Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love with Hominids is this year’s compilation of short stories. Our overarching theme is post-apocalypse and this collection seemed to fit in right from the very first story, though afterwards it opened up into general surreal and fiction story telling – a welcome shift for me, as Hopkinson’s writing style has practically everything I look for when reading short stories.
I decided early on to get this book on audible and listen to it as I did my crafting or pottered around the house – I had used audio books like this before, especially when working on a cross stitch, or other methodical, mechanical projects. I very quickly realised this was not going to be the case with Falling in Love with Hominids – Bahni Turpin, who reads the book, has an evocative, varied and rich voice and, in combination with Hopkinson’s polished writing style, engaged me in the stories too deeply to be able to do anything other than listen intently. Hopkinson’s approach to storytelling is exactly what I look for as a reader – she has clearly spent many hours observing people’s behaviour and reactions, and probably even longer introspecting on what she has seen and this shows clearly in her works. With few words she is able to express a deep and complex emotional state for each character, and I couldn’t help but feel close to them, drawn in into their plight.
As a reader, I naturally pause at an intense point in a story, especially when I am gripped by it. This gives me time to reflect on what is going on, but also to put some distance between myself and the events described on the page. With the audiobook I couldn’t do this easily at all – when the need arose for me to take a short breather, I had to scramble to find my phone, find the buttons to light up the screen and then pause it – and the clutch moment had either culminated or built up further than my poor overly engaged heart would find comfortable. Later on in the book I gave up on pausing and surrendered my reader’s right to breathe and learned to experience the stories as they unfolded in full – perhaps closer to how the author intended.
Another minor point is that I found the pauses between the different stories insufficient – perhaps because they were separate stories, rather than chapters in a book, and I wanted to take some time to appreciate each story on its own, but I found myself holding my phone ready to hit the pause button as the shorter stories ticked off so I could have the chance to reflect, laugh, and imagine things further after the story had ended.
None of this reflects negatively on Hopkinson or Turpin, if anything it gives them further credit for their mastery in writing and reading out respectively. It also says a fair bit of me as a listener, specifically, that I need to become better at it!
Falling in Love with Hominids is a bizarre mix of short stories which have no themes or characters in common, but that’s not to say there are no parallels that could be drawn between them or that they don’t belong. I would argue that the mixed bag of themes, but not of quality, is what makes this collection such a good read. There is an excellent variety of stories in terms of length – from 5 minute reads to an hour and a half, as well as themes – there are aliens, levitating elephants, terrifying mutations, ancient gods and dormant magical powers. Some stories are lighthearted and whimsical, some have a dash of the unreal tangled in with the mundane, and others delve deeper into dealing with trauma; but throughout all the main focus is on the characters’ experiences and emotions. And they are described simply and accurately, with no fluffing up, or padding of the story or the language, which I appreciate greatly, even more so in a short story where the medium necessitates brevity.
Another thing I appreciated was the diversity of characters in terms of age, race, body shape, religion, sexual orientation – Hopkinson has mostly achieved this through small, almost by the by comments, and this made me think how very little is needed to make characters in literature more diverse. In a few of the stories the main characters are teenagers at the stage of puberty, when bodies are changing, desires are budding, and lots of insecurities are encountered for the first time – do they like me, why am I not as skinny as her, what is my hair doing? Reading about a person who isn’t the box standard advert model can have a powerful impact on young adults, and Hopkinson gives a message of acceptance, self love and appreciation. Her characters have an inherent sense of dignity about them, which makes me want to get to know them better.
It is fair to say I enjoyed all of the stories, but a few definitely became favourites of mine, and I would quite like to find the time and listen to them again, to see (or rather hear) what other gems I can find in them now I know the main plot-line.
Left Foot, Right was probably the hardest story for me to listen to, but also the one I emphasised and enjoyed the most. I am still questioning if any of it occurred, or it was all of the main character’s tortured mind’s conjuring; this was a story of facing one’s fears, letting go and forgiving oneself, all mixed in with water spirits and shoe fit issues.
The Smile on the Face is one of the coming of age stories, which gently, but firmly reassured the need for body positivity, consent, self-respect and inner strength. I genuinely wish I had read a story like this one when I was growing up – both for the magical spirit in the tree and the bravery of the main character to accept she is as she is meant to be, regardless of what society classes as “flaws”.
Emily Breakfast is the third and final story I will mention. This was much more lighthearted whimsical, and made me laugh a fair bit. A world where domestic animals are more than they first seem – cats have small wings, lizards can be used as homing pigeons, and chickens are not to be trifled with!
As I am sure you can already tell, I am a huge fan of Falling in Love with Hominids. I loved the fast paced, brief style of the writing, and I would like to mention Bahni Turpin again for the amazing work she has done on giving each character a unique voice. I recommend both the audiobook and the prose on its own, if listening to books isn’t your thing. I think in the future the few stories, and perhaps a couple of others, will make me go back to them again, and when I do I will be quite happy to go through the whole collection, to experience Hopkinson’s witty imagination and her skill of bringing out the unseen thoughts and emotions of her characters.
This month, we ventured into the slightly different realm of whimsical sci-fi stories with a Afro-Caribbean folklore twist with Nalo Hopkinson’s Falling in Love with Hominids. I haven’t much had the opportunity to read anything infused with the spirit from that part of the world until now. Here is how my first meeting with the Afro-Caribbean world went.
The Power of Imagination and Language
Nalo Hopkinson breathes life into the products of her wild imagination through succinct, yet colourful descriptions. Her tales often include people from all walks of life, which honestly was a very nice and welcome surprise. Usually when one delves into traditions and folklore, one rarely expects diversity in representation.
As such, Hopkinson masterfully mixes old knowledge with modern social and existential issues. From surviving amongst pandemic-stricken neighbours to finding one’s own inner strength to fight against oppression and abuse to overcoming grief and personal loss, these stories have a lot of food for thought to offer.
Some of the tales hit closer to home, despite the fact I have nothing in common with the characters, except for certain anxieties. As Vel mentioned, The Smile on the Face brought back a lot of memories. One of these involve having big unruly hair, which I very much love to this day, but which didn’t fit the common ideal of what a groomed and proper hair looked like.
I did find the text difficult to understand at times, because a few of the characters frequently employ (I think) Caribbean vernacular to express themselves. Occasionally, I had myself rereading passages out loud in order to grasp the meaning of the sentences. This isn’t to say I had a bad reading experience, but I think Vel probably got more out of hearing the narrated version.
Having someone tell you a personal experience with all the particularities of one’s own life, speech, attitude and beliefs is incomparable. It adds another level of storytelling, which cannot often be translated through mere writing.
Hits and Misses
Much like with any other anthology, I liked some stories better than others. I will start with the misses, because it took me quite a bit to figure out why I couldn’t enjoy them to the fullest. The ones, which didn’t stand out to me were: Herbal, Men Sell Not Such in Any Town, Whose Upward Flight I Love and A Raggy Dog, A Shaggy Dog.
In the case of the first three, it was a matter of completion. They felt more like a glimpse or an idea of a story, rather than fully-developed tales. I loved how each of the stories had a short input from the author at the beginning, explaining not only the concept, but also the references included. Unfortunately, when it comes to the three entries, it felt like receiving a big pep talk before embarking on a great adventure, only to have it fizzle out by the finale as there didn’t seem to be a particular ending to any of them. I can understand open and closed endings, but the perfectionist in me can’t accept leaving things to hang in the air like this.
A Raggy Dog, A Shaggy Dog is possibly the only story, which had me thinking “what the actual f*** am I reading here?”. As much as I can relate to the struggles of geek dating, this story became very weird very suddenly. I didn’t really mind the quirkiness of the character. What bothered me was having strange things pile on top of other odd things for no other reason than weirdness itself.
My Personal Tops
I see that part of my favourites overlap with Vel’s, which makes me very happy. The one that sticks out the most has to be Old Habits. Although the story revolves around mall ghosts, who have to relive their death every day, the narrative is closer to real life than one would expect. If the tale could be summed in two quotes, I think these are the perfect ones:
Life haunts us, us ghosts.– Old Habits, Nalo Hopkinson
Maybe being a ghost is a disease.– Old Habits, Nalo Hopkinson
As Nalo Hopkins herself points out, it is strange to think of ghosts being the ones haunted. Especially, when all types of ghouls and phantoms are traditionally used to scare young and old alike. However, if you remove the ghost layer from the tale and think of the characters as living people, who are plagued by the humdrum of everyday life and have to relive each day in the same manner as the last, then you have real life. And as most people know, nothing is scarier than life itself.
Flying Lessons and Right Foot, Left were the most gut-wrenching to read. Child abuse, miscarriage, the loss of a blood relative are often taboo topics and are rarely discussed even amongst close friends, let alone a larger audience. Nalo Hopkinson gives a voice to all those, who have a hard time understanding, dealing and expressing grief.
Last, but not least, Emily Breakfast and Delicious Monster gave me a nice dose of feel-good giddiness. Both involve magical creatures, same-sex couples and true love. These stories provided a nice balance to the more emotionally-taxing entries in the anthology.
Overall, it was a nice anthology. I would recommend it to anyone who wanted to get into Nalo Hopkinson’s works. Even though I didn’t like all of the stories, there were gems, which are definitely worth it. Keep in mind you may need to pause in between stories and have a breather, so that you can get the most out of reading them.
Edition Published: 20 July 2015, First Published: 20 July 2015
Language book read in: English