By Kathrin Kohler
The Literate Condition
April 29th, 2013
I have discovered the short stories of Nalo Hopkinson. Wow. Amazing, gripping writing. I had recently read an anthology she co-edited with Uppinder Mehan, So Long Been Dreaming, an anthology of postcolonial science fiction and fantasy – excellent stories, brilliant, go check it out if you haven’t read it yet. A search led me to Report from Planet Midnight, a thin volume from PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series. I was looking for a selection of short stories, as that is what I’m writing and able to process these days (short things, please).
There are two short stories included in Report from Planet Midnight along with the 2009 Guest of Honor speech she gave at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts: “Message in a Bottle” and “Shift”. Both blew me away. The similarities between the two? Intelligent, concise, evocative, and thoroughly engaging stories. Their styles and tone are very different, their plots – different, their main characters – different. Yet both grabbed me and both had me reeling. That’s good writing.
“Shift” is the perfect example of re-visioning – in this case, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. I have read and seen many adaptations, re-visions, re-tellings of well-known tales: from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red anthology series. “Shift” went farther than most; it brought with it history ignored by the original, brought a fairy tale into daily contemporary life and interactions.
I have always had a thing for stories that bring the secondary characters to the foreground. Maybe because I have always felt like a secondary or tertiary character, maybe because I have always wondered “but what was that like? what did people do?” when confronted with dull, antiseptic history of dates and battles and wars that totally ignored, you know, people; people living daily life, waking up (where? on what sort of bed? next to how many other people?), eating food (what kind? where did they get it? did they grow it?), thinking and interacting with others, their families and relationships… how were they viewed by society? were they able to love? live? breathe? think? What is war? What is it to be colonized? conquered? displaced?
“She tell me say I must call her Scylla, or Charybdis.
Say it don’t make no matter which, for she could never remember one different from the other, but she know one of them is her real name. She say never mind the name most people know her by; is a name some Englishman give her by scraping a feather quill on paper.
White people magic” (53).
There are some amazing twists in “Shift”; plays on culture, plays on fairy tales and gender roles and sibling rivalries and grandmothers; plays on how we view ourselves and how we fit in to society but what if we don’t fit? The title itself makes me think of sea change, that term coined in “The Tempest” from which it gets its characters. But not a complete change, more an alteration of course. A twist. A more realistic ending than a Happily Ever After, perhaps. Or a shifting of the prevailing winds…
And the writing style and narration don’t “fit” conventional genre pigeonholing and what all the textbooks tell you you should write like; but they do fit. They’re perfect. Ms. Hopkinson has written this transformative, shifting, changling of a story in this brilliant way: second person narration present tense -but wait, there’s more- two point-of-view characters with alternating interwoven texts. Yeah. How cool is that?
“In my mother and father, salt meet with sweet. Milk meet with chocolate. No one could touch her while he was alive and ruler of his lands, but the minute him dead, her family and his get together and exile her to that little island to starve to death. Send her away with two sweet-and-sour, milk chocolate pickney; me in her belly and Caliban at her breast. Is nuh that turn her bitter? When you confine the sea, it don’t stagnate? You put milk to stand, and it nuh curdle?” (63).
The Englishman may have given Sycorax a false name, may have only
written from the point of view of the colonizers, but Nalo Hopkinson has
re-visioned that story, has brought it into our contemporary world,
made it real, has given it history and context; she has given us the
point of view of the colonized characters. The “other” characters, the
ones who lived on that island first, who had a home and lives before
that story the Englishman wrote, the characters with their own stories. A
story of Diaspora.
A story of finding one’s self. Of re-shaping oneself, re-telling one’s own narrative from one’s own view point after others have turned you into a secondary character, an “other”.
A tale of magic.
An excellent tale. Because it’s true.
I forgot to include some links:
Essay: Dark Ink by Nalo Hopkinson
Interview with Sofia Samatar on Strange Horizons