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Skin Folk
by Nalo Hopkinson

Skin Folk
  • Publisher: Warner Books, 2001

Reviewed by Olga Simonovich

A Compilation of Jamaican Folklore

Throughout the Caribbean, under different names, you'll find stories about people who aren't what they seem. Skin gives these skin folk their human shape. When the skin comes off, their true selves emerge.

In a collection of short stories named Skin Folk, Nalo Hopkinson provides the reader with a variety of folklores and fairytale-like stories with supernatural and futuristic approaches. Though this book is an easy read, I caution those who cannot, or choose not to, handle dime store romance novels to pass through several of the stories due to their very graphic sexual details. I could categorize the fifteen stories into three main categories, though many may overlap: coming of age, sexual explicit, and the supernatural.

In "Precious," the main character has been "[blessed] in return for a kind word," with the ability to rain jewels and coins from her mouth every time she used her vocal cords [249]. Her father had constantly instructed Precious that she must handle cruelty and adversity with "soft answer[s]" especially that of her stepmother. When Precious went to the mall and an elderly woman asked for a drink of water, she provided her with it and in return was "blessed". The dashing Jude rescued Precious from the abrasive attitude of her stepmother. At first Jude was a loving husband, but the more Precious and he lived together, the greedier he became, until one night in a rage Jude struck Precious and "out pop sapphires" [250]. This episode only promoted his greed, until one day Precious decided to run away. After some time Jude found her, but by then she had had enough and as she poured out her anger verbally, the pile of jewels around Jude grew to such a capacity that he was buried by them - it was then that her "blessing" withdrew it self. [254]

I enjoyed this story because many women are told to use soft replies notwithstanding what is being dealt in their direction. The fact that Precious was able to overcome her fear of not pleasing people, and was assertive enough to voice her beliefs - signifies that regardless of how our words, and actions, make others feel, the most important truth is one that liberates the individual from dependence on others' perceptions of them. Other Skin Folk stories I would classify within the same realm as this one would be: "Money tree," "Something to hitch meat to," and "The lilies-them a-blow. " They are all stories that show the main characters' passage to self-awareness and improvement.

In Skin Folk, there are several stories that are rather sexually explicit. They graphically describe the physical intimacies between the characters. In "Fisherman" the reader is introduced to K. C. , a fisherman, who is experiencing a brothel for the first time. With time it is revealed that K. C. is a woman who has had to struggle repeatedly to prove herself worthy enough for the fisherman profession. She had never been in a relationship, and was curious as to what occurred in the brothels, which the other fisherman frequented after each pay period. One day she overcomes her fears, and decides to give it a try. The details that transcribed what occurred between K. C and Mary Ann, one of the brothel's most expensive ladies, are extremely uninhibited - not much is left to the imagination of the reader.

This story could imply that the "typical" sexual relationship, that which is the standard norm within society, is not one that can fulfill everyone's needs. It also questions who has the right to define what is "standard" and acceptable. This is something contemporary society is struggling to define. Reading about K. C's turmoil leads one to question their definition of "acceptable," right and wrong behavior. Other sexually explicit stories are "The glass bottle trick" and "Ganger (ball lightning)".

In "The glass bottle trick", the reader is introduced to Beatrice, a beautiful and intelligent light brown skinned woman. She meets Samuel at a bookstore [85]. He is older, twice widowed, and incredibly in love with her. At first Beatrice is not interested because Samuel prefers "country drives" to going out and partying, but his steadfastness wins her over [86]. One day as Beatrice, who is four months pregnant, sits outside the house and plans a special dinner - over which she intends to inform Samuel that he is to be a father - she spots a snake going for a birds' nest. As Beatrice attempts to remove the snake from the tree, she knocks over the two blue vases that had been placed by Samuel in the tree. [88] He claimed that it was his superstitious nature - when someone died "you must put a bottle in a tree to hold their spirit, otherwise it will come back É and haunt you;" it must be a blue bottle, which will cool the "hot anger [of the spirit] for being dead" [86]. Two dust formations strike the third bedroom - which Samuel had asked Beatrice to never go into, strictly because he asked, not because she didn't have the right - and turned into powder [88]. Beatrice then enters the house to start dinner. She notices that the temperature in the house is rising, and knowing that Samuel prefers the house cold, she unlocks the third bedroom, which contains the controller, and is horrified at what is before her.

This story is captivating because it divulges that appearances can be dreadfully unreliable. It also alludes to the fact that if your instincts are signally "warning", you should take heed. Others with supernatural inclinations are: "Riding the red," "Snake," "Under glass," "Slow cold chick," "Tan-tan and dry bone," "Greedy Choke Puppy," and "Whose upward flight I love. " Each story is unique, with fascinating imagery making each fast paced and easy to follow.

In "A Habit of waste," Samantha, who lives in Canada, uses the public transportation one day and is shocked to see her former body getting on the bus. Samantha had saved for five years to be able to afford a beautiful "lithe. . . boyish beauty" figure [184]. When she spots her former body, she is at first glad she no longer is that heavy black woman with "natural" hair, and a "high, round bottom", and yet the person who is encased in that body exudes sexiness and confidence - attributes Samantha never had. At the food bank where Samantha works, the reader is introduced to Old Man Morris. A few days later, when Samantha goes to deliver his rations of canned tuna fish and canned beans, she is surprised as what she discovers regarding Old Man Morris. After his wife's death, and once he got over his depression, he noticed that though the nation was in depression itself, the animals were still thriving, and though the food bank was able to provided him with food, it was not as appetizing as the kind his wife had conjured up. He then looked around and was able to procure food with variety. The story then tracts Samantha's interactions with her parents, and how she changes from watching what she ate, and not appreciating life to the fullest, to being able to drink homemade cocoa at home and enjoying her surroundings.

This story in particular was intriguing because we all wonder, "what if I was taller, shorter, skinner, fuller, etc. " What if we were able to get what we wanted? Would we be happy? Would we do anything to attain our ideal state of perfection, and what if it was a simple as going to the doctor and ordering exactly how you wanted to look? Once we attain that "perfection," are we going to be happy? These are all questions that Hopkinson attributes to Samantha, who in fact does change to a person who is able to look past the surface, and see possibilities in all things and in a variety of situations.

Theses stories are not simply entertaining, but they all contain the essence of human nature. Though they may seem foreign because of their local and their plot lines, they contain timeless fundamental truths. Skin Folk is defiantly not a "typical" montage of short stories, it is one that will make the reader think, hate, love, and most of all, feel something - which in turn makes it worth reading.