BrownGirl in the Ring,written by Nalo Hopkinson, is set within a Caribbean-Canadiancommunity in Toronto, Canada and it is a reflection on the uniquenational and ethnic identities of the Caribbean diaspora. Thelanguage plays an important role in the story, since it serves as ameans to identify not only the various national distinctions withinthis Caribbean community, but also the relationship between theCaribbean community and the larger Canadian society.
However, throughHopkinson’s description of “serving the spirits”, the storydepicts a pan-Caribbean identity inside the Caribbean diasporaToronto. In this concept of “serving the spirits”, the authorgathers numerous African-derived religious traditions that are foundthroughout the Caribbean and combines them into one religiouspractice, creating a unique pan-Caribbean identity. Thestory is set in the decaying inner city of Toronto, after thecollapse of its economic base.
The city center is inhabited by theformerly poor and homeless and ruled by the drug lord Rudy. Theprotagonist is Ti-Jeanne, a young Caribbean-Canadian girl. She liveswith her grandmother, Mami Gros-Jeanne, who owns a business in herbalmedicine and is a faithful follower of the spirits. However,Ti-Jeanne does not believe in the effects of herbal medicine andthinks that her grandmother’s African-derived spirituality shouldplay no role in the lives of practical and sane people. Nevertheless,Ti-Jeanne finally has to face her spiritual heritage or risk her ownlife and the lives of her family. In the climatic scene in BrownGirl in the Ring,Ti-Jeanne manages to summon the Eshu Legbara , connecting the earthlyand the spiritual world and finally being able to end the evil whichis plaguing her city, starting the process of healing and recovery. TheCaribbean community in Toronto consists of several culturalidentities and some members of the community keep the identity oftheir nation of origin.
In Brown Girl in the Ring, severalcharacters are identified by their country of origin. Whennot explicitly depicted, the characters’ nation of origin isreflected by their language. Theauthor uses language in order to reveal this hybridized world of theCaribbean-Canadians. Throughout the book, characters often switchbetween language uses, according to the situation. For example, whileinteracting with white Canadian children, Mami Gros-Jeanne switches,from her typical creole, to a standard Canadian dialect(Hopkinson p.63).
There is a similar situation with Tony (Hopkinsonp.19). Tony seems to be proud for being able to speak Caribbeancreole, but he also knows how necessary the standard Canadian Englishis. Thereis a sharing and communication within the Caribbean community, whichforges a pan-Caribbean identity. This identity acknowledges thedifferences within the community while keeping a form of boundarybetween the Caribbean and the Canadian community. There is oneexample of the distinction between the Caribbean and the Canadianculture, when Ti-Jeanne talks about Tony’s fear of “obeah”(Hopkinson p.26). Even though Tony has a western/Canadianunderstanding of life, he still maintains a view of the obeahreligion, which he was taught as part of his Caribbean heritage.
Thispan-Caribbean identity is evident through the author’s use of theterm “obeah” to describe the spiritual beliefs of severalcharacters. Whilelanguage serves as a means to identify and distinguish thecharacters’ Caribbean and Caribbean-Canadian backgrounds, Hopkinson’sconcept of “serving the spirits” functions the opposite way. Byusing religious markers, rather than linguistic ones, the authorblends the various African-derived religions and establishes apan-Caribbean identity particular to the diaspora communities. MamiGros-Jeanne’s concept of “serving the spirits” depicts the factthat the members of the Caribbean communities do have shared Africanreligious traditions, which again share common themes. One importantexample for the pan-Caribbean roots of the elements of “serving thespirits” is the spirit Eshu (or Legbara). In BrownGirl in the Ring,Eshu is described as the master of the crossroads and the gatekeeperbetween the spiritual and the temporal world. As the master of theboundaries between life and death, Eshu’s presence connotes the needof negotiating the relationship between the living and theirancestors. Thestory’s antagonist Rudy has a great knowledge of the traditionalAfrican religions and uses it to summon Eshu, with the goal ofaccessing the type of power which allows him to manipulate the dead.
After being summoned by Rudy, Eshu teaches him how to animate thedead and turn them into wandering spirits; he teaches Rudy how tocreate a “duppy”, a spirit of a dead person whose powers can beused for good or evil deeds. After creating a duppy, each day one ofRudy’s enemies dies. Ti-Jeannealso has a connection to the spirits of the Caribbean African-derivedreligions. At the beginning of the story, she suffers from dreams ofhaunting spiritual creatures and visions of death. As she walks by agroup of drug dealers, she has a vision and sees their terriblelonely deaths (Hopkinson p.16-17).
She also has a vision of adevilish-looking figure while she is walking through the streets(Hopkinson p.18). Shedoes not know who or what the creature is. All she knows is that sheis being haunted by death visions and haunting creatures. That iswhy, after having another nightmare, she finally decides to consultMami Gros-Jeanne and asks her for advice. Ti-Jeanne describes herdream where she saw a “fireball whirl in through the window glass”(Hopkinson p.44).
The fireball transformsintoan “old woman, body twist-up and dry like a chew-up piece a sugarcane. She flesh red and wet and oozing all over, like she ain’t haveno skin.” (Hopkinson p.44). Itis later revealed that Ti-Jeanne’s patron spirit is actually Eshu(or Legbara), who moves around her in various manifestations ofhimself. On one occasion, Ti-Jeanne sees the Ghede (Hopkinsonp.80-81). Ti-Jeanne is terrified and dismisses her sight as a vision.
Later on, as Mami Gros-Jeanne performs a religious ritual, it isrevealed that Ti-Jeanne is being possessed by Eshu (Hopkinson p.94).The Prince of the Cemetery, or Eshu in one of his manifestations,communicates through Ti-Jeanne and tells Mami Gros-Jeanne thatTi-Jeanne is his daughter and argues that this is evident, due to hervisions of death.
Inthese and several other examples from Brown Girl in the Ring,Hopkinson manages to combine the different traditionalAfrican-derived religious beliefs into one pan-Caribbean religioussystem; the system of “serving the spirits”, which turns out tobe the greatest resource for the novel’s characters. By serving thespirits, Ti-Jeanne, Mami Gros-Jeanne and her followers try to live alife of respecting, helping and healing people. The several diversecommunities of Caribbean people from different islands come togetherin the decaying futuristic Toronto and share their religion andtriumph over evil.