Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Skin Folk
Nalo Hopkinson
Warner Aspect Books, 256 pages

Skin Folk
Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson has recently published a collection of short stories, Skin Folk, in addition to her first two novels, Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber. She has lived in Toronto, Ontario, since 1977 after spending most of her first 16 years in the Caribbean, where she was born.

Nalo Hopkinson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Brown Girl In The Ring
SF Site Review:Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction
SF Site Review: Midnight Robber
SF Site Review: Brown Girl in the Ring
Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
Excerpt: Midnight Robber
Interview: Nalo Hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson Short Story

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

In explaining the title for her first short fiction collection, Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson says that:

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... it seemed an apt metaphor to use for these stories collectively.
That said, it is interesting to note that while mostly grounded in an ethnic folklore, including the exotic diction that distinguished Hopkinson's first two novels, foreign to a genre dominated by a white European orientation, the collection is bookended by two riffs on the Brothers Grimm.

The opening story, "Riding the Red," takes the sexual subtext of the "My what big eyes you have Grannie" classic and places it front and center. The concluding piece extrapolates upon the fable of the peasant girl whose kindness to a witch disguised as an old woman is rewarded with the ability to produce jewels from her mouth every time she speaks and whose simple beauty attracts (what else?) a prince who (what else?) marries her. In Hopkinson's much darker version, the prince is an abusive spouse who forces the girl to produce her treasures:

Once he chided me for keeping too silent, not holding up my part of the marriage. I began to sob, withered tulips plummeting down. "Bitch" he shouted. "Quit it with the damned flowers. More gold!" The backhand across my mouth drew blood, but along with two cracked teeth, I spat out sapphires... From then on the beatings happened often.
Fables of all cultures, regardless of geographical origin, explore at times related subjects of sex and violence that begin and end Skin Folk. Casting this folklore in more contemporary terms, sometimes with science fictional elements, is Hopkinson's forté. In this compilation, you get a vivid sense of how these urges define the human condition. And not always for the better.

Apparently this has been the focus of Hopkinson's fiction from the start, witness "Snake," a previously unpublished work first submitted as a 1995 Clarion Workshop project. Though the ending struck me as somewhat hokey -- exactly the sort of easy "out" a beginning fantasy writer would opt for as a denouement -- Hopkinson successfully made me feel increasingly very uncomfortable in her depiction of a child rapist/murderer. Too bad his fate only happens in a work of fantasy.

My favorite story here is the most science fictional; it also brings the erotic charge that permeates most of these stories explicitly to the forefront. "Ganger (Ball Lightning)" depicts what happens when two lovers exchange skin suits designed to heighten the experience of copulation in order to get an idea of what the act feels like from the opposite perspective. Trouble ensues when they fail to heed the operating instructions.

Exchanging bodies in another way underpins "A Habit of Waste:"

I was nodding off on the street car home from work when I saw the woman getting on. She was wearing the body I used to have! The shock woke me right up: It was my original, the body I had replaced two year before, same full, tarty looking lips; same fat thighs, rubbing together with every step: same outsize ass: same narrow torso that seemed grafted onto a lower body a good three times bigger, as though God has glued leftover parts together.
But where you might have expected cyberpunk turns into what seems to be an allegory about body acceptance, featuring a proud old guy down on his luck whose ingenuity serves to rescue a social worker not only from a mugger, but from her world view. Similarly, "Something to Hitch Meat to" takes the notion of virtual reality to another level.

Certain notions of how our bodies are supposed to define us, and how those definitions can be overcome, is the subject of "Fisherman," which, as the author notes, isn't fantastical in subject. That it would be so easy to convince others of the roles we prefer to choose perhaps is.

And where you keep the bodies, and how they never can stay hidden, is the premise of "The Glass Bottle Trick." Though originally published in an anthology of Caribbean fabulist fiction, it would be as easily at home in a Twilight Zone episode.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the collection is excerpted from Hopkinson's sophomore novel, Midnight Robber. "Tan-Tan and Dry Bone" is a popular fable that develops based on the exploits of the novel's protagonist; upon hearing the it, Tan-Tan learns that in some ways she is no longer the owner of the story of her own life.

So, I imagine, it is with many of us who hear secondhand from others of things we were supposed to have done in our own bodies, but have been bent out of proportion more to suit the teller than the reality. The only difference is that the storytellers who reinvent us for their own purposes are not nearly as inventive or interesting as Hopkinson.

Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide