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Interview with Nalo Hopkinson
Here is our complete interview with Nalo Hopkinson. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 12.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: Brown Girl in the Ring was your first novel. How did you approach the writing process, not having written a novel before?
NH: Terror and deadlines. I had the first three chapters, and that took me about two years to write. And I'd actually written another novel in the interim -- I was three quarters of the way through it -- that I was shopping around but hadn't had any interest in, so I put it aside. I heard about the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest and decided I wanted to enter that. So I had the first three chapters, which was what they wanted. I sent them that. I sent it to them early, figuring I would have time if they wanted to see the rest to write it. I figured it'd be a rejection anyway, because in general one gets more rejections than acceptances. Then in two weeks I get a letter back saying, "We'd like to short list this. We want to send it on to the final round. Send us the whole novel. No drafts please." So I wrote the rest in three months. I didn't tell them that till after I got the contract. It's not a process I'd recommend to anybody. What happened was I was plotting as I went. I didn't know where the novel was going. I ended up with a main character strapped to a gurney surrounded by the bad guys and thought, "Well, OK. She can't die. What am I going to do next?" I finished that scene two days before the final deadline. There were no drafts, because who had time? It has that feeling of breathlessness when you read through it, because that's how I was writing it. When I got to the end I didn't know I had -- I got to a point and thought, "OK, I don't know what to write now." And I realized that was because I had pretty much tied everything up. That's how I knew it was done.
CD: With more experience now, how do you regard Brown Girl?
NH: There are things I would go back and develop more -- I would develop the character of Rudy more. I might try to develop the politicians more, but politicians are fair game. There are ideas I would probably work through more subtly. It is pretty much a book that leaps out at you. I think one will always think that -- you go back and look at anything you've worked on, and you realize in that time span your process has changed, or you've grown, or you've changed as an artist. I try not to worry about it too much. The trick is to save that knowledge and put it in the next thing. That way, with each piece that you publish, you have a map of your development as a writer.
CD: Why did you set Brown Girl in a run-down Toronto of the future?
NH: It wasn't that much different from the Toronto of the present. That was one thing -- I didn't have to do much research that way. They say, "Write what you know." So I started with the familiar location. It also had to do with what was happening in Toronto at the time, and still is happening: government funding being pulled from absolutely everything. I had gone through Detroit a year earlier to go to Clarion -- I am a graduate of Clarion -- and so I'd gone through Detroit to get to East Lansing. Detroit is a ghost town. There are people there, but at night it's dead. The streets are full of potholes. Everything feels rundown. And it's because of exactly that same kind of process -- support leaving the city core, and so jobs leave the city core, and then people with anything to lose move after it. What you have left are the people who have limited choices. And I found out that economists have a name for it, because it's a documented phenomenon that can happen to cities if city planners and city government don't know what they're doing. It's called the "hole in the doughnut" syndrome. Because you end up with a city core that's just destroyed and everybody fleeing to the suburbs as fast as they can. It was clear to me that a lot of what the Ontario government was doing -- it's like they're using Detroit as a manual. So that's part of what I was reacting against. I also just wanted to set something in a place I lived. And Toronto's a really interesting place. It allowed me to use Ryerson, and use the CN Tower, and use Riverdale Farm. For research you get to hang around Riverdale Farm and ask them where the turtles go in the winter. It was a cool thing to do.
CD: With Midnight Robber, there's a backbone of hard SF and then the culture and myth that you brought to it. How do you balance those two things?
NH: That was the novel I had three quarters written, that wasn't quite working yet. And that after I sold Brown Girl sold it and then had to rewrite. And I already had some idea of how to rewrite it. Partly it was from talking to a professor named Uppinder Mehan who used to lecture at the University of Toronto and who is originally from Ontario. He was talking about writers from continental India writing SF. The problem being that to an audience from here, because we may not know their cultures, we can't tell when the writers have done science fictional extrapolation from those cultures. Another thing he pointed out was that if Indian culture had developed without the colonizing influence of the West, the words that they use for technology would be different words, because they would have developed their own technologies and their own metaphors for speaking about technology. In the West we use words that are based in Greek and Roman myth to describe our technologies and sciences. We call a space ship "Apollo" or a psychological phenomenon "Oedipus." So I got to thinking: What metaphors for technology would a future Caribbean culture use? That meant I was picking things out of Caribbean mythology the same way that we do here for Western technology. So I think that's how it started, with that seed idea. I call the operating system for the house an "eshu," and that's based in West African religious beliefs; Eshu is the deity who has the power to go everywhere and see everything. Once you start doing that, it kind of snowballs. It's very easy to start to blend the technology with the mythology, because we do it all the time. In SF, we like to think of science fiction as one thing and fantasy as another, but they bleed into each other.
CD: Genre seems to be about boundaries and definitions, but you seem to be having success with creating a hybrid. How do you feel about the way genre is defined?
NH: I didn't know that the differences between SF and fantasy were so contentious until five years ago. I was reading pretty widely. I was reading mostly fantastical literature, but that could be anything from Isaac Asimov to Gulliver's Travels. I didn't put names on things -- I didn't check the spine to see what it was supposed to be first. If it had something that couldn't exist in the real world, I was interested. Partly I'm able to hybridize genres out of ignorance. But there are more and more writers doing that, refusing to accept the boundaries. I think the boundaries, though sometimes helpful, are artificial -- they're there to help the booksellers sell books. They're there to help the people who like to read that kind of stuff find it. But essentially I think both SF and fantasy talk about the ways in which humans manipulate their worlds. That could be technology, it could be religion, it could be customs, or it could be a new way to make a clay pot. Both literatures -- if you accept that they are two separate literatures, and I don't -- are doing that. Talking about what happens to us and our societies because we are tool users, because we change our environments and our realities to suit ourselves.
CD: Midnight Robber seems to be a story of disenfranchisement. The character loses utopia at the very beginning, and gradually strips more and more away until all she has left is the power of the story of Midnight Robber.
NH: She has her two feet and an imagination.
CD: Is the power of story a metaphor for the writer? How do you think about the role of the storyteller, and the power of that, because that seems to be her triumph at the end?
NH: Clearly the thing is based in the whole power of storytelling. And that's partly because I grew up with so many folktales; read them in the library, occasionally heard them on television from local performers. And had a father who was an actor and poet. He used to give one-man performances of his poetry. I saw lots of plays performed, too; Daddy was one of the actors in the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and some of his colleagues such as performance artists Dem Two took their own small shows on the road. So the art of verbal storytelling is very much part of what I grew up with. Coming out of Caribbean literature -- which also draws on storytelling quite heavily -- it seemed like a natural fit for me.
Tan-Tan's victory is a victory won through words -- I guess that is a very powerful metaphor for a writer. The whole image of the Midnight Robber, which is a real masquerade that people play at carnival, tells a story about disenfranchisement. The Midnight Robber's speech is about being the son of an African king and kidnapped into slavery, escaping, and becoming a bandit in order to survive. But it doesn't tell the story plainly. The people who become Midnight Robbers have to write their own speeches, and they do so by combining the most sonorous words they can find -- the words have to be beautiful in themselves, it's not so much about meaning. They'll take words from the Bible, words from westerns, and combine them into this speech. When you read it it could almost be nonsensical. It makes sense if you listen to it sideways. The triumph of the Midnight Robber is when he can hold your attention, and get you to be so amazed by the beauty of these words, that you give him money. So I did think it was a really powerful metaphor for this little girl to take on -- that's all she has. Violence is not going to work, and she doesn't have a home any more. The whole idea of being exiled from home is very much a legacy of 500 years of African slavery. People have said the book is a metaphor for slavery. It's not; not that plainly, anyway. It is an analogy for that sense of exile when you've been moved from your home at least twice. For people from that legacy who are now in the African diaspora, Africa is not our home; for most of us if we went there we'd be just as lost as anybody else. But there is a sense that that's where our ancestors started from. That sense of not being able to go home again is very much something I'm playing with.
CD: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
NH: I let myself know in 1993, when Judy Merril was going to be teaching a course in SF writing through Ryerson and to get into the course you had to submit two pieces of writing. And I had none. I'd been writing articles on fitness -- I was a fitness instructor -- for a couple of Toronto papers, and that was it. So I wrote something for Judy's class, which turned out to be the beginning of Brown Girl in the Ring. I had no idea where it was going -- knew nothing about plot. Looked at it and thought, "That's six pages and this thing needs to be longer. Oh my God, what do I do now?" I got into the course, which then never ran because there wasn't enough registration. But Judy being Judy, she called up the six of us who'd been accepted and she said, "Come meet with me. You don't need to pay anybody to do this. I'm going to show you how to run your own workshop." And she met with us once and I remember Brent Hayward saying, "So do we come back next week?" And she essentially said, "No, I don't want to meet with you again. You go off and do it. I don't need to do this with you." That's how the writing group started. So it wasn't until '93 that I begin to think about fiction writing -- bear in mind I had a writer for a father and so in my mind, that was what Daddies did, not daughters. It took a while to let myself know that that's what I wanted to do.
CD: So then it was after Brown Girl that you started writing short stories?
NH: No, they were happening simultaneously. I was workshopping short stories in the group. Brent had already written a novel and he was working on his second. Bob Boyczuk had been to Clarion, had written short stories. I was way behind. So I was writing short stories to catch up -- even just to their output, never mind their grasp of craft.
CD: How do you like writing short stories versus novels?
NH: At this point I prefer short stories. You can keep them in your head better. A novel feels like wrestling a mattress -- your arms are always too short. With a short story, you can take two or three themes and work them through and have a refrain and echo and a nice, satisfying ending. With a novel you're always going to forget something and have to remind yourself to pick that thread up again. Or I do. Novels do pay better -- and it's nice to have that book on the shelf with your name on it. Your mother really likes that. But I think I'm finding short stories, when I can write them, more satisfying.
CD: You recently had an anthology come out, Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction. How did that project get started?
NH: I was at ICFA, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, a couple of years ago. I gave a reading. Afterwards two men approached me and told me that they were editors of a new publishing house and asked if I'd ever considered doing an anthology of Caribbean fabulist fiction. And I said, I wanted to edit but let's talk about it once I get back. And we did, and that's how it started. I had them talk to my agent and we figured out we could do it.
Then I had to go about inviting people, which was an interesting process in itself. As I said, I grew up in the Caribbean literary community so a lot of the people who I invited were people I knew as my father's peers. So I would send out this very formal submission letter -- sometimes I didn't know them, I just knew their names -- saying, "Dear Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so. Here's who I am. I'm working on this anthology. Here is the call for submissions. I'd be honoured if you had a story for me to consider." And I'd get back an email that said, "Child, I used to change your diapers. How is your mother? Sure I'm sending you a story." And then I'd think, "Damn. Suppose I don't like it, after all that?"
It's been really intriguing being in the editor's shoes. Because usually you're the writer and you're the one complaining about the editor. Now I get to see that those cryptic letters about "Does not suit our needs at this time" are often nothing but the truth.
CD: Did you enjoy the editing, and would you like to do it again?
NH: I did enjoy it. I hated the administrative part. Keeping track of when was this story published, how much money do I owe this person -- that's a nightmare. But the editorial process was a lot of fun. What I did was got all the stories in, and began to get a sense of which I felt were strong. When you cluster them together they begin to develop a shape of their own, so then you're looking for more work that fits it. Often literally if I rejected a story it was because it didn't fit, or I had something else that did something similar that I thought was stronger. That's pretty difficult to communicate. With a couple of people, particularly younger writers, I'd say, "This isn't working for me. The story is promising. Do you think you could work on it?" Some people did, and some didn't.
Towards the end of the process -- I was just about wrapping up -- I got an email from someone who said he'd just graduated from Clarion, he was also from the West Indies, and he just wanted to say hi. And I said, "I'm working on this anthology. I only have one SF piece. Do you have anything?" And he said, "Yeah, I do, but I've got to finish it up. I'll send it to you tomorrow." Which he did. I liked it -- I thought it needed some changes, I asked him to do those, he did them, and I bought the story. Which was when he told me that he hadn't had a story. He'd pulled a Nalo on me -- he did exactly what I'd done to Warner. He didn't have a story -- he'd written it that same night I asked for it. Nothing like incentive. That's Tobias Buckell.
I contacted Kamau Brathwaite who's an old, old friend of my father's and one of the most respected writers in the Caribbean. And as far as I knew he was a poet. I wasn't asking him for work, but I was asking if he could put me in touch with a list of writers for whom I was searching. He emailed me back a bunch of emails and phone numbers, and said, "Here's this piece I've been working on." And there it was. It isn't quite a poem, and it isn't quite a story -- it's sort of a hybrid. And it was gorgeous. And it was brand new -- I had a brand new Kamau Brathwaite story sitting in my in box. So I had this range of work -- Lillian Allen, writer/activist in Toronto, gave me her first fiction piece. Pamela Mordecai, a children's writer, poet and editor who's also Torontonian, wrote her first SF story for me. Roger McTair, who started out as a writer but nowadays mostly is a documentary filmmaker, pulled a story out of his trunk and worked on it and sent it to me. Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar from Toronto sent me a terrifying, sad story that I loved immediately. Claude-Michel Prévost, SF writer living in Vancouver, sent me an excerpt from a script on which he's working. H. Nigel Thomas from Québec also sent me a story I liked very much. Then I got pieces from people in the Caribbean, from Caribbean people in the U.S. and U.K. -- Wilson Harris, an absolute genius (his work in some ways puts me in mind of Samuel Delany's) and one of the doyens of Caribbean fiction, sent me a powerful, complex piece. It was just wonderful -- as they began to come together there was a shape happening.
CD: In the introduction you talk about there being a gap between your own sensibilities as a more of a SF writer versus some of the stories. What did you mean by that, and how do you think that happened?
NH: SF is a North American literature. Sometimes a British literature, sometimes a Slavic literature. But it's nowhere else in the world -- the whole ideology behind it comes out of this surrounding, this culture of making machines to change the world. Samuel Delany once said it's the literature of the people who create technologies. North America creates technology and sells it to the rest of the world. A sense of ownership of technology isn't there for a lot of other nations. Thinking about the effects of technology happens in different ways. There's lots of fantastical and fabulist writing, but the iconography of SF where I can say "ansible" and you know what I mean -- I can't do that in the Caribbean, I'd have to explain it. Whereas if I said "duppy" here, you don't know what I mean but they sure as hell do. I had to try and force a hybrid. I would say, "I'm writing fantastical fiction" and the writers I'd contacted would say, "I don't know what that is. But here's a story. It has a ghost in it. Will it do?" And sometimes it would, and sometimes it wouldn't.
There's one piece in there that I love, Ian McDonald's "Pot o' Rice Horowitz's House of Solace" which is a hilarious piece but not at all fantastical. The things that happen in that story could absolutely happen, but what made me decide to take it is the metaphors he uses are metaphors for the fantastic. He uses people going to westerns and karate shows at the drive-in as the iconography by which they understand their world. He talks about the grocer who has these wonderful products -- he sells marshmallows and peacock's tongues, and to the people in the little backwater town where he's opened his shop, both are equally magical. That's the kind of thing which made me decide that the story would fit. The anthology is right on the edge of slipstream for a genre reader. The rest of the world probably won't care that much.
CD: Is being a SF writer what you thought it would be like?
NH: Yes and no. The yes comes from going to Clarion, where you had at least six professional writers and you could ask them what it was like. And they were only too happy to tell you. So we were warned about some of what to expect as professional writers: contracts, agents, that kind of thing. So that part has been not unexpected. The unexpected part has been that anybody cares that I write what I do. Occasionally having people walk up to me in the street and say, "You're that writer." When I'm doing something embarrassing like buying toilet paper or something. That's kind of creepy. Nice, but creepy to think that a stranger can look at your face and know who you are. Know who part of you is, anyway. It pretty much has been what I thought. There have been unexpected things, like being asked what I think of the illustrations on book covers. I don't know that the publisher actually much cares what I think, but she's always done me the courtesy of at least asking. We were told at Clarion that you'd find out what your book cover was when you got the book.
What's also surprising is that people think because you have a couple of books out that you're making money. I've had professional organizations ask me to travel at my own expense to other countries to work for them for free, expecting that I'd be pleased at the exposure. Fine if they can't afford to pay, but to expect me to spend what is the equivalent of a month's living in order to work for them -- I don't ask my grocer to do that, I don't ask my plumber to do that. A convention is a little bit different. I go to those by my own choice and I sometimes get to give a reading and talk about my writing. It's a way to meet readers and meet my colleagues. I consider cons to be professional development, and I come up with the money for those when I can. And when I've been a guest of honour at them, the con has paid my air fare and hotel bill. There's a recognition there that I'm working for them and so they need to at least enable me to be there.
CD: On the back cover of the anthology it says you're working on something called Griffone. Can you tell us about that?
NH: It's my third novel. I don't like talking too much about the plot of something while I'm still trying to figure it out. This time I had to write a plot beforehand, because I had to sell it to my publisher. So now I have an outline of sorts. It is going to be magic realism -- it's time travel. In my head I'm calling it head my African women's sex magic novel, which usually makes people perk right up when I say it. It might not turn out to be that. But it's something to aim for. I am a few chapters into it. It's going to take a lot of research. With every new novel I discover something that you should never do as a novel writer. For instance, never create an action-adventure hero who's breast feeding. That would be Brown Girl in the Ring. Never write a whole novel in Creole; that would be Midnight Robber. With this one it's: Never write a novel that exists in three time periods and three different countries simultaneously -- unless you know those three very very well. Which I don't. 18th century Haiti, 19th century Paris, and 4th century Alexandria. That was very silly of me, and I'll never do it again. The next novel after this is going to be a great fat fantasy -- I'll make it all up.
CD: What's your project with the way that you've used language in your novels and stories?
NH: I had a specific project with the second one that's probably summed up best by "Stolen," the poem at the beginning of it written by David Findlay. The first line of the poem is, "I stole the torturer's tongue." In many ways, that's what Caribbean Creoles did. I wanted to see what a language might look like that was shaped by its own history. I think part of what was happening was when I would write stories and workshop them, and I would write people speaking the way I know people speak, and if they were speaking Creole I would get comments like, "She can't use a word like this because she's obviously not educated enough." Educated has nothing to do with your accent, or the way you choose to speak when you're using the vernacular (and every language has its vernaculars). So it was partly my thinking about how to get it across that someone might choose not to sound North American but might nevertheless speak in vernacular. And I have other colleagues who are North American -- I have a friend who's an African American woman who when she writes her black characters in a futuristic context has been told in her workshops, "No one's going to speak like this in the future." Apparently we're all going to sound American -- white, middle class American. So it was interrogating that a little bit. That kind of hegemony of language. And then trying to figure out: How would you write something futuristic and still keep a sense of the language and a sense of the history of the people in the story?
I've blended three English Creoles -- Jamaican, Trinidadian, and there's the occasional Guyanese reference. Which are the places in the Caribbean where I've lived. All of which meant more research into language. I swear, that'll be my first criterion now when I write -- no research. I blended the languages to see what would happen. It isn't so much an ongoing project -- it was a project for that novel. I will always have characters from the places I call home, and I'll always try to make them speak the way they might. That's really difficult to put down, because often we're talking about an oral form. If you tried to directly transcribe the language you use when you're sitting talking with your buddies it would not work in writing. So trying to get a sense of Creoles on paper and still have it be readable and understandable -- and sustain it for 400 pages -- was work. And I'm still trying to work it through with the new novel a little bit -- I'm not doing it as heavily. I'm trying to get a sense across of how the characters think about language. The main characters you meet at first are in Saint-Domingue -- Haiti before the Haitian revolution. They are speaking French Creole. Of course I have to write that in English, but I want to get a sense of how they think about language. Because the language they're speaking is a combination of many African languages and French and probably Spanish.
As to why it's so important, Creoles in particular are often subversive languages. They come out of having to take on a language of the colonizer and then change it to meet your own needs. I wanted to get across a strong sense of subversion and even playfulness that can happen when a language grows that way.
Much of this stuff is plain intuitive -- I don't sit down and think, "OK, I'm going to interrogate the hegemony of..." You're half way through before you think you know what you're doing. But I don't really know until somebody critiques it and tells me what they see. So really, I'm making up the answer to your question as I go along!
CD: You've received some awards and been on juries. How do feel about that process? Do you find it helpful?
NH: I come out of having spent nine years facilitating juries for the Toronto Arts Council -- I was a grants officer for art projects in literature, visual arts, media and digital arts, dance, and music. So I was running upwards of eight juries a year in all those disciplines. What that's meant is that getting rejection letters is a lot easier for me. Because I've been through the kind of process by which people get accepted or rejected. I know some of the pressures. It's easier for me not to take it personally.
That was very different than actually being on juries, which I've done for the Tiptree Award, the William Crawford Award, the Ontario Arts Council Writers Works-in-Progress Grant, the Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers from the Writers' Union of Canada (we probably got some submissions that were shorter than that title). Being a juror is yet another side of the arts funding table -- there's being the artist, the administrator, the funder, the producer, the juror; it's a many-sided table. With an award, you're usually looking at work that someone's worked very hard to get across and that's already been published. That's different than a grant, which is meant to help support the artist while they're creating the work, with no pressure about whether it's publishable or not. A grant is to allow you the freedom to explore, to push the envelope. I find that when I'm a juror, being a writer myself you're very aware of the work that's gone into this thing so you're rooting for the person at some level, no matter whether you think their work succeeds or not. It makes it sometimes heartbreaking to make those decisions about yes or no. There's not as much at stake with an award because at least the work has already been published -- it's gone through that process of recognition, and is out there in the world with a chance of its own to garner praise. With a grant jury though, where the works aren't created yet or aren't finished yet, and the person might need this money in order to do so, the stakes are really high. Being a juror is a thankless task. What I like about it is that you get to see a wide range of what's going through your peers' minds. Writing is sort of a response to other people's writing, so you get a sense of what people are working on, what's exciting people right then. Those things you give the grant to that year are going to be next year's new books. So will some of the projects that you don't give a grant to, because the writers will somehow find a way. So that's really exciting. I like doing all of it. I think I'm going to be on the Nebula jury this year, as a volunteer. I like getting to see the work, and the free books are nice too.
CD: What are some of your favourite books that you've read lately?
NH: Elisabeth Vonarburg's The Maerlande Chronicles, an epic exploration of gender, society and language which blew me away. I'm doing so much reading. I'm reading something now that I don't know yet if I'm going to like when I get done it -- I'm halfway through. It's a new one by Jonathan Carroll and it's called The Wooden Sea. I got to reread Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue recently, which is just a romp. It spoofs everything about sexism in the most unkind ways -- it's big fun and I really like it. Candas Jane Dorsey's Black Wine. I just read Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes, a collection of short stories by Peter Watts, which impressed me. I'm really liking the way he complicates his characters' lives, even when I disagree with what some of his premises seem to be. And the way he writes women characters. I love anything Samuel Delany puts out. No, I won't start on the nonfiction because I won't stop.
CD: What do you do these days when you're not writing?
NH: Not writing? What means this? I worry about not writing when I'm not writing. It's become a job now. That's what I'm primarily doing to keep my head above water. Sometimes I don't quite manage. When I'm not writing I'm doing all the administrative stuff that supports writing. I do a couple of hours of writing a day, and the rest is answering letters, filling out forms, putting things in my calendar, planning for courses I'm going to teach. I've noticed that a lot of professional writers if you ask them what their hobbies are they look at you and go, "Well, I used to..." It's like that for me. I used to be a fitness instructor. I used to take silversmithing courses. I used to make crafts and sew my own clothing. I used to be able to have a conversation that didn't include a literary critique anywhere in it. I still try to get out to arts events in Toronto a lot because I have that connection with the arts community and I'm interested. I love to go dancing but that doesn't happen much. I think about writing, I talk about writing, I hang out with people who are thinking and talking about writing. It's very insular.
CD: When you're talking about teaching, you're talking about teaching writing?
NH: I'm going to be teaching a course in utopian fiction at University of Toronto, and then I'll be teaching one on SF and one on SF writing.
CD: On your web site you have a section about SF writers of colour. Could you tell us about that?
NH: I put that there because people ask. Because it's one of the things that clearly makes me unique in SF. I'm one of maybe six black novelists in the field. When I wrote it I was still thinking about Uppinder's article on writers from the continent of India writing SF there and the difficulties in communicating what they were trying to get across. I had been in touch with a man named Gary Bowen who is a First Nations horror writer, who had put together a project called the Decolores Project which seems to have gone to a dead link on the web -- but he had created a bibliography of all the SF, fantasy, and horror writers of colour and Jewish writers that he could find. And we'd been talking as he went through that process. Almost every convention I go to somebody wants to put me on a panel about why there are so few writers of colour in the field. And I got kind of tired of doing Diversity 101. So I put it on my web site and just don't go to any more of those panels. But it is a thing that you wrestle with. Gloria Naylor, who wrote Women of Brewster Place, her novel Mama Day is fantasy and she's got a collection of short stories that are all fantastical. Why can't I find stuff like that when I go into a SF bookstore? Why can't I find Larissa Lai's When Fox is a Thousand and Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water and Ashok Mathur's Once Upon an Elephant? Lai, King and Mathur are in Can Lit, but they could easily be in fantasy too. And yet people are saying there are no writers of colour in the field. Because their books don't have "SF" and "Fantasy" on the spines, a lot of SF readers don't know about them. In fact, some writers of colour would be insulted if you were to identify their work as SF or fantasy. There are complicated reasons for the notion that people of colour don't write SF and no one person or industry to blame. I'm still thinking through that stuff, because people don't stop asking and I don't stop wondering.
CD: So you think it's also genre boundaries that are happening or genre identity?
NH: It's genre identity, particularly with SF that came out of the pulp era. It was essentially in its beginnings a literature of white boys and big toys going to places where people didn't look like them and conquering them. Most of us (people of colour) are living through the effects of that history and to us it's not an exciting adventure story. It wouldn't occur to a lot of non-readers of SF and fantasy that the genres have progressed -- have in many cases taken on that history. If all that non SF/F readers see reflected in the media is the kind of "Galaxy Wars" big budget film which so often replicates and glorifies the notion of militaristic conquering, it wouldn't occur to them to pick up a novel by Spider Robinson or Jim Morrow. So that's part of it. Part of it is we think differently about what's fantastical and what isn't. So books like Toni Morrison's Beloved -- Tony Morrison is not going to think of that as a fantasy novel. She knows she's telling truths in it, so she's not going to think of it as something unreal. It's just a different paradigm for thinking about fiction. The work's out there. You don't tend to find as much science fiction as fantasy by writers of colour, but they're both out there and the numbers are growing. Partly because I have that page on my web site, I hear from younger writers of colour who are SF and fantasy writers. Who are saying, "Thank God. I won't get laughed at any more. People won't tell me I can't do this, or people like us don't write this kind of fiction." So I've been able to be a little cheering team.
Last modified: April 10, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Nalo Hopkinson