Brown Girl in the Ring

Nalo Hopkinson
Brown Girl in the Ring Cover

Nalo Hopkinson - Brown Girl In The Ring (1998)


"'But doux-doux,' Prince of Cemetery said, 'Your granddaughter head full of spirits already; she ain't tell you? All kind of duppy and thing. When she close she eyes, she does see death. She belong to me. She is my daughter. You should 'fraid of she.'"

'Brown Girl In The Ring' is an innovative re-imagining of the post apocalypse tale, in which vividly realised urban decay is juxtaposed with Afro-Caribbean folklore and mythology. The novel convincingly portrays the inner city of Toronto after economic collapse has lead all the wealthy corporations and businesses to withdraw from the centre, leaving behind poverty and violence. However, whilst post apocalyptic stories like 'The Drowned World' by J. G. Ballard show their protagonists going through a sort of psychological metamorphosis to come to terms with their new surroundings, in 'Brown Girl In The Ring', the characters make use of their traditional skills and knowledge to better cope with the transfigured world around them. Hopkinson's characters react to the situation around them, rather than letting themselves be passively shaped by it. This aspect is present in Hopkinson's feminist approach; her characters Ti-Jeanne and Gros-Jeanne, her grandmother, are powerful women with agency who can summon and channel spirits, and who don't need men to support them.

Nalo Hopkinson presents a vivid yet nuanced depiction of a post-apocalyptic situation. With the businesses and law enforcement agencies terrified to set foot in the centre, everything is run by Rudy and his gang, who maintain their power through crime rings, fear and coercion. Hopkinson doesn't shy away from portraying the violence and poverty that have become a part of the characters' every day lives, from Ti-Jeanne's dangerous walk home to the gangs of street kids living in the sewers and looking out for themselves. However, rather than succumbing to despair, the communities in Hopkinson's Toronto work hard to survive, forging a new life from a mixture of street savvy and traditional knowledge and practices. Ti-Jeanne's community is made up of racially and culturally diverse survivors who have been forced to become self-sufficient, from the East Indian restaurant owner Roopsingh who makes Canadian and Carribean food to herb growers and urban farmers like Gros-Jeanne who sell him ingredients. Gros-Jeanne herself epitomizes the book's synthesis of modern knowledge and traditional practices. She is an ex-nurse who acts as the community's healer, augmenting her medical knowledge with her traditional herbal remedies and her ability to channel the spirit world. Hopkinson's aesthetic is reflected in the characters' dialogue, a rich blend of Afro-Caribean dialect that gives the book its distinct flavour.

'Brown Girl In The Ring' is also notable for its explicit feminism. The book revolves around its three central female characters, Ti-Jeanne, her mother Mi-Jeanne and her grandmother Gros-Jeanne. All three are distinct characters with strong personalities, and the book explores how Rudy, in his masculine arrogance, woefully underestimates all three women, leading to his downfall. Hopkinson is particularly good at exploring the characters' different aspects of womanhood, allowing them to take on traditional roles and aspects of femininity that male writers typically use as excuses to exclude female characters from taking part in an action-packed, post-apocalyptic science fiction adventure/horror story. Ti-Jeanne is a young mother who is still breast-feeding her baby. She carries her baby with her practically everywhere throughout the book. For many male writers, this would be grounds for writing her out of her own story, her role as a mother with a baby taking precedence over her role as the protagonist of her own story. Hopkinson allows her to remain the protagonist; having a baby doesn't make Ti-Jeanne any less a person with agency, with obstacles to overcome and issues to solve, and she doesn't let it stop her. Equally, however, Hopkinson fully explores Ti-Jeanne's nurturing and caring feelings for her baby, showing how Ti-Jeanne can be both a good mother and a fully realised character at the centre of a book. Similarly, Gros-Jeanne is an old woman whose role is defined as a healer and a dispenser of wisdom; Hopkinson allows her to fully embody this female archetype whilst still having a character of her own, a powerful, headstrong woman who cares for her family but makes some terrible mistakes. Mi-Jeanne is a particularly interesting character; as a homeless woman struggling with mental health issues and a mother who abandoned her child she is thoroughly Othered by society, and as the duppy in Rudy's bowl she has been forced to commit horrific murders for him, yet Hopkinson still manages to connect to the human core of the character and to pave the way for the process of reconciliation between her and her estranged daughter to begin.

As well as exploring the strength inherent in femininity, Hopkinson also explores masculine weakness. Rudy, a truly monstrous character, ultimately became a bully himself in response to all the bullying he suffered throughout his life, the only way his rigidly masculine perspective sees to avoid receiving pain being to inflict it on others. Similarly, Tony, Ti-Jeanne's boyfriend and the father of her child, is revealed to be a very weak man, unable to stand up to Rudy despite knowing full well that the things Rudy asks him to do are wrong. His lack of moral fibre scupper any chance he has of making up with Ti-Jeanne.

'Brown Girl In The Ring' also explores issues of social justice. Its central plot is set in motion because Premier Uttley, the governor of Toronto, needs a new heart, so the director of the hospital contracts Rudy to arrange to have a fresh human heart provided for her, knowing full well that Rudy provides him organs by harvesting them from poor people living in the centre that no one with any power will notice has disappeared. As a metaphor for the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy it's not subtle, but it is viscerally powerful and the implications are well thought out and deftly handled.

However, perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is the elegant way it incorporates Afro-Caribbean mythology into its urban post-apocalyptic setting. Gros-Jeanne, Mi-Jeanne and Ti-Jeanne share the ability to channel the Orisha spirits. These give Gros-Jeanne her healing powers, and Ti-Jeanne her powers to see how people will die. In 'Brown Girl In The Ring', the spirit world encroaches on our own world with hallucinogenic intensity, from Ti-Jeanne's vision of the Jab-Jab to Ti-Jeanne's eerie possession by Prince of Cemetery when Gros-Jeanne calls on the spirits, to the nightmarish final sequence in which the spirits take their vengeance on Rudy for abusing magic. Hopkinson manages to seamlessly integrate these spiritual beliefs into her realistically conceived SF world, creating something both powerfully memorable and unique.