Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring stands out among dystopian novels, and what makes it unique is actually pretty damn simple. Ordinarily dystopias are sterile and colorless—not bad, no, just not especially lively. While often that’s the point, at other times it’s simply a result of the impersonal overarching motivations behind the work—wanting to paint with broad strokes, treated more like a political treatise than fiction. These novels are meant to illustrate a world and to make a point first and foremost. Narrative thrust is set on the back burner. They are thoroughly non-mythological, secular affairs. Sociopolitical themes tend to become the defining principle, the central thought to process. Orwell and Huxley are of course the standard here.
Hopkinson instead takes a more holistic approach, one which grounds the work on a different level. The sociopolitical triggers and consequences of her particular vision of dystopia operate as an undercurrent rather than the focus of the novel.
The undercurrent in Brown Girl is ostensibly class divide. Toronto’s wealthy have fled to the suburbs . The government has fenced off the inner city, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. Hopkinson takes us to a portion of this city’s culture, one that has embraced Hopkinson’s Afro-Carribean roots, reclaiming society on their own terms. Scientific medicine has been replaced by a traditional apothecary, run by the wise old medicine woman Gros-Jeanne. Spiritualism overtakes Western religion. Magic, in some form, essentially exists.
The protagonist, the medicine woman’s granddaughter Ti-Jeanne, had a child by Tony. (Note: A teenager with child is the main character of this novel, yet Ti-Jeanne is never looked down upon for this fact.) She hasn’t told Tony because of his drug addiction and his gang affiliations. She knows he would only be more of a burden to her and the child. Unfortunately she is right, and he is prone to get in the way of her life despite her boundaries. Tony works for the cruel criminal overlord Rudy, a figure who reigns over inner city Toronto with a bloody iron fist. Rudy works with the politicians and upper-class people in the suburbs. His current objective is to gain organs for transplant surgeries, as donors have become increasingly scarce. One particularly prominent politician needs a heart replacement. And Ti-Jeanne’s Mami might just be a match.
Hopkinson’s brief afterward to the novel provides ample context for the setting:
“I was born in the Caribbean and moved to Canada when I was a teenager. In this novel, I use Afro-Caribbean spirituality, culture, and language, but placed my characters within the idioms and settings of contemporary speculative fiction. I saw it as subverting the genre, which speaks so much about the experience of being alienated, but contains so little written by alienated peoples themselves.”
Now, sure, it’s a first novel. It isn’t perfect. The pacing is off in places. It takes a bit to get going. Some of the initial world building is less than graceful. The characters are perhaps somewhat underdeveloped. The mythology and supernatural elements smack a bit of deus ex machina. But man, the distinctiveness of Hopkinson’s writing, setting and themes within speculative fiction is undeniable.
As her quote affirms, she was merely incorporating her own experiences and cultural background into a genre she enjoys. This merely brings attention to how deprived the genre really is. Not in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender alone, but when addressing all the assorted subsets of diversity that come along with many racial, ethnic, and gender identities being presented. Primarily the different vantage points that minorities voices can bring to a familiar topic.
Take the case here in this novel, socioeconomic divide. While a novel such as, say J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise can bring attention to the destruction of social norms—a fable regarding a sort of “return to the primal” when all facades of polite society are shed—effectively satirizing the falseness and cruelty of such social divides, Brown Girl instead demonstrates and fixates upon how a society may bring itself back to respectability. How, when an ultramodern secular society fails, there comes a hopeful return to spiritualism, to respect for one’s ancestral culture and for the natural world (despite being in an urban environment). It maintains the biting, dour view inherent in dystopian writing (the world is still cold and ruthless), but shifts to an more down-to-earth, pathos-heavy perspective.
This isn’t a style that an author like Ballard would have been equipped to deal with, but one that authors like Hopkinson have shown potential greatness for. Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due and Nnedi Okorafor have similarly engaged with the genre in such a manner. (Check out my review of Okorafor’s Binti for how she subverts our expectations of an alien invasion story.) As this was only her first novel, I expect Hopkinson has since developed her distinctly spiritual Afro-Carribean Canadian science-fiction. I’m eager to return to her work sometime in the future, see what else she has been able to shake up in the genre.
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