Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring

©1999 L.Timmel Duchamp

Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring envisions a twenty-first century Toronto that has suffered political and economic crises of such proportions that it has been barricaded off and abandoned by its moneyed, predominantly White suburbs. Cut off from modern material resources and left helpless to defend itself against the domination and depredations of a ruthless drug lord, the city has become a post-apocalyptic urban landscape reminiscent, at times, of Samuel R. Delany's Dahlgren.

While Brown Girl in the Ring takes its name from a scene of voudon that occurs late in the novel, this title aptly characterizes the protagonist, Ti-Jeanne, and her role in her world as (unintentional and initially unwitting) fulcrum for a number of tensions and forces in conflict. From the first words of Chapter One, we know that Ti-Jeanne faces a special destiny---

Ti-Jeanne could see with more than sight. Sometimes she saw how people were going to die. (9)
---a destiny she's trying to resist:
Ti-Jeanne hated the visions.(9)
The visions make her vulnerable, since she loses track of the world around her when she slips into them, something she can't afford to do in "the Burn," the dangerous neighborhood in which she lives. Worse, they make her fear the onset of insanity, which she associates with her mother, who one day simply left. Later she learns that the visions proceed from her link to Prince of Cemetery, a manifestation of Eshu, one of the African powers or spirits, of whom Ti-Jeanne's grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, says
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 all the time. Each of we have a special one who is we father or mother, no matter what we call it, whether Shango or Santeria, or Voudon, or what, we all doing the same thing. Serving the spirits. (126)
Ti-Jeanne is repelled by the visions, repelled by Prince of Cemetery's claim on her, repelled, indeed, by the entire idea (and reality) of Voudon. She works hard to separate her grandmother's practice and knowledge as a healer from her practice of Voudon, and since her grandmother had been a trained nurse before the city's abandonment by business and government, Ti-Jeanne is largely able to perceive her grandmother's ability to heal as a professional skill rather than a god-given power. And yet as her grandmother's stock of drugs produced my pharmaceutical companies dwindles and she is forced to make her own drugs using traditional herbal recipes, Ti-Jeanne finds it increasingly difficult to separate the two practices.

Ti-Jeanne's second area of conflict involves her relationship with Tony, the biological father of her baby. Tony is a buff addict and works for Rudy, the murderous drug lord who terrorizes everyone around him. When Ti-Jeanne had discovered she was pregnant, she left Tony and returned to her grandmother's home for the sake of the baby. She longs for Tony to free himself from Rudy and his buff habit, but knows not to trust his promises to do so. She is torn between her love for Tony and her sense of obligation to the baby. As if sensing the danger Tony indirectly poses to his survival, the baby cries whenever he sees Tony. Tony represents both Ti-Jeanne's dreams for a better life (preferably outside the city) and the immense threat to her and her grandmother of his subjection to Rudy.

Ti-Jeanne's third area of conflict is inscribed in her relationships with her grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, and her mother, Mi-Jeanne. The lineage of the Jeannes, though it forms the central axis of the novel and the novel's world, is troubled and, from Ti-Jeanne's point of view, disrupted. Ti-Jeanne knows little of Mi-Jeanne, who vanished without explanation one day from her child's life. It comes as a great shock to Ti-Jeanne to learn that the blind homeless woman she has long known as "Crazy Betty" is in fact her mother. In Mi-Jeanne's absence, Gros-Jeanne stands in for Ti-Jeanne's mother and also acts as her mentor, preparing her to live properly in the world. For the first part of the novel, Ti-Jeanne is in revolt against her heritage and Gros-Jeanne's persistence in treating her as her protegee, to the point of denying the reality of the spiritual (and supernatural) dimension of her grandmother's life (and life work). Ti-Jeanne's maturation requires that she learn for herself her place in the lineage and therefore her relation to the spiritual world. When out of desperate fear for Tony's life she seeks her grandmother's supernatural help and the spirit Prince of Cemetery claims her as his spiritual child, Ti-Jeanne wraps herself in denial and learns nothing. It is only when her grandmother is no longer there to help her that she is forced not only to learn, but to accept a burden of responsibility her grandmother herself had long tried to avoid. In the climactic scene of the book, Ti-Jeanne herself-- linked with the souls of her mother and grandmother-- having summoned a host of powerful spirits, becomes the "center pole" connecting the mundane world with the spiritual world and thereby conducting a tremendous surge of power between them.

Hopkinson's use of magic in this story marks a departure from the purely instrumentalist depictions of voodoo generally to be found in genre science fiction and horror. While Rudy practices Voudon in a purely instrumental way, Gros-Jeanne's practice (and the spirits' disgust with the way Rudy has manipulated and exploited them) shows us a Voudon rich with spiritual values that create a cohesive history enfolding ancestors and descendants into a single web, past into present. (Contrast this, for instance, with William Gibson's superficial talk of loas and their riders in cyberspace.) I'm reminded, rather, of Gloria Naylor's use of magic in Mama Day, where Mama Day's practice reflects the same sort of grounding in cosmic spiritual values intricated in generations of Africans and African-Americans, and of the bits of magic the alienated, middle-class Avey Johnson reluctantly encounters and is transformed by in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow. In their supernatural practices, Gross-Jeanne and Mama Day both regard themselves as "serving the spirits."

The African powers, child. The spirits. The loas. The orishas. The oldest ancestors. (126)
Serving the spirits provides the cosmic glue grounding the world to "the oldest ancestors." Ti-Jeanne's task is to recognize that connection and attend to it. This task is lonely and difficult, one only she can accomplish for herself (though with the help and support of caring others). Though her task does not entail her denying the flesh or refusing the world (characteristic of most Western religions), it does require that she open herself to sensing and perceiving a larger (and initially disorienting and terrifying) picture of reality. Interestingly, her strength and her heritage proceed from both male and female ancestors. This becomes especially striking in her duel with Rudy, her estranged biological grandfather. Her ancestors are not "the fathers" (as Europeans often call the dead white males to whom they attribute most of "history"), but both fathers and mothers. Though Ti-Jeanne's biological grandfather, Rudy does not represent a patriarchal heritage, but abuse and deviance without respect for the spirits he uses for his own, crass ends. I find this a particularly interesting and productive way of conceptualizing history-- such that a young woman like Ti-Jeanne can lay claim to a heritage and morality that has nothing to do with the patriarchal legal and political structures that largely determine "history" for those of us grounded in the European tradition. From a traditional European perspective (the one that dominates the "values" US politicians & pundits are always yammering about), Ti-Jeanne is an unwed mother-- and therefore to be treated as irresponsible and without authority, a "problem" for society. Hopkinson's sophisticated refutation of such a characterization, grounded as it is in an entirely different notion of history, tradition and values, is positively inspirational.

August, 1998

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