Below is one of the interviews we conducted with the fabulous featured guests at Nerdcon: Stories 2015 in Minneapolis, MN. Originally, there was audio for all of our interviews but our engineer (Kal) is a schmuck and some of them didn’t turn out very good. So, transcribed here, is the text of our interview with Nalo Hopkinson, which Kal was forced to type in pitch blackness as punishment. You can check out some of the interviews that *did* work elsewhere on the site or on iTunes @ The Just Enough Trope Podcast. Enjoy! (whip cracks) Keep typing, Kal! Home row! Home row!
Mikanhana: We are joined today by Nalo Hopkinson, science fiction author and editor. Welcome, Nalo.
M: Thank you so much for joining us today. You grew up in the Caribbean and moved to Toronto, Canada when you were a teenager and recently relocated to California. Can you talk about what the biggest challenge was adapting to those cultural shifts?
NH: Well, I was born in Jamaica, lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, a little bit in the West when my dad was going to Yale, in Connecticut, then moved to Canada when I was 16 and I think, in the interim, I had forgotten winter.
NH: Because when you’re 5, it’s…
M: “Ooh, fun, snow!”
NH: Sort of…snow and cold but 11 years later, you forget just how profoundly cold…I had prepared for winter, I thought. The first Toronto winter…I sew, so I went out and bought some wool and made a pair of pants.
NH: I thought “Wool is warm!” I bought wool jersey, which is the equivalent of making a pair of pants out of t-shirt material…
NH: …and went outdoors the first time the weather hit freezing and my bones froze. I just could not believe it could get *that* cold. So that was a big shift, but then I did 35 years in Toronto, moved to southern California just about 4 years ago and now it’s full-on desert.
NH: Which means it sort of looks like where I came from, but the palm trees have the wrong fruit on them, the lizards are the wrong color, and yes, there’s sand, but where I come from, if you’re near the beach and sand and there’s holes in the sand…there’s crabs in there, not snakes or gophers. (laughs) So, you keep having these moments of dissonance…”Wait, there’s not a beach around the corner” because sand means ‘beach’ to me. “We’re in the desert”. That’s different. “Don’t poke anything down that hole. Dinner’s not coming out of there.”
M: (laughs) You’ve been teaching at the University of California-Riverside since 2011…how has teaching affected your own work?
NH: Well, I’ve been teaching from the beginning, since I started being published. This is a regular teaching gig, which has its own effects. Because I was lucky enough to be given tenure just off the bat, it means that my teaching load is reasonable, quite reasonable, so I find it additive more than anything else because I know where my next meal is coming from and I’ve spent a few years not doing that. So, it’s all good.
NH: Students are amazing and UC-Riverside students are particularly amazing and I don’t think a lot of them realize it. It’s a university that’s one of the more diverse universities in the country. For instance, a couple of years ago, I wanted to teach the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwockywhich is made up of words which Carroll invented. I was talking about how to make words up so I wanted to show it to them in different languages and at first I tried picking languages I knew I could muddle through. But then I thought, “Wait a minute; a 72 person class…I can just pick any language I want and somebody in the class will be able to read it!”
NH: So, I took in a stack and said, “Who speaks German? Who speaks Korean? Who speaks Urdu?” and had them read it out and explain how the made up words were working. It’s glorious.
M: That’s got to be kind of freeing, too, to be able to have all that different cultural background…
M: …and just a great learning experience for everyone.
NH: It is wonderful.
M: You’ve spoken about how you have Non-verbal Learning Disorder as well as Attention Deficit Disorder…how has that helped or hindered your work?
NH: On top of that, I have Fibromyalgia, which is why I’m moving a little slowly today…you get moments with all three of brain fog or things you knew five seconds ago are gone forever. But along with Non-verbal Learning Disorder comes high verbal ability…
NH: …so words and story make a lot of sense to me in ways that it’s hard to explain. There’s that advantage: I can turn the hell out of a phrase.
NH: The disadvantage with something like ADD is, of course, I don’t like to do anything twice. So the sitting down and making yourself write once it becomes a job is very difficult to do and I’ve had to find ways to convince my brain that this is still fun, to tell it that “you don’t have to sit here for 17 hours, you can write a sentence and then get up and walk away”. In science fiction, we like to boast about what our daily word count is so I like to go the other way. “I wrote a sentence. It was a good sentence.” (laughs)
M: Sometimes I feel like when you’re given fewer things to work with it makes it more challenging but it also makes it more creative.
NH: Yeah. My brain isn’t balking as much; it’s not saying “Oh, my God, I can’t deal. There’s too much!” I write a sentence…I can write another sentence!
M: (laughs) Right!
M: Small victories!
M: (laughs) A lot of your work is inspired by poetry and song…could you talk about how you take an idea from an established work and create your own out of that?
NH: Come to think of it…I do use poetry and song a bit…I use folklore a lot…
NH: My last novel, there were a couple of songs in there that were actually songs that I dreamt. Every so often I dream 3 or 4 lines of a song complete with a tune.
M: And you’re able to recall that when you wake up?
NH: I’m singing it when I wake up.
M: That’s amazing!
So a couple of them are mine, but with pre-existing material like folklore and ballads, the trick is to not retell the story but to tell your own story and find the piece of folklore or ballad that has reflections of it, that resonates, or to tell it in a new way. One of the first times I did that, it was a writing assignment by Pat Murphy when I was still at Clarion studying and it was to write “The Beast with the Heart of Gold”. I thought, “Who’s a ‘beast’ that we think of as evil?” and I came up with Little Red Riding Hood
and the Wolf and I ended up writing the Little Red Riding Hood story not from the point of view of the Wolf so much but from the point of view of the grandmother. Because the grandmother’s story never gets told and I thought there were hidden depths there. I ended up making this weird sort of almost…I don’t want to say *love* relationship because it is abusive, but the Wolf comes to represent a sexual coming of age. That’s a difficult thing but it’s a thing that happens to everybody. So the grandmother and the Wolf have this relationship where he was her sexual coming of age; he’s sort of an archetype.
NH: So you tell the story or you take the story apart and you find the things in it that are the most disturbing…
M: (laughs) Or the most interesting!
NH: …writing a sexy story about a grandmother and a wolf who tried to kill her. (laughs)
M: According to your bio in the Nerdcon: Stories program, you’re currently working on Nancy Jack, a graphic novel. Can you give us a brief synopsis of that and also, are you a comic book fan in general?
NH: Yes; I do like comic books. I don’t much read the Big Two anymore; I like graphic novels more than comic books, but I don’t make a difference between them. I do read a fair number of them. Nancy Jack has been percolating in my head for about 15 years now…and my synopsis hasn’t…
NH: …but, basically, I have a creature working on the railroad in the US between the two wars as a porter, because he looks like a black man. What he *is* is a creature from West African folklore called an adze who looks like a ball of fire in his natural form. He can become something that looks human to come into villages and towns and feed on blood. His village, the village he thought of as his flock (in the most disturbing way you can think of), was taken in slavery 500 years ago. So he followed them because they’re “his”. So now, you have a ball of fire travelling on the ocean to follow these human beings…he’s kept track of them and of people with the same bloodline (because he can read blood) by becoming a porter on the railroad. So that’s how he keeps track of the descendants of his flock and he’s starting to kind of lose it. Imagine a creature that we would already think of as over-the-top, because he’s a predator…now, he’s going a little crazy.
M: That sounds really fascinating. I have to check that out.
Kaliban: What’s your favorite graphic novel or something good that you read lately?
NH: There are a couple I like…Le Chat du Rabbin (The Rabbi’s Cat) by Joann Sfar. He’s a Moroccan-French artist and he has four books about the cat of a rabbi living in Morocco at a time when’s there’s lots of pogroms against the Jews. There’s a cat and a parrot living in the house with the rabbi (the cat’s telling the story) and the cat says “the parrot is stupid but it can speak; I have brains but I can’t talk” and it goes on from there. That’s one of my favorites. Also, Bayouby Jeremy Love, he started by winning an award, I believe through DC, to have his comic made as an online comic and later to be published. It’s got two in the series, based on the folklore of the American South. It’s a story of a little black girl whose father has been arrested and is probably going to be lynched and she’s trying to save him. But it’s infused with all these humanized…Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear, creatures from the American South and it’s beautiful and it’s terrible and it’s gorgeous…it’s just lovely, lovely…he’s got two stories in the series and people who love it are waiting for the third.
M: I briefly looked at a blog post that you wrote about the first two Blade films…I, too, am a Blade fan…
M: (laughs) Do you want to discuss that at all? Would you like to see another Wesley Snipes Blade film?
NH:It would be hard, because what they did with the third one was to make him into a mythical creature…
NH:So he zooms off on his motorbike…he barely speaks through the whole thing…I gather there might have been contractual problems…
K: Online, there’s a very interesting…the comedian Patton Oswalt worked on the movie and…I don’t know if it’s tweets or a blog post, but it’s his story about what it was like to make that film, because at that point Wesley was having a lot of trouble with the government and just not taking it seriously and it’s a hilarious story about how they basically pieced this film together *around* the absence of Wesley Snipes because he wasn’t really into it.
NH:Yeah, you can tell and when the director said “I’ve made him mythical”, that’s exactly what happened but when you realize *why* that is…no, I think the series is over…
NH:…as that particular vehicle for Wesley Snipes. I think it became a vehicle potentially for the other actors in the third, Ryan Reynolds and Jessica whose surname I never get right…
K: Jessica Biel. (ed. note: HUGE surprise Kal got that one)
NH:…Jessica Biel and Parker Posey. I mean that third movie was all hotness, all the time. (laughs) (ed. note: nevermind, Kal; you’re in good company)
NH:And then there’s *another* beautiful person on the screen not wearing very much! But the character of Blade as he gets characterized in the movies has always interested me because what you’ve got is a biracial vampire…he’s black and he’s a vampire, he hates the vampire side so it becomes almost a metaphor for hating his blackness. The way he gets over it is basically to become a drug addict…and so you have these metaphors working their way through and in each movie, it seemed to me, defining evil as a different thing. In the first movie, evil was young club kids; that’s how they characterized the vampires. In the second movie, the vampires have their own cultural consciousness and Blade’s problem is that he’s not down with the program. He’s got this internalized racism going on that he can’t see the power of vampires as a community. You can keep mapping it onto blackness. So, Blade’s not a good black man…(laughs) He just doesn’t seem to like himself…and all the reasons why that happens are playing, at least in my mind, to that. He meets the perfect vampire girl and he has to kill her…like, how horrible is that?
NH:…and the vampires become this metaphor for vagina dentata in the second one, there’s teeth and teeth and teeth…
NH:In the third one, even the Pomeranian is a vampire! That line where Ryan Reynolds says “You made a vampire Pomeranian!?” (laughs) I find when I go to that kind of stuff, which is pop culture as a funhouse mirror on what we think about things we really should be thinking about more deeply, I find it fascinating for that, just what it reveals about us or about the larger culture, what we think are acceptable themes and stories or how our own conscious fears get worked through…how you take this vampire creature, who is part black, and you completely disappear him for reasons that have to do with contracts…
NH:…but the way you deal with it in the story is to make him actually go away after having killed half his race.
K: And then white heroes and a white Dracula jump in and…
NH:Yeah and…y’know…hot (laughs) but…I’m not hatin’.
K: If they were to do a reboot and I’m sure they will pretty soon…would you have a pick for someone to play Blade or a direction you’d like the series to go?
NH:It’s hard to say, because I don’t read the comics much…I discovered the comics after the film; I went back and read one of the early comics and thought “eh…” (laughs)
K: They’re definitely rooted in a…I mean, the whole character is rooted in that 70’s blacksploitationesque kind of thing…
K: …and there’s never really been a really good run on Blade, I don’t think, just because he exists as that sort of token character and that’s something that…now I’m getting on my Comics Soapbox™…
K: …that’s something that I would like to see. They made him so popular; it’s really one of the first real Marvel movies. I’d like to see them do a serious take on it. They tried to take on Luke Cage and did him pretty well; I’d like to see someone really get behind Blade.
NH:Yeah yeah yeah! They’ve done it with the Hulk; they kept rebooting him until they got it right…
NH:…and because I don’t any longer read Marvel and DC stuff, I don’t have a problem with them breaking the way the story worked. A lot of times those stories were made by people that were younger artists, the medium was younger, the stories weren’t very well told!
K: There was the pressure to do them every month, continually…
NH:Yeah, exactly, and so there’s lots of richness there that can be explored by breaking away from the kinds of stuff that fans often complain about, “it’s not authentic”…well, I kind of like when they remake the stories. “Authentic” is what the director wants to make it. So, I see a Blade that thinks about himself more.
K: (laughs) That’s not a characteristic that he has! He’s not gonna ice-skate uphill…
NH:(laughs) No; I love him kicking butt and taking no prisoners. As the CGI got better, staking vampires just became more and more fun! But I’d also like him to every so often stop and take a minute.
NH:“I just killed off my whole race…what else…” There’s gotta be something more than just messing up every vampire…
NH:…just because a vampire ate your momma once.
M: Thank you so much for joining us today, Nalo. It’s been such a pleasure. Where can people find you online?
NH: I am nominally at nalohopkinson.com. I am more often on Twitter @nalo_hopkinson. That would be the best place to find me.
M: Thank you so much!
NH: Thank you!
(ed. note: we went on for another 10 minutes after the mics shut off talking more Blade, his adoption of Eastern philosophy and practices and the idea of the Daywalker’s ‘passing privilege’ among humans. If Marvel is looking for a comics or screenwriter for a new Blade project, I know who I’d send them to!)