Toronto’s downtown has been abandoned by government and police. The rich have fled to the suburbs, and put up a barrier to keep all those nasty poor people from leaving the middle of the city. Nalo Hopkinson’s first book, Brown Girl in the Ring, takes this simple and believable premise and shows us what life might be like in the Burn (as part of downtown Toronto is now called) for those either stuck there or too stubborn to leave.
At first, this crumbling, barricaded Toronto sounds too much like all those grim post-apocalyptic stories in science fiction. For example, the absence of law in the area lets a drug dealer named Rudy take over; he now rules from his headquarters in the CN Tower. Rudy has been hired by some corrupt officials of the provincial government (which is conveniently located outside of downtown Toronto at this point) to find a “volunteer” heart donor for the ailing leader of the province.
But Hopkinson takes the story in a much different direction than might be expected based on the description so far. Life in the city is dangerous but ordinary people still live there. And post-apocalyptic stories generally have women in a reduced role, but Brown Girl in the Ring is the opposite: the main character, Ti-Jeanne, is a young woman, and her grandmother Mami Gros-Jeanne also plays a major role in the story. In fact, Mami leads the flourishing of a vibrant culture of natural healing and oral traditions, a transplanted culture, the medical aspect of which would be strictly regulated or stamped out in the “advanced” health system on the outside. This is another twist.
Ti-Jeanne is the human face of the story. She’s a new mother, and she’s trying to avoid a handsome young man named Tony, the baby’s father. Tony is an addict and also involved in a local posse of drug dealers; he has promised Ti-Jeanne many times that he would get out of the drug world, but she no longer believes him. Hopkinson writes with great sympathy for Ti-Jeanne who is still attracted to Tony despite knowing better.
Tony is a self-pitying bastard, full of rationalizations for his behaviour. He certainly doesn’t tell Ti-Jeanne about his new task from Rudy: Rudy has delegated the job of finding the heart donor to Tony. Tony is simultaneously trying to get out of the inner city and secretly sizing up Mami to see if she has the right requirements to “donate” a heart. Rudy is a predictable villain; resentful, powerful, and ruthless. It’s Tony who could go either way. Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother would like to redeem Tony, but Hopkinson shows us how their exasperation with him often gets in the way of actually helping him.
In addition to the great story and characters, Hopkinson does interesting things with language in the book. The narrative voice is a standard third-person omniscient in conventional English, but the majority of the characters speak in their own version of English amongst themselves. This has variations, however; Mami’s role as the local healer plays into this: “‘Come. Bring her inside,” Mami said, switching to the more standard English she used when speaking to non-Caribbean people” (63). Ti-Jeanne and Mami know “standard” English, but choose to use their own flavour. As Hopkinson puts it in her bio at the back of the book: “I saw it as subverting the genre, which speaks so much about the experience of being alienated, but contains so little written by alienated people themselves.”
Brown Girl in the Ring was the winner of Warner Aspect’s First Novel Contest in 1998, beating out nearly a thousand other entries to get published. If this contest was an investment in a career, Warner made a wise choice. Hopkinson has since published two other ambitious novels, Midnight Robber (a nanotechnology novel recast in Caribbean cultural terms) and The Salt Roads (a speculative/historical novel spanning many centuries and Haiti, France, and the Middle East). She has also edited a number of interesting anthologies, most recently Mojo: Conjure Stories, and contributed short fiction to other anthologies, such as the upcoming Girls Who Bite Back. Not many writers have a career retrospective worth mentioning after six years, and I’ll be curious to see where Hopkinson is at in another few years.
As a side note, I re-read Brown Girl in the Ring due to one of those weird pop culture moments. Touching the Void is a recent documentary about a mountain-climbing accident. An injured climber, near death and hallucinating badly, can’t get a song out of his head. He’s horrified that he might die with Boney M‘s “Brown Girl in the Ring” stuck in his head. After watching the movie, I had the song stuck in my head too! Re-reading Hopkinson’s book was the perfect way to get my brain thinking about something else.