commentary on Nalo Hopkinson’s ‘Skin Folk’

skin folk

“Skin Folk” is Nalo Hopkinson’s third published work of fiction. Unlike her other works though, it is a collection of short stories. Her stories are all extremely engaging and attempt to cover a large range of issues in a fairy small space. The one theme that is prevalent in all of her stories is the concept of facades and the people inside our skins, hence the title. Obviously in a work by a black female author dealing with appearances, there is a strong focus in a lot of stories on issues dealing with race. In dealing with race, she also takes a close look at self-loathing among black people when it comes to both appearance and culture. Specifically our tendency to idolize ‘white’ features and culture over our own natural appearances and heritage. She also spends a fair amount of time examining that heritage by writing modern stories inspired by Carribean (and, by extension, West African) myth and storytelling. Another theme fairly common in her writing is that of human sexuality in general, the stigma that we have been taught to associate with it and how unhealthy the level of and repression is. Overall, these stories are mostly about discovering and being comfortable with what is in our own skins.

The first theme that really caught my attention was the continuous theme of the tendency in black people to reject our appearance and culture. The two stories which have this specific issue as their themes are “The Glass Bottle Trick” and “A Habit of Waste”. “The Glass Bottle Trick” is the story of a light skinned black woman who marries an extremely dark skinned man only to discover that he has a rather extreme color complex. The only reason he isn’t married to a white woman is the fact that all white people intimidate him. Therefore she is his closest replacement to a white woman among black people. He worships her skin and hates his own so much that he killed his two previous light skinned wives so they wouldn’t have dark shinned ‘monsters’ like him. At the end of the story, she discovers the bodies of his ex wives and accidentally releases their spirits to take their revenge on her husband and maybe her as well. “A Habit of Waste” is the story of a black woman with Carribean parents who trades in her body for that of a ‘more attractive’ white woman and attempts to live life as a white person only to end up missing what she left behind when she sees someone else proudly wearing what used to be her body. In the end, though, she returns to her roots and begins to embrace her culture and family again. In both of these stories, the color struck characters are driven by an intense self loathing to become as white as they can. He does it by marrying fair skinned women and living through them, she does it by actually becoming a white woman. Unfortunately, neither of them is any happier with themselves by the end of their stories.

A lot more stories in this book deal with the issue of sexuality. They examine both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in an attempt to look at and deal with the unhealthy stigma people tend to attach to human sexuality. In “Riding the Red”, “Slow Cold Chick”, “Fisherman” and “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” one of her central themes is sex. “Slow Cold Chick” and “Fisherman” her central female characters are unsure of themselves and their sexuality. Blaise, the female protagonist in the first story suppresses her desires because of her insecurity until they take physical form and begin to lash out at people, forcing her to learn how to take responsibility for what she wants, sexually and otherwise and to accept her bisexuality. The fisherman in her story is actually a woman who takes part in a traditionally male occupation, fishing. At at the end of the week, she accompanies the rest of the fishermen to a whorehouse where the story describes her first time with another woman. Again, it is mostly about her getting over her own insecurities over who she is attracted to and then other people getting over the fact that she doesn’t correspond to who they think she is. Both of these stories end with the women embracing their sexuality.

“Riding the Red” is an reinterpretation of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which little red riding hood is a young woman, the wolf is a young man and the hunt is a mating dance. The grandmother in this story is a n old woman reminiscing on her youthful encounters and despairing her daughter’s prudishness. At the end of the story, she is waiting for the wolf to come by so she can dance for what may be the last time. “Ganger (Ball Lightning)” is about a couple who only communicate through sex because they are too insecure about who they are and how they feel to communicate any other way. Because of this, they buy electronic ‘skins’ to make the sex more enjoyable but this pushes them further apart. In the end, the malfunctioning ‘skins’ lead to them breaking down and discussing the way they feel. This story, is more about the habit some people have of using sex as a replacement for communication,and how unhealthy this practice is.

Just like in her books, Hopkinson also tries to bring the tradition of myth and storytelling that she grew up with into a modern setting. In this book, that results in a series of modern fables in the form of “Tan- Tan and and Dry Bone”, “Greedy Choke Puppy” and “ Something to Hitch Meat To”. The first story is an addition to “Midnight Robber”, her previous book. In this story, Tan-Tan picks up trouble in the form of Dry Bone who, once he has been picked up, cant be put down. So she is forced to feed him while she starves until she figures out that she doesn’t have to carry him and lets him go. In the second story, a woman afraid of aging discovers that she is a succoyant, a person who can leave her skin at night and steal life from babies. In an attempt to remain young, she starts killing children around her until her grandmother is forced to kill her. The third story revolves around a young black man tired of the world in which he lives and the job he does. Finally at the peak of his frustration, he receives the gift of a magical adinkra symbol from Ananse that allows him to expose people’s true forms. In all of these fables, the central theme is again being comfortable with who you are. Tan-Tan feeds Dry Bone while she grows weaker because she is convinced she deserves the hardship of carrying him. Once she realizes that she has done nothing to deserve him, she figures out a way to get rid of him. In the succoyant’s case, she is so scared of growing old alone that she scares off the men who would be interested and resorts to killing children because she isn’t comfortable enough with herself to wait for her man to show up. In the third story, the man is being given the ability to look past and make other people see past appearances to what truly is.

In addition to being in incredibly well written set of science fiction stories, this is almost an inspirational self-help book to people on the importance of being comfortable with who you are in order that you can be more comfortable with who everyone else is Hopkinson succeeds really well in making me think and hopefully it will have the same effect on others who read it.

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