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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Nalo Hopkinson on After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia

Nalo Hopkinson is the author of six novels, a chapbook and a short story collection (Brown Girl in the Ring, Midnight Robber, The Salt Roads, The New Moon’s Arms, The Chaos, Sister Mine, Report From Planet Midnight, Skin Folk). She is the editor of fiction anthologies Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, and Mojo: Conjure Stories. She is the co-editor of fiction anthologies So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction (with Uppinder Mehan) and Tesseracts Nine (with Geoff Ryman).

Photo by David Findlay, 2011.

Hopkinson’s work has received Honourable Mention in Cuba’s “Casa de las Americas” literary prize. She is a recipient of the Warner Aspect First Novel Award, the Ontario Arts Council Foundation Award for emerging writers, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the Locus Award for Best New Writer, the World Fantasy Award, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, the Aurora Award, and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. Nalo was born in Jamaica, has lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana and for the past 30+ years in Canada. She currently teaches at UC Riverside and spends part of the year in Toronto, Canada.

SF Signal had the opportunity to talk with several authors involved in the new anthology, After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and featuring stories asking: If the melt-down, flood, plague, the third World War, new Ice Age, Rapture, alien invasion, clamp-down, meteor, or something else entirely hit today, what would tomorrow look like? Some of the biggest names in YA and adult literature answer that very question in this short story anthology, each story exploring the lives of teen protagonists raised in catastrophe’s wake—whether set in the days after the change, or decades far in the future.

CHARLES TAN: Hi Nalo! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. For you, how would you define Dyslit or what are its essential characteristics?

NALO HOPKINSON: You’re most welcome. Thanks for asking me. Honestly, this interview is the first time I’ve twigged to the term “dyslit”. I had to take a moment to figure out what you meant by it. So any answer I would give you would be a stab in the dark, not based on actual familiarity. When Terri and Ellen asked me to consider submitting a story to them for After, I simply read the description of the anthology, realized I had a story in progress that might fit, and submitted that to them once I eventually finished it. So although I was writing in a particular mode, i.e. a story that turned out to be dystopian and that was suitable for young adults, I wasn’t aware that dyslit was a thing, if you understand what I mean.

CT:What’s the appeal of Dyslit for you? Why is it important, especially for YA readers?

NH: That’s a complicated one. I do think it’s important and respectful not to sugarcoat fiction for young people. They live in the real world just as much as anyone else. They experience the same risks and the same dangers, and they have their own specific risks and dangers. Plus, being for the most part under age, they have less agency to control their circumstances than many adults. For myself, I find it more reassuring when the fiction I read acknowledges both the potential for good in the world, and the potential for bad. Both when I was a young reader and now, I’m more likely to read the work that seems to have something relevant to say to me. On the other hand, for all that I enjoyed writing a story for After, I will probably find a whole anthology full of dystopian fiction disheartening. I’ll need to read it a bit at a time, rather than in one gulp.

CT: “The Easthound” has a small cast, but how did you decide to settle on Millie’s point of view for the narrative?

NH:  I started writing in a particular point of view, and then I had to name the character and figure out her gender and her relationship to the other characters. Some perverse impulse in me liked the idea of twin characters with names that didn’t quite rhyme, that sounded so similar that I’d have to work hard to write them in such a way that they would be easy to differentiate from each other. When I decided that she had only one hand, that pushed the story up a notch as I tried to figure out how that had come to be, whether she’d been born that way, or whether there’d been an accident. I think I made Millie and Jolly black, and Citronne unspecified multiracial. Sai’s name hints that she may be Japanese. Max is probably white. Readers and reviewers have chided me for making my casts of characters “unrealistically” diverse — by their lights, anyway — but the story is in a Torontoesque setting, and that’s really how Toronto looks.

CT: What were the challenges in writing “The Easthound”?

NH: Spoilerishness ahead. One of the challenges was using werewolf references without creating actual werewolves. I didn’t want to take the story to an expected place. I mean, Alcide, I love you, man, but why glut the market further when there are already so many werewolf stories around right now? And I didn’t want this particular story to be fantasy, although I do write a lot of fantasy. It took me awhile to come up with a convincing enough premise to describe what was happening to the adults. Also, I knew that I wanted the structure of the story to echo the structure of the game that the young people play at the beginning of the story. (I called the game “loup”, both a reference to wolves and a pun on “loop-de-loo”.) But I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that until I heard the song “Black Betty” one day, and realized that not only did the song structure make its own loops, as pop songs will, but that the lines “Black Betty had a child / And that child’s gone wild” were a nice echo for the story. In fact, I think those lines could also be used as a reference to illnesses such as fetal alcohol syndrome, but I digress. Another challenge was how to hide in plain sight the information about how the story would turn out. I would say more, but that would be a really big spoiler. I love Neil Gaiman’s short story Bitter Grounds, the way that when you get to the end, you realize that the story told you right up front everything you needed to know to solve the mystery.

Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, and Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2009. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi).

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