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Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, edited by Nalo Hopkinson, Invisible Cities Press, 2000, 318 pp.

Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root continues Hopkinson's project of infusing many genres with a sense of the Caribbean (as happened in Hopkinson's novels specifically for science fiction, especially Midnight Robber) , even though they might approach the idea of genre from an oblique angle. The word fabulist in the subtitle is entirely appropriate.

The book is divided into seven broad topical sections. The first is "'membah" in which three stories deal with interruptions in and the persistence of tradition and heritage, memory and remembering. "What the Periwinkle Remember" by Marcia Douglas is an excerpt from a novel, and this excerpt is a story of an old woman looking back on her life. "Yurokon" by Wilson Harris examines certain myths and preconceptions about Caribbean people. "Spurn Babylon" by Tobias S. Buckell takes place in a village where a wrecked slave ship has washed ashore.

The second section is entitled "Science" and deals with the contrast between herbal lore and rituals and the Western ideas of science. Roger McTair's "Just a Lark" is almost a horror story, as long ago secrets and misdeeds come back in surprising ways. "Tears for Ersulie Freda: Men Without Shadow" by Claude-Michel Prevost is part story and part play, and tells of the process of creativity in the context of disapproval.

"Blood Thicker More Than Water" has three stories about family. H. Nigel Thomas' "The Village Cock" is about an abusive father, and the long journey of the family and the village to resolution of conflict. "Shadows Move in the Britannia Bar" by Ismith Khan is told by an old drunk in a bar, relating the rocky relationship between a father and son. "My Mother" by Jamaica Kincaid is a type of experimental piece, vignettes of a daughter's view of her mother.

The fourth section is "The Broad Dutty Water" in which the stories all deal with the waters of the Caribbean. "Mad Fish" by Olive Senior is a tall tale... or is it? In Opal Palmer Adisa's "Widows' Walk," a woman waits for her husband, who is overdue to return from a fishing trip. There are no overt fantastical elements, apart from a sense that the woman has of the sea as a rival for her husband's life. A vividly written slice of life. "Once on the Shores of the Stream Senegambia" by Pamela Mordecai closes the section.

"Crick Crack" covers storytelling, and begins with a short piece by Lillian Allen, "In the Beginning." Next is "Uncle Obadiah and the Alien" by Geoffrey Philp, which I found to be the funniest story in the collection, involving a patch of marijuana, aliens who look like Margaret Thatcher, and lots of hilarity. Robert Antoni fulfills all of the promises of the title of his story, "My Grandmother's Tale of the Buried Treasure and How She Defeated the King of Chacachacari and the Entire American Army with Her Venus-Flytraps." And there's one more story in this section: "Pot O' Rice Horowitz's House of Solace" by Ian McDonald, about a man who would like to open a brothel in a small town.

The sixth section of the book is entitled "Down Inside the Chute," and deals with ghosts or spirits. Hopkinson's own "Glass Bottle Trick" is a story of revenge. "Buried Statues" by Antonio Benitez-Rojo is one of the stranger stories in the book, about a small group of people living on an estate. "Soma" by Camilla Hernandez-Ramdwar is about the body, about hatred of the body, and what happens when the body defines you even more overtly than it may now.

The closing section of the book is "Dream." "My Funny Valentine" is a three-page poem by Kamau Brathwaite and the book concludes with "Devil Beads" by marina ama omowale maxwell.

Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root is recommended to anyone interested in Caribbean culture. Hopkinson has done wonderful work at organizing and presenting the stories, and Invisible Cities Press has put together a handsome edition.

Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson, Warner Aspect, 2001, 255 pp.

Some of the excellent stories in Skin Folk are science fiction, some resemble fables, and there's even a sprinkling of horror, but what unites all of them is Hopkinson's deftness, insight, and vivid prose. Hopkinson has written two novels and edited an anthology and Skin Folk is a welcome addition to her oeuvre.

Two stories here will be familiar to readers of Hopkinson's other works. "Tan-Tan and Dry Bone" is an excerpt from Midnight Robber, Hopkinson's stunning second novel. This excerpt is one of the folk tales that grow up around the main character of that book, so it stands well on its own. "The Glass Bottle Trick" is from Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, the anthology which Hopkinson edited. It's an effective story of repression and revenge.

Skin Folk also has stories from other anthologies. "A Habit of Waste," probably the only weak story of the bunch, can be found in Northern Suns. "Money Tree," a story about family ties and the corrupting power of wealth, is from Tesseracts6. Two stories are from Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora: "Greedy Choke Puppy" and "Ganger (Ball Lightning)." The first is an exercise in narrative points of view, put to the use of bringing the reader inside the skin of some unusual people. It's also one of the few stories I've read that managed to surprise me with its ending; usually stories of this type are extremely predictable. "Ganger (Ball Lightning)" is perhaps Skin Folk's most intriguing story. It's about love, peril, and what might happen with the future of bedroom toys.

Other anthologies to which Hopkinson contributed include Northern Frights 5, with the story "Slow Cold Chick," and two fairy-tale-retold anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Black Swan, White Raven and Silver Birch, Blood Moon, represented here by "Riding the Red" and "Precious." "Slow Cold Chick" is perhaps urban horror, perhaps magic realism, with a woman whose inner attributes are externalized in a way she was not expecting. "Riding the Red" is a short retelling of Little Red Riding Hood from the point of view of the grandmother, an old woman whose thoughts about the wolf wander. "Precious" is about a woman who has jewels or flowers fall out of her mouth every time she speaks. Hopkinson sets the story in contemporary times, and extrapolates from there.

The other stories are from smaller magazines or are original to this collection. "Something To Hitch Meat To" explores the issue of embodiment, as a man who works for a porn web site begins to have what could be hallucinations or even flickers in reality. "Snake" is even more overtly horror than "Slow Cold Chick" and is the most disturbing story in the book. The snake of the title is a serial killer who has stalked his prey without opposition, at least until now. "Under Glass" is a strange story, attempting the surreal but not quite succeeding. What would happen if our world was filled with shards of glass? "Fisherman" is the least fantastic of any of the stories in Skin Folk; as Hopkinson says in the introduction to the story: "It felt like a tale that needed to be grounded in the potential for reality" (119). The title character is actually a woman, trying to fit in among her macho colleagues, up to and including their weekly trip to the village bordello. "Fisherman" is certainly the steamiest story in the book. "And the Lilies-Them A-Blow" tells the story of a woman named Samantha, unhappy with her job and hearing nursery rhymes in the strangest places. "Whose Upward Flight I Love" is a short and whimsical piece about urban trees trying to escape the squalor of their surroundings.

Skin Folk is a wonderful collection, filled with one inventive story after another. Highly recommended.

The Salt Roads, Nalo Hopkinson, Warner, 2003, 394 pp.

The Salt Roads is a highly ambitious and intricate novel from Nalo Hopkinson. In the book, three different women from three different time periods are connected by the presence of a newborn female spirit. Jeanne lives in Paris in the 1840s; she is a prostitute who lives by generosity of her lover, Charles Baudelaire. Meritet lives as a slave in Haiti a century earlier; she is a healer and tries to make life easier for her fellow slaves on the plantation. And Thais is also a prostitute living in Alexandria in the 4th century; we learn less of her story but we do follow her from Egypt to Jerusalem. The book is structured loosely, as this new female presence finds herself switching from the body of one main character to another. Jeanne and Meritet dominate the first half of the book, and their historical time periods in particular feel vivid and filled in with depth of detail. There's only one mention of Thais in the first 235 pages, and I felt that her character was somewhat shortchanged; her time period was just as intriguing as the other two. All the same, when the book ends, I was wishing for more information about all of the characters. The brevity of the book, despite its 400 pages, fit with the way mortal lives would seem to flit past for the female presence that ties the book together.

The book includes a great deal of sexuality, which might put some readers off, but I found it a great relief after reading too much timid and/or juvenile genre work. What's the point of pretending that that sexuality doesn't exist? Of course, writing about this topic is not easy, and garners all kinds of strange accusations, but Hopkinson pulls it off with aplomb. I'm reminded of Nabokov's comment that Lolita was not pornography because the amount of sex decreased over the course of the book, rather than the other way around. Hopkinson is also very precise in her use of sexuality in The Salt Roads and the novel is considerably stronger for it.

The Salt Roads can be found in the literature section of the bookstore and has been marketed as such. The book is definitely an interesting mix of things, everything from historical game playing to literary biography by way of ignored voices to a simple slice of life for each character. As Paul Di Filippo points out in his review of The Salt Roads on SciFi Weekly, this book has antecedents in both mainstream writing, with Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, as well as in speculative fiction, with Kathy Acker and Samuel Delany. I think it's unfortunate that a book like The Salt Roads is seen as too good for sf and flees the genre instead of sticking around and raising the level of discourse. Whatever the genre, I'm looking forward to Hopkinson's next book.

So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004, 270 pp.

So Long Been Dreaming is an interesting anthology; as Hopkinson puts it in her introduction, these stories are "written exclusively by people of colour" (8). The urgency of this theme is captured by the long quotation from the introduction that is rightly featured on the back cover:

Arguably, one of the most familiar memes of science fiction is that of going to foreign countries and colonizing the natives, and as I've said elsewhere, for many of us, that's not a thrilling adventure story; it's non-fiction, and we are on the wrong side of the strange-looking ship that appears out of nowhere. To be a person of colour writing science fiction is to be under suspicion of having internalized one's colonization. (7)

So how do these stories match up to these lofty goals?

The best story in So Long Been Dreaming is clearly Vandana Singh's "Delhi." Singh's story is about a man named Aseem who wanders the streets of Delhi; he can see momentary glimpses of people from Delhi past and present, and he can also see people in his own time who are about to commit suicide. This story is packed with detail about the history of Delhi and what it's like in present time. And the main point of the narrative is that small things will change the future of Delhi, which makes for an emotionally powerful ending. Singh doesn't look away from despair and pessimism and thus convinces us that hope is possible. A revelation, grounded in details.

Other good stories in the anthology include: "Rachel" by Larissa Lai, which takes us into the viewpoint of a marginalized character from a famous science fiction film; "When Scarabs Multiply" by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, which tells us about a girl's greedy father who tries to run a village; "The Forgotten Ones" by Karin Lowache, which follows several twists and turns in how we view a small group of native rebels defending their jungle; and "Trade Winds" by devorah major and "Lingua Franca" by Carole McDonnell, both about communicating with those who are different in some way. I also enjoyed "Panopte's Eye" by Tamai Kobayashi, even though it is clearly an excerpt from a longer work.

So Long Been Dreaming also includes stories by Nisi Shawl, Andrea Hairston, Suzette Mayr, Eden Robinson, Sheree R. Thomas, Wayde Compton, Greg van Eekhout, Celu Amberstone, Ven Begamudre, Opal Palmer Adisa, Maya Khankhoje, and Tobias S. Buckell. Hopkinson provides the introduction, as already noted, and Uppinder Mehan some "Final Thoughts" by way of conclusion.

Arsenal Pulp has put together an edition worth owning. In particular, for those readers who are into graphic novels, I should point out that the book has fabulous cover art by Ho Che Anderson.

Last modified: August 5, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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