Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

A Heart of Kindness: Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

A Heart of Kindness: Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring

Article excerpt

Laura Salvini

LUIS S University (Rome, Italy)

Science fiction is a rough terrain. Writers, critics, and readers fiercely defend the genre, patrolling its boundaries and excluding texts they find unsuitable for the moniker "science fiction." Nalo Hopkinson's debut novel, Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), is generously celebrated for the Caribbean background and magic realism intertwined in the story, but its scientific references are often treated as less central to the text. In my opinion, such an approach overlooks Hopkinson's flair in mastering science fiction literary conventions. Furthermore, this approach belittles the role minorities can play in contributing to the genre. Before fully advancing this thread of my argument, I will briefly focus on the figure of Legba, or Legbara in the novel, and the linguistic strategy Hopkinson uses to set her narrative in a Caribbean context, before analyzing in what way religion and traditional knowledge handed down from Haitian and Caribbean culture contributes to the "novelty" that is constitutive of science fiction. This article intends to pinpoint the reasons why Brown Girl in the Ring deserves a place inside the speculative fiction territory, and to show how, by deploying the very conventions of genre, Hopkinson casts the Caribbean minority as the predestinated savior of a near-future Canada in disarray, and casts Caribbean religious practices as both generating and regenerating a multi-layered global identity.

Divine Link Maker

Papa Legba come and open the gate

Papa Legba to the city of camps

Now we're your children,

come and ride your horse

In the night, in the night,

come and ride your horse.1

In 1986, Papa Legba found his way into pop culture in at least two occasions. David Byrne evoked him in a song written for the soundtrack of his movie, True Stories, and William Gibson gave him a role in Count £ero, the second volume of his Sprawl Trilogy. The entry "Legba" in the Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora reads "[o]ften referred as 'keeper of the gates' and 'keeper of the crossroads,' Legba is the Lwa (force over deity/divinity) that sustains communication among all of the Lwas and between the Lwa and devotees in the Haitian and African Diasporan Vodoun tradition."2 As a guardian of the crossroads and a facilitator of communication between the spiritual and the material, Papa Legba is appealing to artists, like Byrne and Gibson, whom have been experimenting with the interaction of different cultures, media, and technologies. In the 1980s, the fusion of electronic sounds with ethnic rhythms in music as well as the rise of cyberpunk, with its mixture of high-tech achievements and dystopian societies, offered an avant-garde touch in outlining the features of the globalization process, by challenging the fixity of traditional identities in favor of the potential of cultural cross-fertilization. No wonder Gibson affirmed in an interview that "[t]he only native culture [he] ever had was science fiction and rock 'n' roll."3 In the same 2007 interview, Gibson was questioned as to how he "first came upon voodoo [sic], and its Afro-Cuban relative, Santería," which also has a crucial role in his novel Spook Country (2007).4 He explained that as a twelve-year-old boy reading a book about Vodou in New Orleans, he was impressed by how much the ritual symbols for the different gods "resembled the circuit diagrams." As a result, he began "to wonder what would happen if you wired those circuits," and so a futuristically syncretic Papa Legba, symbolized by the filigreed pattern of an embryonic microchip, became a character in Count %ero.

Twelve years later, in Brown Girl in the Ring, Legbara appears as the Eshu of the main character, Ti-Jeanne. He makes his appearance in chapter five, when the protagonist's grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, performs a rite according to the traditional dictates. In a basket, she has collected a set of objects to please Legbara: a flask of rum and a margarine tub filled with cornmeal, homemade candies, a pack of matches, and a cigar. …

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