BROWN GIRL IN THE RING (1998)

download (1)I had some doubts about Brown Girl in the Ring for the first 150 pages or so of reading it. My main concern was that the entire novel would be predictable – tropes were introduced that had the potential to unfold in a boringly predictable way. But as the conflicts took shape and began to reach resolution, Hopkinson blew me away with her creativity and particularly with her powerful feminism. There’s a lot of reviews that complain about Brown Girl in The Ring having an identity crisis. Is it sci-fi? Fantasy? Neither? Is it Jamaican or is it Canadian? The other recurring complaint I saw was about the protagonist being annoyingly immature. My response to these complaints are, respectively, I don’t care! and you’re wrong. Allow me to explain further.

I’m not sure how I’d categorize Brown Girl in the Ring in terms of genre, but frankly, I don’t care. If pressed, I’d describe it as a blend of science fiction dystopia and magical realism. Whatever it is, it worked for me. I could maybe understand the complaint that Hopkinson’s exploration into the science fiction themes just barely scratch the surface, except that this isn’t what the book is primarily about (more on this later). The setting is Toronto and the majority of characters are Jamaican immigrants or children of immigrants. This is drawn from Hopkinson’s own experience as a Jamaican immigrant who lived most of her adult life in Canada. I found the merging of cultures in Brown Girl in the Ring to be unique and interesting and not at all cluttered. As for the immaturity of the protagonist, I have a lot to say in response.

The protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, is immature in many ways at the start of the novel. She has a child that she isn’t prepared to care for and has very little interest in caring for. She blames her grandmother for all of her frustrations, and she can’t control her attraction to her good-looking, sweet-talking, ex-boyfriend: Tony. But even at Ti-Jeanne’s most immature, you can see her potential for growth. One of my favorite feminist moments in the novel happens early on when Ti-Jeanne still thinks she’s in love with Tony. Tony asks why Ti-Jeanne left him (it was because of the baby), and just as Ti-Jeanne is about to open up to him and tell him “all her worries about whether Tony would have been able to help her provide for the child,” he interrupts her and says, “I would have let you keep the baby, no matter whose it is. I love you Ti-Jeanne” (73). Moments earlier Ti-Jeanne was swooning over Tony, but as soon as he says this, her response is shock. She thinks, “He would have ‘let’ her keep the baby? The moment had passed. She gave Tony the glare that always threw him off balance.” This scene introduces feminism as a central element to Brown Girl in the Ring, and I quickly saw the novel as, above anything else, a feminist one. The central characters to the plot are Ti-Jeanne, her mother, and her grandmother, and the way these three generations of women navigate conflicts with each other, surpass obstacles, grow together, and support themselves in an unforgiving place is remarkable. It’s a powerfully feminist novel, and that, above all else, is what Brown Girl in the Ring is about. So to those who critique it for not being science-y enough, or not exploring the nuances of the dystopian setting enough, or whatever else, I think they’re missing the point of the novel entirely.

Links: Nalo Hopkinson .com | Goodreads | Amazon

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WHO FEARS DEATH (2010)

downloadI’ve skimmed through a variety of reviews of Who Fears Death after finishing it myself, specifically negative reviews, because there are a few things I didn’t like about the book that others pointed out as well. The ending was abrupt, anti-climactic, and unfulfilling, and this was mostly because the narrative relied on a self-fulfilling prophecy plot which allowed Okorafor to conclude the story with “spirit world magic stuff” instead of with a logical or thought-provoking conclusion. I also would’ve liked a little more world-building surrounding the magic system in the book, how it works, what it’s limitations are, and what it comes from. Somewhere out there is a lecture given by Brandon Sanderson in which he says something along the lines of how a magic system’s limitations, i.e. what it can’t do, are more interesting than what it can do, and that’s always stuck with me. But despite its flaws, I still thoroughly enjoyed Who Fears Death and want to talk about what I loved.

Okorafor has a very blunt writing style that I like. She doesn’t beat around or even build up to anything; she writes authoritatively and suddenly. Time in the story passes quickly as a result of the way she writes. The story will skip forward without any real indication of how much time has passed except for occasional mentions of how old the main characters have become. Her writing highlights only the most important moments and conversations, the defining ones. I don’t mind this, and much prefer it to the opposite (spending too much time on tedious day-to-day things), but it did have the effect of making me feel slightly less attached to the characters. What I loved about Nnedi Okorafor’s writing style is her ability to say so much in a single sentence. Every sentence is somehow loaded with information or context or back story. One chapter opened with this line: “It’s a day I’ve pulled up many times in the last year to remind me life is also good.” I loved the sentence so much I wrote it down because it’s so simple but so effective.

And while the plot of Who Fears Death was flawed, the content throughout the book is incredible. You can imagine how much gender equality comes up as an issue in a book that features a sorceress destined to save the world with a male partner destined to help her in a misogynistic society. Some of my favorite moments in the book are when Onyesonwu and her lover/partner Mwita have to navigate their switched gender roles. Mwita being jealous and Onyesonwu being arrogant or lacking patience and empathy. Another thing I loved about the book is the setting. It’s easy to assume at first, because of the use of magic and sorcery, that the novel is set in Africa in the past, maybe pre-civilization, but it is actually set in post-apocalyptic Africa. Computers are a thing of the past and technology as we know it is only used or even encountered occasionally. I love the idea that magic doesn’t have to be primitive. Magic follows technology in this universe instead of preceding it. Of course race is a huge issue in the novel as well and one of the most interesting points I think Okorafor makes when discussing race in the novel is that so often, people who are marginalized or discriminated against for being different in whatever way, are called upon to do the most for the society that judges or marginalizes them. And related to that is the higher standard marginalized people are often held to and how much pressure that puts on a person in society, at home, and between friends. Overall, I really enjoyed Who Fears Death. I thought it was meaningful, thought-provoking, and relatable, and I’d recommend it despite its flaws.

Links: Nnedi .com | Goodreads | Amazon