Saturday, March 15, 2008

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson's written a lot since Brown Girl in the Ring, but I confess it's still one of my favorite books by her. I read it when I was at my most insecure and critical. Well, let me back up a bit and tell the story from the beginning.

When I was in law school, I started trying to get in touch with writers. It amazed me how many had public emails, and I tried emailing questions to a few of them and got answers nearly all the time. I guess I looked smarter in text or something. Anyhow, one of these authors was Nalo Hopkinson, who had that year won the Campbell Award. Now this is really stupid, what I did. I emailed her about something before reading any of her books. And she responded, I don't know if she took pity on my or what. Anyway, I emailed back with more writing questions and we got into a dialogue. She said one of my questions (how to write about a multicultural envoronment without flagging race in a way that revealed biases or prejudices) warrented some additional thought. She mentioned that she was teaching Clarion West that year and that this was something that would be interesting to discuss with her students. I, being an arrogant law student, I guess, told her that if I got into Clarion West, I'd make sure to bring up the topic. Her response to that was: "Okay, deal."

But then I did get into Clarion West and Nalo was to be my third week teacher. So then I went and bought the two books she had out then, Brown Girl and Midnight Robber. Here I was, trying to take my life around a 90 degree turn at 70 miles per hour. I'd put writing on the back burner and now realized that was a Big Mistake. Clarion West had, I don't know, mixed up submissions or something, and let me in, and I was trying to learn to read with a critical eye in the hopes that this would produce greater writing talent in myself. At this time in my life I was having a very hard time getting through books. I was hyper-critical.

So I read Brown Girl in the Ring and just loved it. I tried to be distanced and read with one raised eyebrow, but by the end I was too engrossed in the story to bother. It's a lovely piece of craftsmanship from beginning to end. The setting is Toronto after severe political and economic upheavals. The protagonist is a single mother having issues with her baby's father and living in an old outdoor museum with her medicine woman mother. The prologue justifies itself (I'm not big on prologues) by being about the problems the main characters will face, and yet it doesn't feature the main characters. Therefore it makes sense that it isn't the first chapter.

The book pulls you into the milieu of Afro-Caribbean culture and without infodumping or slowing the action, takes even an uninformed reader like myself on a fascinating odyssey with a climax that is both new and exciting because of the milieu, but also so well set up that I wasn't lost for a moment. Given my background and this story, that was no mean feat.

Midnight Robber was actually her first novel, but it was published second. It's science fiction, where Brown Girl is fantasy. It too is steeped in Afro-Caribbean culture, but is set on another planet. Parts of this book are especially hard to take as the main character, another strong young woman, endures some of the worst crimes imaginable. And yet, Nalo manages to keep a certain sense of whimsy to it all without disrespecting her. I recommend this book as well (but will always have a special place in my heart for Brown Girl, I must say.)

Since then Nalo's also written The Salt Roads, The New Moon's Arms, and has a collection of short fiction called, Skin Folk. She's a very accomplished short fiction author and at Clarion West taught us that even a short story shouldn't have just one plot. There should be a counterpoint story, even if much of it is conveyed in the margins. This definitely helped me beef up my short stories.

And Nalo herself is a wonderful person. Later that same year, I met her for the first time at the UCLA Festival of Books. I introduced myself and she immediately knew who I was. In my two books of hers that I had she wrote: "Looking forward to Clarion West" and "A virtual friend made real."

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