Nalo Hopkinson, esteemed author of science fiction and fantasy and current professor at the University of California, Riverside, delivered the first-ever Charles Johnson lecture in Kane Hall on Friday.
Hopkinson has received several acclaimed awards for her work, including the World Fantasy Award, the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, and the Hugo Award. Hopkinson is a Jamaican-born Canadian, and often draws inspiration from her upbringing and mixed cultural affiliations for her writing.
Preceding the lecture was a more intimate conversation with Hopkinson at the Allen Library, where she spoke in depth about her writing methods, balancing scholarly work and creative work, her favorite authors and inspirations, her take on the place of science fiction and fantasy in literature, and more. Hopkinson spoke candidly of her experiences as a writer and her advice to other writers.
The lecture was the first of its kind and came to fruition after an anonymous donor came forward with the funds to support a lecture named after Charles Johnson, an emeritus professor of English at the UW. The donor was a former student of Johnson’s. Johnson is an esteemed author of 16 books, as well as an essayist, cartoonist, screenwriter, editor, and lecturer with profound contributions to the literary world.
“The terms of the sponsor were that a writer be selected who is a black writer, but one who was not born and raised in the U.S. So this would be a contribution from a broader, global black diaspora, rather than narrowly confined to black American literature,” said English professor Laura Chrisman, who was in charge of coordinating the event. “The other condition of the donor was that this actually be a very open format, that the speaker could give a creative writing reading or deliver a formal lecture — it’s entirely up to the speaker.”
When tasked with choosing the guest for the debut lecture, Hopkinson was Chrisman’s first choice. After consulting with other colleagues and students, she found that Hopkinson was a top pick for many others as well.
Part of what made Hopkinson so appealing was her position in the arena of speculative fiction.
“That’s part of what drew me to her as the inaugural lecturer,” Chrisman said. “There’s been an enormous expansion of speculative fiction writing by writers of color in the last 20-30 years or so, and she’s at the forefront of that. There are so many good reasons why black writers turn to science fiction and speculative fiction more generally, and Hopkinson herself has spoken about the ways in which if you’re a person of color in North America, everyday life is science fiction. It makes sense organically that you would gravitate toward that genre.”
Hopkinson spoke at length on her perceived purposes of science fiction, and the irony of finding a purpose in the first place.
“Every few years I come up with different answers [about what science fiction and fantasy do] because I’m always suspicious of my own answers to the question, largely because it’s far too common for people to try to justify science fiction in particular by finding a purpose, a reason, a function for it, and I’m suspicious when people try to rationalize art,” Hopkinson said. “And I’m suspicious of myself when I do it. The fact is, human beings make art and make story … art is inextricably linked to human existence.”
Chrisman hopes that honoring Hopkinson’s work can also lead to a shift in ideology for the UW’s department of English.
“My hope is that this will be the first of an annual series of Charles Johnson lectures and that it will set the stage for the UW to broaden its involvement with genre writers,” Chrisman said. “It seems to me that there’s an awful lot of work in this department by students and by faculty that breaks down those barriers between high literary forms and popular cultural forms, and Hopkinson’s work does that too.”
Giving science fiction and fantasy writing more academic legitimacy is a major hope for Hopkinson. She is already making great strides in this regard, working currently as a tenured professor at UC Riverside’s creative writing department, an uncommon opportunity for science fiction and fantasy writers.
“It’s nearly impossible otherwise for science fiction and fantasy authors in North America to be given a professorship doing what they do,” Hopkinson said. “It’s a systemic problem here, which marginalizes science fiction and fantasy from academia so that it can be safely studied at a distance.”
She also went on to discuss the lack of opportunities for prospective creative writers themselves when gaining an education in creative writing.
“What is usual and far too common in universities … at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, is creative writing classes [have] faculty that forbid their students from writing science fiction and fantasy,” Hopkinson said. “Which puts me in an odd circumstance, being invited to speak at universities and institutions where the students can’t do what I do. Or even if they’re allowed, it’s hard for them to get formal instruction.”
After delivering her more formal lecture, Hopkinson read a short story that she head written about one year ago, titled “The Old Black.”
“I’m really into sci-fi and I’ve heard of Nalo Hopkinson’s work but I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, so I was hoping to catch her while she’s here, so that in the future I can have her in mind while reading her stuff,” said UW graduate student Jey Saung, who attended the lecture on Frida
A memorable moment of the lecture for Saung was Hopkinson’s advice to prospective writers.
“She said that however you’re writing, you’re already doing it right,” Saung said.
Reach contributing writer Kendall Upton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KendallSUpton