Monday, June 11, 2012

Nalo Hopkinson Interview (2012 Summer Blog Blast Tour)

Welcome to the first day of  2012 Summer Blog Blast Tour. This week eight bloggers will be sharing various interviews, all of which will be linked back to Chasing Ray.

Nalo Hopkinson is an award winning fantasy author, The Chaos her YA debut has received three starred reviews. I was very excited when I heard about this book back in December.  With there being so few YA fantasy authors of color, when an established one decides to write one, its a reason to cheer.
Hi Nalo and welcome. Can you tell us a little about The Chaos?
NH: Thanks for the welcome! Now, I suck at synopsizing my own work.Easiest for people to read the publisher's blurb. Basically, my protagonist, Sojourner "Scotch Bonnet" Smith, is a 16 year-old Toronto girl. Her nickname comes from the Jamaican scotch bonnet pepper, one of the hottest peppers in existence. Scotch is biracial. Her parents transferred her from one high school to another because she was being slut-shamed by the girls in her previous school. She's just broken up with her boyfriend although she still cares for him. She's also begun seeing things that no-one else can see, and there's something chasing her.

Why is Scotch self conscious about not having a Caribbean accent?
NH: Scotch's mother is black middle-class American, and her father is white working-class Jamaican. She's proud of what she is. People who have eyes to see can tell that she is black (though not everyone has eyes to see!). So she feels as though she's representing for the maternal part of her heritage. But no-one can see her Jamaicanness, i.e. her father's side of her heritage. She thinks it would be more obvious if she had a Jamaican accent. She also thinks it'd be something clear and simple that she could claim. Everything about her is so hybridized that although she's not ashamed of it, she doesn't have any easy markers of authenticity. She feels the pressure of that.

She doesn't have an easily definable identity, and that can make a person feel lost, like they don't belong anywhere, like they can't claim affiliation with any one group. Canada as a nation wrestles with what it means to be Canadian, so that comes into play a bit, too. It's most obvious in the scene in the bar where Scotch is scoffing at the MC who tries to seem more authentically black by talking in something like an American accent and by name-checking only black American musicians and musical stylings. It's a dilemma for many -- not all --young black Canadians as they try to self-define. On this continent, blackness is seen as synonymous with black Americanness. If they don't look and act like what people associate with American blackness, they get seen as weird, inauthentic.

After the Chaos everyone is changed in some way. What says more about a  person, the transformation or whether or not they are accepting of it?
I think it depends on the transformation and on the person. The woman who's now sprouting roses even though she's allergic to them might not be so sanguine about her new biology. And Scotch's change --i.e. the appearance of the creature that's stalking her -- she could be hurt.

 A rolling calf and Baba Yaga, are a part in the story. Caribbean and Russian folklore fusion was unexpected but works. Why did you decide to blend the two?
I'm glad that you think they work! I also invoked the firebird, the phoenix, the roc, the simurgh, the kappa, Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Tinkerbell, and Sasquatch. Others I just plain made up. People from the cultures all those mythologies are from live in Toronto, so it made sense to mix things up. Like Scotch's life, mine is also hybridized. It rarely makes sense for me to just pick one thing.

Beyond having an author of color pen a new YA fantasy, I was excited about your, YA debut because I knew it included a diverse cast including gay and lesbian characters. In your novels for the most part everyone is accepting of everyone else. Is this a true reflection of Canada or what you would like Canada to be?
I tried to mix it up; to show both acceptance and prejudice. Punum's dad kicked her out when she came out to him. Scotch's homophobia, classism and ableism peek through in a couple of places. She herself has to deal with people's racism. And almost everyone in her school is phobic about the three students who are in   relationship together. Toronto has a large population of lgbtiq people. I myself am queer-identified and have been blessed with the experience of having community in Toronto (communities of all kinds, actually). So I know what it's like to move in circles where the gender of the people you find attractive isn't necessarily an issue. It's not like that everywhere, even in Canada. So for me it's a healing balm to be able to bring some of that acceptance into my writing.

Do you see yourself writing another YA novel?
Yes, I can see myself writing more YA. In the time that I was writing The Chaos, I also completed my first YA novelette ("Ours Is the Prettiest", in the anthology "Welcome to Bordertown", edited by Ellen Kushner and Holly Black), and my first YA short story ("The Easthound", coming out in the anthology "After", edited by Ellen Datlow). I should point out that my first two novels, although I didn't write them specifically for young adults, were put on "Books for the Teen Age", the annual YA bibliography compiled by the YA librarians of the New York Public Library.

I like the meatiness that I'm seeing in YA, where authors are finding all kinds of creative ways to wrestle with issues that used to be verboten in YA, but that young adults face all the time. Some parents have been dismayed that in "The Chaos" my characters talk about sex and sexuality in the ways that many teenagers do. I sympathize. I went through a period of horripilations at the beginning of writing the novel as I tried to figure out how to tackle sex and sexuality. For me, it came down to this; I do think it's age-appropriate. We call them young _adult_ readers for a reason. Yes, they're young and relatively inexperienced and we want to protect them, but they're also growing up. They're thinking about and talking about and in many cases doing this stuff. I didn't put any explicit sex scenes in the book.

And my protagonist is sexually active, but not if the guy won't use a condom. Many sexually active teen girls are reluctant to insist on their own safety. She does insist on it. I haven't yet heard from any readers who think that the violence, homophobia, ableism and racism in the book aren't age-appropriate. But sex does make some readers balk. Thing is, if you're very conservative, you're probably not going to like my writing anyway. Literature is art, and one of the jobs of art is to shake you out of your comfort zone, make you think.

I really enjoyed The Chaos for its uniqueness, though it has polarized readers and critics. Are you surprised that there is no  middle ground, either you like it or don't response to The Chaos?

 A little, yes. I've expected it for other novels of mine, but no from this one. Some readers are put off because I don't explain the reasons for The Chaos. That was a deliberate decision on my part, though. A few readers have come to the conclusion that Scotch is troubled by being biracial. I see how they could read it that way, but in my mind, Scotch has no trouble with her racial heritages; it's other people who do, and who make her life difficult because of it. Some readers are put off by how much diversity and identity figure in the story, and some love it. That I expected. Some readers love that the novel has a secondary character of "invisible" (most days) disabilities, but I'm still figuring out ways I might approach the issue in my fiction. I think the character of Punum is my first significant try at it.

There are three more  Day 1 Interviews
Kate Milford @ Chasing Ray
Randa Abdel Fattah  @ Crazy Quilts
Tim Lebbon @ Little Willow

And once again a full round up  of all the interviews can always be found here.

1 comment:

tanita davis said...

It is really exciting to find a new-to-me author, and one talking diversity and the authenticity self-identity in diversity around the world - is even better. Thank you for this.