Being a leading Black voice in sci-fi writing is a 'joyful' responsibility: Nalo Hopkinson
Writer becomes first Black woman to win Damon Knight Grand Master award
Originally published on Jan. 19, 2021
As the first Black woman to receive one of science fiction writing's most prestigious awards, Nalo Hopkinson says she takes a "joyful" responsibility in her work.
"I know I represent a lot to people who didn't think they could do what I'm doing for various reasons," said Hopkinson, author of several award-winning books, including Brown Girl in the Ring and The New Moon's Arms.
"People from marginalized experiences like I am, being Black, being an immigrant to North America, being female, being queer, being over a certain age, having some level of disability," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "It's something I do take seriously."
The Jamaican-born Canadian was named Damon Knight Grand Master last month, a lifetime achievement honour presented annually by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is now based in California, where she is a professor of creative writing at the University of California Riverside.
The 60-year-old is not only the first Black woman to be honoured with the title, but is the youngest ever Grand Master. A tribute video for the award included appearances from SFWA members and Star Trek: The Next Generation star LeVar Burton.
"There's a fine line, in my view, between humanity and divinity, and you dance between them with effortless ease and grace," Burton said in the video.
Hopkinson said his tribute was humbling.
"You know that thing you do when you're shocked — you put your hands over your mouth and your mouth is open? That's what I was doing all the way through it," she told Galloway.
"I hope I manage the humanity part, and the rest I would think of as being something I'm trying for in my writing, to sort of hit some of the more profane and sublime aspects of being human."
Step by step
Hopkinson's venture into science fiction and fantasy writing seems to have been destined from the start. Her father was a poet and playwright who also taught English, and she was raised in a community of Caribbean writers and artists.
She grew up reading books from Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey, to folktale collections.
"I've always read something that had some element of the fantastical in it because for me, it lifted it out of the ordinary in a way I found very appealing," she said.
But it wasn't until she happened upon an anthology by students of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop that Hopkinson decided to take up writing as a hobby.
"I thought, 'Oh, there's a workshop? You could learn how to do this?'" she said.
Hopkinson later moved from Jamaica to Canada. It was there she met the late Toronto-based U.S. writer Judith Merril, who helped her passion blossom into a career by helping her to set up her own writing workshop.
"It was slow," she said. "For me, it wasn't 'I'm going to become a writer.' It was, 'Let me try this thing and then let me try this next thing.' And being blessed to have the support of my family."
Black fantasy writing
Growing up as a middle-class Black woman in the Caribbean — where people of colour were "very much in the majority" — Hopkinson says she initially didn't feel held back by her skin colour, nor was she aware of the lack of Black voices in the science fiction and fantasy genres.
It wasn't until Hopkinson found a hardcover book from one of her favourite writers, the Black U.S. author and literary critic Samuel R. Delany, that she started to think more seriously about the relationship between race and science fiction. Those thoughts were prompted by his picture in the inside cover, something that wasn't common in the paperback books that she was accustomed to reading, which meant the race of the authors wasn't always clear.
I know I represent a lot to people who didn't think they could do what I'm doing for various reasons.- Nalo Hopkinson
"I began to look at how science fiction represented and so often misrepresented race, and also other countries," she said. "At that time, you'd have to go a long distance to find the Caribbean represented and accurately in science fiction."
Though Hopkinson acknowledges there's a small group within the science fiction and fantasy community who complain about women- and women-of-colour writers, she says the attitude towards Black fantasy and science fiction writing has changed since she first started.
Hopkinson mentions the 2018 film Black Panther, which focuses on a technologically-advanced fictional African country and its king, as a positive example of combating Black and African misrepresentation.
"They did an excellent job of representing not only a diasporic Africanness, but an Africanness that is a technocracy [because] so often people think we can't work machines, much less invent them," she said.
That same year, Hopkinson was invited to contribute to the revival of Neil Gaiman's legendary The Sandman Universe. The new work was split into four series, based on Gaiman's popular comic from the 1980s and 1990s.
Hopkinson was assigned by Gaiman to work on the House of Whispers series, which centred on a Yoruba deity of love called Erzulie Fréda.
"I was in a position knowing I was going to be cutting my teeth, writing my first comic in the universe of one of the most popular comic series in North America, so no pressure," she said.
Goodreads users gave House of Whispers' first issue a favourable average 3.69 stars out of 5. The series would extend to 21 more issues, the last of which was digitally published in July 2020.
Hopkinson hopes the lifetime achievement award will not only shine a light on her work, but also encourage young writers to break into the science fiction and fantasy industry.
"The mechanism by which people will come to me to be mentored is usually by applying to my university," she said. "I assume that they will see applications arise from people from various backgrounds who want to write."
She said that she takes her responsibility as a role model and teacher seriously, but it also lets her indulge in being "mischievous."
"A lot of my students expect respectability, but I'm an artist and I don't think art is about being respectable — so it's sort of fun to throw them sometimes."
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Alison Masemann.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.