I thought about beginning this review with an attempt to mimic the speech patterns and language that pervade Nalo Hopkinson's delightful short story collection, Skin Folk. A few disastrous attempts later, I realized that there was no way I could do it. Which is, in many ways, one of the most refreshing aspects of this collection. Leave everything behind when you open the cover of this volume -- your patterns of speech, your expectations of what makes a hero, and your reliance on the folklore and cultural mythology of Western Europe. You won't need any of them where Skin Folk takes you.
Hopkinson, author of the two highly acclaimed novels Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber, brings her Caribbean roots to bear in a collection of 15 fantastic short stories in Skin Folk. In these tales Hopkinson brings the reader from Toronto to the Caribbean, from the past to the future, and from the world as we know it to a world of spirit and myth-made-real. The style and subject matter of the stories range from the post-apocalyptic science fiction of "Under Glass" to the fairy tale of "Tan-Tan and Dry Bone," and make stops everywhere in between. Through it all rings the joyous patois of the West Indies.
The dialogue and speech patterns in these stories set them apart from almost anything else you'll find on the market today. And while at times the heavy slang and the unfamiliar language are not easy to read, the stories are more vibrant because of them. For example, in "A Habit of Waste" an older man invites a young social worker to share a holiday meal:
"Thanks doux-doux. True, I ain't go be hungry, but. . ."
"But what, Mr. Morris?"
"Well, I don't like to eat alone. My wife pass away ten years now, but you know, I does still miss she sometimes. You goin' by you mummy and daddy for Thanksgiving?"
This use of words like "doux-doux" and the cadence of the speech provide an additional spark to the reader, making it easier to get caught up in the lives of the characters. Indeed, the language works on the reader as if these tales were being imparted by an oral storyteller rather than through the flat medium of text. Nothing else I've read in years has provided such a sensation.
And this sensation, this vibrancy, is exactly what the stories need. These are tales about the primal nature of life, a modern folklore of sorts using settings and characters both mundane and mystical. Hopkinson often uses the elements, or natural forces, to propel the characters to some deeper understanding of themselves, their world, or their loved ones. She makes use of things like fire ("Slow Cold Chick") and water ("Money Tree"), but also other primal forces like lightning ("Ganger (Ball Lightning)") and the flora and fauna of the city ("Whose Upward Flight I Love"). When characters come in contact with these forces, they are transformed, as Silky is in "Money Tree":
One evening, face bathed in tears, Silky decided to give her body to the water. She let herself sink completely under the surface of the bath. She held her breath for a long time, feeling at peace, listening to the whisper of the water. Then she inhaled. It burned into her lungs, but she fought her body's thrashing and stayed under. Strangely, the pain in her chest soon stopped. It seemed like she stayed submerged for a long time, waiting for death, but nothing happened. She sat up in the bathtub, and water drained harmlessly from her mouth and nose. She felt a curious contentment.
In surrendering to the water, Silky transforms herself and finds the power to deal with the disappearance of her brother.
The stories here almost all contain some element of folklore or mythology, most of it Caribbean in origin. We find a ganger in "Ganger (Ball Lightning)", the vampiric soucouyant in "Greedy Choke Puppy," a cockatrice in "Slow Cold Chick," and the mermaid-like mamadjo in "Money Tree." One also finds different takes on fairy tales familiar to us here in the US, such as "Riding the Red" and "Precious."
Don't be fooled. These are decidedly not stories for children, despite the presence of fairy tale and folklore elements. For Hopkinson uses these things to illuminate very adult issues. Among the primal forces at play in these tales is the force of sex. A number of these stories revolve around the sexual connection between characters, and there is no lack of down and dirty action in Skin Folk. Like the other primal forces at play in these stories, sex is front and center and transformational. Hopkinson does not shy away from the idea that sex is not merely the meeting of one man and one woman, either. In "Ganger (Ball Lightning)" the two lovers Cleve and Issy experiment with sense stimulating skin suits to enhance their sexual experience, even exchanging suits to quickly exchange physical experiences.
She swore she could feel Cleve's tight hot cunt closing around her dick. She grabbed his shoulders for traction.
But after the exchange, they must face the emotional wall between them when the skin suits take on a life of their own, awakening empathy in Issy and teaching Cleve how important it is to express his passions. In "Fisherman," a woman living life as a man experiences her first sexual coupling with the madam of a whorehouse and learns from it that it's possible to be comfortable being oneself and that it's not what you say but what you do to and for others that makes you who you are. Hopkinson's tales are filled with sexual permutations of every stripe, and beings of varied sexual orientations, without apology or melodrama.
Perhaps one of the most unusual and refreshing aspects of the tales in Skin Folk though is that Hopkinson has peopled these stories with people of all shapes and sizes. In Hopkinson's world there is room for the traditionally fit and for those with more robust figures, and heroic deeds and sensuality can exist in anyone. Rarely in the genre, or indeed in most literature, does one find full figured heroes and heroines, and most especially sexually attractive ones. Hopkinson ignores convention though and makes it clear that current standards of beauty and heroic image can be ignored. Silky in "Money Tree" is described as having plump curves and as being pear shaped. Sharon in "Slow Cold Chick" sways amply, while Cynthia in "A Habit of Waste" has discarded her old body with fat thighs and an out-sized ass for a new thin white blonde body she meticulously maintains until she realizes she has lost her lust for life and breaks free to enjoy sweets and let her body take whatever shape comes.
Skin Folk is not an easy collection to read. Its language requires the reader's full attention, and the subject matter -- child abuse, self image, sexuality, and more -- is not the stuff of light reading. But Skin Folk is both entertaining and enlightening, and should not be missed.
Rob Gates is the editor of Wavelengths, a review journal for genre works of special interest to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. He is also the author of a story appearing in Bubbas of the Apocalypse from Yard Dog Press.
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