Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08


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Brown Girl in the Ring
ISBN: 0446674338
By: Nalo Hopkinson
Reviewer: Winter S. Elliott

August 2008

Nalo Hopkinson’s first work seems more like a creation of an experienced and established author than one who had just begun her career in 1998, when the first edition of the book was published.  Now ten years old, Brown Girl in the Ring represents new possibilities for science fiction and fantasy writing.  Emerging from a background of corrupt politicians and evil magic, the story depicts the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth of a young woman caught between the needs of her child and her own desires for her lover.  Hopkinson uses the character of this young woman, Ti-Jeanne, daughter of Mi-Jeanne and granddaughter of Mami Gros-Jeanne, to develop the feminist undercurrents of the text and to develop a unique kind of science fiction novel:  one based not on imagined scientific possibilities, but upon technologies very close to those of the present day and upon myths, stories, and games drawn from the author’s Caribbean heritage.

It’s very hard not to bond with Ti-Jeanne early in the book; she’s the kind of character whose feelings and fears resonate with those of the reader.  While Ti-Jeanne’s world is drastically different from our own, it’s strikingly real – and perhaps not so distant after all.  Hopkinson develops a dystopic future vision of Toronto, a city plagued by what seems an extreme version of urban decay:  the center of the city has fragmented and collapsed into a dangerous no-man’s-land made worse by posses – gangs running a kind of drug based on the bufo toad – and made better by neighborhood organizers like pastors and Ti-Jeanne’s grandmother.  Ti-Jeanne, whose very young infant son has yet to be named, works with her grandmother, at once a nurse, healer, and ritualist.  Mami refuses to hear her magic termed “obeah,” emphasizing that she doesn’t practice the dark arts, and indeed Ti-Jeanne must learn to control and to use her own abilities as a seer for good.  Ti-Jeanne resents and loves Mami in almost equal parts for much of the novel, and it is only as her fear of her heritage is replaced by appreciation and respect that she also understands both her grandmother’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Ti-Jeanne feels drawn to her lover Tony, the father of her baby, but knows, on some level at least, that his is an unhealthy influence.  Tony belongs to the posse and is himself addicted to the drug, yet he is adamant about his love for Ti-Jeanne.  That affection, while genuine, manifests itself as controlling rather than protective; he tells Ti-Jeanne once that he would have “let [her] keep the baby, no matter whose it is.”  Tony’s unvoiced belief in his power over Ti-Jeanne and her body manifests itself later on as a willingness to kill her – albeit a murder he believes is a mercy killing.  Yet, Ti-Jeanne is drawn to Tony; he has an undeniable sexual allure, an occasional propensity for charm.  She resents her baby, for whom she left Tony; she rebels against her baby’s claims upon her time and her body.  Irritated by her baby’s crying, she is even willing to shake and to strike the child. 

More than anything else, it is this cycle of violence that Ti-Jeanne must learn to overcome.  She was raised “with the strap” from both her mother and grandmother, she confuses domination with discipline and love.  Later in the book, as Ti-Jeanne understands more clearly whose child she is and both the good and evil of her ancestry, she learns that her grandmother was herself abused by her first husband – but eventually found the strength to kick him out of her house, although she was unable to deal with him permanently.  In her relationship with Tony, Ti-Jeanne repeats some of that pattern; she wants to give herself over to him, to her feelings of love and lust, but pulls away because of her child.  Ti-Jeanne’s instinctive desire to shake her child also reflects a loss of self-control; rather than choosing how to treat her child, she succumbs to behaviors learned in her childhood.  Only by becoming truly independent can Ti-Jeanne overcome the violence and evil associated with a certain kind of exploitative male in the book.  “I can’t keep giving my will into other people hands no more, ain’t?  I have to decide what I want to do for myself,” Ti-Jeanne finally realizes, and it is this understanding that allows her to embrace her ancestry and to use it to defeat the posse and its evil leader Rudy.

Ti-Jeanne’s ancestry reflects a captivating amalgam of Caribbean lore, myth, and spirituality; it is this magic that is at the heart of the novel, in more ways than one.  Once properly summoned, Ti-Jeanne’s patron spirit Papa Legbara is able to dispense information and aid.  The positive influence of the spirits radiates outward at the end of the novel, as well.  Ti-Jeanne serves as a conduit for the spirits and dispels Rudy’s evil power from the center of Toronto.  Additionally, Mami Gros-Jeanne effects a surprising change.  A politician, whose actions in a way set the plot in motion, receives Mami’s heart through a transplant – and unknowingly finds herself acting, and speaking, a little bit like Mami.

Hopkinson describes Toronto as a wheel, with the spokes of the suburbs divorced from the troubled center.  Ti-Jeanne is truly at the heart of that ring, a circle that describes not only the city but also the heritage of her name and her magic.  There are very few flaws in Nalo Hopkinson’s spirited celebration of a strong young woman and her Caribbean legacy.


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