Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Writing From the Body: An Interview with Nalo Hopkinson


Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica and has also lived in Trinidad, Guyana, and Canada. She is the author of six novels (including Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber, and Sister Mine), a short story collection (Skin Folk), and a chapbook (Report From Planet Midnight), along with multiple fiction anthologies. Hopkinson’s work has received many awards, including the Locus Award for Best New Writer, the World Fantasy Award, and the Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, among others. A new short story collection, Falling in Love With Hominids, will be a 2015 release from Tachyon Publications. Hopkinson was recently in town giving a talk, and graciously agreed to meet for a conversation before hopping a plane back to the University of California, Riverside, where she is a professor of creative writing. Warded from Pittsburgh’s early winter chill by walls filled with books of science fiction and fantasy, our conversation ranged from teaching pedagogies and desirable superpowers to the decisions involved in writing sex scenes.

Hot Metal Bridge: What is “postcolonial science fiction”?

Hopkinson: I remember when Uppinder Mehan and I were doing the anthology, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy. I knew what “science fiction” was—and that itself is a contested term—but he had to explain to me what “postcolonial” was. And of course it was a long explanation with many long words in it. People had been telling me that I wrote postcolonial literature, and I had no idea what they were talking about. If I were to explain it now in terms of science fiction, I would have to go to a dictionary even though I’ve edited an anthology of postcolonial science fiction. But to me science fiction is a sort of perfect way to be talking about colonialism and its aftereffects because that’s the core story of science fiction: going to other places and meeting new aliens and taking their stuff! [laughs] So when you get that awareness being brought into science fiction by writers and critics from postcolonial communities or with an analysis of colonialism and its effects, many times we already have a lot of the language for making fiction about it, a lot of the language for critiquing it, for saying here’s what may result, or here’s what could be different, or here’s some of the possibilities, here’s what this experience is like psychically. And there is some resistance in the science fiction community to people doing that, but there’s also a whole lot of people going “Hell yeah! It’s about time! We’ve wanted to see this for a very long time.” So it’s a very fruitful genre to be doing that kind of work in.

It has been a genre that has been predominantly white, western, middle-class, and male for a long time. Now it’s closer to being 50-50 in terms of male and female writers, but there have been waves of people claiming science fiction for their own. There’s the whole feminist wave; there are anthologies based around queer experiences in science fiction, and increasingly, anthologies based around communities of color. There’s one coming out that’s talking about ability and disability. And so the community’s generating its own material as quickly as it can, and being that we’re so internet-connected, we’re very quick to take advantage of things like Kickstarter to get small things funded. And as with any small community that has been marginalized and is accustomed to activism in support of its own survival, give us any little bit of money and we can make wonderful things happen.

One of the things I’m seeing about those anthologies is often it’s a younger expression. It’s younger folks with not as much experience. So, for instance, one of the things you’ll see is the copy editing won’t be as strong as something coming out from Simon and Schuster. And I have to put that aside, to some extent, and look at the message, look at the vigor, insight and imagination in the work. This is modern day samizdat. This is “we can now take the means of production into our own hands.” And people are learning on the ground, learning from each other. When I think of a zine, I don’t expect everything to be spelled correctly. What I want is the message, the challenge to my own preconceptions and those of others. When I pick up these anthologies, what I want is the story and the sensibility. And those are coming out in droves. There’s a lot of push-back…but there’s a lot of push-forward.

HMB: As long as it’s not a Doctor Dolittle pushmi-pullyu type of stalemate…

Hopkinson: Right! Forward tends to win out.

HMB: During your talk at Carnegie Mellon, you mentioned science fiction’s relationship to our “real” lives, but also to the reality of the classroom. Does teaching interact with what you’re writing, or how you’re writing?

Hopkinson: It does… the lovely thing about teaching is that the students challenge you because they want to know why about everything. Sometimes they want to know the why of things you’ve never questioned. It’s also quite humbling. More than once I’ve found a particular literary strategy that I see failing over and over in someone’s work or in a group’s work—I’m noticing it because I’ve done it myself. So I have to confess and say, “Yeah….there’s a reason why I know this so well. And I hadn’t even thought about it until I saw it in your work.”

Because I’m teaching in a plot driven form, I bring a different way of looking at structure to people. My metaphors for craft tend to be scientific and kinetic. (Go figure.) When it comes to teaching craft, we try to open their eyes. Which means you have to have different strategies because you never know what’s going to make the lights go on for a student. I bring different strategies from our genre that many of them haven’t seen or heard of before, and often they tell me it’s the first time they’ve thought of something in a particular way. I also bring my current hobbyhorse, which is about the way that fiction really works by creating a sensory kinetic map for the reader. The sensory map is the protagonist for the reader to enter and move around inside the story. It’s not that we receive the story, it’s that we’re inside the story, exploring and learning about it as the protagonist does.

HMB: Kinda like a video game?

Hopkinson: Better. Hmm. No—let me not do a disservice to video games. Good ones can do this just as well. You have to create strong sensory images for sensation and movement. So if you say “She was angry,” that’s just delivering a fact. If you say, to use an old cliché, “A pulse beat in her temple,” all of a sudden the reader’s nerve endings are firing. A pulse may not actually beat in reader’s temple, but those nerve endings are firing. They’ve scientifically mapped this.

I bring a certain amount of science to the craft of writing; I bring a fair bit of magic to the craft of writing. I try to give them as many new ways of approaching it as possible. And because I also come out of a Caribbean writing tradition that has very much privileged writing in vernacular, I do a lot of getting them to practice discovering what their own vernaculars are, listening for other peoples’, and trying to make sure that not every character speaks the same, or necessarily speaks in the same register as the author. It’s a hard one for them to grasp at the undergrad level, I find. They’ve had the expository essay so dinned into their heads that they try to write fiction in bland, declarative prose, and it just doesn’t work.

HMB: That type of writing sounds really ugly and horrible.

Hopkinson: I often wonder why, if you think that’s what fiction is, would you major in creative writing at all…

HMB: Let’s move away from the chilling idea of undergraduates who can’t write anything but exposition and back to your idea of moving through the literary world. Science fiction and fantasy are genres that are not only plot-driven, but also world-driven; the world-building relates intensely to what can happen in the plot. Previously you’ve mentioned that when you write about Big Important Issues you don’t want them to have an incredibly easy fix—just because you’re a character in a fantastical or science fictional world, there’s still no waving a magical wand and escaping from lineages of violence—

Hopkinson: No superhero who can make time go backwards.

HMB:—right! So how does this avoidance of the genre-specific “easy outs” affect the worlds, the spaces and places, you build? This may lead into more general ideas about the use of literary place…

Hopkinson: One of the things I have to challenge frequently in younger writers is the unquestioned notion that the character doesn’t have much baggage, that the character is just a vehicle for story. When in fact everything in our history creates our environments. The fact that there are train tracks running by this river that we’re sitting by and that those tracks have a certain width is an effect of history. The fact of what we’re sitting here eating is an effect of colonialism—We’re eating figs.

HMB: And marmalade!

Hopkinson: Even though it’s below freezing outside. All those things affect our experience of the world. They affect the character’s experience of the world in subtle ways. It is better to avoid a long information dump on those connections, but you do have to really live inside your character to know what the world is doing to them and what they’re doing to the world. I have to have people ask questions such as: “What is this person’s history?”, “What do they do for a living?” I mean, questions you’re probably asking in fiction anyway become all the more important in science fiction and fantasy because you’re creating the world from the ground up. You have to choose what to put in and what to leave out. It’s too easy to make protagonists into ciphers.

HMB: Writers have to ask the question, “Is the character you’re writing using the steampunk gadget, or are they building the gears for the steampunk gadget?”

Hopkinson: And if you’re building the gears for the steampunk gadget, how does that affect your body? There is, and I remember having this problem, so I can’t say “youth nowadays”…but today there’s not a very strong sense of history. Anything 20 years in the past might as well be from 2000 years ago. I’m a voice for research. The character of an upper middle-class 19th century young woman from New York is not wearing shorts to the market.

HMB: And if she is, that writer is doing something very deliberate with the timeline.

Hopkinson: Exactly. The writer is creating an alternate history. It’s not that you can’t do it, but know why you’re doing it. And what it affects.

HMB: Including how everyone else in that world will react…

Hopkinson: Certainly. And I sometimes fear I’m overwhelming my students because there are so many layers of competency you have to take on in writing science fiction and fantasy. When your writing concerns only reality, there are things you don’t need to question. Writing science fiction and fantasy means you need to question whether there’s even a sun. And then question what direction that sun comes up in and what color it is.

HMB: Let alone how many suns there even are.

Hopkinson: And then, using the answers to those questions: what color does it mean the plants are? What is the composition of the air? Given that composition, what is the biology of creatures on the world you’ve created? Lots of competencies… It means people who are trying to write science fiction and fantasy will at first usually be very clumsy. It means at the apprenticeship stages science fiction can look a lot less mature than mimetic fiction because there are so many more steps of knowledge to take on and then try to synthesize. So for creative writing teachers, what I’m trying to say is to be patient; don’t assume this person can’t write. You may just have to bring them to the understanding of, for instance, the emotional connection to the character (we tend to focus a lot on the plot because the story falls apart if the plot doesn’t work).

You have to find ways of making students see other things. I don’t think he will mind me telling this story because he’s told it himself on the Internet, but I had a student who had been at a workshop for four weeks and was facing two more weeks. He had been told over and over again that his writing was hollow.

HMB: Hollow?

Hopkinson: Hollow. There’s a particular type of journeyman science fiction writing that’s just hollow. The character feels like an eggcup with legs. In his story there was a teenager trying to survive on her own with a freshly broken ankle, but he hadn’t written any effects of her trying to walk on a broken ankle.

HMB: Ah-ha. Hollow.

Hopkinson: And he thought he’d had a breakthrough, but just got exactly the same feedback he’d been taking in for 4 weeks. So he came to me not knowing what to do next. And I said, “When you write, where are you writing from?” He said, “I’m in the character’s head, and I’m thinking about what are they thinking about…” and he used the word think over and over again, and finally I said, “You need to write from their body, and I don’t mean emotions—those will come through—but what are their sensations and what is movement doing to them.” At first he didn’t see why it was important and was having a hard time understanding it…

HMB: You can’t focus on anything, let alone think, when your stomach is gurgling about being hungry.

Hopkinson: Right! So he listened, and went away and wrote the next story. And he nailed it. I started reading it and critiquing it, but the whole time I was thinking “Something’s different…Something’s different…” and I realized the character had just skinned his knee and my knee was burning. The character was embarrassed and I could feel my own checks flushing. I was in the story for the first time.

You might need to do that with the students writing science fiction and fantasy. They’ve been writing it in isolation because everybody tells them these genres are bad writing, are bad literature. If they haven’t found the science fiction community, these writers are working completely in the dark. They might have one set of competencies working beautifully and miss things that to you are obvious. So bring them to it before you decide that a) the literature is impoverished and b) the student has no talent.

HMB: I think sometimes the many-layered competencies of the genre seeps through to the demands on its readers. I just finished teaching Midnight Robber. The first third of the book occurs on the technology-filled planet Toussaint. Though they were reading critically, I noticed most students were also just thoroughly enjoying the differentness, the future-ness, of that planet. And then the protagonist, Tan-tan, gets banished to a very different planet. The class realized that, just like her, they had to reassess, they now didn’t know what was going on. And then, in the middle of regaining their footing, there’s sexual violence.

Hopkinson: I tried to put in signs that it was going that way… Much of that was done in rewriting. It wasn’t so much in the first draft, but I went back in subsequent drafts and figured out where the points were that I could embed hints so that hopefully it wasn’t a total surprise. Some people still were surprised.

HMB: As were some of my students before we discussed those indicator signs. However, even though they were hard to read, the students appreciated the sections dealing with sexual assault and its aftermath. Those sections invited important discussions; it let them talk about things that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Your writing often allows for such conversations. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on hard subjects like sexual violence: how do you write about them? How do you teach about them?

Hopkinson: Writing about hard subjects, writing about sexual violence (which is the one that pushes most people’s buttons the hardest), but also any kind of violence—bad relationships, fraught relationships, bad things happening to good people—I’m still learning to do. I’m really good at being explicit about sexual violence, about any violence. I’m very good at imagining what happens to the body because I write from the body, so it brings people in even when they don’t want to be brought in. I’m learning when to temper that.

I don’t believe in soft-coating it, but sometimes you can bring the reader in as far as they need to go and give them the mercy of looking away a little bit. I had to write a scene that had actually happened, where a freedom fighter in Haiti named François Mackandal was burned at the stake. I wrote the scene from the perspective of one of the witnesses. So, I took the reader up to seeing Mackandal tied there. I show them the flames being lit. I can imagine what happens to a live body being burned. But instead of writing that, I have the witness say, “a burning body smells like pork.” I didn’t need much else. The reader’s already gone there. I didn’t need to go through all the sensations and the screaming. I’m learning when the reader’s already there with me so I don’t need to grab them by the hand and drag them to the corpse. It’s that sensibility I try to teach. Sometimes you do want to rub the reader’s nose in things. You know that that’s going to make some readers mad at you. And you might be triggering people if you’re writing about a traumatic experience akin to one they’ve had. I think the really important thing about that is: if you’re going to do it, then get it right. ‘Cause it’s bad enough they’re re-experiencing it, but if you get details wrong then it’s a little betrayal. So do your research. So now I’m trying to be just a little bit gentler on the reader, but not much.

When it comes to writing sex, I write all kinds of sex and sexualities. Which means I need a reader who won’t be freaked out by being in a body that’s not, perhaps, the one they’d want to be in, having an experience that’s not one that makes them comfortable. To me that’s part of the fun of it. Susie Bright, who used to publish an annual anthology of erotica, found it wasn’t doing so well because it was pansexual. She tended to have more female readers than male readers, ‘cause female readers are more used to that and more comfortable with it; male readers didn’t want to find themselves in a sexuality they weren’t comfortable with having a reaction to and, of course, erotica is there to turn you on. I like messing with that.

Sometimes I’ve had to write my way into a scene that I didn’t know how to approach, or was afraid to approach because it wasn’t my sexuality or it was and I didn’t want to talk about it. And I found one trick would be to sort of tell it from the experience of a character I was more familiar with. Usually in a sex scene there’s either an equivalence of play or there’s the equivalent of pitcher/catcher, so I learned I could pick the one I felt more comfortable with and write from that perspective. I could turn off the internal censor and let myself play with the situation I was writing.

HMB: Would you then go back to the scene and do it from another perspective, or would you keep it from the slightly more familiar and comfortable one? It might depend on the story; if you needed a particular character’s view…

Hopkinson: If it wasn’t the point-of-view character, I have the point-of-view character observing those reactions. That’s the easiest way to explain it. At some point you have to just kind of go for it. Tell yourself nobody need ever see this, and just go for it. Afterwards, if you find it strong, you’ll want to send it out to publishers.

HMB: I know of no enticing transitions from the topic of sex scenes so, instead, a dorky question: What is one thing (magical, scientific or somewhere in-between) you’ve created or greatly appropriated that you wish was real and you could use/have or just existed in the world?

Hopkinson: That might be a hard one for me; I’m not sure I tend to do that. When I was a kid I hated dolls. I hated playing make-believe. And now it’s what I do for a living. So I don’t have that sort of wishful thinking. I wouldn’t own a magic wand, for instance.

HMB: You wouldn’t want a TARDIS? Everyone wants a TARDIS.

Hopkinson: No. I wouldn’t time travel. Time travel is baaaaaaad.

HMB: Ok, sure: it can go wrong in many ways. It can be awful. But…wouldn’t you just want it?

Hopkinson: No, no. [shakes head] There must be something…

HMB: I want your colourdot because lipstick is evil and devilishly hard to apply. In Midnight Robber, the character Ione just has to put her favorite colourdot on her lips, purses them together, and has perfect lip color.

Hopkinson: Oh, like that—Sure. I would like to be able to wake up every morning and choose what body I want to be in. Today I want freckles and I want to be 7 feet tall.

HMB: Talk about something that could really change the way you write and teach! What have you read lately that stuck in your head? When I ask this awful question—because it’s an awful question to try and answer—what pops into your brain?

Hopkinson: It is an awful question. I’m not sure it ever helps anybody, but people ask it all the time so it must be helping someone.

HMB: Well, it gives you a name and a title to look up.

Hopkinson: Yes, it does. I think I’m currently just feeling overwhelmed, like “there’s so much to read!”, so I want titles but…[distressed groan]

I really enjoyed the graphic novel series The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar. I preferred them in the French, but the English is good, too. It’s set in a Jewish community in Morocco and told from the point of view of the rabbi’s cat, which a delightfully evil little beast. The cat is upset because it’s intelligent, but can’t speak, but the rabbi’s parrot is stupid and can speak. Eventually the cat says “So one day I ate the parrot” and then the cat can talk. The story speaks about the anti-Semitism of the time, living there in a Jewish community that is literally under siege. At one point the cat wants a Bar Mitzvah, so now the rabbi has to figure out if a cat has a soul…

HMB: Especially if the cat can talk because it ate a parrot.

Hopkinson: Exactly, it hasn’t stopped begin a cat; it’s still a hunter, it has a moral code we wouldn’t think of as being good. The cat also has a huge crush on the rabbi’s daughter. There are four books in the series and it’s just delightful. I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels. I liked The Invisibles. I liked Bayou by Jeremy Love, another series of graphic novels that won a competition DC Comics was having. It’s set in Jim Crow era in the American South and is fantastical, so it uses the black folklore from the time. There’s a talking hound dog sheriff who has real dogs and who hunts down “bad behaved” negroes…and there’s a giant golliwog, but it’s white, and it comes out of the swamp and eats people whole.

HMB: That sounds terrifying.

Hopkinson: It is terrifying. And so beautifully drawn; it’s very childlike. There’s a little girl who’s trying to save her dad. They’re both black and he’s been wrongfully accused of something, and she knows if she can’t stop it he’s going to be lynched. So she’s going through this magical bayou to get to him.

HMB: This is why people keep asking you that awful question—that’s a fantastic answer.

Hopkinson: I’m going to be teaching Bayou in a couple of weeks. I’ll see how my students react. I’m teaching them the folklore roots of science fiction and fantasy, having them come in and tell folktales from their own backgrounds, and linking folklore modern day literature that draws on folktales.

HMB: Since you’ve been thinking about this for pedagogical purposes…Other than your own writing, which draws on folktales a lot, shifts and connects and takes different parts and combines them, and other than Bayou…anything else you find really striking which uses folktales?

Hopkinson: I just reread Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose, which was part of the fairytale series of novels curated by Terri Windling. It’s still such a powerful novel. It talks about one of the places where Nazis imprisoned and killed Jewish people where nobody came out, and it does so in the context of the Briar Rose story. When people talk about fantasy as escapism…this story does not let you look away for a minute. It’s beautiful. And it holds up very well.

I taught Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl which draws on lore about the Chinese goddess Nu Wah, because I wanted to bring in folktales from as much of the world as I could. I’m teaching short stories as well, there’s a beautiful one called “I Shall Do Thee Mischief in the Wood” by Kathe Koja. It does things to the Little Red Riding Hood story that…are so delightfully messed up. You keep thinking you know who or what the wolf is and it keeps slipping on you.

The conversation continued on into the amazing resource of UCR’s Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy (the largest publicly-accessible collection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature in the world), and meandering among thoughts about diverse classrooms, Pittsburgh tunnels, and knitting. Eventually all the tea was drunk, the extra crackers and cheese packed away, and Hopkinson departed for her flight.