Exploring History and Culture in Nalo Hopkinson’s Short Stories

In Gayatri Spivak article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” she argues that there is danger in academics attempts to write about a people without actually letting the people speak for themselves. She says that this doesn’t give a voice or power to the people that a particular issue may concern. This way the subaltern cannot speak but instead are being spoken for (Spivak). This is an important concept to keep in mind when talking about Caribbean authors writing themselves into history. The Caribbean people, because of colonization and the multiple colonizer governments one island could have fallen under in its history, have had to learn to slowly carve out their own identity in literature. While trying to do this they also have to balance the multiple identities they inhabit. Caribbean authors have used their work to both discover more about their history and flesh out their own cultural identity. They have also used their work to explore the past and the complicate the legacy that colonization has left in its wake. It is apparent in most works by Caribbean authors that the effects of colonization still echo strongly in the experience of Caribbean people today.

Nalo Hopkinson is no exception to these ideas. Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica in 1960 and raised in Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, and in 1977 moved to Toronto Canada with her father and mother. In 1993 began writing fiction (Rutledge “Nalo” 3). Like other Caribbean writers before her, Thomas Redcamp, Gordon Rohler, she is a multidisciplinary writer and mentor. She is a Caribbean-Canadian author attempting to come to terms with the past and her own identity with science fiction and fabulist writing. In Nalo Hopkinson three short stories, “The Easthound,” “The Glass Bottle Trick,” and “Shift,” literary devices and themes are used as Hopkinson writes herself into history by discussing postcolonial issues such as race and gender while rejecting debates and breaking rules about language and culture instead embracing hybridity. Hopkinson maintains oral tradition and breaks it’s rules in her stories “The Easthound” “The Glass Bottle Trick,” and “Shift.” Although Oral tradition is invoked in all three it is not in a typical way.

Oral tradition is “a system for preserving a group’s believes, customs, and history” (Definition). In Hopkinson’ story “The Easthound” we are introduced to a group of children who are fending for themselves and hoping not to “sprout” into ravenous monsters, werewolf like creatures, that all adults have become and children turn into around the age of puberty. In this story, the children play a game called Loup-de-Lou that Millie’s twin sister Jolly came up with, although it is a real game. The game invokes Caribbean history in that it maintains the oral tradition that comes from African slaves and native Caribbean people. In this story, the game is used for the children to distract themselves from the constant fear they live with, instead of to maintain a past although it does maintain the custom itself. This is very much like what Hassam and Medouze do when they play the game Crick Crack in the film Sugar Cane Ally(Palcy). In this way, Hopkinson writes herself into history by creating characters in a science fiction world that maintain a tradition that is still used even in the post-colonial world with the advent of Calypso and artists like Mighty Chalkdust. “She infuses the tropes of science fiction and fantasy with Caribbean folklore and culture” in this case the aspect of culture concerning oral tradition (Rutledge “Speaking”). This goes along with the hybridity in her work. She takes a word of science fiction and infuses it with Caribbean tradition and culture in this case to maintain a tradition. In her story “The Glass Bottle Trick” Hopkinson uses oral tradition when Beatrice’s father plays with her and tells her “an old-time story” (Hopkinson “The Glass”). Hopkinson uses oral tradition to foreshadow what happens later in the story. In “The Glass Bottle Trick” Beatrice discovers that her new husband Samuel has killed his last two wives when they became pregnant with his children like she is now. She finds out he’s been keeping their angry spirits in glass bottles hanging from a Guava tree in order to render them harmless. When she accidently breaks the bottles, and discovers their bodies she hopes that their spirits will help her to fight Samuel instead of blame her for their deaths. This is not a typical way that oral tradition is used although it is used to pass wisdom down to future generations Hopkinson’s use of foreshadowing in this instance shows the way she writes herself into history by breaking traditional rules. Oral tradition also appears in Hopkinson’s story “Shift” but it is in a way that highlights her willingness to break rules while still representing her culture as she writes herself into history. “Shift” uses oral tradition when Caliban’s sister, Ariel watches him and tells us the reader, about his escape from Algeir and the history of their mother Sycorax. It’s not technically oral tradition because we are reading it but the way Ariel talks directly to us like we are eavesdropping with her gives it an oral quality that seems to perpetuate Hopkinson’s wish to represent and explore oral tradition in her work. The way the story changes point of view from second when we are with Caliban to first when we are with Ariel just compounds the feeling that the audience is being spoken to directly. Hopkinson writes herself into history by representing and maintaining oral tradition while at the same time breaking conventions which makes her even more unique as a writer. More than her ability to use oral tradition to enthrall the reader, Hopkinson’s way of hybridizing traditional writing forms with Creole also makes her stand out.“The Caribbean, like all other post-colonial cultures, has several unique which can be erased in the larger conceptual framework; these include the absence of alter/native languages”(Donnell 438). Hopkinson disproves this statement by combining both Creole and English in her work. She uses Creole in her story “Shift” to separate the lines between Caliban, who is representative of a Caribbean who wants to live in the white center, also the little mermaid character, from his sister, who wants to drag him back home to Algier and their mother Sycorax. Caliban and Ariel’s mother is Sycorax but according to Ariel, their mother’s name is not actually Sycorax but “a name some Englishman giver her by scraping a feather quill on paper. White people magic”(Hopkinson “Shift”). Ariel tells us that white people, colonizer language may have given her mother the name but Ariel herself rejects their power by speaking in the way that she does. “Some early commentators on the literature of the region were progressive in suggesting the primary orality of creole and its capacity to express a range of emotions” (Donnell11). Hopkins also uses Creole when Ariel speaks in order to make her stand out from her brother who is desperately trying to leave his life behind and be with white women. In this way, Hopkinson rejects old debates on whether or not to use just Creole or just standard English and instead uses the hybridity to her advantage in the story to make a statement about Caliban’s state of mind in contrast to Ariel’s. Hopkinson herself, like most Caribbean’s is an example of a hybrid and this was when she is able to write pluralistically can represent herself and many other Caribbeans. The way Caliban is presented on the page is far different from his sister, “you could love one of them forever and a day. You just have to find the right one” (Hopkinson “Shift”). His wish to live with people (white people) is apparent through his speech. His wish to be accepted and loved calls for Hopkinson to write him as if he were already white even though later you discover that this is not the way he was brought up to speak. In anger with his sister he does “slip into the same rhythms as hers [Ariel]”(Hopkinson “Shift”). This reveals that Caliban has been putting on an act in order to please the white women he is with. It is a different story with his sister who sees this as a sickness, “Caliban have a sickness. Is a sickness any of you could get. In him it manifests as a weakness; a weakness for cream…. Him believe say it would make him pretty” (Hopkinson “Shift”). Hopkinson makes Ariel’s voice distinct and shows how she embraces her culture and is not sick by trying to be something that she is not. That seems to be the root of Hopkinson’s argument in this piece and it is highlighted in the infusion of language. Although it is an infusion the simple act of using Creole at all in her work she “effectively situates the stories in the Afro-Caribbean perspective, for it validates the culture and expands the pluralistic possibilities for all readers and undermines the privileged position other English language enjoys” (Rutledge “Nalo” 6). It lets Creole have its place in being just as important as English in the life of Caribbean people. So, her use of it in the case of “Shift” is dualistic. She is both suppliant English but doesn’t disregard or undermine the value in it. She shows that the postcolonial experience is pluralistic in itself including language. A rule broken but a truth revealed. Hopkinson also gives the reader more options to be enriched instead of staying with the statuesque of picking one form of writing over the other, “such hybridity challenges and disrupts inflexible and hierarchical notions of race and ethnicity, making possible cultural blends between traditional science fiction plots of post-apocalyptic struggles and Afro-Caribbean Theology and motifs” (Rutledge “Nalo” 10). The hybrid in this case is the literal shift in narrator as the story goes from second person Caliban who is being written in typical English to first person his sister who speaks with a Creole structure. Hopkinson combines both oral tradition and Creole language in her stories in order to enhance themes that reveal her attempts at piecing together and coming to terms with Caribbean history and culture.Themes of race, self-hatred, and the white ideal are apparent in her work especially the three works already mentioned. Hopkinson is pointing out the issues that arise with the legacy of colonial rule and the idea of “the western ideal.” She writes herself into history by using sci-fi and fabulism to confront these issues, “science fiction has always been subversive literature. It’s been used to critique social systems” (Rutledge “Speaking”). In the instance of “The Easthound” we see the post-colonial legacy of self-hatred revealed in many ways. The story is framed by the song “Oh Black Betty” a tune about a prostitute who has a child out of wedlock. One of the lyrics used to frame the story is “That child’s gone wild” (Hopkinson “The Easthound”). In the story the children “sprout” into monsters when they become too old. The implications of the framing of the song along with what happens to people in the story is that black women produce monsters because of their skin color. Hopkinson disguises racial hatred with her science fiction story in that she is talking about black children becoming monsters once they hit puberty. This is an idea that the general public might be resistant to but under the cloak of science fiction is palatable and even deeper because the reader has to analyze to find the meaning. She disguises the post-colonial legacy. This leads to our next two stories where characters seek to solve their conditioned problem, over many years and different governments, by becoming as white as possible. In her work “The Glass Bottle Trick” Beatrice’s husband Samuel is infatuated with her because she has light skin. He calls her his “pale beauty” and prefers it when she stays indoors out of the sun (Hopkinson “The Glass”). This obsession doesn’t go unnoticed by the main character “Beatrice sometimes wondered why Samuel hadn’t married a white woman. She thought she knew the reason, though. She had seen the way Samual behaved around white people” (Hopkinson “The Glass”). Samual wants to be white because he sees white as superior, part of the legacy of colonialism and slavery, he knows inside he can never achieve it which hurts his pride. He even rebukes his wife when she dares to call him a sweet name associated with his skin color. By having a character like Samual Hopkinson “ventures into the psychological depths of Whiteness as an objective desire” (Rutledge “Nalo” 15). For Samual the desire to be as white as possible drives him crazy leading him to murder his wives when they become pregnant with his babies who will be black, “this is how Samuel punished the ones who tried to bring his babies into the world, his beautiful black babies” (Hopkinson “The Glass”). “The Glass Bottle Trick” illustrates the absolute destruction of the desire to be white stemming from the conditioning of colonialism and slavery. Ultimately it is Samuel’s pride, which has been shaped by the colonial legacy, that is hurt which contribute to his madness. Samuel sees himself as valueless if he’s not white. We see a form of this carried over in Hopkinson’s other story “Shift.” We have the character Caliban, which Hopkinson has borrowed from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in this way breaking rules of English literature by hijacking a traditionally English character and reclaiming it for Caribbean Literature. In this little mermaid-esque story Caliban leaves behind his mother and sister to be with white people. He is infatuated with one woman he meets while making his escape and although he has reservations about her “the kisses of golden girls are chancy things” (Hopkinson “Shift”) Caliban is willing to put his culture behind him for her, because he desires “golden” girls. We see the way this desire tears a family apart “Hopkinson uses the liberation of speculative fiction to explore the personal and familial impact of self-hatred taken to an extreme” (Rutledge “Nalo”16). Caliban’s chase of white women has lead him to have cursed children that his mother has been left to take care of as he goes after one white woman after the other. It is almost an addiction for validation. Hopkins uses this allegory to point out the loss of Caliban’s identity in his pursuit of these women who only see him as a sexual object. Hopkinson defies expectation by having the white girl he was with point this out to him when she asks, “who do you think you are?” (Hopkinson “Shift”). Hopkinson uses the little mermaid as an allegory for the loss of self in the pursuit of an ideal left by the tragic events of slavery and colonization. In all of these stories Hopkinson writes herself into history when she emphasizes the different issues that arise when self-hatred is part of a people’s history masked behind the guise of a science fiction story. Hopkinson has made it clear that one of her goals as she writes herself into history is to create media that doesn’t assert the white ideal but broadens representation, “I am making the folkloric half-breeds that so much spec lit romanticizes while many of its writers and its audience simultaneously refuse to engage with the real-world politics of race and power”(Hopkinson “Maybe”). Hopkinson doesn’t just write herself into history when she tackles issues of race and shelf-hatred she also does when she tackles themes of gender.Hopkinson writes herself into Caribbean history when explores issues of gender in her science fiction and fabulist stories. Hopkinson gives girls and women agency in her stories. In “The Easthound” we see all gender stereotypes being put aside as all of the children’s concern is to survive and avoid “sprouting.” We see the girls taking the most initiative in the group. Jolly sets the terms for Max’s departure from the group because it is apparent that he is close to “sprouting.” Hopkinson also writes about a rule the group has in the case one of the members might be in danger that Millie enacts to get Citron to help her find Jolly, “Leader. One of us might be in danger, so I claim leader. So you have to be my follower” (Hopkinson “The Easthound”). Hopkinson crafts a world where girls have the chance to be leaders in this post-apocalyptic landscape. Hopkinson is claiming her own power as a Caribbean-Canadian woman when she writes stories with rules that give women power and agency. In “The Glass Bottle Trick” the audience might expect Beatrice to be happy that she doesn’t have to study hard for school now that she has met the love of her life and he and her mother don’t think it’s necessary anymore. However, this is not the case, “She tried to argue with them, but Samuel was very clear about his wishes, and she’d stopped not wanting anything to cause friction between them” (Hopkinson “The Glass”). Through this Hopkins makes a statement about how it is alright to like education and pursue it. In films like Sugar Cane Allyone of the female characters has a chance to attend the elite school in the capital but is held back case her family needs her (Palcy). We see Beatrice have to roll over on her higher education in order to please the man she’s married. She puts her own needs ahead of his. Hopkin’s points out the problem with this when later it is discovered that Samuel is a homicidal maniac. It is only Samuel’s murdered wives that have any direct power after they have been released from their bottles. Beatrice feels helpless when Samuel comes home and hopes that the ghosts of his murdered wives will help her fight him off. Even though she is the one alive it is as if she has no power. Hopkinson is commenting on the lack of power many Caribbean women have become of the social structures in the culture. This could almost be interpreted as a battle cry for Caribbean women to stand up and take power instead of waiting until they are dead. This would be in line with Hopkinson writing herself into literary history of the Caribbean. In “Shift” everything depends on the women even though half the story is narrated by Caliban. Although Caliban’s mother, Sycorax was banished after giving birth to two mixed raced children she still has power in the story in the way that Caliban describes how he and sister snap to attention at the sound of her voice and Caliban’s description of her, “Sycorax is sitting in a sticky puddle of water and melted popsicles, but a queen on her throne could not be more regal”(Hopkinson “Shift”). Hopkinson even gives power to the white woman to tell Caliban he doesn’t seem like he is anyone. It’s a generous gesture on her part but also a true one because if Caliban only saw white women as the givers of validation it would have taken one to tell him he didn’t seem like anyone, he couldn’t have heard if from his sister or mother because of the validation he desired. Hopkinson portrays women with power and agency in spite of their circumstances in her fiction and in this way, writes herself into history.

Nalo Hopkinson uses literary and devices and themes in order to explore her own cultural identity and history in her science fiction and fabulist work. literary devices and themes are used as Hopkinson writes herself into history by discussing postcolonial issues such as race and gender while rejecting debates and breaking rules about language and culture and instead embraces hybridity. She has a unique voice that subverts expectations and pulls together multiple identities. She crafts worlds that allow narratives to be driven by non-white characters in a way that science fiction never has before, “I am literally culture-jamming; forcing people to confront our brown skins overtly written back into the mass-marketed fantasy narratives in which they’ve been cloaked” (Hopkinson “Maybe”).

Work Cited

“Definition of “oral tradition” – English Dictionary.” Oral tradition Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/English/oral-tradition. Donnell, Alison, and Lawson, Sarah. Welsh. The Routledge reader in Caribbean literature. Routledge, 1996. Hopkinson, Nalo. “The Easthound.”After Anthology.2012.Hopkinson, Nalo. “The Glass Bottle Trick.” Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean fabulist fiction. Invisible Cities Press, 2000.Hopkinson, Nalo. “Maybe They’re Phasing Us In: Re-Mapping Fantasy Tropes in the Face of Gender, Race, and Sexuality.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, 1 Jan. 2008.Hopkinson, Nalo. “Shift.” Nightmare Magazine, 29 July 2017.Palcy, Euzhan, Director. Sugar Cane Alley. Nouvelles Éditions de Films (NEF), 1983.Rutledge, Gregory E. “Nalo Hopkinson”University of Nebraska-Lincoln Faculty Publications Department of English, May 2002Rutledge, Gregory E., and Hopkinson, Nalo. “Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson.”African American Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 1999, p. 589.Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak?Macmillan, 1988.