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Black to the Future: Nalo Hopkinson, Toronto and Afrofuturism

November 18th, 2014     by Septembre Anderson     Issue 27: Issue 27: The Tech Issue     Comments

Photo: Nalo Hopkinson

Being the only Black girl in the room is an awkwardly uncomfortable experience. The absence of racial diversity can turn any space hostile and make any problem seem insurmountable. One is forever blazing a trail, with no one to look to for guidance, support or camaraderie. For many Black authors, the world of science fiction and fantasy can seem like that alienating place.

Queer Jamaican-born Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson knows that experience all too well.

Nalo Hopkinson was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1960 and moved to Toronto in 1975. Before settling down in Canada’s largest city, Hopkinson made homes of both Trinidad and Guyana, giving her a pan-Caribbean worldview that inspires, influences and appears in her writing.

However, it wasn’t until she learned that her favourite author and one of the original Afrofuturists, Samuel R. Delany, was Black that she discovered a kindred spirit, a realization that left her in tears.

“So what was it that made you cry?” asked Donna Bailey Nurse in Quill & Quire. “Did Delany give you permission to write?”

“Not permission,” replied Hopkinson. “Company. My universe had doubled in size.”

Since that discovery, Hopkinson has moved into the pantheon of Afrofuturist writers with big names like Delany and Octavia Butler. Afrofuturism refers to music, literature, art and fashion that draw on elements from science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy and magical writing – Black characters in fantasy worlds imagined by Black creators. Hopkinson’s contribution to Afrofuturism began with Brown Girl in the Ring, her first novel.

Brown Girl in the Ring follows Black female protagonist Ti-Jeanne around a dystopian city. “Toronto became a donut hole after the inner city collapsed as those who could, those with money, retreated to the suburbs leaving those who couldn’t, those without money, to fend for themselves,” writes Hopkinson.

Along with their money, the rich also took the government and police services with them, leaving those who remained in the city to eke out a living beneath the thumb of gang lord Rudy Sheldon. It is up to Ti-Jeanne, with the help of her grandmother Gros-Jeanne and the Orisha gods, to end Rudy’s supernatural rule over the crumbling metropolis.

Readers are just as likely to stumble across references to the Parkdale Library, as they are characters like Bruk Foot Sam and Roopsingh, patois phrases such as the exclamation “Jeezam peace!” and the term of endearment “doux-doux,” and casual references to lesbian characters.

The beauty of Hopkinson’s work is that she deviates from the ‘mythical norm’ – white, male, heterosexual – and presents a world where Caribbean landscapes share space with West African folklore and queer, female protagonists.

Her novels are creating a more diverse universe, one book at a time.

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