Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson

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In 1998, Nalo Hopkinson joined the ranks of Black science fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Steven Barnes, among others. The Jamaican-born Hopkinson is the daughter of the late Slade Hopkinson, the Guyanese actor, poet, and playwright who was part of Derek Walcott's Trinidad Theatre Workshop. Hopkinson spent her first sixteen years living in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana. For the past twenty-three years she has resided in Toronto, Canada. She infuses the tropes of science fiction and fantasy with Caribbean folklore and culture. In 1997 she won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest for Brown Girl in the Ring (Warner Books, 1998) and is a recipient of an Ontario Arts Council Foundation award for emerging writers; the Locus Award, First Novel Category; and the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. Hopkinson's first novel also made the preliminary ballot for the Nebula Award. Brown Girl is a post-Holocaust novel set in the twenty-first century inner city of Toronto, which has suffer ed an economic collapse. The novel chronicles the struggles of one woman, Ti-Jeanne, to reconcile her individuality as a young North American woman and unwed mother with the group orientation of her Afro-Caribbean ancestry, which includes a nascent ability as a mystic.

Hopkinson's second novel, Midnight Robber, will appear from Warner Books in March, 2000. Set on a Caribbean-colonized planet and told in a hybrid creole, it is a science fictional allegory for displacement and exile. She counts African American science fiction writers Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler among the writers whose work has inspired her. (Delany was one of the writers-in-residence when Hopkinson attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop at Michigan State University in 1995.) Hopkinson is currently editing The Dub Side, an anthology of Caribbean fabulist fiction.

This interview is based on Hopkinson's answers to a series of interrogatories which I presented to her in February, 1999, about Brown Girl and about her perspective as the newest (then) Black science fiction writer and the newest (still) Black female science fiction writer.

Rutledge: Why are you a writer of Black fantasy?

Hopkinson: Because it's better than being a writer of purple prose? I'm a writer. I'm predominantly black. I write fantasy (actually, I say "speculative fiction," because my work can include elements of science fiction, fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, and magic realism). I'm not a writer of black fantasy. (I go into that more below.)

Rutledge: How long have you been interested in Black fantasy? What do you know of your predecessors like Butler, Delany, Saunders, Barnes, and others?

Hopkinson: I think perhaps we're using the word fantasy in different ways, so I need some clarification. Are you using it as an umbrella term for all the genres of fantastical writing? I'm accustomed to hearing it used to name one specific genre. According to the classifications with which I'm familiar, Butler writes science fiction, not fantasy. Delany has written both. Saunders' Imaro trilogy was sword and sorcery (i.e., a sub-genre of fantasy). Barnes writes futuristic action adventure as well as having co-written hard sf with people such as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Tananarive Due has been dubbed a horror author. I don't know Virginia Hamilton's work very well, but she has published young adult science fiction as well as collections of African American folktales.

I've read some form of fantastical literature since I was a tot, be it folktales or Homer's Iliad, so I gravitated naturally toward the sf shelves. Some time in my 20s I saw a photograph of Chip Delany, with whose work I'd fallen in love on first encountering it, and realized that he was black. I'd never heard of such a thing before. I wept. It felt as though my universe had just doubled in size. Though my life was surrounded with Caribbean writers of color (my father and his friends), none of them wrote sf. …