Friday, September 7, 2012

Neither Man Nor Woman, but Fisherman


Much is revealed in the very first line of Nalo Hopkinson’s story “Fisherman”. “You work as what; a fisherman?” asks Mary Anne, the madame of an urban pleasure house. I’m fond of opening lines that carry weight, and Hopkinson’s certainly does. There is assessment in that line, and also the touch of surprise. Both attitudes continue through the tale. I had begun to worry that Beyond Binary would be limited to stories about men, and that while those men’s sexualities would cover a diverse spectrum, women would be expurgated. I’m glad that I was wrong. Hopkinson’s story was, I trust, the opening volley in a series of stories that will explore female sexualities as well as male. And, perhaps, in-between, too. Beyond Binary, after all, should try to leave binaries behind.

I found that “Fisherman” was most effective in how it gathered up the emotions, the sensations, the fears, and pleasures of K.J., its protagonist. I had a touch of difficulty on account of the language, for Hopkinson has chosen a colloquial, rhythmic tongue for her characters to speak with. Slang words, bits of shifted English, and dialects that I’m not familiar with abound, but as you dip, the syntax, the vocabulary grow clearer, less distracting, and provide an authenticity that I admire. Having recently read McWhorter’s work on the great diversity of the English language, I was pleased to see how effectively it could be deployed by an author.

The plot of “Fisherman” is straightforward. The story relies instead on the heat produced by its characters, by the intimate exploration of a first sexual experience. That story, of first times, never really gets old. The power of sex is in its consuming nature, in how it narrows the vision, directs the attention, and succeeds in making you forget (if only for moments) the world beyond the interaction. The setting of “Fisherman” is one where a person can still be innocent. K.J. has explored her own sexuality, and she has found it wrapped in her identity as a fisherman. In fact, I would argue that fisherman is K.J.’s identity in its entirety, both in what she does daily, how she views her pain, her pleasure, her sex, and her sexuality. That is why the character reacts so powerfully to Mary Anne’s exclamation of pleasure at a “mannish woman”. That isn’t who K.J. is. Such a phrase misinterprets the situation. It assumes that the categories at hand are woman or man - a binary; when, in fact, the category is fisherman. For K.J. is like her companions, Leone and Two-Tone. Their similarities are expressed even more when we learn that Leone, too, is beyond binary, participating in sexual behaviors that step beyond his proclaimed vision of the rights and wrongs of the world. This was the first story in Brit Mandelo’s book to really step beyond binary definitions, creating a world where sexuality is built from different keys than the cells of our biology. I much enjoyed it.