On Tuesday, Jan. 10, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Nalo Hopkinson reading from her latest book The New Moon’s Arms (Grand Central Publishing, 2007). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.
The cool glass felt good against my skin. Up in the sky the new moon swung, yellow and sickled as a banana. A round shadow sat inside its horns. “Old moon sitting in the new moon’s arms,” I whispered to it.
from The New Moon’s Arms
by Nalo Hopkinson
When Nalo Hopkinson (left) got a teaching position at the University of California Riverside, she was thrilled to find herself surrounded by scientific research. When one researcher asked her why she was so excited, Hopkinson described her work as a science fiction writer. The scientist bristled, “There is no fiction in my science!” Hopkinson demurred, “That may be true but there is a lot of science in my fiction.” She recently shared this and other stories at the Canadian Writers in Person reading series.
Hopkinson read from The New Moon’s Arms, a novel set in a fictional archipelago that bears some resemblance to the Caribbean where she grew up. She claims that grounding the story in something familiar makes it believable but much of the fun is in making the rest up: the history, culture, and language. This last element of creation is of particular interest to the author: “Language is your heritage, as a human being you get use it however it makes sense to use it.”
She credits Louise Bennett-Coverly, who received an honorary doctorate from York in 1998, as one of the writers who empowered her to write Caribbean-influenced dialect. “She made Jamaican language and culture into a thing of beauty. It already was but she made us able to see it. This isn’t bad English. It has its own rules, its own depth and beauty. There is no form of language that is ugly, it is all beautiful.”
Though her father and her “Uncle” Dennis Scott were writers, it took her a while to explore her own literary capabilities. She studied French and Russian at York and worked a variety of jobs before registering for a course in creative writing with Judy Merrill. When the course got cancelled, Merrill encouraged Hopkinson and the other members to form a writer’s workshop. While she was uncertain about her early stories (“I didn’t know how to end it”), the two met twice a month for five years. Hopkinson’s career was launched when she entered her work in a writing contest and won.
When asked, Hopkinson is admittedly opaque about the writing process. Describing something so complicated, she feels “like I’m telling lies.
“Writing a novel is like chewing a big wad of gum and rolling it up and throwing it out there. Things stick to it, things accrue and accumulate, and then you have to massage them into a story,” she said. “Then I have to write it, rewrite it, then I get stuck, and then I get an idea, and then I start doing the dishes, and then I start rewriting…”
In The New Moon’s Arms, the main character “Calamity” discovers powers she had repressed, emerging at a time of life when society dictates a woman’s power should be waning. Hopkinson’s own powers as a writer are only growing stronger as she discovers new territory in speculative fiction. Though she was describing Calamity, one might imagine a call-out to her earlier self, and to other would-be writers: “If you try to keep the essentials of yourself under wraps too long, it comes busting out,” she said.
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Readings take place on Tuesdays at 7pm in 206 Accolade West Building. For more information and a detailed schedule, visit the Canadian Writers in Person website.