Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
By Mary Anne Mohanraj
1 September 2000Photo: David Findlay
Nalo Hopkinson is the Campbell Award-winning author of Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber, and numerous short stories, including "Ganger: Ball Lightning" and "Greedy Choke Puppy", just released in the anthology Dark Matter. She is the editor of the anthology Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, which will be published by Invisible Cities Press in November 2000.
I met Nalo a little over a year ago at WisCon, just after I'd finished reading Brown Girl in the Ring. I had loved the book from first page to last, and was almost too shy to speak to her at the convention. But I did, and I was immediately struck by how sharp and articulate she was in speech -- she chooses her words carefully, just as she does in her writing. (And she has a gorgeous accent; take a few minutes to listen to her reading her work.)
The more I learn about Nalo (and the more I read her work), the more I become convinced that she is one of the rising stars of science fiction, and that her writing is tremendously important to the field. I am delighted and honored to have the opportunity to present this interview in our first issue.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Nalo, how did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or did you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book?
Nalo Hopkinson: Each book, story, essay comes out of notions or images with which I want to play. My father was a writer, and I was always an avid reader who barely dared dream of becoming a writer. In 1993 I started taking writing workshops and became part of a writers' circle. I began to get short stories published. Then in 1995 I attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop. My first professional short story sale was "Riding the Red" (in Black Swan, White Raven, eds. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling); that was a story written while at Clarion. After Clarion I set about trying to complete a novel, and the business of writing has progressed from there. It's been great to discover that I can link words and images together to form a story. For years I didn't think I had anything to say.
MM: I was a Clarionite too, and it had a tremendous effect on my writing; was the experience generally positive for you? Would you recommend it to aspiring writers?
NH: Clarion was equal parts difficult and exhilarating. If I had been a person with less life experience, someone who had never had my work critiqued by others, or had felt misunderstood by or isolated from the group in huge ways, the difficult would probably have outweighed the exhilarating. But for me, it was a great thing to do. At Clarion you get to spend six blessed weeks in an environment that's there to do one thing: support you in your efforts to write and to learn to understand writing better. Some of the friendships I formed there feel like they'll be around a very long time. I met some of my heroes there too, and had the benefit of some amazing instruction from them. I would definitely recommend it to aspiring writers, but would also tell them to consider long and hard that they will be spending an extended amount of time getting their egos bruised in the company of seventeen to nineteen people they didn't choose, and with most of whom they likely won't be compatible.
Clarion is also not a ticket to getting published. Only a portion of the people who attend Clarion go on to become published writers, and for many of them, it still takes years. What I found that Clarion did for me was to teach me some of the things I needed to know about the craft and the field in a hyper-accelerated time span. I could have picked much of it up on my own, but it would have taken years instead of weeks. The speed and the intensity of it seem to have bruised my brain, though. By the end of the six weeks of sleep deprivation and high-speed learning, I was exhausted. I had a day or two where I was prone to mini hallucinations (lightning bolts out of nowhere, tiny mumbling heads in my computer screen). Too, it was about a year before I regained enough focus to be able to read a novel through. I went into Clarion a near-perfect speller, but now I make idiosyncratic mistakes all the time. Worth it? For me, absolutely.
MM: Let's talk a little about your background. I believe your ethnic heritage is Afro-Caribbean, but you currently live in Canada (Brown Girl in the Ring is set in a future Toronto). How has your sense of place affected your writing?
NH: I'm predominantly of African ancestry, with chunks of Scottish, Jewish, English, Arawak, and continental Indian in the mix. I was born in Jamaica, lived in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and the U.S., then moved to Canada in 1977 when I was sixteen. I've been here ever since. So really I was raised mostly in the Caribbean; I was practically an adult when I came to Canada. I guess I have a sense of many places, not of one. It's given me a sense that all places are unique, so when I write, I try to convey a strong sense of the location in which my story is set.
MM: I think you succeed -- the worlds of Toussaint and New Half Way Tree are certainly unique and memorable. Both Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber draw heavily on Afro-Caribbean cultural traditions. Can you tell us a little about how that material worked into the novels? Did you start with the culture and derive a story from it? Vice versa? Some other method?
NH: No method, just madness. I think I tend to start with an idea for the main character and a bit of what she's like or what her problems are. The culture and folklore (and I also draw on the traditional Euro-Celtic folktales I was taught as a child -- I'm not sure that's the correct way to identify them) become ways of illuminating the story, or referring to and playing with archetypes.
MM: I grew up with those Euro-Celtic tales too, as I imagine many of us have. The fantasy genre especially leans in that direction, which is why it's so refreshing seeing material from other cultures in the mix. But I have to wonder, given that science fiction does not have a long tradition of Afro-Caribbean writers -- or even of black writers, for that matter, aside from a few stellar exceptions -- was that a concern, when you started writing science fiction? What drew you to the field?
NH: I was drawn to the field because I've always read in it. As simple as that. Editor Sheree R. Thomas has just put out Dark Matter, an anthology of 100 years of speculative fiction by black writers. The stories in it date back to 1887. There are many writers of color -- not just black writers -- who've published works of fantastical fiction, just few who are acknowledged as part of the genre. I would like to see those works enter the dialogue in the science fiction community, but I didn't worry too much about it when I started to write. I figured I'd write what moved me, then see if anyone was willing to publish it. That's been a successful strategy.
I do find myself longing for critical response from more people who share some of my cultural identities as well as a love and knowledge of science fiction and fantasy. That's been slow in coming. I was thrilled when Leo Dillon, co-illustrator with his wife Diane of the cover of Midnight Robber, sent me a message to tell me that he's Trinidadian. I hadn't known that. It meant that when the Dillons read my novel before creating the cover art, Leo Dillon knew the culture from which I was extrapolating. I love that.
MM: So we know whom you'd like to have reading your work -- what authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
NH: I will always have a deep awe and respect for the writing of Samuel R. Delany (and for the man too, come to think of it). Reviewers tend to read my work in relation to Octavia E. Butler's wonderful writing, but it's Delany who's had the first, strongest influence on me. I like that his work is transgressive, that it talks frankly about things such as sex and queerness and fetish behavior, and that he makes his readers look at taboos. I also like that he's such an amazing stylist, and that he insists on complexity of thought when you approach his work.
MM: Yes, a work like Dhalgren certainly pushes style to interact with his themes. Some readers find that too challenging -- or perhaps even intrusive; for them, it gets in the way of the story. You've clearly worked with style as well; how do you think that affects your writing? Do style and content blend seamlessly together? Do they play off each other? Does style ever interfere with story?
NH: The style/content dichotomy seems to cause at least as many arguments in SF&F as the science fiction/fantasy dichotomy. The extreme poles seem to be 1) those who believe that a story is just a story, the point of which is to entertain interesting ideas without getting emotionally engaged and 2) those who recognize that the stories we tell ourselves are about ourselves, and have resonance in the real world that may be utterly, vitally important to readers.
I guess you can tell from the way I described both poles which one I tend to lean towards. No neutrality there. But even while I'm passionate about content, even while the fiction that engages me is the fiction that dares to be about something, I love inventive, masterful style. Combine the two, and you've got me. I think content and style are inseparable; different facets of the same jewel. Can they blend seamlessly? They can. They don't have to. Sometimes the getting there -- the style -- is half the fun and as a reader one needs to go with it, enjoy it and be less plot-driven than would be necessary with a differently told type of story. That will drive some readers crazy. Luckily, there are all kinds of writers.
MM: To return to other writers you enjoy. . . .
NH: I'm enjoying working my way through Ishmael Reed's novel Mumbo Jumbo. The depth and the breadth with which he references diasporic African history and culture jazzes me entirely, as does his sense of humor. That's one novel where the style is a huge part of the content. Jeanette Winterson's GUT Symmetries is another novel that blew me away, as did Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey, and Cereus Blooms at Night, by Shani Mootoo, and The Pagoda, by Patricia Powell. I recently enjoyed marina ama omowale maxwell's novel Chopstix in Mauby, which like my first novel, also uses Afro-Caribbean spirituality as the belief system underpinning the story.
I appreciate the way in which Octavia Butler faces down harsh realities. In her "Xenogenesis" series, human reproductive behaviour and sexuality has to change in order for us to survive. That's a tall order and Butler deals with it unflinchingly. Storm Constantine's novels have been favorites, as have Tanith Lee's. The 'fairy tale' anthologies and novels (anthologies edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, novels by Terri Windling); Jane Yolen's work.
Pretty much the whole canon of feminist SF writers: people such as Ursula Le Guin, Maureen McHugh, Elisabeth Vonarburg, Suzy McKee Charnas, Jennifer Stevenson, Ellen Klages, L. Timmel Duchamp, Pat Murphy, Pamela Sargeant, Elisabeth Lynn, Kate Wilhelm, Kelly Link, Alice Sheldon, Joanna Russ, Karen Joy Fowler . . . the list is long and growing, I've only mentioned a very few of them.
MM: Since you mention feminist writers, can you talk a little about women in your writing, and in science fiction? What do you think of the way they've been represented? Are they generally portrayed accurately? Misrepresented? Underrepresented?
NH: Because of the work that many people did before me to bring women's voices to the field, I'm able to inhabit a science fiction community of my choice, where women are well represented in the writing, amongst the writers and in the discourse. But it's still perfectly possible to be an SF aficionado and never encounter that side of the genre. It's still perfectly possible to be told that women don't write good SF, that we're better at fantasy. Which is a crock. One thing I learned from working for years as a grants officer for an arts council is that if you have one set of traditional markers for assessing excellence in a particular art form, you will likely not recognize excellence from a tradition that uses another set of markers. Writing by women speaks to a different -- though overlapping -- set of realities than writing by men. Fully appreciating it takes learning to understand those realities.
MM: That's interesting; I'm not sure I've thought of it that way before. Before we go on, are there any other authors you'd like to mention?
NH: Certain of Kim Stanley Robinson's works, and William Gibson's and Ian MacDonald's. Pretty much anything by Gene Wolfe. The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, by Tom Spanbauer. Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King. The Bone People, by Keri Hulme. In non-fiction some of the works that are important to me are Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art & Philosophy; writing on sexuality and society by Carol Queen, Susie Bright, Dossie Easton, Catherine A. Liszt. Caribbean folk tales and myths collected by Philip Sherlock and Clinton V. Black.
MM: A long list of wonderful writers -- thank you! What about the new work that is emerging? What challenges do you see facing speculative fiction writers today? What areas most concern you?
NH: The genre re-invents itself constantly, so I'm hopeful it'll keep finding its own challenges to take on. The biggest challenge right now is a professional one: the extreme state of flux of the publishing industry, which has been concentrating the sources of production, marketing and distribution into fewer and fewer (and bigger and bigger) companies, and which has turned the individual creator into a 'content provider' whose literary career can be scuttled the first time her or his sales dip. High numbers are what the publishing industry wants: solid writers with a small, loyal following have a hard time making a go of it. Individual editors still seem to care passionately about the work of writers they discover, but they're usually fairly small players in a huge industry. And now that technology is making electronic production and distribution easy and cheap enough that it begins to be able to bypass the publishing corporations, everything is up in the air. The way that the industry functions is going to change rapidly over the next few years.
The other challenge I see is that of the diversity of expression in speculative fiction. The readers seem to come from all over the place, but the writing that gets published (or that gets marketed as SF) still comes from a fairly narrow range of experience. The imaginative worlds that we're creating still draw heavily on Greek and Roman mythology and on Euro-Celtic folktales, and the futures we imagine still feel pretty Western middle class. And that's fair enough, because it's the primary cultural context in which many of the writers are situated. Some excellent writing has come and is coming out of those experiences. However, I also want to see more writing from the vast range of cultural contexts which makes up the world.
It's one of the reasons I love Jane Yolen's work such as her short story "Granny Rumple" and her novel Briar Rose: she takes those Euro-Celtic folk tales and interprets them through Jewish experience and history, and all of a sudden I have another understanding of tales that are already multifaceted and rich. It's masterful. I've had budding writers tell me that they love SF/F but never felt they could write it because they don't feel a cultural affinity for pixies and unicorns. Or that they fear they won't find an understanding of the paradigms out of which they want to write, because they (the paradigms) don't come from the dominant culture. I think we need to expand our notion of what SF/F is.
MM: Nalo, to go back for a minute to the publishing problem, can you talk a little about what challenges you've faced trying to make a living as a writer?
NH: I'm still learning to handle the vagaries of a freelance income. My biggest problem is probably cash flow. It feels as though one is forever waiting for a check, and in the meantime, bills are piling up. It reallys burns me when people assume that the success of one novel means that I'm now financially solvent. The horns of the dilemma are that either one takes a job with a steady paycheck that leaves one no time or creative energy for writing, or one tries to retain creative energy under the constant stress of money worries. I'm trying to steer a workable course between the two. And I must add, really enjoying those stretches when I have the freedom to write. Lots of incentive to keep trying to find ways to make a go of it.
MM: Finally, what advice would you give the aspiring young writer? What are the important things they should keep in the forefront of their mind?
NH: I'd say learn to do the heart-rending thing of turning a critical eye upon your developing work. When you have managed to get a chunk of words on paper, those are clay, not art. You then have to sculpt them into a final draft. Be prepared to alter, delete and rewrite until it's as good as you can make it at that point in your artistic development. Then do the scary thing of showing your work to the world; workshop your writing, submit your stories to editors.
MM: Painful, but necessary, I agree. Nalo, thank you so much for your time and thoughtful responses. It's been a pleasure having you with us,and I look forward eagerly both to the Caribbean fabulist anthology, and your own next novel!
NH: Thank you very much, Mary Anne.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.