The 1998 Dystopian Novel That Eerily Foresaw 2013 Detroit

Set in the near future, Nalo Hopkinson's prophetic book Brown Girl in the Ring tells the story of a run-down, segregated city that turns its luck around.
Reuters / Rebecca Cook

Speculative fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson's award-winning dystopian novel Brown Girl in the Ring takes place in a walled-off inner city filled with crime, drug addiction, and poverty, where the causes of the city's downward spiral are economic. In the novel, conditions worsen when those with money flee from the city to the suburbs. Policy after government policy fails to "revitalize" the inner-city, and the situation becomes little more than a theoretical policy problem that politicians invoke when they're running for re-election.

Sound familiar? Indeed, the city that inspired this story was Detroit--but Hopkinson's novel was written in 1998. And 15 years later, with recent news that a political candidate in a wealthy Detroit suburb is actually proposing that a wall be built along the border of the now-bankrupt city, Hopkinson's dystopic vision has become a disturbing reality--and is well-worth revisiting.

Dystopias have made a comeback recently, from the seemingly unending number of YA dystopian novels and subsequent movie adaptations (like The Hunger Games or the Divergent trilogy) to the newfound relevance of modern classics of the genre. The cover art of the recent re-issue of George Orwell's 1949 classic 1984, for example, reflects the Western world's growing unease with both the surveillance state and government secrets. Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World was prescient in predicting our society's obsession with better living through pharmacology and never-ending leisure activities. Ray Bradbury, right up until his death, was vocal on insisting that his 1953 dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 was not actually about censorship, but about the destructive forces of mass media, such as TV and video games. Margaret Atwood has also been vocal about the current relevance of her 1985 book The Handmaid's Tale in the face of recent surges of religious intolerance, particularly towards women.

There's a long-standing tradition of ignoring the warnings of future-conscious artists and creative thinkers, but we do so at our own peril: Dystopias can still teach us about ourselves and about how to change our future. Hopkinson's novel, like other acclaimed dystopian novels before it, has seen the fictional nightmare it imagines become a reality. But while Brown Girl in the Ring presents a bleak, dysfunctional vision of what was then the future, it also offers a glimpse of some solutions at the individual and grassroots levels.

Science-fiction theorist Darko Suvin writes that in order to be effective, science fiction must contain elements of cognitive estrangement; in other words, elements of both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Usually, this manifests itself through as-yet-unheard-of technological advances or strange, far-away worlds. Hopkinson, though, sets her novel in the not-so-distant future, and doesn't have to travel to other worlds or invent technological advancements to "estrange" her readers. The protagonist of Brown Girl in the Ring is a young, black, unwed mother named Ti-Jeanne (a play on the Caribbean everyman character, Ti-Jean, from Derek Walcott's play Ti-Jean and his Brothers). The setting is not actually Detroit, but Toronto, and Ti-Jeanne is a second-generation Canadian. She lives with her grandmother, Gros-Jeanne, in the Burn -- the worst part of the walled-off inner city.

If Hopkinson's book had followed the traditional formula for a dystopia, it would likely have been written from the perspective of a suburban dweller: white, middle-class, probably male, and dissatisfied with the illusion of perfection.

Detroit, with its empty, abandoned buildings, is often described now as a wasteland, overgrown with plants and other vegetation -- much like Hopkinson's inner-city Toronto. Hopkinson imagines an inner-city run by the criminals and drug dealers, as the police have largely abandoned their efforts to protect them. With a national crime rate five times the national average and a depleted police force, Detroit echoes Hopkinson's predicted consequences to the economic collapse.

However, people like Paul Weertz in Detroit have transformed these abandoned spaces to their advantage, turning them into farms that provide valuable resources to the people the mass middle-class exodus has left behind -- a solution Hopkinson offers in Brown Girl in the Ring. In the novel, the abandoned poor then band together, form communities, support one another, barter, trade, and start their own businesses.

Presented by

Lee Skallerup Bessette is an English Instructor at Morehead State University in Kentucky and writes regularly at Inside Higher Ed's College Ready Writing.

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