NALO HOPKINSON

Sci-Fi Writ­ing as a Rad­i­cal Act

Herizons - - Front Page - By NI­RAN­JANA IYER

If you don’t read fan­tasy and science fic­tion be­cause you think it’s all about heroic loner dudes sav­ing the world—run, don’t walk, to Nalo Hopkinson’s books. One of the most orig­i­nal, in­tel­li­gent, imag­i­na­tive and am­bi­tious voices in fic­tion to­day, Hopkinson writes for­mi­da­ble yet play­ful tales that are mas­ter­ful med­i­ta­tions on cur­rent and fu­ture so­ci­ety. Her fe­male pro­tag­o­nists, of­ten marginal­ized, act as change agents while op­er­at­ing within a strongly rooted fam­ily net­work.

The ef­forts of Hopkinson and oth­ers to make fan­tasy and science fic­tion more in­clu­sive have been met with fierce re­sis­tance within the fan­tasy and science fic­tion writ­ers’ com­mu­nity. A group call­ing them­selves the “Sad Pup­pies” went so far as to ac­cuse the pres­ti­gious science fic­tion and fan­tasy Hugo Awards of “re­ward­ing [left-wing] ide­ol­ogy over [con­ser­va­tive] sto­ry­telling.” Sad Pup­pies or­ga­nized vot­ing blocks to back their pre­ferred au­thors on the Hugo nom­i­nees’ list, an act that led to much ran­cour within the science fic­tion and fan­tasy com­mu­nity. Only one of the Sad Pup­pies’ nom­i­nees won a Hugo when the awards were an­nounced in Au­gust, but diver­sity re­mains a po­lit­i­cal hot potato.

Hopkinson, whose Twit­ter bio iden­ti­fies her as a “mouthy Jcan [ Ja­maican] femme,” is def­i­nitely seek­ing to broaden the diver­sity of voices in the science fic­tion and fan­tasy field. Born in Ja­maica, Hopkinson moved to Toronto when she was 16 and at­tended York Univer­sity. She holds an M.A. in writ­ing pop­u­lar fic­tion from Se­ton Hill Univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia. Her first novel, Brown Girl in the

Ring, was pub­lished in 1998, and it won the Lo­cus Award for Best First Novel. Since then, Hopkinson has pub­lished six nov­els and sev­eral short-story col­lec­tions. Her lit­er­ary hon­ours in­clude the Warner As­pect First Novel Con­test, a World Fan­tasy Award, the Sun­burst Award for Cana­dian Lit­er­a­ture of the Fan­tas­tic (twice), an Au­rora Award and a Gay­lac­tic Spec­trum Award. Hopkinson’s most re­cent book, the short-story col­lec­tion Fall­ing in Love with Ho­minids, was pub­lished in 2015 by Tachyon Press.

In 2011, af­ter nearly four decades of liv­ing in Canada, Hopkinson moved to the U.S., where she is the pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side.

HERIZONS: Like many read­ers, I’m a bit hazy as to how ex­actly science fic­tion, spec­u­la­tive fic­tion and fan­tasy are dif­fer­en­ti­ated. How would you dis­tin­guish th­ese gen­res?

NALO HOPKINSON: I rarely use the terms “spec­u­la­tive” or “lit­er­ary” any­more as names for gen­res. It seemed to me that the term “spec­u­la­tive fic­tion” came into be­ing as a way to ex­plain to academe what science fic­tion and fan­tasy were do­ing.

It’s a mis­lead­ing term in some ways, be­cause it can give the im­pres­sion that the point of science fic­tion is to spec­u­late about what the fu­ture will be like. But it re­ally isn’t—al­though, of course, some­times we do do that. Science fic­tion and fan­tasy are lit­er­a­tures that chal­lenge the com­pla­cency of our re­ceived wis­doms about power, cul­ture, ex­pe­ri­ence, lan­guage, ex­is­tence, so­cial sys­tems, sys­tems of knowl­edge and frame­works of un­der­stand­ing. They make us re­con­sider whose sto­ries de­serve to be told, whose nar­ra­tives shape the fu­ture and our be­liefs, and who has the right to make and re­make the world. In a way, science fic­tion and fan­tasy lay bare the bones of which sto­ries are made, and then they play with the bones.

I think all fic­tion is lit­er­a­ture, and some of it is fan­tas­ti­cal in na­ture. All fic­tion is fan­tasy in one way or another. Fan­tasy is the world’s old­est form of sto­ry­telling, and it has never ceased be­ing pop­u­lar. I think there is some­thing about the hu­man imag­i­na­tion that thrives on the abil­ity to imag­ine the im­pos­si­ble. If we couldn’t, noth­ing in the world would ever change. The lit­er­a­ture of the fan­tas­tic is one of the more in­tense forms of lit­er­ally ex­er­cis­ing our imag­i­na­tions.

You ma­jored in Rus­sian lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture and French lan­guage at York Univer­sity. How did you en­ter the world of science fic­tion and fan­tasy?

NALO HOPKINSON: Mainly through the books. I didn’t en­ter the world of science fic­tion and fan­tasy, re­ally—I feel I was al­ways there. I was al­ways drawn to works of the fan­tas­tic, what­ever genre or medium they were in. As a girl, I read and watched ev­ery­thing from Homer’s Iliad to I Dream of Jean­nie. I read comics. As I grew older, I read fem­i­nist and the new wave writ­ers. When I dis­cov­ered writ­ers of colour in the genre, such as Sa­muel R. De­lany, Charles Saun­ders and Tana­narive Due, I re­al­ized I could write it as well. It never oc­curred to me to write in any other genre.

In an in­ter­view some years ago, you said that one of the things both fan­tasy and science fic­tion do is “look at the ef­fects of large-scale so­cial change on both pop­u­la­tions and in­di­vid­u­als. Fan­tasy tends to look to the past, and science fic­tion to the fu­ture, but what is com­mon to many of the sto­ries is change: huge so­ci­etal up­heaval.” Could you elab­o­rate on the kinds of changes that you are talk­ing about?

NALO HOPKINSON: What I love about the text-based form of this lit­er­a­ture is that there is very lit­tle that’s sa­cred. We’re al­ways pulling apart the lay­ers to see what lies un­der­neath. One thing, though: Even though science fic­tion and fan­tasy ex­ist to chal­lenge our un­ex­am­ined ex­pec­ta­tions of the world, I feel the genre is go­ing through a phase of be­com­ing more con­ser­va­tive and less open to change. That is sad­den­ing. Yet, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, there’s an in­flux of writ­ers from com­mu­ni­ties which have been pre­vi­ously un­der­rep­re­sented or mis­rep­re­sented in the genre. Women and queer writ­ers have been mak­ing in­roads for decades. Trans writ­ers and peo­ple of colour are find­ing and mak­ing more venues for their work, and we’re see­ing more writ­ing from coun­tries other than the U.S and the U.K. My im­pres­sion is that many read­ers wel­come the change, but there is a strong and nasty el­e­ment of back­lash.

What about the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try? Is it chang­ing in the di­rec­tion and at the pace you ex­pected?

NALO HOPKINSON: For the record, my first novel’s edi­tor-publisher, Betsy Mitchell at what was then Warner As­pect in New York, was thrilled to be pub­lish­ing a Black woman au­thor.

The pub­lish­ing in­dus­try is chang­ing, slowly but steadily. The genre is open­ing up. One thing I didn’t ex­pect was the ve­he­mence of the back­lash, since this is a genre that prides it­self on its open-mind­ed­ness. I didn’t ex­pect haters adopt­ing the term “so­cial jus­tice war­rior” and us­ing it to abuse and ter­ror­ize peo­ple who speak out against bias. I didn’t ex­pect hate mail—from a Cana­dian!—when I said in a re­cent in­ter­view that the genre still has a long way to go in terms of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of marginal­ized groups. I didn’t ex­pect “gamer­gate.”

On the other hand, I also didn’t an­tic­i­pate the depth of self-anal­y­sis and gen­eros­ity of sup­port I’ve wit­nessed from peo­ple who have greater priv­i­lege, and from cer­tain in­sti­tu­tions. I didn’t ex­pect mag­a­zines such as Light­speed to de­vote spe­cial is­sues to our work, and to make spe­cific

ed­i­to­rial poli­cies about in­clu­sion. I didn’t ex­pect Tor Books to fire an edi­tor ac­cused of ha­rass­ing women for years.

Let no one ever tell you that any art form is friv­o­lous. Peo­ple care deeply about the art they love, and can be quite ve­he­ment about it. One thing I did hope for, and am cheered to see, is how crowd­fund­ing and the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of pub­lish­ing is lead­ing to new pub­lish­ing ven­tures, many of them from per­spec­tives that had been dif­fi­cult to find in the genre be­fore this. There are now an­tholo­gies fea­tur­ing dis­abled pro­tag­o­nists, fea­tur­ing writ­ers of colour, fea­tur­ing writ­ers from Africa, the Philip­pines and so on. There needs to be more, but this is a start. The more writ­ing that’s be­ing pub­lished, the more won­der­ful sto­ries there are for peo­ple to read.

Could you tell us more about your writ­ing process? You once de­scribed it as akin to “wrestling with a mat­tress”!

NALO HOPKINSON: I have the kind of brain that hates reg­i­men­ta­tion. So I wake up, I feel guilt for not hav­ing writ­ten and for all the not writ­ing I’m about to do. I throw my­self at the com­puter, and ev­ery so of­ten, I get bored enough with the shiny In­ter­net and re­runs of bad TV shows to write a lit­tle. I don’t lack for ideas, just for the repet­i­tive drive. It’s been get­ting harder to keep do­ing with ev­ery pass­ing year, so I come up with dif­fer­ent tricks. Dead­lines help, though mostly not in a pleas­ant way. Play­ing helps. I fin­ished my last short story by hand writ­ing it in pen­cil on a gi­ant un­lined sketch­book turned side­ways. I got about 10 lines per page.

When I’m in flow state and the words are com­ing, if I get stuck, I can of­ten fig­ure out what to write next by tak­ing a break to do some­thing mind­lessly phys­i­cal—wash­ing dishes, fold­ing laun­dry. That’s when the cre­ative brain goes wan­der­ing and dis­cov­ers so­lu­tions to your story co­nun­drums. It also helps to re­mem­ber the pure ex­hil­a­ra­tion I feel when­ever I’ve com­pleted a piece of fic­tion.

Your Twit­ter bio (fol­low @Nalo_Hop­kin­son) states, “Fan­tasy/science fic­tion writer. Achy crafter. Fi­bro. Neu­ro­di­verse. Mouthy Jcan femme w power tools. A word in Shel­ley Jack­son’s Skin: A Work of Mor­tal Art.” Could you please elab­o­rate?!

NALO HOPKINSON: “Fi­bro” is fi­bromyal­gia, a dis­or­der I have which causes fa­tigue, “brain fog” and soft-tis­sue pain. “Neu­ro­di­verse”—my cog­ni­tive makeup is some­what atyp­i­cal, in that I’ve been di­ag­nosed with ADHD and non­ver­bal learn­ing dis­or­der. In other words, I think out­side the box, I hate be­ing bored, I’m messy and dis­or­ga­nized, and I’m very good with words.

When au­thor-artist Shel­ley Jack­son wrote her story “Skin: A Work of Mor­tal Art,” she in­vited peo­ple to ap­ply to be in­di­vid­ual words in the story. You couldn’t choose your word. Ap­pli­cants had to tat­too their word in a serif font some­where on their bod­ies, then send Jack­son a close-up photo of the word. She then as­sem­bled the pho­tos into the story and cre­ated a trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tion of it. I loved the idea of sub­mit­ting to a work of art through be­com­ing a part of it by hav­ing a sec­tion I didn’t get to choose tat­tooed per­ma­nently on my body. I am the word “lace.”

“Mouthy Ja­maican femme with power tools”—I try to speak out; I’m femme-iden­ti­fied; I’m Ja­maican by birth. I don’t wear makeup, but I know how to use a drill, a sander and a power saw.

I’m sure your Cana­dian read­ers would like to know more about your move from Canada to Cal­i­for­nia.

NALO HOPKINSON: I in­ter­viewed for a pro­fes­sor­ship in cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side, and was hired with ten­ure, so we moved there. I teach fic­tion to un­der­grad­u­ates and M.F.A. stu­dents and am part of a fac­ulty re­search clus­ter in science fic­tion. UCR is one of the most di­verse uni­ver­si­ties in the coun­try. The con­junc­tion of that diver­sity and the genre I love is a won­der­ful one for me. I’m be­ing paid to do what I was do­ing in any case—writ­ing and teach­ing. And it’s warm!”

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