"Write Your Heart Out": An Interview with Nalo Hopkinson
By Sofia Samatar
25 February 2013
Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica and has lived in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, and Canada's Sunburst Award for literature of the fantastic. Her award-winning collection, Skin Folk, was selected for the 2002 New York Times Summer Reading List and was one of the New York Times Best Books of the Year. Hopkinson's novels include The Chaos, The New Moon's Arms, The Salt Roads, Midnight Robber, and Brown Girl in the Ring. Her new novel, Sister Mine, is forthcoming in March 2013.
Sister Mine tells the story of a pair of conjoined twins, Makeda and Abby, daughters of a demigod and a human woman. When the twins are surgically separated, Abby is left with a permanent limp, while Makeda is deprived of their family's defining characteristic, the ability to work magic—an ability which, for Abby, takes the form of unearthly skill with music and rhythm. I talked with Nalo Hopkinson about her new book, Toronto, and her writing life.
SS: Thanks for agreeing to this interview! I'd like to start by asking about Sister Mine. What inspired the book, and how do you see it continuing and/or departing from the work you've done before?
NH: You know, I almost never know how to answer the "what inspired you?" question. It's typically many years between my beginning to work on a novel and when it comes out in print. By then, I've forgotten the origins of the idea. Too, it's never one origination point. A bunch of images, notions, and experiences accrete in my mind until I have the beginnings of a story idea. I accrete a bunch more as I struggle to craft a more-or-less coherent narrative. The whole thing changes and warps and expands and condenses so often during that process that the result is more like the weeds that grow on a compost heap than like the individual components of the compost, which in any case have by then decomposed and intermixed beyond recognition.
I'm fascinated by Christina Rossetti's 1862 poem "Goblin Market." It's written as this innocent, deep love between sisters, and that does ring true, but it's an extremely sexual innocence. The poem also has goblins in it, and fantasy elements in a story will always compel me. I'm curious about the experiences of conjoined twins throughout history. I'm interested in the folklore and belief systems of the Caribbean, where I'm from. I'm interested in how siblings get set up to feel inadequate in the face of each other's accomplishments. I'm interested in the lives and loves of black people, especially the non-heteronormative ones. I'm interested in art and artists. I wondered how to conceive of the sexuality of a nature god, since by implication it is able to love and interact with anything living. Is "sexuality" even the correct term to apply, given that it refers specifically to sexual reproduction? What about a god of death and birth? And since I've lived in Toronto for 35 years or so, its landscape has become part of my mental landscape.
I don't think much about whether a new piece continues or departs from my previous work. The consistent element is that I made it.
SS: In Sister Mine, Makeda and Abby are conjoined twins who were separated at birth. They're also half-divine, with a human mother and a demigod for a father. What did the supernatural element allow you to explore?
NH: In other words, why do I like writing fantasy? I don't know. I can't come up with an answer that feels as though it gets at the truth of it.
SS: Ha! That's what I get for hoping somebody else could answer a question I can't. I would love an answer to this for myself: I struggle with it (perhaps uselessly?)
I’d like to pick up on the idea of landscape, especially Toronto. Your fictional Toronto delivers a strong sense of place: its uniqueness and diversity. In Sister Mine, there's a tree that looks like a silk cotton tree to some people, an ash to others, a golden spruce to others. Does this express what a city is—or can be? What's your Toronto like?
NH: When I set my last novel in Toronto, some reviewers opined that I had worked too hard to make my story culturally diverse. This tells me that they know nothing about Toronto. In terms of the ethno-cultural, racial, linguistic, religious, and sexual diversity of my characters, I didn't exaggerate even a little bit. Last summer I gave a reading at a public library in Toronto, and when I looked out over the small audience—perhaps 20-25 people—it was even more diverse than my book was. That's what my Toronto is like. It's a beautiful thing. It's possible to live there and have almost no significant relationships with people outside your own communities, but you have to work really hard to do so.
With Sister Mine, I was writing a book similarly set in Toronto, but driven by Afro-Caribbean folklore and iconography. All well and good: there is an established Caribbean community in Toronto, and has been for quite some time. So it makes sense that where we go, so do our folklore and belief systems. But when you write fantasy, the fantasy elements are real. So it meant I had to figure out how non-Caribbean Torontonians would interact with the Afro-Caribbean supernatural elements of the story. I wish more fantasy, especially the dominant fantasy that draws heavily on British and Christian lore, would wrestle with its own ethnospecific nature and what that means when the story is set somewhere where more than one belief system is in operation. If all you do is pay lip service to it, you can get the kind of thing where the writer has thrown one Hindu god into a Christianist fantasy (rendering said god by default a demon or otherwise inferior to the dominant religious system of the story, which is such an insult), and the hero is able to vanquish it by chanting a spell in church Latin.
To be fair, I can see why writers would tend to avoid dealing with the complexities of multiple folklores. It's a real conundrum, and I'm not entirely content with how I navigated it in Sister Mine. The silk-cotton tree is a strong symbol in Afro-Caribbean lore. The spirits of the ancestors are said to live in its roots. I put one into Sister Mine, then had to ask myself questions such as how does a tropical tree survive in a Canadian climate? And sure, it's a supernatural tree, so I could just make it magically hardy. But the silk-cotton is also a distinctive-looking tree. Its trunk is covered with large thorns. Wouldn't that draw the attention of neighbors? Mightn't some people recognize it and wonder about it? And while I'm at it, what am I saying about the belief systems of the original inhabitants of this land? They won't conveniently disappear. Then I discovered the true story of Kiidk'yaas, the single, sacred Golden Spruce that once grew in the Haida Gwaii archipelago, British Columbia. And it occurred to me that most cultures have myths about sacred trees; for instance, Yggdrasil, from Norse mythology. So I decided that Uncle Jack's silk-cotton tree would be a different tree to different people, based on what makes sense to them.
SS: Your point about a tropical tree in a Canadian climate gets to the heart of something that strikes me in your work, which is the connection between the natural and the supernatural. If you just glossed over the issue by saying "Hey, it's a magic tree," you would risk betraying the belief systems you draw on, which arose in a specific place with a specific ecology. Considering that Sister Mine involves a nature god and an invasive plant, would you say that ecological concerns are important to the novel? Is that something you engage with consciously in your work?
NH: It's an aspect of the novel, certainly. Sort of has to be when you're dealing with a nature deity. I'd originally planned for it to be a bigger part of the story. But it kinda got out of control and started changing the story to the point where it was risking becoming more of a rant than a novel, so I culled it down to one aspect that was a better fit with the scope of story I wanted to write.
SS: This seems to bring up an important aspect of writing as craft—the idea of respecting the scope of your story. I know that you have taught writing. Do you teach regularly? How has teaching affected your own writing?
NH: I teach in order to make a living. I don't write enough to be able to do so solely from writing; I have a couple of learning disabilities and a chronic condition that can slow me down. But teaching has its own rewards. I love that moment in class when a light goes on behind someone's eyes, then they get a distant look and start scrambling for pen or keyboard. And trying to explain the craft to people helps me think more clearly about how it works, and helps me identify thin points in my own skills. The joy of the students inspires me to keep writing myself.
SS: I love that. And I've got another sort of craft-related question—this time about genre. You recently published a young adult (YA) novel, The Chaos. Can you talk about what it was like for you to move into writing YA?
NH: It came pretty naturally. At the time, I was taking a Master's in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. (My thesis novel would be The Salt Roads, my third novel. It was already under contract when I began the M.A.) One of the courses was in writing YA. The instructor took us through a character- and plot-building exercise, and I liked what I came up with for her prompts. I knew I wanted to make it a novel, but it would be six years before I finished writing the proposal for it. However, I did eventually complete that proposal, and sold the novel. Then I had to write it. I was freaked at the beginning, because I thought there would be all kinds of restrictions on what I could and couldn't write about. You know, sex, sexuality, swearing, non-heteronormativity: the kinds of things that usually make their way into my writing. Turned out I needn't have worried. Not with regards to my publisher, anyway. Explicit descriptions of sex were out, but I could by all means refer to characters having had sex. Ultimately, the main difference was in focus. I could tackle larger world events, but I kept the focus more on how those events affect the protagonist and those close to her. While in an adult novel I might have sent the protagonist out into the world to find out what the strange events were and how they'd come about and what she could do about them, I wanted to look at how a teenager might deal--in other words, someone with less agency because she's legally underage and so has limitations on what she's allowed to do. I didn't have to do it that way. I could have written it in heroic mode with my teen protagonist Sojourner saving the world. But that didn't interest me as much as the story of a girl who's trying to figure her own personal world out while everything's going to hell in a handcart around her, in ways she doesn't understand and can't do much about.
SS: Do you see yourself writing more YA fiction?
NH: I do. I am. The Chaos is not the only YA I've written. The Young Adult librarians of the New York Public Library put my first two novels on their annual bibliography, "Books for the Teen Age." (Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber.) I wrote both books with adults in mind, but lots of young adults read adult books. And I've published, I believe, three shorter stories in YA anthologies ("The Smile on the Face," "The Easthound," and "Ours Is the Prettiest," which is a novelette.) I'm working on another YA short story right now, and hoping I can finish it in time to be considered for the anthology I have in mind.
SS: Are there any other upcoming projects you can tell us about?
NH: No major upcoming projects at the moment. I just finished a furious spate of publishing after a fallow period, and now I'm largely focused on learning how to be a prof. I'm working on short stories when I can, and I have two novels-in-progress that need finishing, but neither is at a stage where there's much I have to say about them.
SS: How do you re-energize during those fallow periods? What do you love to do when you're not writing?
NH: *grin* I was trying to downplay it, but that particular "fallow period" was five years of being sick, destitute, hungry, scared, and for two of those years, homeless. It wasn't especially energizing. Then I got hired as a creative writing prof at the U. of California Riverside in 2011, so things are gradually improving. But to answer the second half of the question: before I was a writer, I was a craftsperson. I still am. I turn my hand to any craft if it intrigues me, but the ones I do most often nowadays are sewing, cooking, and messing around with fabric design. I have a ton of sewing patterns, including many from the '30s, '40s, and '50s. I like taking apart thrift store clothing and other objects and making new pieces with them. Some of my completed crafts projects are here. My fabric designs are printed and sold through Spoonflower.
I keep a tiny herb garden in pots around the outside of my Riverside apartment. I like sticking the roots of store-bought produce into soil: renewable food! It's like magic, especially for someone who spent a few years not having enough food. I love doing simple, quick cooking, experimenting with new foods and with foods that will help with my fibromyalgia. Cooking helps to pace my day, and it helps me to take care of myself. I often tweet the meals that succeed on Twitter, with the hashtag #foodisgood. Sometimes I put recipes on my blog. The Twitter thing started out as a note of triumph one lean day when I managed to feed myself and my partner with all we had left; a handful of flour, two tablespoons of strawberry jam, and an egg. (I made crepes.) We're better fed for the most part now, but I found I enjoyed food tweeting, and so did the people reading my Twitter feed, so I kept doing it.
SS: That is an incredible answer! I think part of what's wonderful about your fiction is the way it expresses struggle and vitality together, just like you did there. And it brings me to the last question I want to ask, which is about storytelling, but particularly for people who feel so different in their identities or experiences that they're afraid their stories won't matter to other people. Your work is full of people with identities that are underrepresented in genre fiction in English. Their differences run along all kinds of lines: gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, ability, and more. You make telling those stories seem effortless, but I know it can be hard. What would you say to a less experienced writer who said to you, "I want to write a story that expresses how I see the world, but because I'm marginalized in certain ways, I'm afraid the world won't listen"?
NH: Take your fear and your preconceptions of what editors will and won't publish. Squish them down into a tiny troll kitten, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Then release the kitten and tell it to go play in traffic cuz Mama's busy. Don't worry: a troll kit can take care of itself. Write your heart out. Spit-polish what you've written it till it shines. Then, if you want, you can let your troll kitten back into your house, and together the two of you can fret about where to send your work. The time to be frolicking around with your kitten is after you've written, not before or during.
SS: Wonderful. Thank you. And thanks so much for having this conversation.
NH: And thank you, Sofia. This was fun!