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Oct 18, 2017
18 Min read time
Nalo Hopkinson on the politics of dystopia, writing from the Global South, and the enduring importance of black mermaids.
Editors' Note: “We are not supposed to own imagination . . . so, damn it, I am making black mermaids.” In this podcast, award-winning writer Nalo Hopkinson reads her story, “Waving at Trains,” featured in Boston Review's print issue, Global Dystopias. (Order your copy here.) She also talks to editor Avni Sejpal about the politics of dystopia, writing from the Global South, and the enduring importance of black mermaids. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.
Avni Sejpal: I would like to start by asking you about speech and orality. To my ear, your story “Waving at Trains” lends itself very well to being read out loud. Perhaps it is because speech, particularly the inflections and rhythms of colloquial Caribbean English, is such an important element in this story, as it is in so much of your work. When you write, do you consciously attempt to capture the lived quality of language? Or to put it another way, how do you conceive of the relationship between the spoken and written word in your work?
Nalo Hopkinson: I think it is integral. The way people speak, the way cultures speak, it tells you so much. Hearing it in your mind’s ear, even if you do not speak with those rhythms, will give you a sense of what that culture is like. I have had people who are not from the Caribbean read my work. I find that they use whatever vernacular is closest to them. I have heard it in everything from Canadian-Ontario farm girl to New Orleans working class. The interesting thing is that it works each time. I love that flavor of the rhythms of speech, perhaps because I grew up in a theater family. My father was an actor, a poet, and a playwright, so I got to hear rhythms of speech a lot, sometimes in Caribbean English, sometimes in Shakespearean English, because that is what my dad was trained as. It means a lot to me in that tradition of the Caribbean man of words, which can just as easily be a person of words. It is very important.
Science fiction is thought of as being this North American or European thing, as though the rest of the world is somehow not involved in the future.
AS: So when you are writing something, are you also thinking about how it will sound out loud?
NH: Yes. If I am thinking in words at the time that I am writing. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I think in moving images and then I have to translate it into words. But, yes, I am always aware that at some point I might want to read the thing. And I am very aware of how characters speak, because speech does not only carry the accent, it carries the economic level of the characters, which tells you something. So whenever I have stories translated into other languages, generally they go for the standard form of the language. I find that that actually makes the translation a little bit pallid and it removes some of the nuances, so my characters end up sometimes sounding like middle class people being petulant . . . and sometimes they are middle class people, like the girl in this story, who are having a very hard time.
AS: Do you ever participate in the translation process?
NH: Not so much, because if something is being translated into Chinese I cannot be of help. I have had stories translated into French, and, when I have read the translations I can see what they have missed. But by then they will have published it. The type of nuance that gets lost: I have a story in which a black het couple have been fighting, and finally the whole thing comes to a head, and the women says to the man, “You are so withdrawn, you are so taciturn, you do not give me back what I am trying to give to you.” And he says, “Look at me, I am a big black man, I have to be careful about how I emote.” He says, “I am a big black man.” When they translated it into French, they said, “I am a fat black man,” because it is the same word—further complicated by the fact that he is a fat black man—but it completely missed what he was saying.
AS: That is an interesting cautionary note about translation. Coming back to “Waving at Trains,” another aspect of this story stood out for me: the strong sense of place contained within it. The sun, the heat, the tamarind tree, the trains, the rotting vegetation. They all invoke a sensorial dystopia that is hard to hard to shake. In what ways do you envision dystopia as a somewhere, and is that somewhere always an elsewhere, or could it also be over here?
NH: I think dystopia is everywhere, as opposed to utopia, which is literally translated as nowhere. Particularly for peoples who are surviving the effects of colonialism and globalization, the apocalypse done happened already. We have been living it for centuries. I very much do like to get that sense of place. The tamarind tree, the mongooses, they were very important to me. In science fiction, as it is usually thought of, there are no tamarind trees, no mongooses. It is thought of as being this North American or European thing, as though the rest of the world is somehow not involved in the future, not involved in its own present. It is very important for me to put those details in. Also, I can be homesick. I evoke the idea of a tamarind tree and, even though it is not a very happy story, the tamarind tree and the mongooses help.
AS: Speaking of North America and Europe, and the obsession with stories and characters and histories that are located in imperial sites of power, how might reorienting our gaze to other sights of historical dystopia, say the Global South, amend our approach to the very concept of dystopia?
Inserting yourself into a place where you are told you don’t belong, when you know quite well that you do, is important work.
NH: What happens is that we get into thinking of dystopia and catastrophe as that thing that happens somewhere else, or that can be delayed, when it is happening daily all over the world. Hopefully one of the things we can start doing as a people is stop thinking in terms of “them” and start thinking in terms of “us.” The kinds of things that were coming across my Twitter feed—as the cascade of completely unimaginable hurricanes were coming down on the Americas, and all the flooding was happening in places like Nigeria—was about people reminding people that this is all of us, that we cannot just say, “Well, it is over there,” and please remember that Puerto Rico is the United States, and that Dominica and the Dominican Republic, though they are separate countries, are both being hit by this thing. The idea for me is to realize that it is happening, it is happening now, it is very real, and to not compartmentalize it.
AS: That is true, and your writing is grounded in the specific history of colonialism. I am struck by the trains that pass through this story. The protagonist and her friend can only wave at trains, but never actually board them. Trains are of course tied to the history of British colonialism, specifically to a violent colonial modernity that, in the name of progress, leaves behind more people than it brings into the so-called future. Can you speak more generally about how the history of colonialism influences your work?
NH: I am trained as a writer, and I did not go through school to do that. So when people started labeling my work “postcolonial,” I did not know what they were talking about. I had to ask an academic friend who works with these kinds of narratives what that meant. But it is embedded very much in my own history. Coming from where I have come from, we are very aware of the effects of colonialism and globalization—they are ongoing in everything from the national debts of various countries in the Caribbean to the fact that we have such large and far spread diasporas. I was just in Helsinki. I was a guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention, Worldcon, which this year was held in Finland, and another podcast wanted to interview me. They held the interview at probably the only Caribbean restaurant in Helsinki. We are everywhere.
AS: Well, you never know.
NH: Yes, it’s true!
AS: It is interesting to think about the immigrant subcultures that thrive in places like Helsinki.
NH: Yes. Certainly at Worldcon there were more people of color from all over the world than I would expect to see at a Worldcon in the United States.
AS: Is that right? I want to ask you something about your work broadly. For readers who are just discovering your writing, how does “Waving at Trains” connect to your earlier work?
For people who are surviving the effects of colonialism and globalization, the apocalypse done happened already.
NH: It is very much of a piece. I started, originally, writing in Caribbean vernaculars. I do not always do so. My characters are not always from the Caribbean, or are not always speaking that way. But this story continues in that tradition. I tend to try to feature characters who are in some way like me, so often female. I like writing about children because children have such little agency in the world. Stories that give them agency, though not always in happy ways—all Angela can really do is start walking. But she is definitely going to start walking, even though she is hallucinating and trying to deny the fact that her friend is dead. But she is going to get moving. And that might actually work, you do not know if she gets to where someone can find her before she gets too sick. It is very much in the vein of the kind of thing I am doing. I am finding more and more what is happening, especially since the last U.S. election, is that people are asking me to write dystopias. I do not always, but I have the same mood that very much lends itself to this stuff that says “What in the world are we going to do?”
AS: What indeed are we going to do? You mentioned the U.S. election that brought Trump into the White House. You have been living in the United States for some time now. Do you see it influencing your work?
NH: Yes. Perhaps more in mood than in location. I have only been here six years, whereas I was thirty-five years in Canada, and was born in the Caribbean and lived there until I was sixteen. Those two places tend to show up more in my work. And of course, writing science fiction, completely invented places show up in my work. But as I absorb more of the environment here, it will start coming in. It very much struck me when I first moved to southern California, how it is both like and unlike the Caribbean where I had come from. There are palm trees everywhere, but the wrong fruits are on them, if any fruits at all. When you walk past the bushes you hear the rustling of lizards, but the lizards are the wrong color. If there is sand, and there are holes in the sand, it is probably gophers, not crabs, or rattlesnakes. But there is still a similarity of sensibility in many ways. If I go to a grocery store, often the people who are ringing up my produce are saying, “How come you are buying our food?” Meaning “How come are you buying tamarinds and guavas?” Because there are large populations here from South Asia, from India, from Mexico. So we have this in common, and, yes, it is beginning to enter my sensibilities as I write. The political sensibility is definitely there, and has been from the beginning, because the United States is probably the largest world power, and so it affects everything I write. Very much more so now because I am watching this political disaster happen where people like me and people like the people I love are increasingly endangered. Women, queer folks, trans folks, people of color, people who are immigrants, all being treated like they not only have nothing to contribute to the country, but as though they are somehow deleterious to it. That is insane. So watching this political insanity happen that is killing people is very much affecting my work.
AS: On a somewhat less grim note, your work has always drawn on Afro-Caribbean mythologies and cultural traditions. Can you talk about using historical and cultural memory in your writing? For example, in Falling in Love with Hominids, you emphasize hybridity, or the mixing of traditional Afro-Caribbean myths with fabulism and futurism. What does it mean to transform cultural archives of knowledge through science fiction? Moreover, how do you use the past to talk about possible futures?
NH: I am still working that through in my mind. I know that for me it feels like healing, it feels like a balm. For one thing, I was not a great student when it came to history class. It seemed like I was learning a successions of histories of kings named George, because I was learning so much about British history. Fascinating as it is, it was not being presented to me often in a way I could grab on to as a young girl. But now when I go back, and I look at history and I look at Caribbean histories, they are like any history—vibrant, passionate, and more like Game of Thrones than anything else. But the very real histories now are much more compelling to me. You wonder what is behind the parts that do not get told. They say that history gets written by the victors, so you wonder about the bits that do not get told.
Dystopia is everywhere, as opposed to utopia, which is literally translated as nowhere.
I am doing a final rewrite on a novel based on the culture of marronage, where enslaved peoples from Africa brought to the Caribbean and to the parts of the United States would escape into the interior, into the bushes. In the United States they were often taken in by the native people and made part of their communities. In the Caribbean they would often make their own communities and take in people who were disenfranchised. I am fascinated by those histories and what those communities were like, so I have imagined an island that managed through fantastical means to survive. It is an island where people go in marronage, where the people who think they own them have tried to reclaim them and they were able to fight them off, even though they were out-gunned. I have let that society grow as itself for two hundred years to see what would happen. Science fiction lets me do crucibles like that. I had to come up with a creolized, eighteenth-century Caribbean nation that has been itself for a couple hundred years. I have people that were the original inhabitants, I have Taíno people, I have people who are clearly of African descent, people who are clearly of English descent, but working and farming class, because they were brought over as indentured labor and as overseers as well, and not always willingly. So I am able to bring those three communities together and then tell a story there. I decided to riff on the griot tradition of making history be something that is not on paper but is remembered through song, because you can pass that down. They have an archive that is actually a human archive of families of griots who memorized books and passed the tradition down, because this is a culture that knows that books get burned, and books get destroyed. I am able to pull together all these things. When I think about the original library at Alexandria, as a writer, it hurts to know that those books were burned, and in some cases libraries have been destroyed quite deliberately in fire because they are a way of killing culture. And that happens in big and small ways here as well. Libraries are forever fighting for their existence and they are vital.
AS: I read somewhere about your digital collage project, which entails collecting non-racist images and photographs and illustrations of people of color from the Caribbean and from the Americas. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?
NH: I am not sure that it is one project. I collect the imagery as part of my research, my ongoing research for my writing. I also do small scale soft sculptures and collages. Some of my work has made its way into amateur fabric design. There is a mom and pop outfit in North Carolina called Spoonflower and it is essentially fabric print on demand, so I put my designs up there. I ended up looking for historical imagery I could use that did not make me want to go postal. I am not sure you can actually say non-racist, not because the images are necessarily racist, but because racism influences how they got made, when they got made and why they got made. But images that seem like someone actually looked at a person of color and drew and painted how we look rather than how they want to make fun of us. Again that is part of the healing. I am working on a graphic novel now with artist John Jennings. It is set in the time between the two world wars on the railroad in the United States. My character is a porter, or looks like a porter, a black porter. I have been looking for the historical artifacts of that time and place and of people who did that kind of work. Having the imagery around me, again, feels soothing and healing. Also, being a science fiction fantasy person obsessed with those images, I am sometimes collaging them into fantastical creatures. We are supposed to not own imagination, particularly people of African descent in this part of the world. The fantastical is something that we are not really expected to have much to do with—so, damn it, I am making black mermaids. In parts of west Africa two of the most important deities are riverine or ocean goddesses. So I am making them in that light, and I am making them sometimes fat, because what else would a mermaid be? And why is that not beautiful? I am making their hair be the way our hair looks. That kind of thing is also just playful. But I think inserting yourself into a place where you are told you don’t belong, when you know quite well you do, is important work.
AS: So who are some of the other writers doing this work right now? Who are some of your favorite dystopian and science fiction and fantasy writers?
NH: Nnedi Okorafor. Nnedi Okorafor is Nigerian American. She, with her first novel, which I think was a children’s science fiction novel, won the Wole Soyinka prize for Literature, which is Nigeria’s highest literary award. She has a series of novellas out now called Binti, about a young woman from a small tribal community in Africa who gets accepted into a university that is off planet. Nnedi’s work is imaginative and rich. The concept is that it is organic, literally, the concept is that a computer is an organic thing that you are given as a child and it grows along with you. She is talking about a part of the world that, although my features tell me my ancestors came from, I do not know a lot about, and she is extrapolating it into science fiction. Samuel R. Delaney is and always will be one of the most important writers, in my mind, to science fiction or any literature, and in literary criticism. He is an African American man, a black gay man, a multiple-award-winning author, whose work is, linguistically, just gloriously, rich, and his ideas are challenging. He talks about race and sexuality and power in ways that, when I was first reading his work as a younger person, were a revelation. Ursula K. Le Guin from Portland. Science fiction, fantasy writer. Ursula can write a simple, simple sentence and I will find myself in tears. She has always been thinking about issues of power and race and how they play out. There are so many! I recently read The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle, that takes H.P. Lovecraft—that very, very racist writer—and reinvents one of his stories. I think it is about to be made into a television series. There is N.K. Jemisin. There is so much vibrant work coming out, and more and more of it beginning to come out from, and depicting, a broader range of humanity. I was recently involved in a project by Lightspeed Magazine, which is a science fiction fantasy magazine, that has started doing special editions in response to a backlash that has been happening in the science fiction community against any kind of identity-based sensibility in the literature. John Joseph Adams, the managing editor, is doing what I have come to call the destroy series. He started with Women Destroy Science Fiction, because that is what gets leveled at us—you know, you let the women in, and all of a sudden, there goes the neighborhood. He asked me to be the fiction co-editor for People of Color Destroy Science Fiction. We found stories from the Caribbean, from Africa, from Australia, and recently the issue received the British Fantasy Award.
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