A R T I C L E
NALO HOPKINSON: "All Fiction is Fantasy"
b y t a m a r a k a y e s e l l m a n ~ m a r g i n
NALO HOPKINSON doesn't have much patience for people who wish to slight writing that falls inside genre, that is, recognizable and popular categories of writing such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.
"In that sense, I like to describe all the genres of fiction as subsets of fantasy; particularly when it'll make people who snobbishly deride fantasy splutter," says the author of The Salt Roads, a Caribbean-based novel which was recently shortlisted for the Nebula Award.
The snobbish derision which Hopkinson describes, of genres like fantasy and science fiction among some literary professionals, still happens in an industry which must rely upon these categories to market books and serve the interests of audiences. Work such as The Salt Roads, which falls less comfortably into a single genre (her book might be described as science fiction, fantasy, literary, lesbian literature, women's literature, African American literature—take your pick) has less chance of suffering from the critical gaze of genre-bashers, but it still happens among those editors and publishers with deeply rooted biases against imaginative writing as a "legitimate" form of literature.
Hopkinson has no real qualms with being considered a writer of science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, horror, magical realism, fabulism or interstitial writing. "My work generally will contain some element of the fantastical, futuristic and/or surreal, and often draws on history and folklore. There are all kinds of labels which people might append to any given piece of mine... Whatever. I don't quibble too much, except when critics try to distance me from science fiction and fantasy."
Her writing comes out of being a science fiction and fantasy reader to begin with. It would make sense that she should want to honor that background as part of the universe of her own writing life.
Would she characterize her work specifically as magical realism? "I don't know. I tend to identify myself as a science fiction and fantasy writer, because those genres are wide enough to contain almost anything I might want to write. And those are the genres I love."
For her, the term magical realism is a useful one, though she admits it has its limitations. "As with any identity label, lots of things will overflow its edges. So long as we don't fall into the trap of believing that one label can neatly contain everything at which it points, I think it's an okay term to use." She also believes that all fiction is fantasy, regardless how much that might make others in the world of literature a bit squeamish.
Her own definition of magical realism—or perhaps the way that she arrives at a definition of magical realism—is not too different from any other's. "I would have to borrow someone else's (a few someone elses's)," she says. Her understanding is that magical realism is "fiction wherein supernatural events are part of the possible occurrences in our world. The story doesn't have to be set on another planet or down a rabbit hole, and supernatural events aren't necessarily seen as unusual by the characters."
Labels for identifying literature are useful, says Hopkinson. "They can help you find the type of work you like to read, or provide a framework for discussing particular approaches to making story," she says. "Ignorant prejudice and avoidance of all the work in a genre based on misapprehension of what that genre actually encompasses is irritating as hell."
Hopkinson is the author of several books, including the Locus-award-winning Brown Girl in the Ring and the New York Times Notable Book for 2000, Midnight Robber, as well as the short story collections Skin Folk and Mojo: Conjure Stories. She is the editor of the anthology, Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction.
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