Sci-Fi Writing as a Radical Act

by Niranjana Iyer

If you don’t read fantasy and science fiction because you think it’s all about heroic loner dudes saving the world—run, don’t walk, to Nalo Hopkinson’s books.

One of the most original, intelligent, imaginative and ambitious voices in fiction today, Hopkinson writes formidable yet playful tales that are masterful meditations on current and future society. Her female protagonists, often marginalized, act as change agents while operating within a strongly rooted family network.

If you don’t read fantasy and science fiction because you think it’s all about heroic loner dudes saving the world—run, don’t walk, to Nalo Hopkinson’s books.

One of the most original, intelligent, imaginative and ambitious voices in fiction today, Hopkinson writes formidable yet playful tales that are masterful meditations on current and future society. Her female protagonists, often marginalized, act as change agents while operating within a strongly rooted family network.

The efforts of Hopkinson and others to make fantasy and science fiction more inclusive have been met with fierce resistance within the fantasy and science fiction writers’ community. A group calling themselves the “sad puppies” went so far as to accuse the prestigious science fiction and fantasy Hugo Awards
of “rewarding [left-wing] ideology over [conservative] storytelling.” Sad
puppies organized voting blocks to back their preferred authors on the Hugo nominees’ list, an act that led to much rancour within the science fiction and fantasy community. Only one of the sad puppies’ nominees won a Hugo when the awards were announced in August, but diversity remains a political hot potato.

Hopkinson, whose Twitter bio identifies her as a “mouthy Jcan [ Jamaican] femme,” is defi nitely seeking to broaden the diversity of voices in the science fiction and fantasy field. Born in Jamaica, Hopkinson moved to Toronto when she was 16 and attended York University. She holds an M.A. in writing popular
fi ction from Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania.

Her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, was published in 1998, and it won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Since then, Hopkinson has published six novels and several short-story collections. Her literary honours include the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest, a World Fantasy Award, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic (twice), an Aurora Award and a Gaylactic Spectrum Award. Hopkinson’s most recent book, the short-story collection Falling in Love with Hominids, was published in 2015 by Tachyon Press.

In 2011, after nearly four decades of living in Canada, Hopkinson moved to the U.S., where she is the professor in the department of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside.

HERIZONS: Like many readers, I’m a bit hazy as to how exactly science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy are differentiated. How would you distinguish these genres?

NALO HOPKINSON: I rarely use the terms “speculative” or “literary” anymore as names for genres. It seemed to me that the term “speculative fiction” came into being as a way to explain to academe what science fi ction and fantasy were doing.

It’s a misleading term in some ways, because it can give the impression that the point of science fiction is to speculate about what the future will be like. But it really isn’t—although, of course, sometimes we do do that. Science fiction and fantasy are literatures that challenge the complacency of our received wisdoms about power, culture, experience, language, existence, social systems, systems of knowledge and frameworks of understanding. They make us reconsider whose stories deserve to be told, whose narratives shape the future and our beliefs, and who has the right to make and remake the world. In a way, science fiction and fantasy lay bare the bones of which stories are made, and then they play with the bones.

I think all fiction is literature, and some of it is fantastical in nature. All fiction is fantasy in one way or another. Fantasy is the world’s oldest form of storytelling, and it has never ceased being popular. I think there is something about the human imagination that thrives on the ability to imagine the impossible. If we couldn’t, nothing in the world would ever change. The literature of the fantastic is one of the more intense forms of literally exercising our imaginations.

HERIZONS: You majored in Russian language and literature and French language at York University. How did you enter the world of science fiction and fantasy?

NALO HOPKINSON: Mainly through the books. I didn’t enter the world of science fiction and fantasy, really—I feel I was always there. I was always drawn to works of the fantastic, whatever genre or medium they were in. As a girl, I read and watched everything from Homer’s Iliad to I Dream of Jeannie. I read comics. As I grew older, I read feminist and the new wave writers. When I discovered writers of colour in the genre, such as Samuel R. Delany, Charles Saunders and Tananarive Due, I realized I could write it as well. It never occurred to me to write in any other genre.

HERIZONS: In an interview some years ago, you said that one of the things both fantasy and science fiction do is “look at the effects of large-scale social change on both populations and individuals. Fantasy tends to look to the past, and science fiction to the future, but what is common to many of the stories is change: huge societal upheaval.” Could you elaborate on the kinds of changes that you are talking about?

NALO HOPKINSON: What I love about the text-based form of this literature is that there is very little that’s sacred. We’re always pulling apart the layers to see what lies underneath. One thing, though: Even though science fiction and fantasy exist to challenge our unexamined expectations of the world, I feel the genre is going through a phase of becoming more conservative and less open to change. That is saddening.

Yet, simultaneously, there’s an influx of writers from communities which have been previously underrepresented or misrepresented in the genre. Women and queer writers have been making inroads for decades. Trans writers and people of colour are finding and making more venues for their work, and we’re seeing more writing from countries other than the U.S and the U.K. My impression is that many readers welcome the change, but there is a strong and nasty element of backlash.

HERIZONS: What about the publishing industry? Is it changing in the direction and at the pace you expected?

NALO HOPKINSON: For the record, my first novel’s editor-publisher, Betsy Mitchell at what was then Warner Aspect in New York, was thrilled to be publishing a Black woman author. The publishing industry is changing, slowly
but steadily. The genre is opening up.

One thing I didn’t expect was the vehemence of the backlash, since this is a genre that prides itself on its open-mindedness. I didn’t expect haters to coin
the term “social justice warrior” and use it to abuse and terrorize people who speak out against bias. I didn’t expect hate mail—from a Canadian!—when I said in a recent interview that the genre still has a long way to go in terms of the representation of marginalized groups. I didn’t expect “gamergate.”

On the other hand, I also didn’t anticipate the depth of self-analysis and generosity of support I’ve witnessed from people who have greater privilege, and from certain institutions. I didn’t expect magazines such as Lightspeed to devote special issues to our work, and to make specific editorial policies about inclusion. 

Let no one ever tell you that any art form is frivolous. People care deeply about the art they love, and can be quite vehement about it. One thing I did hope for, and am cheered to see, is how crowdfunding and the democratization of
publishing is leading to new publishing ventures, many of them from perspectives that had been difficult to fi nd in the genre before this. There are now anthologies featuring disabled protagonists, featuring writers of colour, featuring writers from Africa, the Philippines and so on. There needs to be more, but this is a start. The more writing that’s being published, the more wonderful stories there are for people to read.

HERIZONS: Could you tell us more about your writing process? You once described it as akin to “wrestling with a mattress”!

NALO HOPKINSON: I have the kind of brain that hates regimentation. So I wake up, I feel guilt for not having written and for all the not writing I’m about to do. I throw myself at the computer, and every so often, I get bored enough with the shiny Internet and reruns of bad TV shows to write a little. I don’t lack for ideas, just for the repetitive drive. It’s been getting harder to keep doing with every passing year, so I come up with different tricks. Deadlines help, though mostly not in a pleasant way. Playing helps. I finished my last short story by hand writing it in pencil on a giant unlined sketchbook turned sideways. I got about 10 lines per page.

When I’m in fl ow state and the words are coming, if I get stuck, I can often figure out what to write next by taking a break to do something mindlessly physical—washing dishes, folding laundry. That’s when the creative brain goes wandering and discovers solutions to your story conundrums. It also helps to remember the pure exhilaration I feel whenever I’ve completed a piece of fiction.

HERIZONS: Your Twitter bio (follow @Nalo_Hopkinson) states, “Fantasy/science fiction writer. Achy crafter. Fibro. Neurodiverse. Mouthy Jcan femme w power tools. A word in Shelley Jackson’s Skin: A Work of Mortal Art.” Could you please elaborate?!

NALO HOPKINSON: “Fibro” is fi bromyalgia, a disorder I have which causes fatigue, “brain fog” and soft-tissue pain. “Neurodiverse”—my cognitive makeup is somewhat atypical, in that I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and nonverbal
learning disorder. In other words, I think outside the box, I hate being bored, I’m messy and disorganized, and I’m very good with words.

When author-artist Shelley Jackson wrote her story “Skin: A Work of Mortal Art,” she invited people to apply to be individual words in the story. You couldn’t choose your word. Applicants had to tattoo their word in a serif font somewhere on their bodies, then send Jackson a close-up photo of the word. She then assembled the photos into the story and created a travelling exhibition of it. I loved the idea of submitting to a work of art through becoming a part of it by having a section I didn’t get to choose tattooed permanently on my body. I am the word “lace.”

“Mouthy Jamaican femme with power tools”—I try to speak out; I’m femme-identified; I’m Jamaican by birth. I don’t wear makeup, but I know how to use a drill, a sander and a power saw.

HERIZONS: I’m sure your Canadian readers would like to know more about your move from Canada to California.

NALO HOPKINSON: I interviewed for a professorship in creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and was hired with tenure, so we moved there.

I teach fiction to undergraduates and M.F.A. students and am part of a faculty research cluster in science fiction. UCR is one of the most diverse universities in the U.S. The conjunction of that diversity and the genre I love is a wonderful one for me. I’m being paid to do what I was doing in any case—writing and teaching. And it’s warm!” 

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