Nalo Hopkinson

The Salt Roads

The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

 Fantastic science fiction writer, Nalo Hopkinson, author of several books in the science fiction genre that center people of color, posted a great essay to her blog, entitled “Looking for Clues”  addressing the oft posed question: Why do you write science fiction? In her blog essay, Hopkinson tackles representation, the power of envisioning the future, and the importance of being seen and imagined into the future.  She begins her essay, originally a speech she gave at Wiscon, by saying,

“There’s a thing that often happens at some point when I’m being interviewed about my writing. The interviewer, whatever part of the world or whatever       subculture they come from, will put on a curious look and say, “And why do you write science fiction?” the implication being, “Why are you, a black woman from the Caribbean, interested in a literature that still is largely by and about white people, largely men, using technology largely made by the dominant cultures, to turn the world and the people in it to their desires?””

Hopkinson is a talented writer, creating powerful worlds where gender, sexuality, oppression, racism, and issues of power are not avoided but directly confronted, challenged, or reimagined. I’m (embarrassingly) new to Hopkinson’s work, but when I discovered her this summer through her book The Salt Roads, I felt much like I felt when I first stumbled upon Octavia Butler: as if I had been presented with a very special gift, selected specially for me.

What I appreciate about Hopkinson’s essay is that her voice comes clearly through – and that she uses that voice, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, “in the service of her vision,” to directly address the lack of diversity, diverse stories, and the erasure of people of color in science fiction. She fully embraces the genre, while also pointing out the dangerous cracks in its foundation – namely the racism and sexism that are ground into the genre. Hopkinson shares a startling anecdote about a science fiction story she read as a child:

There was a book I read when I was little; it was a story in which a group of children had to endure a number of dangers and travails. At the end, they reached a fantasy land where they would live happily ever after and they were each rewarded with their heart’s desire. The white children asked for horses, castles, jewels; in other words, property, title and money. And what words did the writer put in the mouth of the one black child to make the journey safely? He asked for a small everbearing watermelon patch and all the watermelon he could eat. And he got it. He spent the eternity of Paradise lying outdoors in a watermelon patch with a huge smile on his face, devouring slice after slice of watermelon the size of his head. The writer intimated that this was quaint and charming and oh so culturally specific and appropriate. My child’s brain understood it as the best to which I would be able to aspire.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of SandWhat an analysis! I am particularly struck by Hopkinson’s incisive observation that,”The white children asked for horses, castles, jewels; in other words, property, title and money.” This captures, to me, the early indoctrination about what one as a child, can or should possess, and how that is conveyed and messaged using every available resource – even our literacy and imagination. We’re always told that reading makes us better – we can broader insights, and certainly, I would never truly disagree with this central principle as a reader. Yet, I also hold that it’s true that depending on who the author is, reading may also narrow what we can even begin to imagine for ourselves. Hopkinson throughout her essay, repeatedly quotes Samuel R. Delany, the Black gay science fiction writer who points out that, “we need visions of the future, and our people need them more than most.” 

I’d argue that Black diasporic cultures are deeply familiar with the science fiction genre because of our history of syncretism, as a result of colonialization and slavery, and the importance of storytelling in many Black diasporic cultures. Both Delany and Hopkinson are right. And I hear echoes of James Baldwin in both of their sentiments. Folks of color must imagine and vision ourselves in the future, and in some cases, in a very different (and healthier) future than the present we currently inhabit. Hopkinson challenges the idea that having characters in science fiction who are solely white really represents an effectively imagined future, saying,

My friend Ian Hagemann, a regular at Wiscon, once said on a panel that when he reads science fiction futures that are full of white people and no one else, he wonders when the race war happened that wiped out the majority of the human race, and why the writer hasn’t mentioned such an important plot point.

Perhaps the science fiction futures where there are only white people represent a fantasy of sorts for a world without people of color – and that too is deeply disturbing, but makes it all the more important to have diverse representation within the genre. Hopkinson’s essay is a must read – not only for those who are fans of science fiction, but also for authors of color and readers thinking critically about representation. Thank you Ms. Hopkinson!

I’d love to hear Hopkinson’s thoughts on Zane and the explosively popular “urban fiction” genre.

Over at The Root recently published a piece titled, “The Root Rewrites the Western Canon,” in which staffers suggest 25 books that could replace/be considered part of the Western Canon of literature. I appreciate the list as it names some authors and titles that may not be well known, though it also neglects some key figures and gems, including Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Octavia Butler, George C. Wolfe, James McBride, Patricia Hill Collins, and Ann Petry – who in my humble opinion is consistently overlooked, though she was a mighty talent who’s naturalism rivaled (and outdid Wright).

What do you think? What books would make your rewrite of the Western canon?

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