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Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson

Author(s): Gregory E. Rutledge and Nalo Hopkinson
Source: African American Review, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 589-601
Published by: Indiana State University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2901339
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Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science
Fiction WriterNalo Hopkinson

I n 1998,Nalo Hopkinsonjoined the ranksof Blackscience fic-

tion writers like Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Steven Gregory E. Rutledge, a
Barnes, among others. The Jamaican-born Hopkinson is the first-year English Ph.D. candi-
daughter of the late Slade Hopkinson, the Guyanese actor, poet, date at the University of
and playwright who was part of Derek Walcott's Trinidad Wisconsin-Madison, studies
Theatre Workshop. Hopkinson spent her first sixteen years living Black science fiction and fan-
tasy. In August, he completed
in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana. For the past twenty-three years his M.A. thesis on the cos-
she has resided in Toronto, Canada. She infuses the tropes of sci- mology of freedom in the
ence fiction and fantasy with Caribbean folklore and culture. In works of Samuel R. Delany,
1997 she won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest for Brown Octavia Butler, Charles R.
Girl in the Ring (Warner Books, 1998) and is a recipient of an Saunders, and Nalo
Ontario Arts Council Foundation award for emerging writers; the Hopkinson.
Locus Award, First Novel Category; and the John W. Campbell
Award for best new writer. Hopkinson's first novel also made the
preliminary ballot for the Nebula Award. Brown Girl is a post-
Holocaust novel set in the twenty-first century inner city of
Toronto, which has suffered an economic collapse. The novel
chronicles the struggles of one woman, Ti-Jeanne, to reconcile her
individuality as a young North American woman and unwed
mother with the group orientation of her Afro-Caribbean ances-
try, which includes a nascent ability as a mystic.
Hopkinson's second novel, Midnight Robber, will appear
from Warner Books in March, 2000. Set on a Caribbean-colonized
planet and told in a hybrid creole, it is a science fictional allegory
for displacement and exile. She counts African American science
fiction writers Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler among the writ-
ers whose work has inspired her. (Delany was one of the writers-
in-residence when Hopkinson attended the Clarion Science
Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop at Michigan State
University in 1995.) Hopkinson is currently editing The Dub Side,
an anthology of Caribbean fabulist fiction.
This interview is based on Hopkinson's answers to a series of
interrogatories which I presented to her in February, 1999, about
Brown Girl and about her perspective as the newest (then) Black
science fiction writer and the newest (still) Black female science
fiction writer.
Rutledge: Why are you a writer of Black fantasy?
Hopkinson: Because it's better than being a writer of purple
prose? I'm a writer. I'm predominantly black. I write fantasy
(actually, I say "speculative fiction," because my work can
include elements of science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy, horror,
and magic realism). I'm not a writer of black fantasy. (I go into
that more below.)

African American Review, Volume 33, Number 4

? 1999 Gregory E. Rutledge 589

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Rutledge: How long have you been by other people of color. This comes in
interested in Black fantasy? What do you handy when I'm on yet another sf con-
know of your predecessors like Butler, vention panel on why people of color
Delany, Saunders, Barnes, and others? don't write sf. Black people don't write
Hopkinson: I think perhaps we're a lot of science fiction, but we are well
using the word fantasy in different represented in magic realism. And
ways, so I need some clarification. Are though we don't write a lot of science
you using it as an umbrella term for all fiction, it's in our other artistic forms:
the genres of fantastical writing? I'm our music (remember P-Funk's Mother-
accustomed to hearing it used to name ship Connection?), our visual arts, our
one specific genre. According to the comics. African U.K. filmmaker John
classifications with which I'm familiar, Akomfrah made a documentary on
Butler writes science fiction, not fanta- black expressions of science fiction in
sy. Delany has written both. Saunders' music. It's called Last Angel of History.
Imaro trilogy was sword and sorcery The long tradition of science fiction
(i.e., a sub-genre of fantasy). Barnes out of which came works such as Mary
writes futuristic action adventure as Shelley's Frankenstein and Karel
well as having co-written hard sf with Capek's R. U.R. has on this continent
people such as Larry Niven and Jerry been overshadowed by the pulp era,
Pournelle. Tananarive Due has been which produced a lot of, well, pulp, as
dubbed a horror author. I don't know well as some fine literature. But it's left
Virginia Hamilton's work very well, Western sf with a stigma about being
but she has published young adult sci- adventure stories in which white people
ence fiction as well as collections of use technology to overpower alien cul-
African American folktales. tures. Small wonder that black writers
I've read some form of fantastical haven't been drawn to it in large num-
literature since I was a tot, be it folk- bers-we've been on the receiving end of
tales or Homer's Iliad, so I gravitated colonization, and for us it's not an enter-
naturally toward the sf shelves. Some taining adventure story. I believe it's
time in my 20s I saw a photograph of Chip Delany who pointed out in an
Chip Delany, with whose work I'd fall- interview with Mark Dery that science
en in love on first encountering it, and fiction is a literature about how our tech-
realized that he was black. I'd never nological creations affect our lives.
heard of such a thing before. I wept. It African cultures have been made into
felt as though my universe had just consumers of technology, not its creators,
doubled in size. Though my life was and Western technology at that. How
surrounded with Caribbean writers of then are black people to feel a buy-in to
color (my father and his friends), none science fiction? Come to think of it, this
of them wrote sf. I'd only met one other seems largely to be a problem for writ-
black person who read the literature. ers. I worked for a while at an sf book-
I began to wonder if there were store, and the patrons came in all shades
any other black writers of speculative and colors. I think there's an invisible
fiction. I was working at a public readership of people of color. You rarely
library at the time, and used that see them at cons, so it becomes easy to
resource to research the question. I think that they aren't there.
found and devoured all the Octavia I think the dearth of black writers
Butler novels I could get, and got of science fiction is changing, and I
books by Saunders and Barnes on hope that Walter Mosley's recent call to
interlibrary loan. A colleague pointed arms in the November 1998 New York
me to the shelves where Virginia Times will speed it up. I know that my
Hamilton's novels were. For the past publisher, Warner Aspect (the sf imprint
few years I've been haphazardly col- of Warner Books), was pleased to dis-
lecting works of fantastical fiction by cover after they accepted Brown Girl in
black and Caribbean writers, and some the Ring for publication that I am black.


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They are very much aware of that partic- "black sf." I write speculative fiction. I
ular gap in the field and were happy to am black. I wouldn't say that Jeff Noon
be publishing a new black author. writes "white Manchester men's sf," or
The thing is, that notion of coloniz- that Ursula Le Guin writes "women's
ing alien races has only ever been one sf" (though I'm sure some would say the
theme of science fiction; it's as varied a latter). It's very important to me to be a
literature as any other. And even within voice coming from one flavor of black
that topic, many writers have been experience, and Caribbean, and
hugely critical of the assumption that Canadian, and female, and fat, and from
human culture (which for much earlier feminist and sex-positive politics. But
sf meant white, Western, privileged what I write doesn't have those identi-
humans) would be "superior" to other ties; I do. My writing won't appeal to
intelligences. It's just that the discourse everyone, but I don't want to wave a
is only slowly coming from other expe- flag over it that says, "This is written
riences: the working class, women, writ- only for black people" (or Caribbean, or
ers of color, queer writers, disabled writ- Canadian, or female ... you get my
ers. But science fiction has always been a drift). It isn't. I'd like readers to discover
subversive literature. It's been used to for themselves if my work resonates with
critique social systems well before the them or not. Fumnilyenough, it is impor-
marketing label of sf got stuck on it. tant to me to be identified as a writer of
And that's when I find sf compelling. speculative fiction, perhaps because it
When Chip Delany writes about feels like claiming my share of space in a
fetishized desire and power games literature that has largely not represented
through the eyes of an ex-slave who me. I recently heard from a black woman
doesn't talk a whole lot about why he my age who said that she stopped writ-
finds sub-dom play arousing, I'm forced ing sf when she was younger because
to think twice and thrice about a whole people told her that black people don't
bunch of things in relation to each other: write the stuff. Now she's sticking to her
sexuality, race, class, color, history. I guns and getting back into it.
think that a speculative literature from a Rutledge: How do you see your work
culture that has been on the receiving as reflective of that by "standard" fic-
end of the colonization glorified in some tion writers who are Black, and how
sf could be a compelling body of writ- different?
ing. Look at the work of the Jewish spec- Hopkinson: I don't think my work is
ulative fiction writers, like Jane Yolen's reflective of the work of black writers of
novel BriarRose, which uses the ele- mimetic fiction. The body of work being
ments of the folktale as a lens into the created by black writers in all genres is
horrors of the Holocaust, and never precious and valuable. Yet I don't see
once allows readers to romanticize the what I'm trying to do as being in rela-
experience. It's brilliant. Or the wickedly tion to realist writing styles. I'm going to
incisive and funny work of First Nations try to paraphrase part of the Mosley arti-
writer Sherman Alexie. cle and hope that I capture it accurately.
Rutledge: How would you character- He says that access of black writers to
ize what you write, if Black fantasy the mainstream has only really hap-
isn't acceptable? pened in this century, and there is still a
Hopkinson: English is a very flexible barrier there: "Excellence" in the work of
language, but sometimes that flexibility black writers is judged by how well we
makes meanings muddy. When I say write about "being black in a white
"black sf writer," the adjective black is world," which is obviously only one
modifying the word writer, not the part of our lived experience. "A limita-
word sf. I'm a black writer of sf. It's easy tion imposed upon a limitation," he calls
for someone to take the phrase black sf it. His words really struck me. They con-
writer to mean that a black sf writer is cretized for me some of what I'm trying
someone who writes something called to do in my writing.


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I was born in a part of the world because I'm still developing the skills
where people of African origin are in to portray all those complexities, but
the majority. Racism most emphatically I'd rather keep trying to do that than
exists, but my early experience of being simplify my writing.
made aware that my dark skin, round When I read the work of African
ass, and tight-curled hair made me American realist writers, there's
devalued coin did not come from being always the awareness of the white
part of a minority community. And in world in which the characters live;
fact, being middle-class, I there has to be, if the fiction
had more access to privilege Writing is to be representative of
than many. Nor was it a the real world. The realist
simple issue of black and without work of Caribbean writers
white, not when there are creoles can must reference the effects
African, European, Asian, of hundreds of years of
and South Asian people feel like colonialism. It's there in the
there, all with centuries- cooking a work of African writers,
long histories of being in
the Caribbean-not to men- meal without too, although my sense is
that it's a little less all-per-
tion the aboriginal cultures the spices. vasive, perhaps because it
whose people were there wasn't possible to reave
even before Columbus got himself lost people on the continent from their pre-
and they found him. And all of those slavery histories and cultures to the
races and cultures have undergone and extent that you could when you
are undergoing a certain amount of removed them from their homelands.
mixing. My experience of being The experience of slavery is a huge
"raced" (that's not a word, is it?) is a cancer in the collective consciousness
complex one that has to take into of African people all over the diaspora.
account the cultures and histories of The ripple effects of it (if you'll bear
many races, not to mention class and with a mixed metaphor for a moment)
economics. It cannot be a simple bina- still continue, and they touch the past,
ry, and it is nowhere close to being the the present, and the future. People rec-
only issue that frames my writing. ognize that about the effects of the
I have an early short story about a Holocaust on Jewish people, but we
young Afro-Caribbean woman living don't get the same recognition. We're
in Canada who exchanges her body for supposed to have "gotten over it" by
one which is white and slim with now, even though its domino effect
straight hair. She diets rigorously, and still very much straitlaces our lives.
she hates it when her parents talk in Speculative fiction allows me to experi-
creole and when other black women ment with the effects of that cancerous
dress in ways that celebrate their bod- blot, to shrink it by setting my worlds
ies and their cultures. I took the story far in the future (science fiction) or to
to a writing retreat to be critiqued. metonymize it so that I can explore the
Some people said I had to decide what paradigms it's created (fantasy). I
my protagonist's problem was. Was it could even choose to sidestep it alto-
internalized racism, or female body gether into alternate history. Mosley
image problems, or the problems that says that sf makes it possible to create
the child of immigrants faces when she visions which will "shout down the
tries to adapt to a new culture? They felt realism imprisoning us behind a wall
I had to choose one, that my story of alienating culture."
would lack focus if I didn't. But the I don't want to write mimetic fic-
themes were all interrelated; it wouldn't tion. I like the way that fantastical fic-
have made sense to me artificially to tion allows me to use myth, archetype,
disentangle them. It may be a weaker speculation, and storytelling. I like the
story as a result of my stubbornness, way that it allows me to imagine the


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impossible. Mosley also said some- with my writing group completely, but
thing to the effect that human beings something that someone says sparks
first imagine a reality, then figure out a my own thinking, and I figure out the
way to make it manifest. When women key to the story and write that.
sf writers first began imagining women Every time I've set out to write a
in positions of authority, the idea story with a message in it, it's died on
seemed risible to many. Not any more. the vine. I have to write about images
I don't see science fiction and fantasy that fascinate me. It doesn't work if my
as being just wishful thinking. I like to fiction is really veiled lectures on what
believe that they can also be more like, I think people would be doing if they
I dunno, guided imagery. Societal knew what was good for them. That's
biofeedback? If black people can imag- another reason I say I don't write
ine our futures, imagine-among other "black" fiction. Sometimes I write
things-cultures in which we aren't about black experience, sometimes not.
alienated, then we can begin to see our I have a short story that, if I imagined it
way clear to creating them. in any cultural context at all, was set
Rutledge: What do you see your writ- among the English peasantry of a pre-
ing doing, if anything? That is, do you vious century. It's about how difficult
construct your stories with an agenda coming of age can be for young girls.
in mind other than the craft of telling a Rutledge: Who are your literary role
good story? models, past and present?
Hopkinson: After all I've said in the Hopkinson: How many years do you
previous answer about what I see sf by have? Chip Delany, as is probably
black writers doing, I'm now going to obvious by now. I like that his work is
say something that's apparently con- transgressive, that it talks frankly
tradictory. No, I don't have an agenda about things like sex and queerness
when I write, unless you count it as an and fetish behavior, which are all still
agenda that I want the story to be a so taboo to name in so many black
compelling read. Story themes come to communities. I also like that he's such
me in later drafts, when I've figured an amazing stylist that you can smell
out what the story's about. I start with his worlds; he can construct layered,
a word, a phrase, or a snapshot image. intricate sentences that please me so to
I try to marry it with another image have read. Pretty much the whole
and see what comes out of the tension canon of feminist sf writers-Tiptree,
between the two. I wordsmith as I go- Le Guin, Tepper ... there are many,
constructing my language in ways that and many newer ones springing up.
are pleasing to me, figuring out the Octavia Butler, who is not realist, but
"voice" of the story. I write until I have firmly realistic. She refuses to take the
the semblance of a story, then I take it pleasant way out in her writing. And
to my writing group, where people ask she writes every day, which is still dif-
all the questions that hadn't occurred ficult for me. Candas Jane Dorsey and
to me: "Why does she find oranges Ronald Wright, for first novels that
nauseating on page 17 when she loved rocked. Kelly Link, whose work is
them on page 2?" "He's obviously try- quirky and gorgeous and funny and
ing to overcome his terror of dogs: often vaguely disturbing. Gene Wolfe
How come you didn't write more and James Morrow, who can make me
about that?" I think, He's afraid of read about organized religion and love
dogs? She hates oranges? then I realize it. Elizabeth Lynn, whose characters
that they're right, those two facts are represent a range of sexual identities
the crux of the story, but I didn't see and who was one of the first writers I
that when I wrote it. So I figure out read who explored alternative relation-
what happened to make him afraid of ship models and intentional communi-
dogs and her revolted by oranges, and ties. Shani Mootoo, another rocking
I finish the story. Or maybe I disagree first novel. I like its masked, magical


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Trinidad and the way it explores gen- know if a particular short story was a
der roles. Ray Bradbury, who writes recounting of a dream I'd had, which is
with such breathless enthusiasm and another way of saying, "Did you expe-
from an obvious appreciation of beau- rience this?" (And no, I didn't; I made
ty. Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific it up.) Someday I'd like to turn the
Edge, for an appealing utopia with question back on the audience. It's as
warts, and for writing that is exquisite though people believe that fiction
in style. Every so often I pick it up and doesn't exist, that it's all real people's
re-read a passage or two, for its word experiences with the serial numbers
craft, world building, and characteriza- filed off, a kind of mask. But it's more
tion. Keri Hulme for The Bone People. like a quilt; there are bits and scraps of
Shakespeare. Charles Johnson, for his real people in there, but they are
magic realist novel Middle Passage. recombined to suit the story, and
This is a game I could play all day. there's at least as much whole cloth
Rutledge: Ti-Jeanne embodies many of there, in the backing and the stuffing
the concerns of contemporary society and the binding. Maybe people have
faced by Black women in the Americas gotten distrustful of fiction. So many
(e.g., unwed motherhood, poverty, people still parrot that fiction is at best
conflicts between self and tradition). Is worthless, at worst evil, because it's
this character, as Edana Franklin from lies. So perhaps if a fiction resonates
Kindred seems to be Butler, very much with some people, they decide that it
like yourself? can't be deception-as if it ever were-
Hopkinson: Have you asked Butler? I that it must be truth? And truth means
wonder if she feels as I do. This is it must have really happened to some-
becoming one of my least favorite one the author knows?
questions, to be asked if my characters Rutledge: What nonliterary influences
are thinly veiled autobiographies. No, I are most prominent in your creative
make them up. My life has been very efforts?
different from Ti-Jeanne's. My family Hopkinson: By nonliterary, you mean
was often short of money, sometimes everything that isn't writing? Food. I
acutely so, but I never had the experi- love writing about it, describing it, par-
ence of living in extreme poverty. We ticularly the foods with which I grew
were middle-class; it was a given that up. Caribbean history. I'm doing more
I'd finish school and go on to universi- and more research into folkways that
ty somehow. Between my parents and operated in the previous century and
me, we worked and paid the cost of my the beginning of this one. Language,
education. I have never lived in what is which I talk about more later.
in effect a ghettoized war zone. I have
Folktales. I love the way they portray
never had children, never been preg-
archetypes as stories that can resonate
nant, was never a medical professional.
on many levels.
I hope that my portrayal of Ti-Jeanne
rings true, but only some of her experi- Rutledge: How long have you known
ence is anything like mine. I know you wanted to be a writer? Do you have
what it's like to be a green girl, to feel expertise in any other field? Did you
somewhat aimless in life. I know what publish anything before your novel?
it's like to be overrun by events. I've Hopkinson: I wanted to be a writer at
also had boyfriends who were really a very early age. My father was a
bad for me. I know what it's like to be writer and so were many of his friends,
scared and unsure of myself. and I loved reading. But I didn't
As I do more talks and interviews, believe I had any talent for creating fic-
I'm getting very curious about why tion, and it was the only form of writ-
people always ask me if the characters ing that drew me strongly to want to
are people I know. The one person who attempt it. I won an essay-writing com-
put the question differently wanted to petition at age ten or so (there's a pic-


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ture on my web page of a young me in but not my "A" Level (Ordinary and
my school uniform, accepting the Advanced Levels-British system).
plaque). I wrote a few non-fiction arti- Four high schools in four different
cles for local papers. But it wasn't until countries: Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana,
1992 that I took the plunge and started and Canada. Was good at biology, lit-
taking fiction-writing courses and erature, and languages; indifferent at
sending my short stories out to maga- geography, history, civics, and art; hor-
zines. As to expertise in other fields, I rible at math, physics, and chemistry.
facilitate a mean arts grant jury, and I Now I have to study it all in order to
probably still have the skills, though write what I do, and it's much more
not the wind, to teach a funk aerobics fun this way. Studied Russian and
class. I learned to sew because very lit- French in university, graduated with a
tle ready-made clothing fits me well, combined honors. I went to college for
and I type between 70 and 80 words a a diploma in Recreation Management.
minute. (In Canada, colleges are very specifical-
I've published short stories in jour- ly for vocational training; they are not
nals and anthologies, and I've had degree-granting institutions. Those are
short stories produced for radio broad- all called universities.) Tried the sci-
cast. In the science fiction field, it's rare ences again at the university level. Was
to publish a novel before you've pub- good at biology but horrible at math,
lished a number of individual short without which I couldn't take physics
stories in magazines or anthologies. or chemistry. Whew. I dropped out
Once you've built up a portfolio of and abandoned plans to become a chi-
short-story publications and have a ropractor. Took a few silversmithing
novel manuscript to shop around, it's courses, plan to take more. In 1995, I
easier (but by no means easy!) to get attended the Clarion Science Fiction
the attention of an agent or publisher. and Fantasy Writers' Workshop, a
Rutledge: Do you write any book graduate course through Michigan
reviews or do any kind of literary criti- State University (Octavia Butler is a
cism? Clarion graduate, and Samuel Delany
was one of the writers-in-residence the
Hopkinson: I have published a few
non-fiction articles, mostly brief book year I attended). I guess you don't
want to know about the aerobics
reviews and one opinion piece, but
instructor training courses.
nothing from an academic point of view.
Informally, my father was a poet,
I write reviews mostly of speculative fic-
actor, and playwright who taught
tion, mostly for popular magazines.
English and Latin at the 6th Form level
They are short and usually don't go
(senior year of high school). My mother
much beyond a summary and a sen-
is a library cataloguer. Books were
tence or two of critique. I hope to be able
everywhere, and I had pretty much
to do more critical writing about the
free rein of them. My parents took me
field at a later date, though the more I
to see theater, dance, readings, visual
discover how difficult it is to write fic- arts exhibitions. And I worked for nine
tion, the less I'm willing to lambaste years in a large public library system,
anyone's efforts. I do enjoy reading liter- with access to everything it had to
ary criticism when I can wade through offer. I am a voracious reader. I also
the unfamiliar vocabulary. Sometimes it worked for six years as a grants officer
gives me a glimpse of some of the for a local arts council. That was a great
greater issues to do with writing, and education. I got to see what projects
that's inspirational and helpful. other artists were undertaking and
Rutledge: What's your educational what issues were important to them,
background, both formal and informal? and to hear how they described their
Hopkinson: Elementary school in the artistic vision and creative processes,
Caribbean. Took my "O" Level exams, and hear how other people assessed


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their proposals. Then I got to see the Rutledge: Where do you see problems
finished work. It's made it much easier with your first novel in terms of struc-
for me to conceptualize and communi- ture, artistry,characterization, and things
cate what I'm trying to accomplish- that go into making a novel successful?
and to read rejection letters. I have a Hopkinson: If I were to do it again, I'd
sense of what goes into the decision- do more in-depth characterization of
making process, and I don't take "no" some of the secondary characters, par-
so personally. ticularly Rudy, but also the Premier
Rutledge: Why did you move from the and her assistant. I think the structure
Caribbean to Canada? works well. I'd probably be less melo-
Hopkinson: Daddy had chronic kid- dramatic. People have correctly point-
ney failure, and there was no treatment ed out that the dystopian near-future
available in Guyana, where we were setting is nothing new. That was delib-
living at the time. Canada had excellent erate on my part. It was my first novel
treatment, and with that and his own and I was wrestling with a host of
determination, he was able to extend skills that were new to me and ele-
his three-year life expectancy to nine- ments that would be plenty new to
readers. I had my hands full. It was
teen years. But we had always moved
pretty astonishing just to get to the
around. I was born in Jamaica. My
point of typing the final sentence. The
family left there when I was eight
rest has been a bonus.
months old for Trinidad; left there
when I was, I think, five years old for Rutledge: What goals do you have as a
the U.S. (Daddy had been accepted into novelist?
the graduate theater program at Yale Hopkinson: To finish novel #2 by the
University and subsequently dropped publisher's March 1 deadline!
out); went back to Jamaica, then to Creatively, I'd like my work to get
Guyana, then Trinidad, Jamaica, more layered, more subtle. I want to
Guyana again, to Canada when I was work on characterization. I want to
sixteen. I've been here twenty-two learn how to handle more complex
years now. ideas.
My second novel is now at the final
Rutledge: How has the publication of
draft stage. I have ideas for two more
Brown Girl in the Ring and its success
and a very dim notion for another after
as the winner of the Warner Aspect
that. As I accomplish those, I'll get
First Novel Contest changed your life?
ideas for others. I'll continue writing
Hopkinson: It's meant that, for now at short stories. It's a form I really like,
least, I'm working full-time at my writ- because every word has to count, and
ing, not at a nine-to-five job. It's a pre- you can explore one idea nicely in a
cious thing (I was going to say "luxu- short story.
ry," but I live month to month). I've I want to bring a new voice to the
had some long-time dreams fulfilled. field, and perhaps some new readers.
I've seen my name in print, for one. The speculative-fiction community is
I've learned that, yes, I can write some- alarmed by the fact that the readership
thing as huge as a novel. I met Chip is aging. We hear that younger readers
(which first happened before I started aren't coming to the field in the same
writing fiction, when he came to numbers. If that's so, part of it might be
Toronto to give a reading from The because the corporate film that bowd-
Madman and I got to interview him for lerizes sf tropes has become so popu-
a local paper). My mother now has lar. Star Wars and the like don't have
some notion that at least some of my much to do with why many of us read
weirdness is in service of a pursuit of the genre, but they're fun to watch and
which she approves. My father never a lot of people would rather do that
saw my fiction in print. He died in 1993. than try to figure out words on a page;


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we're taught in school to hate reading. of them have told me they were pleas-
Part of the reduced readership may be antly surprised, that they didn't realize
because of the way speculative fiction science fiction could be like that. I hope
is marketed. There is genre writing (sf, that at the very least it got a new bunch
mystery, romance, etc.) and then there of people into our local sf, black, and
is "literature." Under the genre labels, women's bookstores. If so, I'll be
there are thousands of books churned happy if any of those people return to
out every year that are fairly formulaic those bookstores in search of other
brain candy. I don't see too much writers. When I give readings at
wrong with that-sometimes comfort African History Month events and lit-
reading is just what you want, and I erary events, I'm being introduced as a
think it can serve to disseminate and science fiction writer. I don't look like
diffuse issues that were previously rad- many people's conception of an sf
ical. And to be realistic, publishers writer, and since my work is coming
have to sell books to survive. But I from an experience that many have
think that genre labelling has led to never thought of in terms of science fic-
people who are unfamiliar with the tion and fantasy, it's making people
genre assuming that sf on a book spine curious. People are taking copies of the
automatically means a lightweight book to friends in the Caribbean,
read. I'm flabbergasted when people because it has no distribution there yet.
tell me that Animal Farm and A I'm getting favorable reactions back.
Handmaid's Tale aren't speculative fic- Educators are beginning to include it in
tion, that they're "real literature." And their courses, graduate students in
really, much non-genre fiction that is their theses. Because the protagonist is
published each year is also entertaining a very young woman, the book is also
brain candy; that's not the sole reaching a youth audience. I gave a
province of genre fiction. But work reading a year ago to an auditorium of
with genre labels on it gives the snobs high school kids, and their questions
something to point at when they say, "I were illuminating: "You live in
don't read that stuff; I only read 'litera- Toronto? This Toronto right here?"
ture.' " I think people forget that real- They were only familiar with contem-
ism is as much a convention as any of porary urban expression from the U.S.
the genre tropes. I recently read an arti- Afterwards a few of the Caribbean kids
cle by a local author in which he chid- came up to me to tell me how much
ed a local science fiction writer for call- they'd enjoyed seeing me on the stage
ing his characters "guys." He said they and hearing their urban Canadian
weren't guys, they were talking environment described in a Caribbean
lizards. Well, a guy in a realist fiction creole. And they liked hearing the folk-
isn't a "guy" either. It's a tabulation tale elements. It gave them a sense of
into which the author has crafted the ownership and pride. I think that's
illusion that you're perceiving a how the readership in a genre starts to
human. One doesn't deem a Picasso expand.
worthless because it doesn't look like a Rutledge: What kinds of hobbies do
landscape. Why then the conceit that you have? Are you, for example, a
only realist fiction can be good fiction? Trekker?
I think some of the way to solve Hopkinson: Can watching tv be a
the shrinking market may be to entice hobby? I think of hobbies as more
in whole new communities of readers. doing/making things than passive
I'm hoping to be a writer who can do spectatorship. I watched Star Trek all
some of that. When my novel was through childhood, up until a few
launched, people who wanted to sup- years ago. I started to lose interest
port me bought it and read it even if somewhere in the middle of DS9, and
they normally didn't read anything Voyager never really grabbed me,
they thought of as science fiction. Some which is fine, because my television


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broke in 1996 and I've not replaced it. Rutledge: Derek Walcott obviously
The one I had was a donation of some- means much to you as an author. Have
one's old clunker. I haven't been able you met him personally? What is it
to bring myself to fork out hundreds of about his stories that led you to adopt
dollars that could be feeding me on an one of his characters for your own?
object that sucks my energy and free Hopkinson: I didn't adopt any of his
time but gives very little satisfaction in characters. I did refer to three of them
return. I saw the last Trek movie-sort by giving three of my characters femi-
of a nostalgia thing-but will probably nized versions of their names. Daddy
not see the one that's just been worked with Derek at the Trinidad
released, though I kind of liked Theater Workshop that Derek founded.
Jonathan Frakes's work as a director in Daddy was one of the actors, and even-
the last one. I'm a bit addicted to e- tually was part of a pretty spectacular
mail, but that's not a hobby either. I disagreement with Derek and a subse-
like to sew, but haven't had much time quent splintering off of people from the
for it with the writing. I still love read- TTW. I was a child at the time. Before
ing, and I buy a few new books every the break between the two men, my
week when I can afford it. But read- mother would drop me at Derek's
ing's also more of a pastime than a house in the mornings, and his then-
wife Margaret would drive me and her
hobby. I recently resurrected an ambi-
daughter Anna to our schools (I think
tion to be a dancer when a friend who's
my parents had to be at work earlier
a choreographer created a solo dance- than school opened). I saw Derek's
work for me. We just finished a four- plays rehearsed and performed. I don't
day run, and he's talking of staging it remember if I ever saw Ti-Jean and His
in 1999. I like dancing for fun too, Brothers, but I've certainly read it. I did
though I have to be in the right mood see Dream on Monkey Mountain. My
for the club atmosphere. I loved the sil- father had a role in one production of
versmithing courses I took; I will even- it. I saw a production of Joker of
tually learn more silver- and iron- Seville, with Albert Laveau in the lead.
smithing. I've taken up city bicycle rid- The name Ti-Jeanis the French
ing; it's good for generating high levels equivalent of "Everyman." Early on in
of adrenalin as you duck cars that are the writing of Brown Girl in the Ring, I
trying to mow you down. I have realized it was a novel about three gen-
dreams of getting back to pumping erations of women battling an evil in
iron, but I'm not good at sticking to the their lives, and I thought of the paral-
regime. lels with Ti-Jean and His Brothers, an
Rutledge: Do you have any other cre- early play of Derek's in which three
ative projects in the works? brothers battle the devil. I wanted to
acknowledge that connection to
Hopkinson: CBC Radio recently made
Derek's work, so I named the three
a recording of me performing one of
women Ti-Jeanne, Mi-Jeanne, and
my short stories to an original musical Gros-Jeanne-the feminine equivalents
composition by William Sperandei, a of the brothers Ti-Jean, Mi-Jean, and
local jazz trumpeter. It was so much Gros-jean. I liked the idea of Ti-Jeanne
fun! I'd like to do more of that, perhaps as everywoman. I had to call Derek to
release a spoken-word recording with ask his permission to quote from the
music. I'll think about it more once I play, and my heart was in my mouth,
have this second novel to the publish- because I had childhood memories of
er. And I'm working on a collection's him and my father shouting in fury at
worth of short stories. I have a notion each other. But he was very gracious. I
of working with my partner, who's know too that, when Daddy died,
also an artist, to create a children's pic- Derek gave a eulogy at the University
ture book. of the West Indies which was a very


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respectful tribute to Daddy's contribu- would probably pick up on some of it
tion to Caribbean literature. I like the from the brief description of him.
magic that operates in many of Derek's All the Caribbean characters inhab-
plays, the lushness and the exquisite it hybridized worlds. In the Caribbean,
wordcraft of them, and the fact that he class divisions are clearly marked in
uses creole and music. language; an attuned ear can hear the
Rutledge: You include two passages in points of demarcation. Caribbean peo-
your novel that are not in English, ple who emigrate (or who operate
French, Spanish, Creole, English within more than one class level) learn
Pidgin, or Krio. What language is this, to code-switch, to jump back and forth
and what are the meanings of these between various language usages as
passages? needed. Mami Gros-Jeanne does it
when she deals with the street kids.
Hopkinson: What's Krio? A type of She switches to a more Canadian
creole? The woman who speaks the English. Children of immigrants do a
passages to which you refer is Romni peculiar-sounding (to my ears, though
Jenny. She's Rom (some would say I do it myself nowadays) thing where
gypsy, but I gather that can be a term their accent and word choices sound
of contempt). The phrases mean some- neither completely of the old country
thing like, "Oh God, what an awful nor completely of the new. That's how
thing to happen," and a curse: "May a Tony speaks, and it was a bitch to
cancer eat his throat!" I got them from write. For people from diasporic cul-
the autobiography of a Rom man from tures there's more than a doubled con-
Quebec. Last I heard, Toronto was one sciousness. It's occupying multiple
of the most culturally diverse cities in overlapping identities simultaneously.
the world. I tried to reflect some of Throw in identities formed around pol-
what that's like to experience. Did you itics, gender, class, sexual preference,
think that I used the Rom words etc. and you have quite the stew. There
because I speak Rom? It was all part of is no solid ground beneath us; we shift
the research I had to do to write the constantly to stay in one place.
novel, like the research on heart trans- Because Toronto is so culturally
plant operations, and details of the diverse, I see that multiple conscious-
Toronto landmarks which I describe. ness reflected in the work of many
Rutledge: The ability to speak a native local artists who are my peers, whatev-
tongue and English reflects Du Bois's er their media. We are the people who
double-consciousness. Are there other have more than one place or identity or
elements of your novel in which a char- culture that's home, and we're strug-
acter is split between European and gling to find modes of expression that
non-European culture? convey how we've had to become
polyglot, not only in multiple lexicons
Hopkinson: Other elements than but also in multiple identities. The clas-
Romni Jenny, you mean? I guess the sical forms of artistic expression give
Russian couple that you meet in the us a base from which to work, but from
beginning, Paula and Pavel, and the there we have to break the codified
priest in the church in that scene. He's forms and create new voices for our-
got at least a three-way split going, selves. When I can make a pun that res-
being a Euro francophone Catholic onates multilingually across any num-
Quebecois living in anglophone ber of four languages and three creoles,
Toronto, where I'm told that long ago who's going to understand it? When a
it wasn't unusual for businesses to post character in one of my stories is bub-
"Help Wanted" signs which read bling (a Jamaican dance style) to a reg-
"Catholics Need Not Apply." But you gae song one minute and babbling
don't see enough of the priest to know about cockatrices the next, what is the
all that, it's in my head. A Canadian reader to make of her? When I say I'm


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"predominantly" black, does it convey ing," which do you think will seem
any of the callaloo that is the Caribbean, more evocative to me?
that gives me a clan tartan, one Jewish Some artists in the Caribbean have
great grandmother, and one Maroon, deliberately reclaimed their vernacu-
as well as Aboriginal, West African, lars by creating work in them. The first
and South Asian ancestry? Or do you time that Miss Lou (Jamaican poet
think you hear someone who's trying Louise Bennett) performed a poem
to distance herself from her African written in Jamaican creole, someone in
origins? the audience shouted out, "Is that you
For me, language is a particularly mother send you a-school for?" criticiz-
thorny matter. I've talked about code- ing her vernacular in the vernacular.
switching between and among dialects It's important to me to try to reflect the
and sociolects, and the increased com- place that language has in Caribbean
plexity that happens when you throw identity. In Brown Girl in the Ring I
in two or more languages. If I'm talk- made the Caribbean characters mostly
ing to another Jamaican, I'll probably Trinidadian and some Jamaican, and I
use a fairly standard though accented wrote their dialogue in the way they
English; that's base norm for a middle- would speak it. Narrative I wrote in
class Jamaican. If I've been trying to tell standard English. I've gotten a mixed
my friend something that she's not reaction from readers. Some take to it
been grasping and she finally gets it, I pretty easily; some find it tough going
might switch into the vernacular to for a few pages until they get the hang
counter with, "Chuh man, after is that of the sentence construction; and some
me a-tell you!" Using a creole that we seem almost offended that I didn't
write the dialogue in standard English.
share is an ironic way of saying, with-
They see it as a naive artistic choice. It
out having to speak the actual words,
may be, but to me it would be disjunc-
"So we've finally found a base of
tive and weird to make a working-class
understanding." It's a pretty complex
Jamaican man speak like a middle-
set of codes. A lot of Caribbean identity
class North American one. But I do
is bound up in language. We have used understand why those readers are so
it as a tool of resistance and politiciza- disconcerted; it's something I'm strug-
tion (Rastafarian "dread talk" being a gling with too.
clear example). We have hybridized I think that quite a few things are
the different languages that were in going on here. One is that creoles are
operation in the Caribbean into creoles. oral forms. There is no standard
Each Caribbean country has its own; a spelling and it's difficult to capture
creole speaker from (for instance) them on the page. I wouldn't expect
Jamaica will not necessarily under- even a Caribbean reader to find the
stand one from Barbados. And each reading smooth going at first. (Though
creole has its sociolects that signal a if they are from the country whose
speaker's class, level of education, speech I'm representing, they have a
sometimes even caste and race. On top bit of an advantage, particularly if they
of all that, we've gone through years of read the dialogue out loud.) I do use
our educators trying to shame this tex- conventional spellings where possi-
tured, complex, rich "bad language" ble-you instead of yuh, for instance.
out of us and make us speak only "the I'm trying to represent the vocabulary
Queen's English," whatever that means and sentence structure, not the accent.
to anyone who isn't actually the Queen Another is that there's still an uneasi-
of England. The vernaculars were seen ness around vernacular speech, espe-
as debased, and in many places are still cially black vernacular speech. In this
so seen. But when as a wordsmith I part of the world it can be seen as dis-
have the choice between saying "just respectful to represent it. Memories of
before dawn" and "'fore-day morn- Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Step'n


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Fetchit films make people uncomfort- then do I represent the mind set of a
able. Some readers feel that I'm creat- people that is so tied up with the
ing caricatures of black people, that I'm words they use and how they use
representing us as uneducated and them, if I don't represent those words
ignorant. People who read my use of themselves? I don't yet have a satisfy-
creole this way are dismayed at what ing strategy. Amos Tutuola's magic
they read as internalized racism on my realist stories in Yoruba English were
part, when in fact I'm representing a well-received, so maybe there's a way.
different but no less complex version of When I read the Trinidadian creole of
English. I'm getting better at conveying the opening passages of Dionne
the creoles I use as the linguistic con- Brand's novel In Another Place, Not
structs they are, with their own rules Here, I know I'm in the presence of a
for sentence structure and grammar. master poet. I have found that, if peo-
They aren't just accents or ignorance. ple who are unfamiliar with the dialect
A third thing that's going on is that can hear me read a section of my work,
some people make the judgment that reading it for themselves comes easier
I've violated one of the conventions of to them. Warner tells me that they plan
"excellence," which is that "good" to post a sound bite of me reading from
writing is with a few exceptions writ- Midnight Robber on their web site. I
ten in "clear" English. But it's not an think that will help.
inviolable literary convention in any Another writer once said to me
artistic tradition; it's perfectly usual, that since the ability to code-switch is
for instance, for an excellent Caribbean practically a given in post-colonial
artist to use creoles to whatever effect diasporic cultures, it makes sense that
he/she sees fit. Excellence means dif- writers from those cultures will use it
ferent things in different contexts. I'm in their writing. I agree with her.
asking readers to do something diffi- Creoles carry their own nuances and
cult, to take on something unfamiliar, textures of meaning. They are a tool for
mastery of which lies at the heart of communication that we have. Writing
their ability to comprehend the dia- without them can feel like cooking a
logue. I have to expect that some may meal without the spices. It's still edible,
bristle. I'm going to keep working at it, even nutritious, but the cook knows
trying to devise other methods for how much more interesting it could be
making it easier to read. Chip told me with a little piece of thyme and some
that a little dialect goes a long way; garlic. This may sound as though I'm
using a word or two suggests the ver- putting down unadorned English, but I
nacular without having to represent don't believe there is any such thing,
huge chunks of it. I think he's correct. except perhaps in memos, and rarely
The first draft of my second novel even there. Every nook of every region
Midnight Robber was written com- of the English-speaking world tailors
pletely in a hybrid Trinidadian/ English to suit itself. That's one of the
Jamaican creole of my own invention, strengths of the language-its flexibili-
but I've since changed the language ty. How do I communicate to a diverse
construction so that it's more like the bunch of readers if I'm using creoles?
first novel (standard English narrative I'm still ironing that out, still asking for
but creole in the dialogue). But how feedback.

Dery, Mark. "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose." Works
South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (1993): 735-78. Cited
Mosley, Walter. "Blackto the Future."New York Times 1 Nov. 1998, late ed.: 32+.


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