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.
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.
This grassroots, hybrid approach to renewal that Hopkinson proposes seems to echo what the Detroit Future City project recommends in its recent report: Detroit Future City proposes sustainable, environmentally friendly solutions, like "farms, forests, and artificial ponds and lakes" to clean the city's air and water. (One hopes that bankruptcy doesn't completely derail their ambitious plans.)
Though it's a dystopian novel by definition, the world of Brown Girl in the Ring becomes more like modern-day Detroit by subverting some common characteristics of literary dystopias. Most take place inside the "safe" confines of a world that is utopia-in-extremis, but the Burn is no one's idea of paradise. Rather, it's the result of a society's attempt at perfection -- in this case, the wealthy suburbs keeping the unwanted out.
Science fiction in general, and dystopias in particular, are also typically overwhelmingly male and white -- both the authors who write them and the main characters that populate them. 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.
Instead, Hopkinson offers a different angle on the cost of the capitalist suburban dream by writing from the point of view of a poor, black woman.
Maps of the racial demographics of Detroit and the surrounding communities can illustrate how the inner-city has demographically and economically become a type of foreign land for the inhabitants of the rich, white suburbs that surround it. Hopkinson sets her novel in this "foreign land" of the inner city, populated with characters of color who speak a myriad of English dialects.
Like Hopkinson's fictional Toronto, Detroit's inner city has a high rate of African-Americans living in poverty. But in Hopkinson's narrative, they become the main characters, both the victims of the economic situation that they had little hand in creating and the heroes, responsible for the city's eventual renewal.
Hopkinson isn't the first person to warn readers about the destruction of the black middle class or the impact of ghettoization on the African-American community. Non-fiction authors have ventured there before, and so have authors of fiction (in part through the Afrofurism movement). But, as Hopkinson points out in the novel -- through the actions of the Ontario premier (the Canadian equivalent of a state governor) who's seeking re-election -- the Burn remains a theoretical political problem. The premier cares only about policies that will secure her enough votes for re-election, not for the humans living inside the Burn, many of whom are of minority groups.
In present-day Michigan, a similar conflict is taking place between the respective authorities of Oakland County and Detroit. L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County Executive compared those living in Detroit to "Indians on the Reservation," and seems to care only about the bankruptcy of Detroit insofar as it may negatively impact Oakland County's "stellar" credit rating.
Dystopian works traditionally end in bleakness. Any hope of changing the society or escaping it is usually extinguished by powerful totalitarian governmental forces. In Brown Girl in the Ring, there is no escape; the suburbs provide a safe haven from the crime- and drug-ridden Burn, but would offer little reprieve from the underlying economic conditions. But Hopkinson presents a vision for change.
Of course, Hopkinson, as a fiction writer, is able to invent some solutions real-life cities can't -- like literally injecting the perspective and voice of a member of the Burn into the Premier by transplanting Gros-Jeanne's heart into the Premier's body. In real America, we clearly can't expect this kind of supernatural transformation in our politicians.
But after undergoing this literally magical transformation, the Premier begins to address the underlying economic issues the Burn faces. Embracing a more empathetic approach, the Premier begins to learn about the Burn and directly invest in its people and the small businesses and systems that are already in place. Hopkinson's example suggests that input from those most affected by government policy may lead to real change on the ground.