Author Talks Coloring Science Fiction With ‘Black Imaginaries’

Sweating feet in plastic shoes. Flashes of a white
nightgown. Popcorn replicated by nanobots.

Such vivid images came alive in a short story read aloud by award-winning science fiction writer
Nalo Hopkinson during her talk in Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theater March 25. Her
presentation was part of the Vertigo@Midnight: New Visual AfroFuturisms and
Speculative Migrations presentation series.

Hopkinson,
a Jamaican native who has also lived in Trinidad, Guyana and Canada, focused
on “Black Imaginaries,”interpretations and stories that resonate with black cultural heritage. A professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and the author of
six novels, a short story collection and a chapbook, Hopkinson is
well-tuned to the world of science fiction. She writes modern fantasy,
speculative fiction and stories that encompass the complexities of the African
Diaspora.

Valerie
Thomas, professor of English and Africana Studies at Pomona, was proud to
introduce the author. 

“[Hopkinson]
is the star of Afro-Futurisms,” Thomas said, mentioning a few of the many awards
that Hopkinson has received in her distinguished career. “She really subverted
the traditional genre. Her writing is sharp-witted intellect seasoned with humor,
with a radical vision that refuses easy consumption.”

Hopkinson read her new short story, “Propagation,” in which a young black female living with her family in an impoverished Caribbean town experiences a miracle of popcorn falling on the roof. 

In her presentation of the story, Hopkinson declared that the ‘science’ of
science fiction must be believable. So she offered up an equally poetic
description of the story she wanted
to write, a Caribbean fairytale of science and technology. She seamlessly
integrated Jamaican vernacular, technological terms and standard English to
paint the picture of a young girl who creates an incredible popcorn production plant.
  

The process
of writing this story was a taxing one. Although Hopkinson completed the first draft in a
short amount of time, she continued to return to the original idea to attempt improvements for quite some time.

“I prefer
constructing my stories as opposed to deconstructing them,” she said. “I’ve
never written a piece of fiction like that—one that takes itself apart and
re-makes itself.”

The most important
part of the story was what the popcorn represented: many kernels remained un-popped, paralleling many other false starts in writing. The main message of the story, though, is the power of creation possessed by the young girl.

“There’s a sign-post pointed in a
direction,” she said. “That God is a little brown girl. We can dream of a world
where a little black girl can take some dud kernels and make popcorn.”

Hopkinson then spoke
about how people of color are often marginalized or stereotyped in science
fiction and fantasy. For example, she said, many movie producers do not think
there is a market for black science fiction, so few movies include
culturally diverse characters or content. As a result, many people of color
do not see heroes who look like them onscreen—instead, they’re given only white representations. 

This trend is disturbing in and of itself, but Hopkinson noted the dangerous undertone accompanying it: Many white science fiction
or fantasy stories are more like nightmares to audiences of color. 

“We’ve seen
these narratives before,” she said. “It’s the dilemma we face when a dominant
culture tells us these themes are universal. We’ve experienced alien abduction
at the hands of humanoids with funny-colored skin, who arrived in large ships
and took over … I’ve found myself sympathizing
with the monster more often, because I can relate to his feelings of
alienation.”

Hopkinson
noted how these clichés are reinforced throughout many platforms, and that
future generations must work to change them. Characters of color, she argued, should
be featured on the cover—not as ‘the beast’ or ‘the help,’ but as the hero.  

Despite the current progression of popular culture, Hopkinson sees a bright future for Afro-Futurism. While white readers might
not understand Caribbean folklore, Caribbean people may and will feel inspired
to write their own fiction. She
recommended Jeremy Love’s Bayou, a graphic novel in which creatures of black
folklore are part of a real Jim Crow south, as well as Janelle Monae’s
cyberpunk-influenced music and videos.

“Walter
Mosley, [bestselling author of crime fiction], considered the question of what
science fiction is to black people,” she said. “We need to be living in a
different world. We need to be able to imagine what that world might be: fiction of the fantastic, imagined realities we want to see [and] pathways to getting
there. Reality be damned.”

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