|Interview by Gavin J. Grant|
We spoke to author Nalo Hopkinson by phone when she came to New York to do some readings and interviews for her latest book, an anthology she has edited, Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, published by Invisible Cities Press in Vermont.
She has two stories in the groundbreaking anthology -- and Book Sense 76 pick -- Dark Matter. Her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest and her second novel, Midnight Robber, has just been nominated for a Nebula Award (to be announced in April in Los Angeles). She will be touring some west coast bookshops this month and her readings are well worth going to.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a writer living in Toronto; I've lived there for the past, oh, 24 years now. I went to Canada from the Caribbean. I was born in Jamaica to Jamaican and Guyanese parents and lived in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana. I've been writing science fiction since about 1993. I've been reading it since I could read. I use science fiction and fantasy as an umbrella term for anything where impossible stuff happens; it would include myth and folklore, because as a kid I was delving into folktales form the Caribbean, books on my dad's shelves like Homer's Iliad . . . that all goes into the mix when I write.
Your late father, Slade Hopkinson, was a poet?
A poet and a playwright and an actor. He also taught English and Latin at the senior high school level. [He was] 'A Man of Words' -- which is a Caribbean term.
Can you read Latin?
No, I used to just phone him up…I miss him terribly when I need to have Latin translated. I didn't need to bother to learn it. When I got to Chaucer and Shakespeare in high school he made them very easy; I could go, "Daddy, what does that mean?"
As you have become a published author, do you feel your relationship to him has changed?
Well, I know he would be tickled as pink as it is possible for a very brown man to get. There is that sense that he would be proud of me. His name is still known amongst older members of the Caribbean literary community, so there I tend to get introduced as Slade Hopkinson's daughter. Which is kind of cool as it gives me instant recognition. But then of course they have to read my stuff and see what they think of it. So, it has and hasn't changed. I mean, I've been Slade Hopkinson's daughter forever.
You just edited your first anthology. Was it enjoyable? Will you be doing it again?
I would love to do it again. I was just thinking what other kinds of work I'd like to see assembled in anthologies. It was enjoyable, it was challenging, particularly because it was Caribbean fiction -- it meant I was looking at the work of people who have been my mentors in some cases, or people I'd looked up to, knowing that there would be stories I would want to reject for one reason or the other. That part was a little bit difficult. But the work of getting the stories in, reading them, and starting to compile them in a way that made sense to me was a lot of fun. The hardest part, I find, is the paperwork, which I will always hate. [Laughs]
How does a full-time writer survive? What kind of other jobs have you had?
I have most recently been teaching writing, teaching literature; teaching is one staple. Temping! Doing a lot of cut-and-paste on someone else's computer for small sums of money an hour. Worked in a science fiction bookstore, Bakka Books in Toronto -- I think it's kind of law for Toronto science fiction writers that you have to do a stint at Bakka. I give talks and readings for which I often get paid. Whatever! I write reviews. I try to stick to things that are related to word-smithing and I don't know if that's a good idea, because it does actually drain your creative energy. Whatever will help to pay the rent and not take me too much away from the writing. Telecommuting would be the best deal -- when I can get it, it's the best.
To many readers, your fiction seem to be treading new paths. Are you consciously taking a new look at the future?
No. I'm drawing pretty heavily on the science fiction and fantasy I read growing up. I also come out of a very strong Caribbean literary tradition. In that sense I'm kind of marrying the two, but not in a way of "trying to go out there and do something new." I'm like any other writer. There are a handful of us, if we're talking about solely Caribbean writers -- there's Claude Michel Prevost from Vancouver, an excellent short story writer who is branching out into screenplays. And Tobias Buckell, who has a story in Whispers From the Cotton Root Tree. I've found that science fiction reviewers tend to react most strongly to the Caribbean-flavored stuff, and some of them identify that as being new and over-focus on it. I'm starting to feel I might be getting typecast.
Do you expect your writing to continue to be focused on the future?
I am probably most comfortable writing in a vein that is drawing on folklore. Midnight Robber, which may be the closest I would get to a science fiction novel at this stage [is folklore-based]. I read both science fiction and fantasy and I don't have a good sense of what the difference is between them.
Do you expect to be writing historical fiction, essays…
I've already done some essays, in fact, I'm working on one now. Historical fiction? That would be my third novel, which I'm a quarter of the way through. It again, is very much in a fantastical vein. What I don't anticipate I will do a lot of is to write mimetic fiction -- fiction that mimics reality. I'm very drawn to work that draws on the fantastic and folklore and storytelling. I've written recently my first-ever story that could be termed as realistic and it's erotica, so it's still genre.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I'm having a good life! [Laughs] It could all crumble tomorrow, but I am generally pretty happy and optimistic right now. Things are going very well. I'm getting good reviews for the anthology, which means that writers who have submitted stories are getting good notice, which is making me very, very happy. My own books are getting good mentions -- people are being very positive and supportive about them. Life is good.
Are you a fast writer?
If I have a deadline! Otherwise, no!
Did you always want to be a writer?
I only let myself know I wanted to become a writer a few years ago. It was always in the back of my mind and I would dismiss the thought, I didn't think I had anything to say.
What are you working on?
My third novel is titled Griffonne -- it's a shade of mulatto. A mulatto is someone who is half black and half white. If that person has a child by someone white, the offspring is Meti. If a Meti person has a child by someone white the offspring is Griffonne, near as I understand it. But of course measuring racial purity was pretty much an obsession in slavery days. The novel is a historical fantasy that's essentially about diasporic African women's sexuality.
Would it be fair to call it magic realism?
Yes, I think so. People will call it whatever, magic realism will do.
What have you been reading recently?
Oh my. I have been reading Boy Wives and Female Husbands, which is about how same sex relationships get configured in Africa -- which is going to be part of my novel so it's a good thing to know. I just finished reading Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt. Just picked up the Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey. I'm reading Haiti, History and the Gods by Joan Dayan. The core story of my novel is going to be set in Saint Domingue before the Haitian revolution.
Do you have a favorite bookshop?
There are so many! It would depend on each city -- I travel a lot. In Toronto the bookstores I tend to end up in most often and have been the most supportive are Bakka Books (1), which is a science fiction bookstore, the Toronto Women's Bookstore (2), A Different Booklist (3), This Ain't the Rosedale Library (4), and Come As You Are (5), which is a cooperatively-owned sex toy and bookshop.
An excerpt from Nalo Hopkinson's story, "Glass Bottle Trick," from Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction:
A bird screeched from the guava tree; a tiny kiskedee, crying angrily, "Dit, dit, qu'est-ce qu'il dit!" A small snake was coiled around one of the upper branches, just withdrawing its head from the bird's nest. Its jaws were distended with the egg it had stolen. It swallowed the egg whole, throat bulging hugely with its meal. The bird hovered around the snake's head, giving its pitiful wail of, "Say, say, what's he saying!" "Get away!" Beatrice shouted at the snake. It looked in the direction of the sound, but didn't back off. The gulping motion of its body as it forced the egg further down its own throat made Beatrice shudder. Then, oblivious to the fluttering of the parent bird, it arched its head over the nest again.
Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas
"From the vision and wonder of Samuel Delaney to the 'rhythm travel' of Amiri Baraka to an experience in an extraterrestrial jook joint, this volume is fantastic!"
-- Patrice Suncircle, Cody's, Berkeley, CA
Author photo by David Findlay.
(1) Bakkas Book, http://bakka.com/
(2) The Toronto Women's Bookstore, http://www.womensbookstore.com/
(3) A Different Booklist, 746 Bathurst Street Toronto, ON M5S 2R6 416-538-0889
(4) This Ain't the Rosedale Library, 483 Church St. at: Wellesley St. E. Toronto M4Y 2C6 416-929-9912
(5) Come As You Are, http://www.comeasyouare.com/