie countries may be more diverse and multicultural than suggested by previous stories set in the same world. It also brings Fantasy up to the present, with people from our world entering the in-between world of Borderlands, "chattering on about tweeting and MyFace and complaining that they couldn't 'text' anyone with those ridiculously tiny portable phones they carried everywhere" (p. 191).
Throughout the collection I was stunned by Hopkinson’s gorgeous writing, using strong female characters, elements from myths and fairy tales, and, as in "A Raggy Dog, A Shaggy Dog," interesting structural ways to tell stories (often related to oral storytelling, rhymes, songs, and word games). Story and inspiration intertwine and give each other new (sometimes sinister, sometimes empowering) meanings. Sometimes the shortest stories, the most compact ones, are also the most intense. A prominent position is given to Caribbean culture (food, dances, dialects) and Caribbean folklore (Mama D’lo, douen children, etc.), and/but Hopkinson clearly doesn’t consider rewritings, modernisations, and mashups of these themes and figures disrespectful—another quality that her writing shares with oral storytelling traditions.
That is not to say there aren’t slighter stories: "Herbal" is a very short story about a literal elephant in the room, which was inspired by an online discussion about tactics for suspending the readers’ disbelief right from the beginning. As an experiment, it is a nice read, but it doesn’t do much besides. "Snow Day," meanwhile, was commissioned by the CBC for Canada Reads. It had to incorporate that year's shortlisted titles: Beautiful Losers, No Crystal Stair, Oryx and Crake, Rockbound, and Volkswagen Blues. "Oh, hell yeah," Nalo Hopkinson says in a comment, "I used 'oryx and crake' in a sentence" (p. 174). The story features telepathic animals and spaceships.
Even in these more minor stories, however, truths remain. The title of "Men Sell Not Such in Any Town," for instance, is a line from Christina Rossetti's famous poem of sisterly love, "Goblin Market." The protagonist is obsessed with what Nalo Hopkinson calls "evanescent fruit" (p. 220). What I liked best about Hopkinson’s short fiction were the empowering, body-positive descriptions of women’s bodies: "Her body is pleasantly rotund" (p. 74). A tall woman is described as "a lissom giraffe of a woman" (p. 29). Even when there are sexual overtones, she focuses on positive associations and similes rather than objectifying a female character through another character’s eyes: "She is lush and brown. It takes both of my hands to hold one of her breasts, and when we spoon at night, her belly fits warm in my palm like a bowl of hot soup on a cold day" (pp. 30-31). A woman’s body that has been transformed by a recent pregnancy is described as beautiful and sexy (p. 38). The protagonist of "A Raggy Dog, A Shaggy Dog" tells her rat/the reader, "You can probably see that I’m fat. But maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you. Me, I think it’s pretty cool. Lots of surface for my tattoos" (p. 121). Tattoos aside, being fat (and calling it "fat," never using euphemisms) is something positive to her as well as others: "I think the orchids, the real ones, like me fat too, like Sam did" (p. 122); "I'm cute—if you like your girls big and round and freaky, and many do" (p. 127). I think that many readers have been waiting for affirmative perspectives like these, perspectives that show, over and over again, that diversity is beautiful. And even though not every story is necessarily my usual taste, the collection is a joy to read.
Christina Scholz writes from Graz, Austria, where she is currently working on her PhD thesis on M. John Harrison’s fiction. She has published articles on science fiction, weird fiction, and superhero comics in Alluvium and on Infinite Earths as well as short stories in The Big Click, Visionarium, and Wyrd Daze. She blogs at phoenixdreaming.wordpress.com.