Under the Spell of the Inland Author’s Imagination: Nalo Hopkinson Taps the Speculative and the Supernatural
I’m not one for making New Year’s resolutions; not anymore that is. But in the last five years, as each year ends, I’ve picked out a few things that I’m curious about to see if, throughout the year, I can follow that curiosity wherever it takes me. This is a joyful experience, and I’m glad that authors have recently written books encouraging this practice. (A few good ones are: A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.)
My journey on the road of inquiry took a turn backward at the end of 2015. I decided I would treat myself to audio versions of old myths and epics I’d read back in college English courses. I listened to “Gilgamesh,” an ancient Sumerian epic about grief and mortality; “Beowulf,” the old English epic about the Danes and their struggle with the monster Grendel; and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a short symbolic tale of a knight in King Arthur’s court. I don’t know why I am now drawn to humankind’s need to slay dragons, but the tales were all as fantastical as I remembered them.
Just as I finished the epics, I read “All Stories are the Same,” an article in The Atlantic which discusses the ongoing fictional battles between people and creatures. Author John Yorke concludes with, “In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs–the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.”
When we become interested in something, it pops up everywhere. For Christmas, my son gave me a copy of The Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Luis Borges’s compendium of imaginary creatures. Of course, there are centaurs, dragons, elves, and angels. But Borges also includes more recent literary creatures from Kafka and C. S. Lewis. His description of H. G. Wells’s Eloi and Morlocks from The Time Machine, drove me to wonder: who, in the Inland Empire, is imagining such creatures now?
In venturing into the supernatural woods, I stumbled upon Nalo Hopkinson, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. Two of her stories appear in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas (2000). “Greedy Choke Puppy” is the story of a soucouyant, a sort of Caribbean female vampire who removes her skin at night and changes into a ball of fire, searching for babies whose blood she can suck. “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” is the story of a couple who uses a technologically-enhanced second skin for fulfillment, but who find themselves fighting the life-threatening consequences.
In the more recent Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman (2013), Hopkinson’s story is “The Smile on the Face.” The title has its source in the limerick “The Lady of Niger,” lines of which are interspersed throughout the tale. In it, teenager Gilla is bored with a school reading assignment that includes the story of the laidly worm that ate St. Margaret. Gilla’s mum tells her that the story shows that St. Margaret was a hamadryad, a female spirit whose soul resides in a tree. Later, Gilla fearfully walks past a scary cherry tree in her yard while on the way to a party with her best friend. Gilla is ashamed of her blossoming body and large breasts. At the party, a particular boy openly ridicules her and becomes a true threat, but Gilla has swallowed the pit of a cherry from the tree in the yard. She discovers the powerful spirit of both dragon and tree within her.
Having enjoyed these stories, I bought Hopkinson’s most recent collection of short fiction Falling in Love with Hominids (2015). Of the three stories above, only “The Smile on the Face” is repeated. But the creatures of Hopkinson’s imagination abound. In the opening story “Easthound,” Millie believes that she has brought a pandemic to the world simply by misreading the word ‘eastbound’ and transforming the direction into a nightmare world where children hide from adults and fear growing up. As a character in “Message in a Bottle” says, “Human beings, we’re becoming increasingly post-human,” and the result is often terrifying. Other stories have teens who transform into human-water snakes, an elephant that appears in a living room, a child who is a magical granter of wishes. There’s a very different shaggy dog story in which fauna and flora commingle. Hopkinson reimagines Caliban and Ariel from Shakespeare’s “Tempest.” Her trees, tired of freezing weather, take flight. The story I most enjoyed for its sense of Mardi Gras magic about to collide with impending evil was “Ours is the Prettiest,” written as Hopkinson participated in a shared-world anthology, the Bordertown series.
In his introduction to Unnatural Creatures, Neil Gaiman writes, “I liked animals who existed in a more shadowy way even more than I liked the real ones. . . because they were impossible, because they might or might not exist, because simply thinking about them made the world a more magical place.” Hopkinson–who is local by way of Jamaica with a detour into Canada–takes us into the woods she inhabits with her shadowy creatures, making our world that more magical place.