Race & Body Issues in Nalo Hopkinson's "The Chaos"
When I first picked up Nalo Hopkinson's The Chaos last summer, I thought, "Finally! A book with a young woman of color as the protagonist!" Of course, I've since learned that there are other dystopic novels with girls of color, but this hasn't ended my love for The Chaos even after a second (and third) reading.
The Chaos isn't actually set in a dystopia. It's more of a post-apocalyptic world in which Toronto transforms from its usual racist, misogynist, able-ist normalcy to utter chaos, complete with hoodie-wearing sasquatches, escalators that ask questions about quantum physics, and Baba Yaga and her flying house.
Sixteen-year-old main character Scotch is mixed race—the daughter of a white Jamaican and a black American. Unlike her brother Rich, Scotch is light-skinned and can be mistaken for anything-but-black. At an open mic night with Rich, she starts talking to a man in the bar. At first, he doesn't believe that Rich is her brother. When she convinces him, he responds, "You don't look like you're half-black. I mean, you could be almost anything at all. But you don't have to be black or white. You're, like, a child of the world!" He is baffled when Scotch takes offense and rejects him. "Yeah, that would be freaking cool, to have no people, no culture," she thinks as she rejoins her brother.
Skin tone isn't Scotch's only concern about her body: When Scotch's body began developing before other girls in her class, the girls labeled her a slut, continually harassing, attacking, and shaming her until she changed schools. Her family moved from Guelph, where Scotch and her brother had been among a handful of Black students, to Toronto. While her parents assure her that they know the harassment wasn't Scotch's fault, they push her to act and dress modestly, "so you don't present a target," as her mother says. Each morning, Scotch leaves the house in parent-approved clothes (slacks and a baggy sweater), then changes into the clothes she wants to wear (a tight white t-shirt, low-slung jeans, a form-fitting hoodie) at school. She also doesn't tell them about her boyfriend Tafari (a fact that he's unhappy about).
When The Chaos begins, Scotch is at her new school in Toronto worrying about another body issue: her skin is slowly being covered by a sticky black substance that won't come off. She breaks up with Tafari before he has a chance to notice her skin condition.
Then a giant bubble appears, Rich touches it and the Chaos happens. The world goes haywire as fantastic creatures and folkloric characters emerge to wreak havoc.
Grappling with her own body issues doesn't automatically make Scotch empathetic towards others' body issues. Scotch is both helped and schooled by Punum, a queer South Asian guitarist who uses crutches and a wheelchair. Scotch displays some of the same ignorant stereotyping about Punum that she experienced from the man in the bar. Watching the bartender flirt with Punum, Scotch thinks, "I'd never seen anyone come onto someone in a wheelchair before." She doesn't voice that thought, but there are times when she does voice some of her prejudices and is soundly (and justifiably) rebuked for it.
As in The Summer Prince (and in real life), sexuality in The Chaos is fluid. Scotch's best friend Ben is gay. At school, Scotch notes that her classmates Claudia, Simon, and Mark have a poly relationship with each other. The Chaos is set in the world today where diverse sexualities are not necessarily accepted without question (or prejudice) and Scotch's attitudes reflect that. Scotch is puzzled by Claudia, Simon, and Mark's relationship. Classmates taunt Ben for being gay and Scotch herself thinks (and sometimes even says aloud) homophobic statements. When criticized for these comments, Scotch often gets defensive rather than examining how her own beliefs might be hurtful or just plain old wrong.
Unlike some of the other novels examined in this blog series, the apocalyptic changes do not dissolve existing oppressions and injustices. From a coffee shop window, Scotch, Punum, and other diners see police surround and savagely beat a man in a wheelchair who was trying to cross the street. The other diners fall back on the victim-blaming we've seen all too frequently in cases of police abuse and violence. Scotch freezes. Punum is the only one who acts, confronting the police and forcing them to bring the man's wheelchair with them. Later, while helping Chaos survivors at the Convention Center, Scotch notes, "There were all these tweets online about mobs beating up anyone who acted funny, like they might be one of the monsters roaming around." She worries that Ben, as a young black man, might be targeted by mob violence.
I'm glad that Hopkinson's Chaos is filled with people of various shades, colors, abilities and sexualities. I think that younger readers will identify with Scotch, who has her flaws and isn't the perfect heroine on a quest. In The Chaos, Hopkinson doesn't magically eradicate racism, violence, and other deeply-ingrained societal oppressions simply because the world has been turned topsy-turvy. People react in many of the same ways that they've been conditioned to respond and, in Scotch's case and as Scotch does to others, need to be called on their behavior for them to begin to grow out of it. No matter how terrible the future might be painted, readers of color should still see themselves as surviving through the chaos rather than having been decimated by it.
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