This time around, Ali @ Worducopia and Susan at Color Online are asking bloggers to review writers of color working in sci-fi/fantasy: “Your assignment: spotlight science fiction and fantasy titles where people of color are the leads, works by people of color in these genres, or discuss your thoughts about race in these genres. Do you notice the absence of color? In what ways is race portrayed in fantasy and science fiction beyond using traditional racial terms like black and white? If the book cover prominently features people of color, does it affect your perception? Are we more comfortable with imaginary characters versus different race in these works?”
I chose to read and report on Nalo Hopkinson‘s The New Moon’s Arms (2007). Nalo’s Canadian, and like most African Canadian women authors, I feel she’s underappreciated. I also really enjoyed her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, and wanted to see what she’d written lately. I met Nalo in 2006 when Smith College hosted a conference on black women science fiction writers. Nisi Shawl was there, along with Nnedi Okorafor-Mbechi, and another woman whose name now escapes me…I actually felt like I got a chilly reception on the first day of the conference; have you ever asked a question of a panel, and had a panelist say, “I don’t even know why you’d ask that.” Next day, Nalo arrived and I went back just to see her; I wasn’t disappointed–she talked about mermaids and how she was “operating” on My Little Ponies and Barbie dolls to create a suitable magical creature. At some point, we went around the circle and introduced ourselves; I told the group I was a visiting professor at Mt Holyoke, and don’t you know, the folks who were rude the day before suddenly warmed up to me! Anyway, back to the book report. The New Moon’s Arms is about mermaids–sea people, to be precise, and that drew me in right away. The main character, Calamity Lambkin, is mourning the death of her father and struggling through “the change of life”; she has a strained relationship with her daughter, Ifeoma, and her raging hormones seem to turn every eligible bachelor into a tasty treat. Eventually, Calamity discovers that menopause has restored a “gift” she had as a child: she was once a finder, with an uncanny ability to locate things that had been lost. She never found her missing mother, however, and island folk speculated that her father had actually murdered his wife. Calamity’s not a people person; she lives alone on a small island, and spars with her former schoolmates, her boss, her past and potential lovers (one’s gay, the other’s bi). But when she wakes from a night of heavy drinking and finds a small child washed up on the shore, things start to change; her hot flashes and itchy fingers signal the sudden arrival of some lost childhood possession (books, toys, favorite dishes), and trees once lost in a hurricane that wiped out another island now start to grow around her house. There are several competing subplots to the novel that got me a little confused, but the characters are lively and funny, and unpredictable enough to keep you reading. We never discover what happened to Calamity’s mother, though it seems she may have been one of the ancient enslaved Africans who liberated themselves from their shackles by turning into monk seals. The little boy on the beach is a sea child, of course, though Calamity strangely tries to rear him as her own before realizing at the novel’s end that he belongs back in the sea…in a way, this could have been two novels, and perhaps should have been. Adding the sci-fi element was intriguing, especially since Nalo incorporated actual scenarios from Caribbean life–like debt relief, transnational corporations polluting the environment, and rampant homophobia. Calamity’s strained relationships all get resolved, but the sci-fi plotlines aren’t as neatly tied up, and I did wonder if the book tried to do too much. It’s a fun read, though, and I’ll be looking for The Salt Road before too long. Race isn’t an issue in this book (not in the traditional black/white sense); among the black & Asian islanders class is a factor, and there are generational differences (some natives vs. tourist stuff, too). The sea people have bluish skin that turns a yellowy brown when they’re on land; they can assimilate if necessary, and are generally admired by islanders who have grown up hearing stories or having chance encounters. They speak another language, and that prevented them from participating more fully in the narrative, but they were also made to seem like an organic part of the Caribbean environment–magical, but not freakish or threatening. Nalo Hopkinson has an amazing imagination and an intimate understanding of Caribbean customs and speech–if anyone else has read this book, please share your thoughts!