QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

This week I’m reviewing the first book that was picked by my Patreon supporters! I have been accumulating eligible books for the QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics series at a steady rate at local library book sales, and at this point I have a small heap of them. (One of the good things about reading classic SFF is that the books can be more affordable!) So I asked people to vote, and they picked Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. This makes her the first author featured to be in my column twice: my first review was of her short story collection Skin Folk.

I’ve already read Brown Girl in the Ring twice previously, but I reread it for the third time in preparation for the review—and I feel like I get new things out of this novel with every reread. I also just looked up its publication history in detail, and it’s amazing: Brown Girl in the Ring was Nalo Hopkinson’s debut novel, reaching publication when she won the inaugural Warner Aspect First Novel Contest in 1997. (This contest was only held twice; the other winner was Karin Lowachee’s Warchild in 2001.) The contest received almost 1000 entries (!!), and the finalists were judged by C.J. Cherryh, whose work I also hope to feature in the column soon.

The publishing landscape was very different back then—I think a telling illustration is that even in 2002 or thereabouts, when I first found out about Brown Girl in the Ring, I chanced upon a discussion where someone was seriously arguing that Nalo Hopkinson was a pseudonym for Octavia E. Butler. Apparently, it was that inconceivable, at least to some readers, that there could be two Black women speculative fiction authors. (All the more bizarre considering Tananarive Due had several novels published by that point, too…and Octavia E. Butler had given Brown Girl in the Ring a cover blurb!)

Nalo Hopkinson’s voice is starkly different from Butler’s, and this is apparent from the very first pages of the book. Her characters are Afro-Caribbean people in Canada—just like she was at that point; she now lives in the U.S. The book is deeply embedded in Afro-Caribbean traditions, from nursery rhymes to religious rites. It centers African diasporic spirituality in a dynamic urban fantasy plot with post-apocalyptic overtones.

Ti-Jeanne is a young woman and new mother coming of age in the urban wasteland of Toronto. After the city leadership attempted to disenfranchise Indigenous people, the area was targeted with international sanctions, which resulted in economic collapse, riots, and people fleeing the city. In this dystopian near-future, the marginalized people who had no means of escape are hunting for game in the overgrown city parks while crime lords rule over life and death. One of those crime lords, Rudy, needs to procure a human heart for a politician whose health is failing…and Ti-Jeanne’s ex-partner Tony has a medical background; he’s also gotten enmeshed with crime due to his drug addiction. He wants to quit and leave town, but he is the person Rudy has in mind to harvest the heart. And it turns out that Rudy has a connection to Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother, an herbalist who is healer to the whole neighborhood; he is likewise linked to Ti-Jeanne herself, who’s tormented by mysterious visions of death as she tries to care for her baby.

The main characters all have Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, and the side characters form a very matter-of-factly diverse cast of various races and ethnicities. (A Romani woman code-switches between English and Vlax Romani at one point, which was the first time I ever saw anyone speak Romani in an English-language book, back when I first read Brown Girl in the Ring.) In addition, there are at least two queer couples that I noticed, though one of the couples meets a bloody end. So do many other characters: in this future version of Toronto, there are many ways for people to die, some of them exceedingly gruesome. The novel also features a disabled character who at first gets very ableist reactions from other characters, but as the book goes on, these expectations are upended altogether.

While the author is queer, the novel itself doesn’t contain that many overtly queer elements. In addition to the queer side characters I’ve mentioned, there’s the fact that when characters are ridden by the spirits speaking through them in religious rites, they can present as a spirit of a different gender and even age, but this isn’t like Western concepts of transness, at all. (However, it is similar to another novel by an author from the region that I recently covered in the series: Hadriana in All My Dreams, by René Depestre from Haiti.) The main characters seem to be straight, and engaged in a multigenerational family drama of relationships and magic that builds to world-shattering proportions as the plot progresses.

When I first read Brown Girl in the Ring, I thought it was YA—the first edition cover art seemed to position it that way, and I didn’t know much about American YA literature at that point. Then on my second reread, I realized it was published as an adult novel. But now, upon my third reread, I think it actually fits into a category that is just now emerging, over two decades later. New Adult novels focus on characters just starting out in adulthood and coming of age, with often more explicit violence or sexuality than Young Adult novels. Publishing hasn’t yet taken as much notice as readers, especially QUILTBAG+ readers, have—I routinely see people clamoring for more New Adult books, and especially New Adult fantasy, which is much less common than New Adult contemporary. Yet I haven’t seen anyone discuss Brown Girl in the Ring in that context.

I think this is probably because the prototypical—stereotypical?—New Adult book features a young white woman protagonist who is a first-year student in college. Here we read about a young Black woman protagonist who is a new single mother. In the destroyed Toronto of the future, there are no colleges, and people are simply glad to be alive, but many of the key New Adult themes are there, including the struggle with newfound adult responsibilities, a coming-of-age journey, and more explicit adult content. (More violence than sex, in this case; the antagonist tortures and murders people as human sacrifices, and this is described in detail.) This makes the book feel ahead of the curve, even today. It also feels part of a dialogue across time and space with other diverse books that could fit into New Adult, such as Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergei Dyachenko (just published in English translation, but originally from 2007).

But the elements that spoke to me mostly strongly in Brown Girl in the Ring were the religious aspects. African Diaspora religious and spiritual practices are often extremely mangled in Western fiction, generally written by outsiders, and are sometimes outright presented as evil, seen through the lens of a specific imperialist brand of Christianity. Brown Girl in the Ring engages with all that baggage head-on, and demonstrates both the richness and beauty of these diasporic traditions…while the antagonists try to use them to malevolent ends. Power can both heal and hurt, and Brown Girl in the Ring shows the entire spectrum through its own internal lens, not as presented by an outsider. Even though my own background as a Jewish person from Hungary is very different from the author’s, this book presented me with a role model in how to write about one’s own background while decentering Anglo-Western spiritual and literary traditions. In the acknowledgements, Nalo Hopkinson thanks “the African Heritage collections of the Toronto and North York Public Libraries” and talks about how she researched the book, which to me demonstrates great care and serves as a reminder that even with our #ownvoices narratives, we need to be careful and mindful. This great care is woven throughout the book, and is also reflected in the handling of the medical details written into the narrative, both in terms of healing and harm.

I was glad to revisit this book, and I hope to have the opportunity to cover even more of Nalo Hopkinson’s work in the series, eventually! In the next column, we will head to outer space with a debut novel by an author who is just now returning to SFF after a decades-long absence.

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award and a finalist for the Hugo and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.

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