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Nalo Hopkinson’s Fantastical Fiction: A Reading List

Reviewers have tried to capture the richness—and weirdness—of Nalo Hopkinson’s work with many labels: science fiction, Afrofuturism, fantasy, speculative fiction, dystopianism, the New Weird, and more. Let’s take a cue from Hopkinson’s own “brief biography,” where she explains that her “favourite fiction has always been the various forms of fantastical fiction, everything from Caribbean folklore to Ursula K. Le Guin's science fiction and fantasy.”

That phrase “fantastical fiction” might be the best starting point for describing Hopkinson’s intensely imaginative writing. The Caribbean folklore she mentions is a powerful, colorful force in her work, though she also draws on European folklore and mythology, among other creative sources. With these elements, she creates partly familiar, partly (and wildly) fantastical worlds in which she explores race, sexuality, and the power of family relationships.

Hopkinson was born in Jamaica in 1960. Her Guyanese father Slade was a poet, playwright, and actor who taught English and Latin. Her Jamaican mother Freda was a library technician. This literary environment inspired her from early on: by age 10, Hopkinson was reading Homer and Vonnegut.

A childhood spent in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana steeped Hopkinson in Caribbean culture; moving to Toronto at age 16 gave her another culture, and perspective on where she had come from. She is now a Canadian citizen, though since 2011 she’s been living in Southern California, where she’s a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside.

Hopkinson has published six novels—one of which is YA (young adult) and another of which won a YA award—two short story collections, and a chapbook. She has many awards to her name, including the Sunburst Award (twice), but on her own website she only refers to them in passing, while focusing on more personal:

“I have fibromyalgia, and was diagnosed relatively late in life with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder and Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, which explained a lot. I like moderate sunshine, love bopping around in the surf, and dream of one day living in a converted church, fire station or library. Or in a superadobe monolithic dome home.”

Like her work, Hopkinson herself has been given a variety of labels: a queer writer, a black writer, a feminist writer, a Caribbean writer, a Canadian writer. Likewise, none of these capture the richness—or the stunning, unique weirdness—of their subject. If you want to appreciate the worlds of Nalo Hopkinson, you’ll have to stop reading descriptions and start reading books. Here’s a list to get you started.

Brown Girl in the Ring

The rich and the privileged have fled Toronto, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways: farming, barter, herb lore. But now the powerful need a harvest of bodies for organ donation, and they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother. She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

“Hopkinson's writing is smooth and assured, and her characters lively and believable. She has created a vivid world of urban decay and startling, dangerous magic, where the human heart is both a physical and metaphorical key.” —Publishers Weekly

Winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest

Winner of the Locus Award for Best First SF Novel

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Midnight Robber

It's Carnival time and the Caribbean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance, and pageantry, as masked "Midnight Robbers" waylay revelers. To young Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favorite costume to wear at the festival—until her power-coprrupted father commits an unforgivable crime. Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here, monstrous creatures from folklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth, and become the Robber Queen herself.

"Caribbean patois adorns this novel with graceful rhythms...Beneath it lie complex, clearly evoked characters, haunting descriptions of exotic planets, and a stirring story." —Seattle Times

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The Chaos

In Hopkinson’s first YA novel, sixteen-year-old Scotch struggles to fit in at school—thanks to her mixed heritage, she doesn't feel she belongs with the Caribbeans, whites, or blacks. Things get more complicated when a sticky black substance starts covering her skin.

After a mysterious bubble of light swallows up her brother, chaos begins to spread throughout the city, until it seems that everyone is turning into crazy creatures. Scotch needs to get to the bottom of this supernatural situation before the chaos consumes everything… and she knows that Spot, the shadowy entity that's begun trailing her every move, is probably not going to help.

“Rich in voice, humor and dazzling imagery, studded with edgy ideas and wildly original, this multicultural mashup—like its heroine—defies categorization.” —Kirkus Reviews

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Sister Mine

Inspired by Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market,” which is excerpted throughout, Sister Mine tells the tale of conjoined twins Makeda and Abby. The surgery to separate the two girls gave Abby a permanent limp, but left Makeda with what feels like an even worse deformity: no mojo. The daughters of a celestial demigod and a human woman, Makeda and Abby were raised by their magical father, the god of growing things—a highly unusual childhood that made them extremely close. Ever since Abby's magical talent began to develop, though, in the form of an unearthly singing voice, the sisters have become increasingly distant.

Today, Makeda has decided it's high time to move out and make her own life among the other non-magical, claypicken humans—after all, she's one of them. But when her father goes missing, Makeda will have to discover her own talent—and reconcile with Abby—if she's to have a hope of saving him.

Sister Mine has a lighter edge than some of [Hopkinson’s] previous work; it's an engaging, messy fable about the interconnectedness of even the little things in our lives...This is a book about family, and Sister Mine remains a suitably imperfect and vibrant story of family in all its unfathomable wonders and annoyances, and the power it holds over us - or gives us." —NPR

Winner of the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (although Hopkinson wrote Sister Mine as an adult novel).

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Falling in Love with Hominids

In this long-awaited short story collection, Hopkinson continues to expand the boundaries of culture and imagination. Her Afro-Caribbean, Canadian, and American influences shine in stories that are filled with striking imagery, unlikely beauty, and delightful strangeness. Whether she is retelling The Tempest as a new Caribbean myth, filling a shopping mall with unfulfilled ghosts, or herding chickens that occasionally breathe fire, Hopkinson continues to create bold fiction that transcends boundaries and borders.

“There is something for everyone in this collection. Hopkinson manages to make a reader’s skin crawl in one story and smile in the next. It’s a mixture that keeps you reading just to see what she will come up with next. A great collection from a highly imaginative and insightful mind, Falling in Love with Hominids is a must read for fantasy and short story fans” —Portland Book Review

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If you’ve already read any of Nalo Hopkinson’s work, would you recommend it? And how would describe it to a newcomer? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks.

Katie is a reader, editor and note taker who works as a Content Writer at Bookwitty. Originally from Wisconsin, she's at home in Dublin.