Nalo Hopkinson is trying to mess with your mind. The much-lauded writer of science fiction and fantasy sits at one of her favorite Mexican joints, Tio’s Tacos, a funky art-strewn restaurant near the campus of UC Riverside, where she has taught creative writing since 2011.
Diminutive and bespectacled, she speaks gently and laughs generously as the conversation roams through favorite writers (Samuel R. Delany, Tobias S. Bucknell, Charles Saunders) and the historical consciousness in her work (writing is “a combination of excavation and imagination”).
And then talk turns to lesbian twincest.
“That thing is so perverse!” Hopkinson says of Christina Rossetti’s Victorian poem “Goblin Market,” which served as one inspiration for the author’s new novel, “Sister Mine” (Grand Central Publishing, $23.99), about a pair of quasi-human siblings.
Big subjects like sexuality, race and class have long provided fodder for Hopkinson’s remarkable fiction — visceral, character-driven works that might transport readers to an extraterrestrial penal colony or among shape-shifters on an 18th century Haitian slave plantation.
Over the course of her nearly 20-year career, the Jamaican-born longtime Canada resident has become the sort of genre writer who lands a spot on mainstream critics’ “best of” lists or gets mentioned in the same breath with Octavia Butler.
“She’s a powerful writer with an imagination that most of us would kill for,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz emails from Tokyo. “I have read everything she has written and am in awe of her many gifts. And her protagonists are unforgettable — formidable haunted women drawn with an almost unbearable honesty — seriously, who writes sisters like Nalo? Takes courage to be that true.”
Like much of Hopkinson’s work, “Sister Mine” mixes Afro-Caribbean and European mythology, elements of horror, a snappy wit and astute psychology. It’s an elaborate urban fantasy about sisters Makeda and Abby — the offspring of a human mother and benevolent demigod. Their father has disappeared under extremely shady circumstances, and the formerly conjoined twins — one of whom is being stalked by her personal ghoul — have to call upon a fractious family of celestial beings to help track him down.
“Her writing is very conscientious about placing characters within family relationships, which is not characteristic of science fiction,” notes Gary K. Wolfe, a science-fiction scholar who has known Hopkinson for more than a decade. “A lot of writers felt permitted to do that after Nalo.”
Hopkinson was born into a family steeped in literature: Her mother worked as a library technician, her father taught English and Latin in addition to writing plays and poetry. “One of the things it did was let me know I could be a writer. I could be an artist,” she says. Hopkinson turned into the kind of kid who would pick up a Kurt Vonnegut book at age 6. At the same time, her father’s social circle exposed her to luminaries such as eventual NobelPrize winner Derek Walcott.
In her early years, Hopkinson’s family moved often. At age 16, she was living in Guyana when the family headed to Toronto so that her father could receive better treatment for a chronic illness. It was, for young Nalo, like landing in an alien culture. “When I first came, I could smell the gasoline in the streets, and it made me nauseous,” she says. “I’d never seen watermelon being sold cut, and I could taste the Saran Wrap on it.”
For the next 31/2 decades, Hopkinson remained in Canada, where after college she worked in libraries, as a government culture research officer, aerobics instructor and “a bunch of other things.”
At 34, while employed as a grants officer at the Toronto Arts Council, Hopkinson began publishing fiction that almost immediately made an impact on the science-fiction/fantasy scene. Her first novel, 1998’s “Brown Girl in the Ring” — a dystopia in which the core of a near-future Toronto has been trashed by rioting, its inhabitants left to the mercy of a brutal gang leader and his undead enabler — incorporates a lyrical patois and blends Afro-Caribbean mysticism with futuristic medicine. Gerald Jonas praised it in the New York Times for bringing “a new sensibility to science fiction … treat[ing] the spirit world with the same rigor and respect other writers bring to rocket science or molecular biology.”
Hopkinson is also often credited with helping to pave a way for writers of color to enter the mainstream of the SFF genre, historically dominated by white male writers. Having scooped up a number of major awards, she’s also become a popular speaker at science fiction conventions and helped found the Carl Brandon Society, an organization devoted to exploring race and ethnicity in speculative fiction.
Many good notices followed for the four novels and four collections she’s written, edited or co-edited since “Brown Girl” — including “The Chaos,” her first young adult book last year. “Sister Mine” marks her first adult novel in six years. The half-decade gap, Hopkinson says, was the result of a serious illness that rendered her incapable of working, financially destitute and ultimately homeless.
“It was a pretty intense few years I’m still recovering from,” she says of the struggle with severe anemia, triggered by fibroids and an underlying vitamin D deficiency courtesy of the cloudy skies over Toronto.
By the time she was diagnosed, Hopkinson was so ill she nearly required hospitalization. She credits the science-fiction/fantasy community for their role in keeping “me and my partner alive. They took us in — sometimes people we didn’t even know, based on somebody else saying, ‘These are good people. They won’t hurt your cat, they won’t leave your place trashed.’”
With her own writing again on track, Hopkinson is now able to look back and pinpoint a few moments in which her own experiences helped her articulate “Sister Mine” characters’ predicaments. Abby labors under physical limitations, while Makeda covets her twin’s supernatural abilities: She’s literally a woman in search of her own mojo. As with much science fiction and fantasy, all those distant planets, that shape-shifting, give form to familiar dilemmas.
“My mojo, if I had any; wouldn’t it be some amplification of a skill I already had a natural talent for?” Makeda wonders, even as she fends off a flock of rabid birds from another dimension with her characteristic mix of moxie and self-deprecation. “Didn’t I have a knack for making my big failures bigger and my small achievements insignificant?”
Self-acceptance is just as complicated in “Sister Mine’s” world as in our own (if a bit more dangerous). And Hopkinson knows that reality can be challenging.
“Sometimes I get flak from my readership … because they’re used to the heroic mode, where not only does someone solve their own problem, they save the world.” But no, Hopkinson continues, shaking her head with a gentle laugh, “Nobody does.”
Farabee is a writer in Los Angeles.