Black History Month: “Brown Girl in the Ring”

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Nalo Hopkinson’s “Brown Girl in the Ring” was first published in 1998. Here’s a summary of the story written by Eleanor at Flights of Fantasy bookstore in Loudonville:

Brown Girl in the Ring was Nalo Hopkinson’s first novel, and still my favourite. It’s set in a future Canada where the cities have decayed into chaos, and only the granddaughter of a voudou priestess can save her family and maybe the entire city. Hopkinson’s latest novel, The New Moon’s Arms, is just about to come out.

Hopkinson defines herself as a writer of speculative fiction, saying:

I’ve lived in Toronto, Canada since 1977, but spent most of my first 16 years in the Caribbean, where I was born. My writing reflects my hybrid reality.

I write speculative fiction. For anyone who doesn’t know the term, it’s fiction in which impossible things happen. It includes magic realism, fantasy, science fiction and horror.

Of note is an essay on Hopkinson’s Web site that responds to the question: “Why don’t people of color write speculative fiction?” (see the connection being made to “The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois“>W.E.B. DuBois by the use of the term “double-consciousness”)

We do, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find it on the sf shelves in your bookstores. Novels such as Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day or Devorah Major’s An Open Weave end up on the shelves for black authors, not in the sf section.

Although magic realist writing contains fantastical elements, many do not think of it when they think of speculative fiction, and it’s easier to find magic realism by authors of colour than it is to find “hard” science fiction or genre fantasy. For ideas on why that may be so, read Uppinder Mehan’s essay “The Domestication of Technology in Indian Science Fiction Short Stories” in Foundation, Fall 1998.

Mehan’s essay is specifically about science fiction by writers from India, but a lot of what he says is applicable generally to sf by authors of colour, or authors from non-Western cultures. For instance:

“A significant factor is the lack of cultural intimacy between reader and writer. The reader of sf from another culture has to thoroughly understand the culture of the story because he/she now has to understand not only the culture but also the sometimes subtle deformations introduced into the culture through extrapolation.”

I run into that problem myself. My history and background combine Canadian, Trinidadian, Jamaican and Guyanese cultures. “Culture” is no one monolithic thing for me, and I draw on that varied heritage when I write. But if I introduce a “soucouyant” into a story, perhaps only readers from the Eastern Caribbean will know what that is. If instead I say “succubus,” I’d lose some readers’ comprehension and gain others’; and if I write “vampire,” chances are that pretty much everyone would have some idea of the kind of creature I mean. Through the weight of books and films generated by the sf industry, vampires have a greater intercultural penetration than either soucouyants or succubi. (Yes, I am smiling as I write this.) But because I want to write about a soucouyant, which is neither a succubus nor a vampire, but has characteristics common to both, I have to spend time describing the being, its appearance, its habits, the mythology that spawned it. I risk boring a small segment of informed readers who are–hopefully–impatient to have me get on with the story. Or I can leave out the explanation and frustrate a larger group of readers who haven’t a clue what I’m talking about.

If I make my soucouyant male, or an infant, only informed readers will know how that departs from the myth. They will understand that I’m generating an extrapolation that is one more remove from the existing lore. But to everyone else, a baby soucouyant is just as remarkable as a grown one. They won’t know that I’ve just made the impossible even more so.

It’s a series of choices I have to make every time I write, weighing speculation against information. So I know what Mehan means when he speaks about Indian sf writers battling

“the difficulty of living with a double consciousness and, conversely, the impossibility of living without hybridity.”

Thanks to Eleanor at Flights of Fantasy for suggesting this book.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez

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