canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson is a Toronto-based speculative fiction writer. She has published a collection of short stories, some plays, two novels, and an anthology or two. Her short story collection Skin Folk won the Sunburst Award for Canadian fiction of the fantastic, 2003. TDR caught up with her while she was on tour promoting her new book, The Salt Roads (2003, Warner Books). See more about Nalo at:

Danielle Couture interviewed Hopkinson by email in December 2003.


TDR: How is your promotional tour for The Salt Roads progressing? Does traveling agree with you?

NH: I get motion sick at the drop of a hat. Not tossing my cookies sick, just disoriented, nauseated and infinitely miserable. In a plane, I feel as though I'm constantly falling. Luckily, a dose of Gravol takes care of that pretty handily. The sick-making feeling goes away, and a plane ride just feels like being in a big old bus. Unluckily, Gravol leaves me drooling and more than a little stupid and slow until I can sleep it all off. The moment in my tour where I had to go straight from my flight to read at the Library of Congress and then be taken out to lunch immediately afterwards was difficult. At some point during lunch, I had to tell my hosts that I was about to do a face-dive into the plate, and that I really needed to lie down. They understood. But the tour's been generally pretty good. Warner's taken good care of me and I've met lots of neat people.

TDR: I have read that you were born in Jamaica and moved around quite a bit as a child. How did you end up in Canada?

NH: My father had chronic kidney failure, and Canada has pretty good treatment for that. By moving here, we were able to prolong his life expectancy from the five years that the doctor originally gave him to nineteen years. He died in 1993. I've been in Canada nearly 27 of my 43 years now; longer than I've lived anywhere else.

TDR: As an only child of traveling parents, books were my first friends, and sometimes my only friends, as were the characters in them. At times, I connected deeply with certain characters. Has there ever been a fictional character that remained with you long after you finished reading the book?

NH: Well, I did have my brother Keita, so he was around to fight, er, interact with. (I love my brother dearly.) But yes, many stories have characters that stuck with me. Right now I'm obsessed with tracking down a children's novel I read years ago, in which a bunch of talking animals find a strangely mute bear in a field. He doesn't seem able to talk, but he does have his name written on a label attached to his body; it's Orlon. Of course, the bear is a stuffed toy made of orlon acrylic, but the real animals, even though they're smart enough to to read, never figure out that Orlon isn't alive. As a child, I found something poignant and beautiful about the story, and I wish that I could remember the name of it. And I was fascinated, as so many children are, by comic book superheroes. I also loved Pogo possum from Walt Kelly's "Pogo" comics; I liked how gentle and smart he was, and his wry, quiet sense of humour.

TDR: Sometimes the characters we discover in books seem incredibly real, as the protagonists in The Salt Roads do. If you could physically sit down with one of your characters, who would it be and why?

NH: I think I'd want to find out from Thais what really happened when she tried to enter the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The story goes that a vision of the Virgin Mary stopped her and told her that she couldn't enter because she was a prostitute, but I've always had trouble believing that as a reason for condemning someone. And I'd want Patrice to tell me what happened after he left the second time to go and live with the maroons.

TDR: On a slightly different note, what is your opinion of the current Canadian literary scene?

NH: You know, I end up being kind of tangential to the mainstream Canadian literary scene, because I write science fiction and fantasy, which is largely held in contempt in literary circles. Not everyone shares that prejudice. I've had some wonderful allies over the years. But I've also had journals change their minds about interviewing me when they discover that I write science fiction. So I end up not being very involved with the mainstream, because it generally doesn't want to have much to do with me and my fellow genre fiction writers. We and the people who enjoy reading us have had to form our own literary scene. The Salt Roads is not being published as a genre book, though, so perhaps more people will read it. It's certainly getting more interest from the Canadian literary mainstream than any of my previous work has. But if you asked me what I think about current Canadian writing, as opposed to the current Canadian literary scene, I'd have a much more enthusiastic response. Canadian writers kick serious butt. This country produces amazing writers and great stories to read. I'm proud to be able to show off Canadian writers to the world.

TDR: I understand that you worked for the Toronto Arts Council for some time as a grants officer. How did you initially become involved with the Toronto Arts Council?

NH: I got the position by applying for it. I was working for the Ministry of Culture at the time, as a Research Assistant. It was becoming abundantly clear to me that I was not cut out for that extreme a level of corporate culture. Every morning when the alarm clock went off, I would wake up and cry. When I saw the position of part-time Grants Officer advertised with the TAC, it seemed to be something that was closer to the source of artistic production and less formal; also, I felt that a part-time job would leave me more time to figure out what I actually wanted to do with my life. The TAC hired me, and it turned out to be a really good move for me to make. I got to meet a lot of artists and got a glimpse into how and why they did what they did. That's what gave me the courage to take steps to become a writer.

TDR: You seem to be heavily involved in Canadian arts community. Do you feel that today's young writers have an obligation to support their writing communities by attending readings, workshops, and by supporting other local artists?

NH: No, I feel that they should do whatever it makes sense to them to do. I'm not as heavily involved in the arts community as I was when I was a Grants Officer--can't afford to be, either in terms of money or time--but I am interested in the work of local artists, and try to get out to see whatever I can. I don't do so out of a sense of obligation. That would be no fun at all. I do it because there's great work being made and I enjoy experiencing it.

TDR: "The Salt Roads" has a wonderful and vibrant cover. Do you know the artist? Was the cover art your choice?

NH: I don't know the artist, and no, the cover art wasn't my choice. It's rare for writers to be given the choice. My publishing house picks covers that they hope will make people pick my books up, not covers that I necessarily like. I like Mr. Clayton's style a lot, but given my choice, I would have had Jeanne Duval depicted as she was; a light-skinned mixed race woman whose hair--in the 19th century, before hot combs--would have been wiry, not straightened. But I very much like the energy and vivacity of Clayton's work. For my second novel, Midnight Robber, my editor did ask me how I felt about the work of award-winning artists Leo and Diane Dillon. I was ecstatic, but I'm pretty sure that if my editor felt that they were the best choice, she'd have gone with them no matter what I thought. I was utterly thrilled with that cover. I didn't know until the book came out that Leo Dillon is Trinidadian, so when my novel talked about a futuristic Trinidad-style carnival, he knew exactly what I meant. It shows in their artwork, I think.

TDR: Are you currently working on any new projects you wish to share?

NH: I'm working very slowly on a graphic novel. I've written the first few scenes, and I'm now doing research so that I can write the rest. It's a learning process for both me and for the artist with whom I'm collaborating; neither one of us has worked on a graphic novel before. So we're taking our time. Once I've finished the script, he's going to tackle the images. I have a short story titled "The Smile on the Face" that's about to appear in GIRLS WHO BITE BACK: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks, a Sumach Press anthology edited by Emily Pohl-Weary. And I've got two novels in the works. I'd like to work on them simultaneously. I'm the queen of procrastination, so I'm hoping that I can use one to delay working on the other, and then switch off when I get overwhelmed. One of the novels is more contemporary magical realism, like The Salt Roads, and the other is a futuristic gender bender.

TDR: Finally, what is the first thing you plan on doing once you return to Vancouver?

NH: I won't be returning to Vancouver. My residency there is over. I was at Green College, a graduate residence at the University of British Columbia, working for two months as a writer in residence. It was a glorious space to be in. I worked with members of the College to organize a short reading series, and the rest of the time, I wrote. Gigs like that are very rare, and very precious. Right after the writing residency was over, I went straight on tour with The Salt Roads. It's the middle of December now, and I'm finally back home in Toronto for the first decent stint since September. I've been so homesick that I'm not even minding the cold much. That won't last.

Danielle Couture is a Toronto-based poet and staff writer with The Danforth Review.







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