by Nalo Hopkinson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 9, 2021
Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Originally published in 2001, Nalo Hopkinson's first short story collection Skin Folk won the 2002 World Fantasy Award and the 2003 Sunburst. Original publication of the stories range from 1996 to 2001, several appearing in this book for the first time. Three were award finalists on their own, and one is an excerpt from her second novel, Midnight Robber. It has had several different editions, but I have not been able to determine if each have the same table of contents. I read the Kindle e-book from 2015, whereas the current paperback came out in 2018. It's not as easy reviewing a collection as it is a novel, even though most of these feature similar themes. Nalo was born in Jamaica, with family heritage that extends to Trinidad and Guyana. All of those places are steeped in African traditions of folklore and spirituality, but her influences are even wider, including the European fairy tales of Anderson and the Grimms. From the author's introduction to the first story: "Throughout the Caribbean, under different names, you'll find stories about people who aren't what they seem. Skin gives these skin folk their human shape. When the skin comes off, their true selves emerge."
Skin folk could be shapeshifters like the werewolf or vampire, only here they are called by their Caribbean names, lagahoo and soucouyant. In "Greedy Choke Puppy" a grandmother had killed her daughter when she discovered she was a soucouyant, and now she fears her granddaughter is one as well. Something not revealed in the story, but which I strongly suspect, is the grandmother is also a soucouyant, killing to eliminate her competition. In one instance, "Ganger (Ball Lightning)", skin is used in a science fiction setting of a couple who use artificial skin suits that are supposed to enhance their sensory perceptions. It turns into more of a horror story, which is understandable when you realize 'ganger' is derived from the word doppelganger. I have long suspected that many fairy tales that deal with blood are references to menstrual blood. Whether or not that had been the original intention, Nalo makes it explicitly clear in "Riding the Red," with a woman's period being what attracts the 'wolf' of predatory men. "Money Tree" concerns an evil man's treasure that is being guarded under the sea by the Yoruba goddess Oshun. The tradition of "The Glass Bottle Trick" was mentioned in one of Nalo's novels, The New Moon's Arms. Hanging a glass bottle in a tree is supposed to capture the spirit of a dead person. Breaking that bottle can bring either memories of the departed, or it could bring revenge.
"Precious" is similar to the tale of Midas, and just as the original tale did, it makes it clear such a power is as much a curse as it is a blessing. One of the weirder stories is "Slow Cold Chick." It may have some referent in Caribbean tales, but if so I'm not aware of which one. A woman who just wants to make some cornbread is at first discouraged she is out of eggs, then the next time she looks a large egg has appeared in her refrigertor. When she cracks it, out comes a baby chick, which begins to grow rapidly, and it has a tremendous appetite. Hopkinson's introduction says it was submitted to a program sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting system, which cautioned her to refrain from sex or violence, which is evident in quite a few of her other stories. She did that for the most part, but comes close in her descriptions of the protagonist's attraction to her neighbor, the 'Venus-built' woman, and her muscular gardener, along with their reciprocal attentions. Two stories have no speculative elements, but that does not diminish their impact. "Fisherman" is about a woman who has proved she can handle the chores on the fishing boat as well as any man, but otherwise she keeps to herself, living a lonely, loveless existence. That is until one Saturday night when she decides to see what all the men have been bragging about with their experiences at the local brothel. She may not have found love, but definitely her sexual awakening. In "A Habit of Waste" a woman from the corporate world, who also volunteers at the local food bank, alters her life after meeting a man who survives on his own by foraging and hunting with his trusty slingshot.
Fifteen stories in all, only nine of which I've mentioned by title so far. That does not mean the others aren't worthy, but they didn't make as much of an impact. I've kept the best (if such can be said about this powerful collection) for last. "Under Glass" is available for Kindle on its own, but the description at Amazon is incorrect. It is not a novel, it's only 22 pages, maybe a novelette at most. It also doesn't make sense for it to be priced at just a dollar less than the entire collection, at this time at least. It's a puzzling story of alternate realities, one of which might only be in the imagination of the protagonist in one of the scenarios. But which one? Sheeny lives in a post-apocalyptic landscape, one in which the nearby mountain had exploded. It must have been primarily silica sand, since now the wind blows miniscule glass shards which slice and eviscerate any person or animal not protected in the bunkers, and it has destroyed most vegetation too. Sheeny has a hold-over technology from the old world, a tablet on which she can create and envision other realities, under the glass screen. It is possible she has created the reality in which Delphine lives, in a city on the verge of change, with ominous rumblings from the nearby mountain. Which is real, which is fabrication? Either, or both? I don't think it matters. If I had been the editor I would have placed this last, but it comes fifth in the order. Considering other readers might find other stories better, maybe the order doesn't matter. Just start at the beginning, and be fascinated all the way through. Highly recommended.
We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon.com, Bookshop.org, and ReAnimusPress.