CSULA 510 Where is the white racism in afro caribbean science fiction writer nalo hopinson brown girl in the ring?
Ramser 1Dr. GreenbergCSULA 510 Gothic NovelDean Ramser Where is the White Racism in Afro Caribbean Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring?"I dont like movies when they dont have no niggers in em. I went to see, I went to see "Logans Run,"right. They had a movie of the future called "Logans Run." Aint no niggers in it. I said, well white folksaint planning for us to be here. Thats why we gotta make movies. Then we[ll] be in the pictures." --Richard Pryor in "Black Hollywood" from Richard Pryor: Bicentennial Nigger (1976) To frame the complications of a post- colonial, post-holocaust, futuristic fiction, science fiction,African diasporic, Afro-Caribbean, Caribbean, Gothic, magic realist, and speculative fiction, suggests thatthe identity of a piece of literature is as problematic as the identity of the author of that writing. In lookingat Nalo Hopkinson‟s novel Brown Girl in the Ring one finds those identities and several more: feminist,Marxist, dystopia, anti-imperialist, Michael Foucault‟s “heterotopias”, folklore, literary, and nationalism. Hopkinson comments on the history of science fiction in the introduction of So Long BeenDreaming - “Arguably one of the most familiar memes of science fiction is that of going to foreigncountries and colonizing the natives, and as I‟ve said elsewhere, for many of us, that‟s not a thrillingadventure story: it‟s non-fiction, and we are on the wrong side of the strange-looking ship that appears outof nowhere. To be a person of color writing science is to be under suspicion of having internalized one‟scolonialization. In this context of external identities and internal voice in Brown Girl in the Ring, I pose thequestion of where is the expected white racism in this Afro-Caribbean fiction? What does it mean for apiece of writing to exist outside the of the traditional binary of white racism and black oppression?Where is the significance of the Middle Passage, an important component of the modern diasporicnarrative? What I find interesting is the appearance of rewriting history through omission in the future
Ramser 2setting of the story. It suggests possible narratives based on scientific logic in a speculative fictionalizedworld (Novum theory- Darko Survin). Thus stated, there are other forces at play in the drama – the song game (novel’s title) ofsexually nuanced mimicry in which children can rehearse adult courtship behavior in a socially approvedsituation. What can be said about the fun circular dance game, in which one dancer is in the center ofthe circle “who shares the dance briefly” and then is replaced by their replacement: “Brown Girl hasbeen reported as a favorite in Trinidad, Tobago, St. Kitts, Anguillas, and Jamaica, but not in the UnitedStates nor elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Apparently, it is a genuinely original contribution byCaribbean children” (Lomax). How does the role play mirror our protagonist T-Jeanne’s struggles withher on/off boyfriend and father to her child? Like the game, it is continuous. There is the atmosphere of “future text” authors, such as Ismael Reed, “we will make our ownfuture text,” and “and into post now/ post new” Amiri Baraka. Alondra Nelson explores future texts ,acknowledging that Forecasts of a utopian (to some) race free future and pronouncement of thedystopian digital divide are the predominant discourses of blackness and technology in the publicsphere.” The relationship between technology and black identity is “constructed Blackness [in that Blackidentity] gets constructed as always oppositional to technologically drives chronicles of progress. Whenlooking at the role of technology in Brown Girl in the Ring what is striking to me is not the proficiency ofmedicine in the Burn, but rather the power of the Obeah in the family. The power struggle is about themagic, not about the medicine or technology. This dynamic Lee Skallerup draws on in her essay Re-Evaluating Survin: Brown Girl in the Ring, “the narrative focuses on minority communities in futuristicinner-city Toronto, which have been cut off from the suberbs. Hopkinson, however, takes this dystopicvision infuses it with elements of her own Afro-Caribbean heritage, a heritage that includes Magic. Magic
Ramser 3plays an essential role in the narrative, and provides the force necessary to overcome the dystopicsituation […] Hopkinson‟s novel challenges the perceived notion of both dystopic and science fiction.” Lizabeth Paravisini-Geberts essay "Colonial and postcolonial Gothic: the Caribbean" frames theObeah as part of the narrative, per other critics, yet in Halo Hopkinsons Brown Girl in the Ring thoughAfrican-derived magicoreligious practice is thematic in the post Holocaust novel, there appears to be anabsence of the white/black racism one might expect from Caribbean literature. Instead there is a class war,partially by the privilege classs manipulation of the oppressed, and partially by those with power againstthose without; and that power includes Obeah. How do contemporary issues of race, ethnicity, and genderbecome free to operate within the multiplicity of themes in the [Gothic Magic Realism Science Fiction]"speculative fiction" by Hopkinson? Her novel has many themes, but the white/black conflict appears tobe represented by a power struggle. Is this because the novel is futuristic Sci-Fi? The battle between magic and science overshadows and almost romanticizes the friction betweenother binaries. There is friction between heritage (or kinship) versus the controlling political forces. Thereis friction between the male identity as represented by gang boss Rudy (and Ti-Jeanne‟s boyfriend Tony)contesting the strength of female identity (Mami Gros-Jeanne and Ti-Jeanne). In Furistic Fiction &Fantasy Gregory E. Rutledge states that these binary opposition‟s paradigm are reflective of the dual(double) consciousness in the novel. Code-switching by Gros-Jeanne, the multiple identities of Ti-Jeanne(mother, daughter, lover, and woman), and the link between Otherness and the otherworld phenomenon ofboth fantasy and futuristic fiction is something with which many persons of African descent may identity.In addition to the binary conflicts, and multiple identities, what happens in Brown Girl in the Ring is thegenre blurring. Tom Moylen states in Skallerup‟s essay, “By self-reflexively borrowing „specificconventions from other genres‟, critical dystopias more often „blur‟ the received boundaries of thedystopias form and thereby expand rather than diminish its creative potential for critical expression.”This blurring of those identities I mentioned at the start of the paper is what I believe supports the novel‟s
Ramser 4ability to operate outside of the paradigm of white racism often associated with fiction containing Africandescent characters, themes, and/or written by an African descent author. This multiplicity of identitiescomplicates the old paradigms, as suggested by Peter G. Stillman, “critical dystopias provide a new worldin which the familiar is defamiliarized by being presented outside the dominant interpretive paradigmsfrom a new perspective and in a novel context.” Whereas Skallerup asserts that “magical aspects of theneo-dystopias defamilarizes the reader”, I posit that the absence of the white racism structure is what trulydisrupts the reader. The avalanche of Afro-Caribbean cultural identities in Brown Girl in the Ring is what pushesaway and forces out the typically dominant white culture. At the start of the novel, Douglas Baines, amember of the dominant white culture, is attempting to persuade Rudy to procure a human heart from theinner recess of the Burn area: “Baines had obviously never ventured into Rudy‟s neighborhood before.”The stark contrast between the two characters, between the two cultures, between the two politicaldiscourses, is obvious. It is in this dialogue that white racism is hinted at, winked at, but ultimately ispushed out of the inner circle of the primary characters conflict. As with the song dance Brown Girl in theRing, white racism is pushed to the outer sphere of importance so the residing drama can play out:“Baines sat, fiddling nervously with the case of his palm book, “We need a heart,” he repeated. For, ah,an experiment. We‟re hoping that your people can help locate one.” Here we see not only Baines‟sstruggle to dominant Rudy, but we see the implied view he has of “your people” as a group, a tribe, withRudy as a spokesperson able to communicate with “them” and represent “them.” I suggest that this action by Hopkinson is fairly radical („subversive‟ to use her words), given that“before the emergence of the Black Futuristic Fiction & Fantasy tradition in the 1960‟s, the radicalpolitics of the society at large exerted a strong influence on the publication policies of the industry. Notonly were there no Black authors, but Black characters were a rarity”(Rutledge). This phenomenon wasnot restricted to literature. In the film industry that I worked in for thirty years, Black actors, directors,writers, crew, and producers was a rarity. CSULA‟s Pan-African professor Melvin Donalson‟s book
Ramser 5Black Directors in Hollywood (2005) can attest to this fact. Black “urban” film production increasedduring the first decade of this century, but always with white racism shadowing the themes: think of thefilm “Crash‟(2004). Whereas this paper is focused on Hopkinson, the wave of Black writers (withoutwhite racism) speculating on a utopian world where characters operate outside of the old European-Imperialistic-Colonialist-Plantation dominance. Rutledge goes at great length to understand thisphenomenon, identifying the historical and social forum limiting Black identity – rejection of texts basedon Black characters; science alienating Black humanity; Black authors attempting to operate outside ofracial identity (labeled “passing”), think James Weldon Johnson. Certainly the use of “magic,”or Obeah is a strong theme in Brown Girl in the Ring, as is Blackfeminism. Ti-Jeanne asserts agency, learning medical skills (science), motherland, and she learns “theAfrican powers, child. The spirits, The Loas. The Orishas. The oldest ancestors”(126). This acquisition of“magic” is prompted when she has visions, which her Mami Gros-Jeanne recognizes as a sign that “youreducation starts now”(48). Ti-Jeanne learns from watching her Mami transform as she communicates withthe spirit world. This power is inherited; it is part of her family (96-97). Tony, on the other hand haslimited access to the spirit world. This is due partially because “he was city boy, had been born in Port ofSpain, Trinidad; bustling capital, and had come to Toronto when he was five. He‟d probably neverhandled a farm animal”(84). He proves himself humorously incapable of capturing the chicken for theritual to call forth the spirits to help with the battle Ti-Jeanne is beginning to wage. The use of magic provokes security and passage, even though Rudy misused it. Mami explains toTi-Jeanne the history of magic, while simultaneously keeping white racism outside the experience: “Fromsince slavery days we people get in the habit of hiding we business from we own children even, in case achild open he mouth and tell somebody story and get them in trouble. Secrecy was survival, oui?”(50). It is possible to frame Brown Girl in the Ring with the postcolonial Gothic lens. Philip Holdenposits that ghosts (spirits in Hopkinson‟s novel), are used to “challenge the dominant humanist discourse”
Ramser 6(354). The spirits and magic are used by characters to challenge and create the power structure. Rudy usesthe power to create his own empire of thugs/zombies. Gros-Jeanne and Ti-Jeanne use the power tosubvert Rudy‟s power structure. What occurs could be argued as a “particular brand of colonial politics[that] works toward constructing differences”(354). Earlier I wrote about the blurring of identities andthemes because of the multiplication. Holden reasserts that “the issue of Gothic Studies devoted to thePost-Colonial Gothic…the Gothic „is, and always has been, post-colonial „ in that the Gothic elements incolonial texts have the capacity to corrupt, to confuse or redefine the boundaries of power, knowledge andownership”(354). Rutledge interviewed Nalo Hopkinson in 1999 for African American Review. In the talkHopkinson acknowledges how other authors, like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney (“Chip”)successfully challenged existing paradigm for „speculative fiction.‟ She notes that “science fiction hasalways been a subversive literature. It‟s been used to critique social systems well before the marketinglabel of sf got stuck on it” (591). In reference to the absence of white racism, I think Hopkinson‟scomment on Walter Mosley‟s view speaks volumes: “Excellence in the work of black writers is judged byhow well we write about „being black in a white world‟, which is obviously only one part of our livedexperience.” When we look at the conflict in Brown Girl in the Ring, its paradigm flips white racism out of theuniverse of this community. Each character operates autonomously, without an overt binary relationshipto the white structure. This is significant, I think. Hopkinson comments on how a writer‟s retreat she wasattended even suggested that she include some of the dominant white culture‟s idiom, so as to not alienatesome white readers. Certainly the white structure existed, exists, yet my hunch is that it is not essential togood writing to include discourses from the dominant European culture. Hopkinson comments, “When Iread the work of African American realist writers, there‟s always the awareness of the white world inwhich the characters live; there has to be if the fiction is representative of the real world”(592).
Ramser 7 Obviously the enormity of the inhumanity of colonial slavery and cultural oppression exists. Yetwhat Hopkinson does strikes me as truly avant-garde. She disrupts time, history, place, and space. Sherearranges the existence of characters to create a bold statement. Edward W. Soja asserts in ThirdSpacethat “whenever you read a sentence[of fiction] that empowers history, historicality, or the historicalnarrative, substitute space, spatiality, or geography and think of the consequences” (Soja, 182-3).Hopkinson applies this disruption to her narratives quite successfully through the blurring of multipleidentity themes. She admits that “speculative fiction allows me to experiment with the effects of thatcancerous blot, to shrink it by setting my worlds far in the future (science fiction) or to metonymize it sothat I can explore the paradigms it‟s created (fantasy). I could even choose to sidestep it altogether intoalternate history. Mosley says that sf makes it possible to create visions which will “shout down therealism imprisoning us behind a wall of alienating culture”” (592). It is the imaging “our future” that stands the white culture on its head. The white structure existsas a partition, and not the superstructure of the writing. This is dynamic! It is the operating within andoutside of descriptive [limiting] labels such as “speculative fiction” that Brown Girl in the Ring soars.The traditional gender politics are there in the story. In Hollywood storytelling paradigms there are threestory lines: boy gets girl; boy loses girl; and boy gets girl back. Yet here Ti-Jeanne transforms, whereasTony‟s character suggests that male identity is dependent on female agency. Rudy needs a younger hostbody to function. Tony needs Ti-Jeanne and Mami Gros-Jeanne to battle the forces of Rudy. Thissuggests, that though there is a traditional story line of character‟s objective contesting the obstacles intheir way, what really is at play in the drama is the disruption of presumptions by this Afro-Caribbeanauthor. I think it is profound! In the interview with Alondra Nelson (2002), Hopkinson was asked about the “thinly veiledmetaphor for racial others [in sf] – monsters, and aliens, for example.” She retorted that “white people[…] we call them pioneers” ignores the existence of Natives who lived „there‟ before it was discovered bywhite Europeans. [So] she reconciles her affinity for the genre with its tacit racial politics by writing from
Ramser 8within the realities of racialized other. We will inhabit, but what will that future mean to us who have ahistory of being racialized? …sometimes [I] refuse to write yet another plea to the dominant culture forjustice, and instead [she] simply set[s] the story of the “othered” people front and center and tell abouttheir [our] lives and their concerns” (101). Hopkinson adds, “I think it‟s vitally important to write aboutthat [racial slavery and its cruel injustice]. We need to continue writing about it; in fact that‟s one of thethings that the novel that I‟m currently writing is about” (102). In another interview with Dianne D. Glave (2003) asked Hopkinson about themes of landscapeand environment and her writing: “Brown Girl in the Ring begins on the corner of the street near where Iused to live. I was walking home one night, passed, passed a junkie in a doorway, and he mumbled at me,“We have to get to know one another better, you know.” That is one of the first lines in Brown Girl in theRing [song]. The song‟s thematic connection to the story is evident as characters, primary and distant(such as spirits) move in and out of the narrative. In the same interview Hopkinson responds to a questioncontinuing the “primarily by and about white men” construct in sf publishing in general – “science fictionand fantasy writers have a solid tradition of interrogating that very trope [traveling to strange and exoticnew worlds and colonizing the natives]. And on the topic of subversion of the dominant language[culture] – “I think code-switching [does that] …sometimes I code-switch, sometimes I don‟t.” Forexample, Gros Ti-Jeanne code-switches (to survive) and to dominant, as when she talks with the streetchildren. The trope of racism in publishing was indicated earlier in the same interview, “understand thatthe received wisdom in the science fiction community is that “race doesn‟t matter.” [they are] generallypretty forward thinking people trying to be color-blind in all that they do so no one gets excluded. That‟svery important. It‟s a political strategy arrived at inclusivity in a world where to many of us were judgedto be freaks in the regular world, and we don‟t want to ostracize anyone that way” (150-1). In Dr. Greenberg‟s course The Gothic Novel at California State University, Los Angeles, welooked at several pieces of fiction, some obviously „Gothic,” and some writing blended the genres. ToniMorrison‟s Beloved was one of those. Hopkinson commented in the Glave interview “when I read Toni
Ramser 9Morrison‟s Beloved, she blends African-American women and speculative fiction literature, whilemaking a powerful statement concerning racism and slavery in the United States” (151). I think thatBrown Girl in the Ring attempts to cover some of the issues Beloved tackled: family, feminism,matriarchy and patriarchy, colonialism, to name a few: In Brown Girl in the Ring, my main characters started to come alive for me when I began thinking about what their family and economic configurations might be. It’s common in working-class and poor black communities for the mother to leave her child with her mother while she goes to seek her fortune elsewhere, because the area they’re in is too economically depressed for there to be much opportunity. That’s not exactly what happened with Ti-Jeanne’s mother in Brown Girl in the Ring, but it was the thinking behind the way I set up her family. (153)Whereas the dynamics of historical change in Beloved was in the magic of the character Beloved, inBrown Girl in the Ring the change occurs because “something fundamental about the natureof humans or human understanding has to change. That‟s one of the places where science fiction andfantasy can be really exciting, where they can envision how that change might come about. Octavia Butlertalks about this a lot in her work” (153). In the interview with Jene Watson-Aifah (2003), the blurring ofidentity, genre, talked about earlier is expanded: When Brown Girl in the Ring came out, a lot of people who are used to conventional science fiction asked me why I was mixing science fiction with fantasy. My answer has always been that that‟s what you do in everyday life. You might be a heart surgeon and deal with impressive technology and biology, but you might say a prayer before you cut into somebody. You don‟t leave out that hope that there is something bigger than you that can help you along. I think that much of the Western world is sort of embarrassed, reluctant to talk about the unseen.(168)This blended narrative of technology and spiritually is part of the subversion occurring in Brown Girl inthe Ring. It challenges the readers‟ position on rarely openly discussed issues. Racism and race are one ofthose issues. In “Race and Racism: A Symposium”(1995), Robin D.G. Kelley commented: “A worldwhere race doesnt matter? Why should this be a difficult thing to imagine? After all, didnt Franz Boasand others prove that race is just a myth?” To extend this argument, I include Jillana Enteen‟s "On the Receiving End of the Colonization":Nalo Hopkinsons Nansi Web
Ramser 10 Recognizing that these social and ideological obstacles span the digital divide, Hopkinson renders visible the master codes that lie at the foundation of current strategies for technological development that continue to exclude, disregard, or exploit marginalized peoples. Her rewriting of cyberpunk bridges the chasm by centering Caribbean descendants and their creolized cultures in her version of a technology-laden future.(264)What happens in Brown Girl in the Ring is “blending” as a stylistic device, deliberately disruptive thestandard narratives, not only sf fiction, so that the reader experiences characters [free as possible] of thecolonial baggage that entraps and promulgates old regimes. This is the genius of Nalo Hopkinson‟swriting technique, as she pushes white racism to the outside of the circle of the communities, and placingfront and center the narrative of the Caribbean story set in a post holocaust Toronto.
Ramser 11 Work CitedBarriteau, Eudine. “Theorizing Gender Systems and the Project of Modernity in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean.” Feminist Review. No. 59, Rethinking Caribbean Difference (Summer, 1998), pp. 186-210 PRINT Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1395730Enteen, Jillana. "On the Receiving End of the Colonization": Nalo Hopkinsons Nansi Web. Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2, Afrofuturism (Jul., 2007), pp. 262-282 PRINT Published by: SF-TH IncStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4241525Hawes, Bess Lomax. Brown Girl in the Ring: An Anthology of Song Games from the Eastern Caribbean. Pantheon; 1ST edition. New York. 1997. PRINTHopinson, Nalo. Brown Girl in the Ring. Grand Central Publishing. New York. 1976. PRINT ---Midnight Robber. KINDLE --The New Moon’s arms. KINDLE ---The Salt Roads. KINDLE ---Skin Folks. KINDLEHopkinson, Nalo. “A Conversation with Nalo Hopkinson.” Interview by Jené Watson-Aifah. Callaloo, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter, 2003), pp. 160-169 PRINT Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3300638Hopkinson, Nalo. “An Interview with Nalo Hopkinson.” Interview by Dianne D. Glave. Callaloo, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter, 2003), pp. 146-159 PRINT Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3300637Hopkinson, Nalo. “Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Science Fiction Writer Nalo Hopkinson.” Interview by Gregory E. Rutledge. African American Review, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 589-601 PRINT Published by: Indiana State University Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2901339Hopkinson, Nalo. “Making the Impossible Possible”: An Interview with Nalo Hopkinson.” Interview by Alondra Nelson. Social Text, 71 (Volume 20, Number 2), Summer 2002, pp. 97-113 (Article) PRINT PROJECT MUSE March 5, 2011. <http://muse.jhu.edu.mimas.calstatela.edu/journals/social_text/v020/20.2nelson02.pdf> Published by Duke University PressHopkinson, Nalo and Uppinder Mehan. Eds. So Long Been Dreaming; Ppostcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy. Vancouver. Arsenal Pulp Press. 2004. PRINTMohammed, Patricia. “But Most of All mi Love Me Browning: The Emergence in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Jamaica of the Mulatto Woman as the Desired.” Feminist Review. No. 65, Reconstructing Femininities: Colonial Intersections of Gender, Race, Religion and Class (Summer, 2000), pp. 22-48 PRINT Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1395848
Ramser 12Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction Future Texts.” Social Text, 71 (Volume 20, Number 2), Summer 2002, pp. 1-15 (Article) PRINT PROJECT MUSE.March 5, 2011. <http://muse.jhu.edu.mimas.calstatela.edu/journals/social_text/v020/20.2nelson01.pdf> Published by Duke University PressRose, Tricia , Andrew Ross, Robin D. G. Kelley, Joe Wood, Howard Winant, Jacquie Jones, Michael Eric Dyson, Phillip Brian Harper, Steven Gregory, Grant Farred, Gina Dent, David Roediger, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Aronowitz, Lewis R. Gordon, and Kevin Gaines. “Race and Racism: A Symposium.” Social Text, No. 42 (Spring, 1995), pp. 1-52 PRINT Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/466663Rutledge, Gregory E. “Futuristic Fiction & Fantasy: The Racist Establishment.” Callaloo, Volume 24, Number 1, Winter 2001, pp. 236-252 (Article) PRINT Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/cal.2001.0060Soja, Edward. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real-and-Imagined Places. Blackwell, Oxford. 1996. PRINT