MARCH 10, 2016
NALO HOPKINSON’S first short story collection in many years provides an overview of her work in the medium since 2000. Hopkinson has long been considered a top-tier science fiction and fantasy writer as well as a teller of tales from her first homes, Jamaica and Trinidad. Readers approaching the book as I did, by reading the stories sequentially, might find themselves surprised by the way they so often flirt with the fantastic, only to pull back into the uncertainty of realism at the last moment. In one story, a young woman defends herself from a sexual assault at a party game by turning into a dragon — she knows it, and her assailant knows it, but her friends at the party do not notice any change in her. Were we imagining it, or was this a special, selective kind of magic? The story resolves, too, such that the protagonist gets to describe her own experience without the threat of her attacker writing over it. This resolution raises another kind of fantasy — the best kind of feminist wish fulfillment — for our consideration. Both the uncertainty of the young woman’s transformation in the story and its resonant power as a model for feminist action intervene at the level of genre to change expectations about what the spectacular can be and do as a mode of storytelling. Hopkinson’s is an especially refreshing intervention during a time when misogynist narratives (like the Game of Thrones series) continue to present sexual assault as a shallow plot point often for the development of male characters.
It was only in thinking back to stories I had just read, which, by the way, is something this collection makes one do, that I began to remember their science fictional qualities. The experience I am getting at is just like one that happens in a conversation when you feel like you didn’t hear something your friend just said — only to realize that you can remember it. Hopkinson’s stories produce a similar effect. They seem to be stories about personal struggles and dramas or even stories about the ways family can be both good and subversive at the same time (which admittedly feels like a science fiction in the midst of the rise of men’s rights movements and attacks on women’s reproductive rights in Canada and the United States); after reading, and upon reflection, I remember that a young character claimed to be a clone sent from the future to collect art left by snails. In light of this recollection, I realize that Hopkinson’s stories pervade my thinking, subtly reorganizing my synapses until I unconsciously begin to encounter the world in a slightly different way. They are, in retrospect, science fictional in the best possible way.
Hopkinson is truly a master of the genre of speculative writing that spans the fantastic, science fiction, dystopia, and the new weird. This comment, true as it is, is also slightly disingenuous, because Hopkinson doesn’t limit her writing to Western forms and, as those who have been following her career know, she often writes in genres less familiar to white, Canadian readers like me. So by way of a caveat, I wish to make clear that I am responding to these stories as part of a science fiction writing tradition that I know, and I want to recognize that part of Hopkinson’s subtle tack is to teach her readers that the genres they take for granted are pliable and can have different outcomes than we might at first suspect.
I would like to proceed by gesturing to my favorite line in the collection, from the story “Old Habits”: “I’m dead, okay? I’m fucking dead. This is not going to be one of those stories where the surprise twist is and he was dead!” Trapped in a mall, the ghostly narrator watches his ghost friend as she goes “on the clock” to relive her own death — something that happens to each of the ghosts in the story every day — because he just feels “a person should have someone who cares about them with them when they die.” The “habits” in the title refer to the ghosts’ tendency to act out past behaviors: for instance, they all gather around a table in the food court. As they sit-float, they discuss the things they miss the most. All the old class discrepancies and sexual tensions persist, which is a funny thing for ghosts. They have their own ghost stories too, which is another habit, I suppose. They tell “an urban legend or maybe a spectral legend,” about this one guy who pushed open the doors and disappeared into the “blackness that is all [they] can see beyond the mall doors.” This part of the story catches, staying with me after I’ve put down the book, because the narrator both acknowledges the bizarreness that a ghost (intangible in this realm) can open the mall door and feels drawn to that blackness himself. The only other exit from the mall is revealed when one of the ghosts claims she can smell things again — specifically things from the living world. The other ghosts snap (which isn’t the right word here, I know, but that is the difficulty of writing about ghosts) and senselessly descend, obliterating all that’s left of the former human. In “Old Habits,” there are two paths to oblivion, and there are no paths back to the world of flesh — though it still exists: ghosts can disappear through the door or perish as victims of phantasmagoric spectracide. This is, in some sense, a story about parallel universes. Or, in literary terms, an allegory of mall life that recalls those haunting and familiar photographs from the 1980s when shopping malls used to be strange, postmodern, and alienating (Michael Galinsky’s images, for example, can be seen in the New Republic here). The story also plays out the fantasy of being locked in the mall overnight (which is not just a fantasy for all, as an internet search shows that this happens quite frequently). The oblivion on offer here happens to be not only ghost-destroying, but narrative-destroying as well, the way these ghosts cling to narrative and to storytelling as such turns out to be an interesting symptom, or as Lauren Berlant would say, a cruel optimism — their very ghostly attachments to the sensuous world of flesh turn out to be obstacles to their flourishing. Why haven’t they all fled the mall?! The story suggests, of course, that this is the question we ought to all be asking ourselves.
Later in the collection, Hopkinson offers stories that are more haunting than “Old Habits.” “A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog” develops slowly and uses the narrator’s second-person address (“you”) in a tricky way. There is a mystery here: Who is this person with the green thumb, growing orchids in their apartment and turning on the fire sprinklers to catch a few sweet minutes of indoor rain before the fire trucks can arrive? And, who are they talking to throughout? A small kitten, a child? What secrets do they nurture? Unlike the ghosts, this narrator knows what they want, but, in this story, the reader is left in the dark — until the end that is. I promise this collection has its fair share of new weird revelations.
The story “Blushing” disturbs. From the outset, the female speaker seems unbalanced, and the house her lover has built for her seems isolated, even in Toronto’s Kensington Market (where it seems the story takes place). Hopkinson generates uncertainty and nervous energy in her writing as the speaker’s partner forbids entry to his sanctum. But this is a tale about curiosity, where it can lead, and what escapes obsession by hiding in the background, out of the narrator’s sight (but not necessarily the reader’s). On her search for an antique key to fit the lock to the forbidden room, the narrator describes the scenery: “The telephone poles were spackled with the motley of old posters: band appearances; dog-walking services; grainy, nth-generation photocopies of the faces of missing women.” Reading this line, my gut clenches. I think about the placement of photocopies on the actual telephone poles in actual Canadian cities — here, fiction bursts through to reality. All we can know about missing and murdered Indigenous women comes from stories. Hopkinson’s story here doesn’t hold back. It’s a kind of perverse wish fulfillment, different from elsewhere in the collection, where the revelation of the bloody secret in the hidden room doesn’t horrify as much as the main character’s willing, yet stunned, complicity and acquiescence to join her torturous partner. Hopkinson’s story describes violence against women, presenting it on a delicately united spectrum from the manipulations of a dominant partner to the violently self-destructive impulses of patriarchy.
The final story that I would like to describe, “Whose Upward Flight I Love,” is only a page long. I think it is the most beautiful story in the collection. In it, the parks department uses prison surplus vans “blocky, painted happy green” to trick their quarry, the trees themselves. They come to secure the trees, which Hopkinson describes as buoyant and restless:
One tree escaped before they could reach it; yanked its roots clear of the gelid soil and flapping its leafy limbs, leapt frantically for the sky. A woman of the crew shouted and jumped for it. Caught at a long, trailing root as the tree rose above her. For a second she hung on. Then the root tore away in her hand and the tree flew free. Its beating branches soughed at the air.
The tree knocks a woman down. She hits the ground. This has happened before, she tells her partner. The story takes a twist, recasting the surprise of a flying tree as they begin to talk about her relationship. The narrator explains, “They would soldier on. And quarrel again, neither sure whether they battled to leave each other or stay.” The churning ground of meaning in this story startles and delights at each turn. Each short paragraph brings with it new elements of description that solidify the story even as they undo expectations. After all, all there is is the story — the words on the page. And yet, like Borges’s Aleph, it contains an entire world. The incredible power of the story, of Hopkinson as a writer, and of this collection, lies in the small moments where she lets things be pulled back together again. The final line of the story captures this desire elegantly, “A burgundy gleam on the powder-dusted ground caught her eye. The severed root was crawling jerkily, trying to follow in the direction its tree had gone.” Loss, acknowledgment, and longing for a finally completed form let the last line of the story unite with the collection. The power of Hopkinson’s stories lies in their capacity to help us reimagine our own movement through the world and to wonderfully innovate new trajectories for speculative fiction as a whole.