I met with Nalo Hopkinson in the Merril Collection of the Toronto Public Library, just minutes before she was to participate in a reading of select works from science fiction’s late visionary Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon was one of the most prolific and influential writers of his time and he remains the most anthologized. Hopkinson’s oeuvre does not share the universal recognition (or impressive size) of Sturgeon’s, but she has mastered the art of subtle narrative. Her works are nuanced tales that are celebrated for their power to weave the unique mythologies of the Caribbean with complex social and political themes in the unusual settings of speculative fiction.
The best-known of her works, Midnight Robber, is a mishmash of Caribbean folktale fantasy, brilliantly innovative science fiction and characters that are wonderfully unique. The protagonist assumes the role of the midnight robber, playing out her role as a Robin Hood-esque myth-turned-reality who delights in restraining her victims and telling them stories. More than just a literal play on every author’s dream of a captive audience, Midnight Robber is an allegory for the transformative power of narrative. I began this interview believing that Hopkinson’s narratives were an exploration of “multicultural” life in Canada — but she corrected me in the way she is most celebrated for: by telling me a story.
AE: What first drew you to the work of Theodore Sturgeon? It seems almost every fan remembers the first Sturgeon story they read vividly.
Nalo Hopkinson: Theodore Sturgeon is one of my touchstones both as a writer and as a reader. I think my favourite of all his stories is Godbody. It was probably the only thing I’ve ever read that made Jesus make sense — which means it was probably not very popular [laughs]. I grew up in a fairly religious household, and [Sturgeon] seemed to be looking at religion with a hard eye that I had not seen before, which was a relief. He talked about the things that are taboo to talk about. Did Jesus have sex? Did he want to? And he was fearless — the fearlessness in his writing is one of the things that I really liked. He was writing stories about queer rights before the rest of the genre knew what to call it. He was writing gender bending stories …
Anyway, Noel Sturgeon approached me at ReaderCon in Boston this summer, where I was the guest of honor, and asked me if I would like to participate in this reading and of course I leapt at the chance. The cool thing about this job, about being a science fiction writer, is getting to meet the people you idolize, but Sturgeon was never one I met. I have heard stories from people who knew him, and from the stories they tell it sounds as though he would have lived up to the image that I have of him in my mind. I mean the man actually did run away to join the circus. Rockin’! He’s an actual 90-pound weakling that ran away to join the circus … you can’t not love him.
AE: Could you tell me a little bit about the story that you will be reading tonight?
Hopkinson: I’m reading from “Crate” tonight, in which Sturgeon does the novel thing of taking a bunch of working-class kids who are essentially in a juvenile home, and treating them with respect, like people. The story doesn’t talk down to them. It’s written in something approaching a vernacular style, in the way someone like that might speak. He’s looking at a lot of the things that concern the real world and he does so in a way that is very egalitarian for writers at the time. And he’s just a hell of a lot of fun to read, I mean the man is a stylist. The language just bops along — it really makes it pretty in the mind.
“Crate” is set in a future where instead of juvenile detention, kids who are under the age of majority get shipped off to planets where they do hard labour, except that they can expect to become colonists. So it’s a bunch of kids who have been shipped off … Their parole officer has decided to go along with them, but they don’t like her — they think she is just a witch of a woman. Their shuttle crashes and many of them die. A handful of kids are left having to hike to the nearest settlement, on an alien planet where they know nothing about what to expect. And it’s essentially about how they manage. It does this sort of microcosm of looking at social relationships and how they shift and change, and the kinds of tensions that you will get amongst people who are teenagers — you know, everything is very important. And of course in this story it is. It could kill them if they don’t get there. It’s just a lovely story, beautifully written and heart-wrenching. It’s a very nice piece.
AE: Nice, and not in a Lord of the Flies way …
Hopkinson: Exactly. It’s much better. I didn’t have to read Lord of the Flies in school, I got to read it for entertainment — so I never had the trauma of having to read it in a classroom. I was the geek kid who, when the new year came around, I was reading all my books for English class before the start of the class — so luckily most of them weren’t ruined for me.
AE: When did you first start reading science fiction?
Hopkinson: I started reading it as a teenager, living at that time in Jamaica where I was born. My mother is a library worker, and I would finish my day at school and walk over the library on Tom Redcam Avenue. They separated the library into adult and children’s sections, and you could not read in adult if you were a child. But my mother gave me her library card and so I started reading science fiction from the adult section. I remember the first book I looked for was The Andromeda Strain. I wanted to read it as a book because I was too young to see it as a movie, which had just come out at the time. And I just kept reading in the genre. I found it way more interesting than straight-up fiction.
AE: That interest has brought you a long way!
Hopkinson: Indeed it has. And now I am doing what I love — writing. Plus teaching, and doing some arts consulting. I really do whatever I can to bring in a few bucks … I will say it’s a privilege but not a luxury [laughs].
AE: I remember Peter Watts speaking sentimentally about the moment when he was able to put aside his technical writing and engage in fiction full time …
Hopkinson: I remember that moment for me. I quit regular work far too early … but I would probably do it again [laughs]. At the time I was working for the Toronto Arts Council (TAC) as a Grants Officer. It was a great job. It was technically part time but there were days when I was there till 2 in the morning. It gave me a grounding in the arts; it gave me a sense of how artists survive; and it gave me the courage to become a writer. It gave me the permission in many ways — I went to the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop, which meant the TAC had to give me six weeks off. Well I mean they didn’t have to, nobody has to, but they did. Being an arts organization meant that they understood why it was important, and they really enabled me. When I did finally quit, I remember my boss talking about the time I came in to ask to take two months off work to finish a novel for the Warner Aspect first novel contest and she thought I was just blowing smoke … but then I wrote the novel, won the contest and started my writing career!
AE: Many of your novels share a Caribbean setting and focus on the adventures of a young person in a strange land …
Hopkinson: It’s kind of a natural theme to science fiction and fantasy, being in a place where you can’t take anything for granted. Writing about it from a lived experience makes it both easier and harder. Because I’m not writing autobiography — there are spaceships in there — it is a very different story. And you need that distance to be able to take the stuff and compost it and cherry pick from what we know and turn it into story. But it also means that you really understand the experience of writing.
AE: You also play with ideas about what the role of a host country should be, and how living within a new country can or should be. Does this also reflect your experiences immigrating to Canada?
Hopkinson: In “A Habit of Waste,” which was my first short story, that was the kind of thing I was very explicit about. Writing Midnight Robber allowed me to go back to a place where Caribbean culture is the majority culture, only this time it was a whole friggin’ planet. It allowed me to do Carnival on a large scale. It allowed me to speak and write the way I grew up speaking and writing. Even though it’s an invented vernacular, it’s a style that I know. So there’s a freeing up that happens when I can go into that storytelling mode, because Caribbean culture very much has a storytelling component to it. And the idea of the robber king, which is where I base the mask that [Midnight Robber’s protagonist] plays, is about how well you tell a story. It isn’t about how much sense you make, it is about how compelling you are. And the robber king holds people up, and makes them hold still in order to tell them a story. So it allowed me to move into that role of orator, very dramatic, and writ large. That was the fun of it for me.
AE: Tell me more about the vernacular of Midnight Robber. It seems that the language of the book, although it’s fictional, is very organic. The invented vocabulary feels very natural.
Hopkinson: When you grow up speaking a vernacular people are very quick to tell you that it’s incorrect, it’s wrong. But Caribbean language has its own roots, its own linguistic integrity, its own modes of speech. Part of it is that writing in vernacular helped me to understand what speech does and to see what has happened to English, having been imposed on the Caribbean people and then the Caribbean people taking it and making it their own. Hence the quote inside the front cover, which was written by my partner: “I stole the torturer’s tongue.”
That novel has been translated and is about to be published in Chinese. It’s the first time any translator of my work contacted me when they weren’t sure about a word. I can’t speak to the actual language, but the efforts of the translator are reassuring. And the cover has a visibly black woman on the front — which is not always true of my translations. They made it look kind of a cross between steampunk and something tropical. Oftentimes people don’t do that with my work. They exclusively tropicalize it, even when it’s in an urban setting and far in the future. There is this notion of the Caribbean as a place that knows no technology.
AE: Cultural tension goes alongside the linguistic tension in your novels. Do you think that fiction helps people negotiate environments where there is cultural tension, in places like Toronto, for example?
Hopkinson: I think it can if they are willing to see it. For example, I went to see Avatar with my partner. At the time we were sharing an apartment with two guys. One had the critique I expected, but the other thought we would love it and was very surprised when we both came back ranting. Eventually [my partner] said, well, did the movie make you feel good about protecting the environment? And our flatmate said yes, it made him feel really good. My partner replied, so you paid your twenty bucks, you saw the movie, now what are you going to do about it? And our flatmate replied, well, if I could I would … which was when I piped up. You could stay in your apartment and find two hundred things that would help. But what the movie told him was that you need to be a hero in order to make a change. You have to be the big guy. And if you aren’t, you have no responsibility to do anything. So some people will take away a message about how to live with people and some won’t. You can’t control that.
That is one of the puzzlements and delights of writing. Once a woman came up to me at an event. She had just finished reading Midnight Robber and loved it. We had a few moments before the next session and she asked me if she could ask a few questions about the book. And while talking to her I realized that she had not read the same novel that I had written, in no way shape or form. Nothing that I had put down there was what was coming out of her mouth. But she loved what she read, and I’m not going to say to her, well you’re wrong! I hear from teachers and professors as well. One told me about a paper they had received about how the novel was an argument that Orisha [the Afro-Caribbean belief system] was evil. I think my face went weird and the prof said, well that’s what she wanted to get. And of course I was thinking that the meaning was totally the opposite.
AE: Your writing is very fluently symbolic — it seems to come to you very naturally. How do you choose to encode different symbolic meanings into your work?
Hopkinson: When I went to Clarion, one of the first stories I read by one of my fellow Clarion-ettes was by Kelly Link. It blew me away, just blew my mind. I finished reading the story and thought, “this is so good, I should be so jealous.” And that story was “Survivor’s Ball,” where she builds metaphor on top of metaphor, changes them and then just shoots them. I perceived the technique and I started trying to use it.
Wilson Harris is a Guyanese writer whose mind works at the depth and intensity of Samuel Delany. I republished a short story of his once. In the course of going through the story line by line, I began to understand what he had done — which is to build an architecture of metaphor. It was a technique I really admired. And I mean my dad was a Shakespearean actor, my mother was a library worker, so I have a huge palette of symbols from different kinds of literature. It’s fun to draw on them and see who gets the references.
On the other hand, twice a year, spring and fall, I get an email from someone who says, I’m reading your book in class, I’m really enjoying it, but can you tell me what the relationship between X and Y characters symbolizes, and can you give me page numbers please, and can you do it before next Tuesday? They think I’m just off the banana boat [laughs]. I get some genuinely respectful questions, and I get some that think the novel is a big quiz with right and wrong answers. And I admit to no understanding of the symbolism in my work. As you just saw talking to me about it, you the reader will get different things out of it than I will put into it. So I say, no, I know nothing of the symbology of which you speak. They hate it! And I never hear back from them.
AE: I don’t doubt it. What’s in the pipes, any new work?
Hopkinson: It’s been slow. On top of a few other things I had gone and developed debilitating anemia and didn’t realize it. The funny thing about your brain getting no oxygen is that you can’t do anything. So I pretty much couldn’t write for a while. Of course this meant I had two books under contract that I hadn’t finished. But I’ve been working on them, and I’m writing my patootie off right now. I just finished a young adult fantasy novel that is currently being called T’aint. It’s a working title and I’m waiting to hear back what the publisher thinks. It’s very exciting because it’s the first novel I was able to finish in four years. I’m working on another novel and hoping to finish soon, so I’m cranking ahead. I’m really enjoying being back in the saddle again and able to keep thinking through the end of one sentence to another. For a while I couldn’t even read an email, much less write an email. For a while I thought I wouldn’t write again — so it’s a very cool thing to find I’ve still got it.