The Chaos of Being Young, Black, and Female – Before and After the Apocalypse
Nalo Hopkinson's latest YA novel, The Chaos, is a moving and fantastical examination of race, gender, bullying, slut-shaming, and identity.
Nalo Hopkinson is a writer I have read and written about for more than 15 years. I was turned on to her dystopian first novel Brown Girl in the Ring and included it in my master’s thesis. I currently have two upcoming essays on two of her other books, Skin Folk (and the postcolonial black body) and The Salt Roads (as historical fantastic fiction). I’m presenting at the end of May on her book New Moon’s Arms, looking at menopause as a metaphor for the modern postcolonial condition in (parts) of the Caribbean. The one book I haven’t yet published about is The Robber Bride, but not for lack of trying.
If I appear to be pushing her books, it’s because I am. As she writes in the Acknowledgements at the beginning of her recent young adult novel, The Chaos, she was homeless for an extended period. Born in Jamaica, Hopkinson lived in various places throughout the Caribbean for the first 16 years of her life. Because of her father’s health issues, they moved to Toronto, where she eventually became a librarian before her writing put her at the forefront of speculative fiction, blending science fiction tropes with folklore and fantasy. But the awards, the accolades, and academic studies couldn’t keep her from becoming homeless due to her own precarious health. She currently divides her time between Toronto and Riverside, California, where she is now an Associate Professor of Creative Writing.
She has always been interested in gender, sexuality, race, ableism, and body issues in her work, and her most recent novel is no exception. What sets it apart is that it is explicitly written for teenagers. Scotch (a nickname, as in Hot Scotch Bonnet) is a 16-year-old bi-racial girl (white Jamaican father, African-American mother) who was forced to move to a new school in Toronto because of bullying and slut-shaming at her old school in Guelph (a largely white university town outside of Toronto). Her older (darker-complexioned) brother has just gotten out of jail because of a minor pot possession charge. Her well-meaning parents pressure her to dress conservatively and to “behave” as to not give the students at the new school any reason to bully her. Her light complexion exposes her to doubt and criticism about her racial authenticity. And, she seems to be growing dark, tar-like spots all over her body. She fears she is seeing things and going crazy, like her aunt.
And then things get unreal. A volcano grows out of Lake Ontario, erupts, and The Chaos, as it is called, begins. One review likened it to Alice in Wonderland, and it’s an apt comparison. Folktales, fantasies, and fears become reality. In a post-911 world, paranoia sets in, and many people begin to behave in disgusting ways. But there is also kindness and compassion. All of Scotch’s anxieties become manifest and she is forced to deal with her deepest fears about herself. She is an imperfect protagonist, and nor is she really a hero (she doesn’t save the day; The Chaos, which happened all around the world, ends just as abruptly as it began). Like Alice in Wonderland abruptly ends, so to does The Chaos, but with Scotch forever changed.
Another review calls the novel “one bad-ass surealistic, feminist, progressive, queer friendly, POC celebrating, anti-ableist mind- trip. Featuring gorgeously ambiguous grrls of color, the novel takes us on a ride that Andre Breton and Frida Kahlo would feel right at home in.” But many of the reviews, while praising the language and realism of the characters, dismissed the chaos and the fantastic elements, with one even going to far as to call the plot “weak.” I wonder if it is, in part, because the book is directed to the YA market, the reviewers missed the complex and rich imagery located in the chaos; the multicultural nature of Toronto becomes the fuel of the fantastical figures, and the racial and class tensions that exist under the surface are made obvious, real.
I’m particularly glad that I chose this novel to teach in my Canadian Literature course in the fall, as it underscores the tension to be found in the “narrative” of Canada, which is far from homogeneous and simply white and Anglo-Saxon (or white and French). The novel also exposes the racism and sexism that exists, despite the social paradise that Canadians themselves often imagine their (ok, mine too) home country to be. What does it mean to be a Canadian in the 21st Century? Scotch is an embodiment of that question and how fraught it is.
But it is also unique in that it features, as the review cited above states, a complex, well-developed girl of color as the main character. Romance is not her central concern, either – finding her missing brother is. And her struggle with her identity as a bi-racial female (sometimes separately, sometimes at the same time) is both honest and painful. Minor spoiler, but when she confronted with the fact that one of her best friends is a lesbian (her other best friend is an out gay teen), Scotch exclaims that she doesn’t want to be the only “normal” one. Scotch is also forced to confront her relative privilege as a middle-class (her mother is a professor and her father owns his own construction company), able-bodied person.
For me, personally, the part that struck closest to home was Scotch’s descriptions of the bullying and slut-shaming that she suffered at her old school because she hit puberty before the other girls. And how that fear of being bullied again informed all of her decisions, one that directly leads to her brother’s arrest (among other things). The spots of tar on her body eventually envelope her, making her at once impenetrable and unrecognizable, monsterous. The original title of the novel was supposed to be Taint (which is what she calls her spots), and Scotch’s aunt points out that we all, in some way, carry our own taint.
I cannot recommend this book enough, especially for young girls/teens of color. But I think even parents and educators should read the book as a reminder at how we deal with the issue of bullying and the messages that we send our daughters (and sons). Scotch’s parents and brother doubted the severity of the bullying, because girls couldn’t possibly be that mean or cruel. The idea, as well, that Scotch brought it on herself is a narrative that we hear about the victims of bullying and the entire idea of slut-shaming. The taint that Scotch, somehow, deserved to be treated the way she was, and the almost ruthless self-reliance she develops when those around her fail to protect and support her.
What are those taints that our students carry within themselves, and what would happen if they, too, were one day made real?
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