Skin Folk, by Nalo Hopkinson

12 04 2010

I love Nalo Hopkinson so much that it would be impossible for me to write an unbiased review of any of her books. Her prose is so vivid and exciting that even if I believed it were possible to erase the person from the critique and objectively evaluate the quality of the writing, I would leave my critic hat at home and just rave. Nalo Hopkinson is one of the most exciting voices in Canadian fiction these days.

Today I’m going to talk about Skin Folk, which is a collection of short stories loosely connected by the theme of skin. That is, the surface under which we hide our darkest secrets, the burdensome appearances that we maintain and shed, the external forces that confine us, and the way some people can see through these images to find truths that we aren’t yet even aware of ourselves. Many of these stories are about breaking free from the skins that we wear, that we have chosen for ourselves or had imposed upon us, or that have grown over us so quietly that we didn’t notice them until they had covered us completely. This is how Hopkinson introduces the book:

Throughout the Caribbean, under different names, you’ll find stories about people who aren’t what they seem. Skin gives these folk their human shape. When the skin comes off, their true selves emerge. They may be owls. They may be vampiric balls of fire. And always, whatever the burden their skins bear, once they remove them – once they get under their own skins – they can fly. It seemed an apt metaphor to use for these stories collectively.

This is a thick, delicious collection of stories, each concerned with very contemporary and important questions. In “Something to Hitch Meat To,” Artho, who edits photographs for pornographic magazines, airbrushing out imperfections, exaggerating models’ natural assets, is beginning to find human bodies – real, living human bodies – pretty creepy. Like when you say a word too many times and it loses all meaning, he has looked at and “corrected” too many bodies, and now the people he crosses in the street seem awkward and ungainly.

Artho was thinking of something to say to him, some kind of opener, when the man’s ears caught his gaze. They jutted out from the side of his head like knurls of deformed cartilage. There really was nothing odd about the guy’s ears – that’s just how ears were – but they still gave Artho a queasy feeling. With one hand, he worried at his own ear. He looked around at other people in the food court. All their ears seemed like twisted carbuncles of flesh sprouting from the sides of their heads, odd excrescences.

Unfortunately for Artho, whose life is about to change dramatically, an ugly little girl in a Spiderman backpack, who isn’t the least bit afraid to talk to him, follows him back to his office, and changes the way he sees things. No, this isn’t one of those heartwarming clichés where the little girl teaches the mean old man how to love. This little girl has glasses with jam-jar thick lenses, which refract and multiply her eyes, hair in dark medusa strands, ashy brown bumps of dry skin for knees, and her name is Nancy. Wrongs are about to be righted, but not in the way Artho had in mind.

Throughout the story, Artho finds that people’s real-world perceptions of him and reactions to him – often distrusting – don’t match up with the way he sees himself. People react to him with fear and distrust, and he absolutely can’t get a date. Who would want to date the guy who sets the standard of beauty and sexual attractiveness at a level that is unreachable to most people, who creates the images that make most of us feel ugly? Who would want to date a guy whose job it is to tell us that the beautiful bodies we already inhabit are not worthy of the camera’s lens? Nancy is about to sort this out, too.

Media images may not be the scourge of our generation (there was oppression of the powerless long before there was Maxim), but in this story, a Nancy fixes a little wrong with a little right, sending out a subtle corrective that just might spread, making the people in Artho’s world (and us readers, maybe) a little more comfortable in their skins.

There are fifteen stories in this collection, each as thoughtful as the last. My favourites are “Fisherman,” “Slow Cold Chick,” “Snake,” “The Glass Bottle Trick,” and “A Habit of Waste.” I may have a few more notes on these later on.

It occurs to me that if I’m successful at my project, I should (will) actually go to WisCon.

Currently Reading: The Female Man by Joanna Russ