Nalo Hopkinson interview
The January 2017 issue of the Clarion e-Bulletin featured an interview with esteemed Clarionite and award-winning author Nalo Hopkinson (Clarion 1995). The interview was conducted in October 2016 via Skype with Tiffany Davis, one of the e-Bulletin co-editors. Due to space constraints, we could only post a small portion of the interview in the newsletter. We are pleased to offer the entire interview for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
Interview with Nalo Hopkinson
Tiffany Davis (TD): You were a Clarion student as well as an instructor, correct?
Nalo Hopkinson (NH): I was a student in 1995. I have been asked to teach both Clarion and Clarion West a number of times, and when there was a Clarion South for a while (in Australia), I taught the first one. I taught Clarion West either last year or the year before–I can’t quite remember–but I’m going back to Clarion San Diego this summer [summer 2017].
TD: Brown Girl in the Ring came out in 1998. Was that after you finished Clarion, or your entry into it?
NH: I was already working on two novels, and Brown Girl in the Ring was one of them, and I had sold a short story. So when I got back from Clarion, I really wanted to finish a novel. I had already finished a draft of Midnight Robber, my second novel, but I hear it wasn’t working. So I got to work on the first one, which was a little simpler and a little more standard in terms of plot and format, and tropes. So I finished that in, maybe, 1996. I entered the Warner Aspect First Novel contest and won it, and they published it a year later.
TD: Obviously, you’re a writer, but you’ve edited or co-edited anthologies as well (including Mojo: Conjure Stories and So Long Been Dreaming). Is it a nice break from writing to edit, or what is it about editing anthologies that you enjoy?
NH: It’s a different break. The work is almost as hard as writing a novel. The most recent one I did was a special edition of Lightspeed: People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, short science fiction. What I like about it is seeing what happens when people have a theme to write to, and seeing what both new and existing voices can do with that theme. And, of course, I like bringing a lot of work by people of color, and queer people, and women–I like bringing that stuff to the forefront, to audiences’ attention. And just finding new fiction, man–just seeing what people do is so exciting.
When you read a story and think, “Damn! Damn, I could not have come up with that!” So that part’s really cool. And increasingly, you know, since I’ve been around a little while, it’s often my former Clarion students. Not all the time, but enough that I get to be like a proud mama, like, “Oh! Write that! I’ll publish that!” So that part’s cool, too.
TD: Your Lemonade Award , which you started because you kind of want to reward people for doing acts of kindness, if I recall correctly. When are you going to start disbursing that, or have you already started?
NH: I haven’t started shit. *laughing* I have some offers of help, I’m collecting money to do it. I have enough to run it for a couple of years. And now, I have to start a nonprofit and pull a jury together–because it’s going to be juried. Next year (2017) is when I anticipate announcing the awards for the first year. And probably not early next year, so don’t hold your breath because I don’t do things fast anymore.
TD: Let’s talk about non-writing, because I follow you on Twitter. I notice that you do a lot of food. I teach lower-income students how to cook healthier, so your tweets interest me because I’m always looking for new recipe ideas.
NH: Oh, I would love to teach something like that, and I haven’t figured out a way to do that at my university yet. I’m not really trained; I followed my mother, and I know my way around a kitchen, but this is a litigious country and, God forbid, that a student gets a burn.
TD: You post a lot of recipes, and pictures of food you’ve made. Is cooking another creative outlet for you?
NH: Yes. I usually don’t cook anything that takes more than twenty minutes to prep, so it’s the opposite of writing a novel. At the end of it, you have something, hopefully, good tasting and good for you. I do a lot of cooking and because I have fibromyalgia, I have certain dietary–they’re not needs, but I feel better if I eat certain ways. And at home, it’s easier to know what’s exactly in my food. Plus, food is fun, you know? It’s like, pretty things you can play with and then eat them. It’s the best thing ever.
I do the cooking, and I’ve been a crafts person since I was a kid. I make stuff–if I see a technique I haven’t tried before, and you can make pretty things with it, and it’s fairly simple, I will try it. My practice, I think, goes beyond just the words, but I usually bring something science fictional or fantastical, and usually Afrocentric, to it. I design fabric as well–very amateur. I was an early user on Spoonflower, learning to use Photoshop, trying to make fabric designs.
Whatever I turn my hand to, even the food, a lot of it comes from African cultures, or I’m doing some kind of fusion. The other night I made rösti, [Swedish potato pancakes] but I made it with cassava. Oh my God, It was so good!
I’m always trying to find ways to make things feel like home. So yeah, I make stuff. I make stuff all the time. The writing is the thing I do the least, actually, *laughing*
TD: When you say “home”, do you mean Jamaica, or Canada? Because you went from Jamaica to Canada.
NH: I lived in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, the US, and Canada. So when I say “home”, you have to ask me which one I mean in that particular context.
TD: Do you ever cook anything and it triggers something in your mind like, “Hmm, this might make an interesting novel, or an interesting story?”
NH: Everything does that, so probably. *laughs* Sometimes the mistakes are more likely to do that. The last short story I sold, which is going to show up in Uncanny magazine, it’s about stuff you find in the drains because you know, you cook a lot, and stuff gets in your drains, and you have this kind of hair, and you have to be cleaning the drain out often.
Sometimes the ideas come when it’s something I actually heard, but heard it wrong. The Easttowns [Falling in Love With Hominids] story came from me not hearing what the guy on the subway was saying. When he said “Eastbound”, I heard “East Town”. I thought, “Alright, so what’s in East Town?” It took about three years, but the story came from that.
The world is a pretty weird place and if you have any kind of imagination at all, you tell yourself stories about things. I don’t tell myself whole stories because that’s what I do for a living, and it’s work, but I get a notion and I’ll write that down. I’ll put it in my “Ideas” file and when I look for a story idea, I look for two or three of those ideas and smush them together, particularly if they don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. The tension of finding the through-line creates the plot.
TD: Quick sidebar: The tattoo on your arm–is that an nkyimkyim symbol [An Adinkra symbol from West Africa]?
NH: Yeah, I got it when I finished The Salt Roads, ‘cause that novel tried to kill me! *laughs* It was my celebration. I’m also also a word in Shelley Jackson’s performance piece/story called “Skin”, a work of art where you apply to her–it’s a 3,000-word story–and you applied, and she gave you a word, and if you’re working with punctuation, you got that too. And you had to tattoo the word somewhere on your body and send her a picture of the tattoo. So I’m the word “lace”.
TD: You get asked about writing all the time, such as “Where do you get your motivation?” or “How did you come up with your ideas?” I’m nowhere near your level as a writer, and I get tired of people asking me that!
NH: There’s no way to answer that question and actually give people useful information. I can say something, and it would sound good, but…eh.
TD: We’re in an era where people think, “Okay, so if I do X times Y, then I can write…” And I’m like, “It’s not quite that simple.”
NH: No, it’s not. I get it from my undergrads all the time. They’re taking creative writing but they want a job. I’m like, “You understand those two things don’t actually go together?” [They ask]”What do I do to get an A?” [I reply] “Well, write the best you can.”
TD: You post some good things on your Twitter feed. You posted a gluten-free cracker that looked good, so I tried it.
NH: Yeah, they tasted really good. It looks a bit like I’m pandering to them, but it’s food! If it tastes good, people should know.
TD: Anything else you want to share?
NH: I guess the big thing is, that I recently became a Doctor of Letters. The Anglia Ruskin University in the UK wrote me and said, we want to give you an honorary degree. So I went over there [in October 2016] and I gave one of the valedictory addresses, and they put me in the gown and the hat and the whole bit–I looked like I went to Hogwarts. I only needed a wand.
TD: If you were in a [Hogwarts] house, which one would you be in?
NH: I would want to be able to switch houses at will. I’m a switchy kind of person.
So now I’m a Doctor of Letters, as a science fiction writer, which is very, very cool. And that’s the thing that’s in my mind right now. I also work at a university that has a science fiction archives, books going back to Thomas Morton’s Utopia, so that’s going back to the 16th century–the bootleg version, we have the bootleg version. That has been a lot of fun because I get to work with the collection, I helped to create a PhD minor in science fiction, and I’m teaching all these courses that I could have never found at university. They hired me as a science fiction writer, which is pretty cool.
TD: Who do you like to read, in any genre? Because you’re a writer, so you like to read, so who are the people you like to read, in general?
NH: This summer past, I discovered Sylvia Moreno-Garcia. She’s from Canada–Vancouver, I think–but she’s Mexican-Canadian. I read her first two books like **psst*, and I was done! It was so good. I mean, I’d known about her but just hadn’t read her work. I like [Samuel] Delany [Clarion instructor], of course, because he was my touchstone for writing in general but also for writing as a Black queer writer in science fiction. I just love his artistry, what he does with words. China Mieville. I just finished a book by Tiphani Yanique, Land of Love and Drowning, set in Antigua.
TD: That’s all the questions I have. Thank you for taking the time for this interview
NH: Thank you for having me! It was fun.