A Critical Analysis of “Brown Girl in the Ring” by Nalo Hopkinson


A Critical Analysis of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring

“I want to know everything, I want to be everywhere, I want to fuck everyone in the world, I want to do something that matters!” – (Reznor)

This novel touches upon the universal human desire to do something that matters, to do something above and beyond the realm of normal human existence.  Hopkinson uses the speculative fiction/fantastic genre to bring the legends and traditions of west African indigenous beliefs, as they exist in the diasporic communities of The Caribbean and other regions of the American continent, to life.  The protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, must overcome many fantastic obstacles involving various spirit-world beings on her way to becoming her grandmother’s successor as community healer.  My way of doing something that matters in this short life of mine is to contribute the propagation of the knowledge that many of the beliefs expressed in this novel are absolute nonsense and serve only to artificially divide our young species.

The first indication of the origin of the fantastic/supernatural traditions detailed in this novel appear in Chapter Two:

Tony had once teased Ti-Jeanne almost to tears about her grandmother: “What’s that crazy old woman doing over there in Riverdale Farm, eh, Ti-Jeanne?  Obeah?  Nobody believes in that duppy business any more!” (Hopkinson 36)

According to an article published by the University of Miami, “Modern historians believe that Obeah originated from the Ashanti or Koromantin tribes of Africa on the Gold Coast, and that imported slaves introduced it to the Caribbean as early as the 17th century.” (Giraldo)  This proves that the main characters of the novel, Mami Gros-Jeanne, Rudy, Mi-Jeanne, and Ti-Jeanne, are practitioners of a culture that is indigenous to a small part of the west coast of Africa but not to the Caribbean, nor to the city of Toronto.  This work of sf should therefore not be considered a work of indigenous science fiction, regardless of whether or not Nalo Hopkinson has or acknowledges having Taíno ancestors.  This work is rightly classified as diasporic sf, since to classify the Ashanti/Koromantin culture as it is practiced by descendants of those people as indigenous to the Caribbean would mean that in the interest of consistency, all contemporary cultures of north and south America and the Caribbean ought to be thought of as being indigenous.  The Portuguese language and Roman Catholicism must then be considered indigenous to the part of South America in which that language and religion dominate, the Mexican people, culture and way of life in the form of speaking Spanish and worshipping the Virgin Mary should be considered indigenous to the modern-day country of Mexico, and so on.  Not only are those clearly preposterous propositions, but the idea of people practicing cultures based on those of Afro-Eurasian cultures in the so-called “New World” being considered “indigenous” to America very much disrespects the first inhabitants of the Caribbean region (The Taíno), as well as every other once-sovereign nation in America such as the Iroquois, the Shoshone, and the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan Empires (to name just a few).

The concept of “indigeneity” and the idea that there are several human “races” are complete balderdash, or as Mami Gros-Jeanne would say, “stupidness” (Hopkinson 150).  Some examples of the foolish belief in this “stupidness” are:

“Is true,” Mami told her.  “Prince of Cemetery promise that when you walk out this door, he go hide your living body halfway between here and Guinea Land.  That way nobody go see you.”  “Guinea Land?”  “Every time a African die,” Mami intoned, “them spirit does fly away to Guinea Land.  Is the other world, the spirit world.” (Hopkinson 104)

Crapaud continued, “One day I leaving here, you hear me?  Going out to the ‘burbs to find a rich White woman to keep me.  Rudy and he posse shit get to be too weird sometimes.” (Hopkinson 112)

“Now, doux-doux,” Mami said, “to start off, it have eight names you must know.”  She ticked them off on her fingers.  “Shango, Ogun, Osain, Shakpana, Emanjah, Oshun, Oya, and Eshu.”  Ti-Jeanne tried to memorise the sounds.  “And explain to me exactly what them is, Mami.”  “The African powers, child.  The spirits.  The loas.  The orishas.  The oldest ancestors.  You will hear people from Haiti and Cuba and Brazil and so call them different names.  You will even hear some names I ain’t tell you, but we all mean the same thing.  Them is the ones who does carry we prayers to God Father, for he too busy to listen to every single one of we on earth talking at he all the time.  Each of we have a special one who is we father or mother, and no matter what we call it, whether Shango or Santería or Voudun or what, we all doing the same thing.  Serving the spirits.” (Hopkinson 126)

Every time an African dies?  Seriously?  Mami is an incredibly ignorant and small-minded character.  Is she really unaware that Africa is a hugely diverse continent with a multitude of religions who do not believe in a place called Guinea Land?  Is she not aware that the location of one’s birth is arbitrary?  Is she not aware that she is not an African?  Does she honestly believe that a person born and raised in Ceuta, Spain will go to Guinea Land after death whilst another person born and raised 19 miles away in Algeciras, Spain will go some other “Land” after death?  Valhalla, perhaps?  Stupidness.

First problem, the word “white” is an adjective, not a proper noun, and should therefore never have its initial letter capitalized (with the exception of when it is used as a surname).  That the author would capitalize the initial letter of the word tells me that she holds the erroneous belief that human “race” is a real thing, and that there is a “race” of people called “White”.

Here we go again with the reference to Africa, this time it’s the “powers, child”.  Mami Gros-Jeanne/Nalo Hopkinson’s belief in powers that are unique to the African continent is easily shown to be complete bunk by pointing to a map and asking if there could really be an imperceptible barrier somewhere in the 45 miles of sea separating Fagal, Djibouti from Al Bahiyah, Yemen which would prevent “African powers” from having any ability to affect life in “Asia”.  Mami Gros-Jeanne/Nalo Hopkinson clearly have no idea who the “oldest ancestors” really are; and anyone who believes that their ancestors help to define them and make them unique when compared to other humans, are severely lacking in knowledge.  The knowledge to refute these antiquated, quaint, incorrect, asinine, absurd, half-witted, idiotic beliefs is contained in the words of the world’s foremost astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Before I get into that though, I need to point out that we need not leave this island to find a professional scholar who knows that “race” is a myth.  Dr. Sheryl Shook, a neuroscientist at Kapi’olani Community College, has given me permission in an e-mail to quote her as stating that “Yes, I believe that the concept of race is a myth.  It is not biological.  It is a social construct.”

Both neuroscientist Sheryl Shook and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson are believers in the scientific method: “Test ideas by experiment and observation.  Build on those ideas that pass the test.  Reject the ones that fail.  Follow the evidence wherever it leads, and question everything.” (Druyan)  To say that “indigenous” science has value is to say that superstition, that irrationality, has value.  I side with Doctors Shook and Tyson in rejecting superstition in favor of what is found to be true using the scientific method (which is the science of the rational mind, not of the “West”, “East”, “Far West”, “Far East”, “Middle East”, “Middle West”, or any other superficial geographic appellation).

Giordano Bruno said of a dream he had wherein it was revealed to him that the universe is indeed infinite:

I spread confident wings to space and soared toward the infinite, leaving far behind me what others [The Gros/Mi/Ti-Jeanne women] strained to see from a distance.  Here, there was no up, nor down, no edge, no center.  I saw that the sun was just another star and the stars were other suns, each escorted by other earths like our own.  The revelation of this immensity was like falling in love. (Druyan)

Later, Giordano Bruno visits London and addresses a (supposedly) enlightened and educated gathering by saying:

I beg you, reject antiquity, tradition, faith, and authority.  Let us begin anew by doubting everything we assume has been proven.  Your God is too small. (Druyan)

It seems to me that almost as many people (as a percentage of the total population) in the 21st century CE are in dire need of heeding Giordano’s 16th century CE call as were in need of heeding the call then (nearly 100%).  Neil informs the ignorant masses regarding the beginning of existence itself and other discoveries made using the scientific method:

Our entire universe emerged from a point smaller than a single atom.  Space itself exploded in a cosmic fire, launching the expansion of the universe, and giving birth to all the energy and all the matter we know today. … A supernova: the blazing death of a giant star.  Stars die, and are born [again] … they condense like raindrops from giant clouds of gas and dust.  They get so hot that the nuclei of the atoms fuse together deep within them to make the oxygen we breathe, the carbon in our muscles, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, all of it was cooked in the fiery hearts of long-vanished stars.  You, me, everyone, we are made of star stuff. (Druyan)

To me, this knowledge is sufficient to blast all superstitious, randomly invented beliefs into utter and complete irrelevance, beliefs such as the existence of human races, spirits who tend to the needs of the souls of “Africans” exclusively, the existence of Guinea Land, etc.  However, the reader may not yet be convinced.  Neil helps us conceptualize the vastness of the time which has elapsed since the beginning of existence (as we know it) by telling us to imagine a cosmic calendar in which midnight of January 1st is the beginning of time and midnight of December 31st is the present moment in time.

Life began somewhere in a place like this [a tidal pool] … three and a half billion years ago.  We still don’t know how life got started.  For all we know, it may have come from another part of the Milky Way.  The origin of life is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of science. … By November 9th [on the cosmic calendar] life was breathing, moving.  We owe a lot to those pioneering microbes … they also invented sex. … For more than a hundred million years, dinosaurs were lords of the earth while our ancestors, small mammals, scurried fearfully underfoot. … We humans only evolved within the last hour of the last day of the cosmic year. … All of recorded history occupies only the last 14 seconds; all those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves, and everything in the history books happened … in the last seconds of the cosmic calendar. … We are newcomers to the cosmos.  Our own story only begins on the last night of the cosmic year.  It’s 9:45 on New Year’s Eve, three and a half million years ago.  Our ancestors, yours and mine, parted ways from them [quadrupeds].  Once we stood up, our eyes were no longer fixated on the ground, now we were free to look up and wonder. … For the longest part of human existence, say, the last 40 thousand generations, we were wanderers, living in small bands of hunters and gatherers, making tools, controlling fire, naming things, all within the last hour on the cosmic calendar. … Moses was born 7 seconds ago, Buddha, 6 seconds ago, Jesus, 5 seconds ago, Muhammad ﷺ, 3 seconds ago. … It was only in the last second that we began to use science to reveal nature and her laws.  The scientific method is so powerful that in a mere four centuries, it has taken us from Galileo’s first look through a telescope at another world to leaving our footprints on the moon. (Druyan)

Allyou who love to take pride in who your ancestors were and where they were from, perhaps even glorifying their names and worshipping them as Gods, what is the limit on how many generations back you are willing to go?  It is likely that allyou don’t have a specific number in mind, say, 500 generations as the maximum.  Or perhaps allyou pretend allyou are able to trace your heritage back to the mythological “first man” named Adam.  Y’all need to internalize the indisputable truth: we are all descended from quadruped mammals, and before them some microbes having sex with one another in a tide pool.  From this vantage point, it is extremely laughable to propose that the extremely slight variations in appearance which appear among members of our species means that we consist of various “races” and that certain individual people and couples having sex with each other can be labelled “multi-racial” or “inter-racial”.  I am certain that our microbial and quadrupedal ancestors did not discriminate when choosing with whom they were going to mate.  It follows, then, that it is an unnatural predilection of some humans to look for a mate exclusively within what they perceive to be a human “race” among many other human “races”.  “It is a social construct”, as Dr. Shook has said, “a myth”.  The idea that any one group of people is “indigenous” to a division of the earth’s land while other people are not is therefore utterly and forever destroyed.  The land simply is; and the descendants of the people who arrived there first and began to establish a culture that we may or may not associate with that particular piece of earth today have no greater right to the land and its resources than anyone else.  No piece of land is intrinsic of and to a group of people, their emotional attachment and ancestor deification notwithstanding.  The settlement of the land and the movement of people from place to place, and the selection of mates, was completely arbitrary as our species colonized the earth’s land masses.

A popular YouTube and television personality, Adam Conover, dispels the popular myth of “pure breed” dogs in a way that I believe is a very apt metaphor for the popular myth of human “races”.

Not only are so-called “pure bred” dogs riddled with disease, but dog breeds aren’t even a real thing; we made them up!  We talk about dog breeds as though nature created them that way, and as though every mutt were just a mix of different pure breeds. … In fact, mutts are dogs in their natural, healthy states, and pure breeding is a form of genetic manipulation humans made up just to amuse ourselves. … In 19th century Victorian England, eugenics was all the rage and competitive dog breeding became a fad among the wealthy. … [two actors converse] Man: “I made a dog with really loose skin.”  Woman: “Well I made one with a super-flat, fucked-up face.”  Man: “Wow, that is super weird.”  Woman: “Isn’t it stupid?”  Adam: “After these Dr. Frankensteins had played God for a little while, they declare their weird little monster a “pure breed””.  Mad scientist: “Behold my newest creation, the corgi.”  Adam: And that’s all a pure bred dog is, it’s totally arbitrary.”  Adam’s lady friend: “Hey, the pure breed, that means like a good healthy dog.”  Adam: “Haha, nope.  When you hear “pure bred”, you should think “inbred”.  [Purebred = Inbred]  Kennel clubs prohibit purebred dogs from ever mating outside their breed, and often, mate them with their own parents and siblings. … One study found that ten thousand pugs had the same genetic diversity as 50 individuals, making this little guy [shows pug], as inbred as an Austrian duke.”  Duke: “My blood is very pure.” (collapses)  Adam: “All of this inbreeding means that the average pure bred dog is sicker than, well, a dog.  60% of Golden Retrievers die of cancer, a third of King Charles’ Spaniels have skulls that are too small for their brains, Great Danes are so huge that their hearts can’t support their bodies … Look, there’s an easy solution, when you get a dog, don’t worry about what “breed” it is, just go to your local shelter and get yourself a little puppy mutt.  He’ll be happy, healthy, and 100% all-natural dog.” (CollegeHumor)

My late paternal grandmother, whom I called Farmor (lit. Father’s mother in Swedish), once said to me in a conversation on this topic “People back in Sweden saw my marriage to your grandfather as a “mixed marriage” because I am a Swede and he identifies his ancestors as having been “Scotch-Irish”.”  It’s amazing, the level of nativism that is necessary for my grandmother’s friends in Stockholm to make such a statement.  A sentiment and way of thinking that is complete nonsense when one zooms out, takes several steps back, and sees the whole picture as Neil does.  Based on the College Humor video transcribed above, I say “Look, when you choose a mate, don’t worry about what “race” it is, just go to your local singles meeting spot and get yourself a local hottie.  Your children are more likely to be happy, healthy, and 100% all-natural human.”

Works Cited

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. By Ann Druyan. Dir. Brannon Braga. Perf. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Prod. Seth MacFarlane. 2014. Film. 03 08 2016.

Giraldo, Alexander. Obeah: The Ultimate Resistance. 02 08 2016. Web Site. 02 08 2016. <http://scholar.library.miami.edu/slaves/Religion/religion.html&gt;.

Hopkinson, Nalo. Brown Girl in the Ring. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc., 1998.

Reznor, Trent. “I Do Not Want This.” The Downward Spiral. Los Ángeles, 1994. Compact Disc.

The Bizarre Truth About Purebred Dogs (and Why Mutts Are Better) – Adam Ruins Everything. Dir. CollegeHumor. Perf. Adam Conover. 2016. YouTube Video. <https://youtu.be/aCv10_WvGxo&gt;.

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