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N A L O   H O P K I N S O N :
Many Perspectives

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, January 1999)
Nalo Hopkinson
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Nalo Hopkinson was born December 20, 1960 in Kingston, Jamaica. ''We stayed there a whole of eight months before we started jaunting around from island to island - essentially Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana.'' Her parents belonged to the Caribbean artistic group, her father a Yale-educated journalist, English teacher, actor, poet, and playwright from Guyana, her mother a library worker. The family moved to Toronto, Canada in 1977, when she was 16 (bringing her to her fourth high school!), and she has been in Canada ever since. At the University of York, she graduated with combined honors in Russian and French. She remains a part of Toronto's Caribbean-emigré community, and notes, ''I went back to Jamaica very briefly in 1982, but I do need to reconnect, since the Caribbean in my mind is the Caribbean from 21 years ago, and it's changed a whole lot.''

A Clarion graduate, she had several pieces of short fiction published before she came to the general public attention by winning the Warner Aspect New Writer contest with first novel Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), which appeared to critical acclaim from authors and reviewers in the field.

''When I was around 11 or 12, we were living in Kingston, Jamaica. My mother was working in the big library, and I would go meet her after school and wait for my father to finish work and pick us up. She would give me her adult library card, so that was where I discovered the science fiction section. I'd already been reading stuff like that, so it seemed in some ways a natural fit. But when you're a young girl from Kingston, Jamaica, and you're reading Harlan Ellison's 'Shattered Like a Glass Goblin', it's very difficult. Then discovering people like Samuel R. Delany and Elizabeth Lynn, the New Wave writers and feminist writers - finally SF was beginning to talk to me about things that also were reflected in my own world.

''I never thought to write for the longest while, because my Dad was the writer. In the Caribbean writers' community - many of whom now live in Toronto - his name is known. I am Nalo Hopkinson, Slade Hopkinson's daughter. As an artist, my father's education was very much Euro-classical. He wrote sonnets. But he did one particular poem about a homeless woman who lived outside the grounds of the University of the West Indies, about her madness and her tantrums and her sucking blood from the air. And then he suddenly turns and talks about the Caribbean setting and the university - he called it 'the latitudes of the ex-colonized.'

''Brown Girl in the Ring started when I was doing research for a nonfiction article on health risks that tend to hit black communities more, and I stumbled on a piece of research that had been done in the UK, where they had looked at incidences of schizophrenia in various populations, and found the highest rates were in male immigrants from the Caribbean. They had no real theories as to why, but part of their idea was that the imbalance that caused the schizophrenia was probably impelled in part by the culture shock of coming to such a different land and, being male, having fewer social resources.

''The image caught me. And because I usually start with a female protagonist, I started with a woman who had some of those symptoms, but had no idea how to explain them. I put them in terms of her culture, and the more I started to do research into what in her own culture would make sense of what she was feeling, the more I started finding out about orisha worship, which takes different names on different islands, but can be traced directly back to West African belief systems. Orisha worship was something I had grown up in the Caribbean knowing about, but from the outside. My parents made it seem like a version of Christianity, a more charismatic one, because that's what they thought it was. I was brought up very middle class - I am very middle class!

''There is a lot of supernatural stuff in Caribbean folklore, but the connection between it and other trace-backs to African culture isn't always made. I started doing more and more research into it. The more you know, the more coherent the whole thing becomes. So I had this young woman, and the person who was originally her mother - later her grandmother - and when I started to think about how they were making a living, the story and the setting clicked into place. Which is really gratifying, because I went to Clarion a little bit afterwards, and one of the things Chip Delany said was, 'Think about how your characters are making their money, because if you don't you'll end up with something that just seems to hang in space and doesn't really make any sense, and even if it doesn't show in the story, intuitively your readers will know' - and I did that!

''Convention-going is hard, and it's a completely Other space for me. I came to Worldcon, and apart from the shift I have to make because I'm in another country, I'm constantly shifting communities. At Worldcon events, I'm in that great SF fan community where a Wookie will walk by me on one side, an author on the other. I step outside, go to the local restaurant, and the people who connect and say 'Hi,' the people who make a point of coming over and asking, 'How're you doing?,' are the black people. I'm having to shift back and forth - and probably most of them can do it too. The dissonance is huge, when you're talking about shifting from the SF community to a community that is not mine but where I recognize enough of the language.

''I'm working hard to finish the book that was mostly finished before I started finishing Brown Girl! The title I'm working with is Midnight Robber, which is a masque from the Trinidad Carnival. This book is bigger. I'm challenging myself more. There are things I'm trying to do that may be beyond my grasp, and I chose not to enter the Warner contest with this because it's more complex, and I needed to get prepared for it. The only similarity to Brown Girl is that I am writing from a Caribbean context, but this one is set on a planet far, far away, a world that's been colonized by people from the Caribbean.

''I go into an SF context, a con context, and the good will is there, but at every turn it's pretty obvious to me that there's not a whole lot of understanding. There's a little nexus of us, people who get together, and it tends to be the queer people, people of color, the women, who understand what it's like to be on the fringes.''

© 1999 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.