Nalo Hopkinson named 37th Damon Knight Grand Master

January 27, 2021 | Isabel

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Caribbean-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson has become the 37th Damon Knight Grand Master, recognizing her lifetime achievement in science fiction and fantasy literature. She is the youngest person and the first woman of colour to win this award.

Nalo Hopkinson
Photo used with permission.

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award is voted on and presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Past Grand Masters include Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin. The award will be presented virtually at the 56th Annual Nebula Conference in early June 2021.

We reached out to Hopkinson about how she feels about her historic win. She said:

"As you might imagine, my feelings are mixed. Mostly joyful, though. It not only tells me that my peers are seeing what I do, but that SFWA is doing some work of its own to recognize the diversity of voices in science fiction and fantasy. And it tells me there's a long way to go. This award is decades old, yet I'm only the 8th woman author to have ever received it. Yet it's very good to know that one of the main advocacy and support organizations for SF/F authors in North America is working so hard to catch up. As to being the youngest, I guess I've packed a lot of career into fewer than three decades since Canada's feminist journal "Fireweed" published my first short story in 1995."

As a celebrated Black speculative fiction writer, Nalo Hopkinson is a role-model for other marginalized authors. Her stories draw on Afro-Caribbean history, culture and lore and feature characters of colour. She has edited anthologies that highlight Black and Caribbean authors and perspectives. In a recent CBC interview she reflected on this role.

"I know that I represent a lot to people who didn't think they could do what I'm doing for various reasons. And people from marginalized experiences like I am being Black, being an immigrant to North America, being female, being queer, being over a certain age, having some level of disability. Lots of people who share any of those feel that they cannot... they cannot make their voices heard. And so I hear from them because they want to know how I do it and they're reading my work, and it means a lot to them. So it's something I do take seriously."

Nalo Hopkinson 1998
Nalo Hopkinson in 1998, the year she published her first novel. Photo by Richard Lautens, Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

Hopkinson was born in Jamaica and also spent parts of her childhood in Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago. When she was a teenager, her family moved to Toronto, where she spent most of her life. She was always an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy and starting to think about writing. 

After finishing her undergraduate degree in 1982, Nalo Hopkinson got a job at the Fairview Branch of the North York Public Library, which later became part of the Toronto Public Library system (TPL). When asked about her experiences at the library, Hopkinson reflected:

"I feel as though the library has been a companion on this journey; when I took a course in science fiction literature during undergrad, the profs took our class to the Spaced Out Library (now called the Merril Collection). It wasn't until after the class visit that I realized that the woman behind the counter with the wonderfully unruly grey hair and the intense gaze was the great feminist writer and editor Judith Merril herself, who had donated her science fiction collection to the Toronto Public Library to create the Spaced Out Library. It was while I was working at Fairview that I asked my librarian supervisor (Stella, I remember you!) to order a book by one of my favourite authors, Samuel R. Delany. She did. The dust jacket of the book had a photo of Delany, which was when I realized he is Black. It was a revelation. I began to wonder where the other Black SF/F authors and authors of colour were, and it was the library that helped me source the authors and the books. And when I was writing my first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring in the days before home computers became ubiquitous, I spent many hours at Toronto Central doing the necessary research."

Hopkinson's brother still works for TPL and recalls "my sister had no qualms preventing her from leaping over the staff desk on occasion to track down ne'er do wells who'd been naughty."

Brown Girl in the Ring

Hopkinson published her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, in 1998. Set in a post-apocalyptic Toronto, the book follows a young woman who must take on the city's mob-boss overlord to save her family. Brown Girl in the Ring won the 1999 Locus Award for First Novel. It was shortlisted for Canada Reads in 2008. Canadian director Sharon Lewis adapted it for the screen under the title Brown Girl Begins in 2018.

In March of 2000, Hopkinson visited the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy to read from her second novel, Midnight Robber. A newsletter from the time calls it a "smashing performance" and says that afterwards "[h]er audience sat stunned, breathless, still swallowing the sweet taste of a Canadian best seller!" The book was later shortlisted for several awards, including a Hugo.

Midnight Robber
The Merril Collection's copy of Midnight Robber, inscribed by the author.

 

Further books continued to garner great acclaim. Skin Folk, her first short story collection, won a World Fantasy Award. Her novel The Salt Roads received the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. The New Moon's Arms won an Aurora Award on its release. A few years later, Sister Mine took home the Andre Norton Nebula Award. In 2018, Hopkinson was honoured with the Octavia Butler Memorial Award from California State University, Los Angeles. This award “is given in recognition of impactful contributions to the world of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction, with the spirit and conviction demonstrated by... Octavia E. Butler.”

House of Whispers  Volume 1

Nalo Hopkinson currently lives in the United States, where she is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Recently, she journeyed into the realm of comics, writing a title for DC Vertigo's reboot of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. House of Whispers draws on the Yoruba religion and Voodoo, starring the love goddess Erzulie Fréda.

Feb 22 Imagine a World - Crowdcast

If you would like to hear more about Nalo Hopkinson, tune in on February 22, 2021, for Imagine a World: Nalo Hopkinson and Lateef Martin with Karen Lord. In this online program, Hopkinson and fellow author Lateef Martin will discuss speculative fiction, Afrofuturism and the act of writing towards imagined worlds with Barbadian writer Karen Lord. These writers will discuss their past work, recent accomplishments and future projects, and the delights and challenges of storytelling and creating in various media formats. Register for free to watch this online event or check it out afterwards on replay. 

And if you are taking part in the TPL Reading Challenge, you can certainly read her books for "a book of speculative fiction by a BIPOC author"!

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