From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Nalo Hopkinson

I love the multiple uses of eggs and bottles in this story. I was particularly struck by idea that the protagonist was the egg, slowly and perniciously sucked into this bottle of a relationship. I was so drawn to this aspect of the story that the Bluebeard element caught me by surprise and made me gasp out loud. When and how did the bottle and egg themes emerge when you were writing this story?

I wrote it so long ago that it’s difficult to remember. I think I wanted to write about Bluebeard, so I probably searched my mental bank of fascinations to find associations. Bluebeard gives his wife an egg, and when she enters the forbidden room, she drops the egg in horror and gets blood on it. The bloodstain won’t come out, and that’s how Bluebeard knows she’s been in the room. So right away, the folktale has associations with menstruation and a loss of both innocence and reproductive possibility (the latter in the sense that if you’re trying to get pregnant, every month you menstruate is a month in which you didn’t succeed). I’ve known the “Yung Kyung Pyung” snippet since I was a girl, though I don’t remember from which folktale. Those three sisters have the most arresting names! Especially Eggie-Law. And I’d recently read the science experiment about creating a vacuum in order to suck a boiled egg into a bottle. Have yet to do that experiment. Plan to do so someday. Anyway, take all three of those eggy associations, sprinkle on the seasoning of knowing that the “Fitcher’s Bird” version of the story includes the wife dressing up as an enormous bird, squish all together, and come up with a Bluebeardish story line that could make them all be part of the story. That’s the closest I can explain how I did it.

The entrapment of the duppy wives adds a brilliant extra level to this re-imagining as well as uncertainty around the ending. I found myself wondering if there were other layers of Caribbean folk tales and folk lore that I might not have the depth of Caribbean literacy to see in the text? Are there any other interesting cookies or references you’d like to share with us?

There’s the bottle tree. It’s like a wasp trap for ghosts. It’s a tree or section of a tree that has been trimmed of its leaves. You shove bottles over the trimmed ends of the branches. Blue glass bottles are best. You erect the bottle tree outside your home. The duppies go inside the bottles and can’t figure out how to get out, because the bottles are upside-down. If they’re trapped inside the bottle tree, they can’t come into your house to trouble you.

The tragedy and visceral loss of human potential through colonial power structures and internalized racism is made flesh in this story. It makes a powerful statement. Bluebeard can be a hard character to care about, but I found my grief for Samuel shot through the roof as my dread of him grew. Samuel is so trapped in a cold world that he rages and kills things that might make him experience real warmth and human connection. The possibility that dark skin, especially his dark skin, could be beautiful is such a violent attack on the colonial values he has internalized that it will drive him to murder. Beatrice is a very likeable character in part because she resists colonial values and is able to see, enjoy and appreciate beauty—beauty in general, but particularly beauty in brown skin. I feel like her enjoyment and appreciation of the world around her is what helps her be strong. What role do you think beauty and pleasure serve when challenging & resisting invasive colonial constructs?

The thing about Beatrice is that she’s also affected by the same colonialism. She knows full well that her lighter skin colour, less bushy hair, and less African features make her desirable to certain men, and she’s not above preening so as to attract them. And of course she should be able to enjoy her own beauty, to show it off, to flirt. But it’s not an uncomplicated pleasure. It’s a pleasure that the world works very hard to deny dark-skinned women. It’s easier for Beatrice to love all the shades of brown skin because she’s allowed to love her own. (Most of the time. In that particular location. If she were to move to white-dominant North America, dominant culture values would effectively make her into a negro first and devalue her beauty. And she’d still have to deal with the exoticization from straight white and black men alike, with the resentment she already experiences from some darker-skinned women. No one of any race or combination of races escapes racism. We all just experience it differently, depending on our circumstances.) In addition to all that, Beatrice pretty much ignores other women—this story deliberately fails the Delany/Bechdel test—and has chosen to use her light-skin privilege to snag a mate who will support her rather than figuring out how to support herself. And yet she is a good soul. She truly loves Samuel; she wouldn’t be with him if she didn’t. She’s compassionate and sensual. She seeks joy and tries to share it with others. She treats others with respect. She’s supportive to her man. It should be enough. But the world is harsh, and often those things aren’t enough. Beatrice has put herself into a situation of depending solely on Samuel. When he turns out to be murderously unhinged, the only beings she can reach to for help are the angry ghosts of his previous victims. That may be enough to save her, or it may not.

Gloria has been with the household for a long time. Do you think Gloria has a sense of what happened to Samuel’s previous wives? I feel like she is sincere about a pickney being a blessing, but she certainly left the house swiftly when Beatrice announced she was going to tell him!

In my mind, Gloria doesn’t know. She leaves quickly because it’s Friday night and she wants to be about her own business. She’s an employee, not a member of the household, and she wisely never forgets that.

What does it feel like knowing your short story is studied in universities and that people write papers about it?

I don’t know whether this one is studied in universities, but others of mine certainly have been. It’s the best. Feeling. Ever.

What needs destroying in fantasy?

The practice of representing non-Christian gods as demons that can be vanquished by chanting prayers at them in church Latin. The ubiquitous usage of invariably accurate books of prophecy as a short-cut around actual plot development. As a part of that, the faux-mystical assertion that unspecified “ancients” were able to see into the future. As a corollary to that, the implication that our fates are pre-determined. Because how boring is that?