Posts Tagged ‘Caribbean’

Book Review – Skin Folk

Skin FolkSkin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part of fantasy’s appeal is that it takes you some place unfamiliar. Yet, as Ursula Le Guin has rightly criticized, the bias of fantasy literature is to assume that characters are white and the world looks like medieval Europe. Even contemporary fantasy reverts to the European fairy tale model so often that, while Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimms are all fine and dandy, I find myself craving something different—something actually, well, unfamiliar. So browsing through my library’s eBook collection, when the words “Caribbean folklore” caught my eye, I checked out Skin Folk and discovered a skilled & intelligent writer in Nalo Hopkinson.

Like most collections, there are high points and low points, but Hopkinson’s writing and imagination are unique and do something I didn’t expect from folk tales with their tried-and-true tropes and near-universal patterns: these stories surprised me. Like, if the Snow Queen took place inside an Etch-a-Sketch. Or orgasm-heightening sex suits became sentient. Or a cockatrice grew out of a fertilized chicken egg and ate the sleazy guy next door. That’s the kind of story Hopkinson thinks of and works out.

In some cases, yes, the stories are reworkings of European stories or concepts: Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, the aforementioned Snow Queen and cockatrice. Awesome reworkings and thoroughly unique, though. I’d never, for one, thought about what Red Riding Hood was like for Grandma. In other stories, Caribbean and African figures dominate (fan favorite Anansi makes two appearances), and there are still other stories that are straight-up, near-future sci-fi, like those sentient sex suits.

Themes of gender, race, and colonialism loom large. Female characters are struggling to get along and assert themselves in a patriarchal world; dark-skinned characters deal both with the stereotypes others put on them and with internalized racism—not always successfully. A few of the tales are told in Caribbean dialect, which I know will annoy certain readers, but they can get over themselves and deal.

The author has lived in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Canada (and a slew of other places I can’t recall), which may account for her ability to evoke very different settings and characters who more or less fit into them. Most of the protagonists are misfits and outsiders in some way. There is a lot of the bizarre, the violent, and some explicit sex. Hopkinson also plays with story structure, switching POV, jumping forward and backward in time, and never quite ending the story where I’d anticipate resolution.

I’m sure I’ll be picking up one of her novels in the future, to see how she handles a sustained narrative. I’ll also check out the sci-fi anthology, So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Visions of the Future, which she co-edited.

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