Sometimes, when one is introduced to a gifted writer who has been crafting fine works for going on two decades, one feels both excited to have found such a trove and yet irritated to have not known about her sooner. This is how I feel after reading Nalo Hopkinson’s first novel Brown Girl in the Ring, published in 1998. The novel won several awards and was nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award. It is an absolutely fascinating combination of dystopian future, Caribbean folk tale, and spirituality.
Set in Toronto after The Riots that destroyed the city’s infrastructure, residents of the city are essentially penned in and barred from the outer affluent suburbs. They lack electricity, running water, hospitals and law enforcement. Residents barter, grow what they can, scavenge, and rely on healers for medical help. One such healer is the grandmother (Mami) of main character Ti-Jeanne. Mami, aka Gros-Jeanne, learned about plants and herbs in her native Trinidad but also had had experience as a nurse before the riots. Mami is known and respected for her abilities, and she would like to teach Ti-Jeanne, but Ti-Jeanne, whose mother Mi-Jeanne disappeared many years ago, is not interested in her grandmother’s healing or her spirituality, which involves strange rituals related to Caribbean powers or spirits. Ti-Jeanne has an infant son, with whom she has not bonded; she has conflicted feelings about the baby’s father; and most alarmingly, Ti-Jeanne has been having strange visions and bad dreams, the type of thing that happened to her mother before she went mad and ran away. Meanwhile, the baby’s father Tony is addicted to a drug called buff and works for a ruthless kingpin named Rudy, whose “posse” controls drug distribution and contracts out with white suburban hospitals to find organ “donors.” When a popular white politician needs a new heart, the hospital contacts Rudy to help them out, and Rudy taps Tony, a former hospital technician, to do the job of finding a “donor,” willingness or readiness to donate not really being an issue for Rudy.
The plot takes off when Mami finds out about Ti-Jeanne’s gift of visions, which she wants to guide, and Tony tries to reconnect with Ti-Jeanne. He wants to get out of Toronto with Ti-Jeanne and away from Rudy, but Rudy possesses some strange and frightening gifts of his own. Ultimately, this is a story about powers of life and powers of death, using one’s gifts to serve the spirits as opposed to serving oneself. Hopkinson gives her readers a detailed picture of Caribbean spirituality — the spirits, their gifts, and their relationship to humanity. It is quite an education and completely engrossing. But this is also the story of Ti-Jeanne and her own personal journey to independence and maturity. She feels that she has little control over her own life and longs to run away, but events will conspire against her. Ti-Jeanne will have to make difficult choices and rely on her own wits (and maybe the spirits) in the final crisis.
The descriptions of the spirits and their interactions with humans really stood out for me. Whether one calls this spiritual practice “obeah” (which Mami hates) or Santaria or Voudon, it involves a very close and personal relationship with the one who is your mother or father spirit. The spirits, as portrayed by Hopkinson, are powerful but personal, even humorous at times; they don’t control humans, but when humans try to control them, it gets ugly. Some of the descriptions of human abuse of spiritual powers were quite gruesome, and it’s not just what happens physically (eg. someone being flayed alive) but also what happens psychologically or spiritually to someone being dominated by evil. Interesting to note, there seems to be a similarity between buff addiction and spiritual enslavement (zombies!!!).
From what I’ve read, Hopkinson drew on her knowledge of Caribbean folk tales and contemporary literature for this story. “Brown Girl in the Ring” is a children’s song that you can find on YouTube (recorded in 1978 by Boney M.; it’s a powerful earworm!). At the beginnings of each chapter, she includes quotes from songs or stories, including the work of Derek Walcott, a Nobel Prize winning writer from Saint Lucian. Walcott wrote a play called “Ti-Jean and His Brothers” (his brothers are Mi-Jean and Gros-Jean) that I would like to find as it obviously influenced Hopkinson’s novel.
Brown Girl in the Ring is exactly what you are looking for it you are interested in fantasy, magical realism, smart girls finding their strength, and a showdown at CN Tower.