On Tuesday the 2nd of December we met at Birkbeck, Gordon Square, to discuss Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) by Nalo Hopkinson. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Toronto, in which the rich have fled the economic disintegration of the city. The narrative follows Ti-Jeanne’s quest to overcome the powerful gang led by Rudy. To do so she must learn about her family and her family’s cultural heritage.
We began with an announcement reiterating this year’s theme of ‘Beyond Borders’ and the rationale behind our decision to focus on Non-Western authors and texts. If you would like to read more about the theme then you can do so here, but essentially we aim this year to interrogate the construction and maintenance of borders, of both body and geography, via science fiction texts that themselves come from the margins. We hope, further, to think through the borders in science fiction publishing and criticism, the borders within academia, and those that are inherent to our ways of thinking.
The subsequent discussion was excellent and while I will attempt to coalesce some of the discussion we had into discrete topics, it certainly cannot fully cover the range of ideas that were set off by the group’s engagement with the text.
Borders were felt to be both physical and psychological, geographical and bodily, as well as determined by power. Those in the city were debarred from exiting via roadblocks, while the rich in the suburbs were able to access the city via helicopter at will. It was suggested that though it was physically possible to escape the city, a character such as Tony struggled to get over the psychological border of the city limits.
Certain bodies also were porous and hybrid while others subordinated the borders of others’ bodies to their will—such as the grisly scene where Rudy flays someone or his separation of Mi-Jeanne’s duppy from her body.
One of the themes that was drawn out was the overlay or mirroring of the inner city with the suburb, especially as it pertained to science and technology. It was suggested that there were in fact two technologies: one is a techno-western form, explored especially through the transplantation narrative, scenes set in the hospital, and the Vultures (a privatised ambulance service that enters the city to take advantage of the desperate and the dying). The other form is based on traditional medicine and beliefs that exist in the city itself, such as the healing knowledge that Mami uses to treat her community, and the ceremonies that Mami and Rudy perform in order to reach the spirit realm.
The equivalence is made clear by the parallel between the heart transplant between Mami and the politician Utteley, and the transference of Mi-Jeanne’s eyes into the bowl that holds her spirit. However, it was pointed out that the equivalence was purposefully not clean, and that hybrid knowledges developed out of the interaction between the two. For instance, Mami must learn how to use Canadian herbs while Ti-Jeanne often gives both traditional salves and prescription drugs to those who come to Mami. Finally the heart transplant functions on both levels of technology, as the successful transplantation (Western medicine) is accompanied by a possession of the body by the heart (Non-Western beliefs), to create a hybrid identity. The group was impressed by the slick integration of magic and medicine in the text in general.
Mami/Utteley was one of a number of different hybrid identities that are present in the novel. Many characters are possessed by various spirits, while characters’ spirits exist separately to the body. Someone mentioned the idea of multiplicity; the fragmentation of identities and consciousness distributed via different technologies both Western and Non-Western. The novel was in this sense, linked to the Cyberpunk movement, especially those feminist texts that attempted to engage with networked identities in the 1990s. The idea of the multiplicity was later linked with the anti-psychiatry movement and the figure of the schizophrenic in the theories of Deleuze and Guattari.
These fragmented identities challenged the hierarchies of knowledge, the naturalised binary of gender (Ti-Jeanne and Mami flip pronouns while they are possessed), as well as the Cartesian duality of mind and spirit (consciousness is distributed in Utteley/Mami across the heart and mind).
Some models of identity, associated with male characters in the text, were not so hopeful. Instead of allowing the spirits to possess him, to become one with him in a hybrid form, Rudy binds them to his will, remaining a unified and coherent self. The male characters in general were viewed by some to be clichéd or two-dimensional. It was felt that Tony’s drug addiction was not developed fully and that Rudy was unbelievably evil. Others saw the drug addiction as a way of addressing labour, linking it with the concept of the zombie, while Rudy was seen as a representation of pure profit motive unbound.
The setting of the novel was the centre of much interest. The separation of the affluent suburbs from the inner city was read as both a reflection of historical shifts in urban communities in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a challenge to the white flight narrative at the centre of much post-apocalyptic writing.
The community at the heart of Toronto is not necessarily positive, and yet it does resist the idea that after the departure of the powerful, the urban environment will descend into chaos and brutality. As was pointed out, the apocalypse is already with us; it is simply unevenly distributed. The bartering economy and different kinship structures are the basis for survival and at the same time a politics of coalition and collaboration, forming culturally hybrid forms of social relations. This is then taken as a model by Mami/Utteley at the end of the novel for the rebuilding of the city itself.
One curious absence from the text was indigenous people, notably because of their fleeting presence at the beginning. Temagami Indians appear in newspaper headlines, which hint that indigenous communities were instrumental in the collapse of the urban environment because of a court-case between the State of Ontario and the Temagami wood export company. Their brief mention brings up questions of land rights and abuse in Canada, which was not fully developed in the novel.
There are many different models of kinship, which develop in the novel, none of which are privileged above the other. Familial kinship is particularly ambivalent. Rudy is a violent and abusive husband, as well as subsequently the tyrant of the city. Mi-Jeanne and Ti-Jeanne both struggle with the expectations of motherhood, while Mami is presented as overly harsh. However, it was suggested that the relations between the three Jeannes (Gross, Mi, and Ti) highlighted the strength of bonds between women in the text, as well as the merging of identities prevalent elsewhere in the story; all three take on spirits, and become healers, though each of them struggles with the responsibility in different ways. The tension between ancestors and personal action was likened to the work of Aliette de Bodard.
The kinship structure among the street children was seen as an alternative to blood ties. Though the children did take on the responsibilities of parent/lover etc. of a traditional family, these were not fixed by gender or sexuality.