“Doughnut holes”: Speculative Fiction, Myths of Dystopia and the Settler State of Exception

“‘How do you mean, ‘doughnut hole’?’ Ti-Jeanne had asked. ‘That’s what they call it when an inner city collapses and people run into the suburbs” (Brown Girl in the Ring 11).

brown girl

Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring is an award-winning, speculative fiction novel with a plot structured around the Teme-Augama First Nations land claims battle. The founding conceit of the story is a fictionalized extension of the on-going court battle between the Canadian state and the Teme-Augama of Northern Ontario.

In the novel–as opposed to IRL (in real life)–the First Nation is awarded massive restitution for the state’s illegal use of sovereign territory, which results in the collapse of Toronto’s economy and the “doughnut hole” referenced in the above epigram: a space within the state that is no longer protected or governed by the Laws of that state, what Giorgio Agamben calls “the state of exception.” Employing speculative fiction as a means to critique contemporary colonial politics, Hopkinson offers an evocative space to consider and challenge deeply entrenched settler colonial ideology, extending and emphasizing the fact of that ideology as it exists in Canada today.

Speculative Fiction

According to Robert Heinlein, who coined the term in 1947, speculative fiction broadens the study of science fiction, which emphasizes time and/or space travel and life on other planets, in the ways in which it redirects attention from what the genre is to what it does; that is how it extrapolates from known facts, building imagined worlds and outcomes from contemporary or present events and truths. Margaret Atwood has reiterated this position in defence of her speculative novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, insisting that “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Atwood writes that,

For me, speculative fiction means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books about submarines and balloon travel and such–things that really could happen, but just hadn’t happened when the author wrote the books. (In Other Worlds 6)

To Atwood’s definition, I would add that speculative fiction not only considers what will happen, or what is on the brink of happening, but what might happen, or what might have happened. In this sense, speculative fiction is the building of worlds that not only predict futures (as for instance, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which foresaw the World Wide Web) , but also imagine realities that split off from and parallel our own given a change in circumstance, timing, or decision making. Take, for instance, novels by noted science fiction authors Philip K. Dick, who’s The Man in the High Castle, imagines a world in which the Allies lose World War II. Or Gibson’s The Difference Engine, which explores a reality in which the computer is invented and mass produced during the Victorian era.

Hopkinson is vital contributor to this line of speculative fiction (as known as alternate history fiction), both for the depth and rigour of her imagined worlds and in how she disrupts the white, male perspective that the genre is (erroneously) attached to. Hopkinson is a Canadian, Afro-Jamaican woman currently residing in Riverside, California and her protagonists are strong, intelligent women of colour with deep connections to traditional Caribbean culture and language.

As Gregory K. Wolfe notes, Hopkinson “reminds us that most of the world does not speak contemporary American middle-class vernacular, . . . rais[ing] questions about the highly conventionalized way that SF has always treated language, [and] making us question the hegemony of American culture in SF worlds.” (Locus, February 2000, p.61). Brown Girl in the Ring is of particular interest in Canadian and Indigenous contexts because of the ways in which it (re)imagines a major event in Canadian/Indigenous political relationships, the Teme-Augama debates, paying particularly prescient attention towards issue of land. Whereas, despite protests and legal injunctions, the Canadian repressed Indigenous claims to traditional territory, Brown Girl imagines a world where the repressed returns, significantly altering the Canadian political, economic and social landscapes.

Teme-Augama Treaty Negotiations

Published in 1998, and written during the height of the Teme-Augama debates, Brown Girl in the Ring is a fictional extension of the actual negotiations over the n’Daki Menan (“Our Land”), traditional Teme-Augama Anishinaabe land located about four hours north of what is now known as Toronto. According to colonial bureaucrats, the Teme-Augama Anishinaabe (or “Deep Water People”) are signatories of the Robinson-Huron Treaty (1850), which in the legal sense of the term, extinguished their title thus providing the basis for nationalized resource extraction in the nʼDaki Menan.

Since 1920, the n’Daki Menan has been logged extensively for red and white pine, displacing hundreds of Teme-Augama people while providing a major source of revenue for the Ontario government. After a number of blockades, resulting in the arrest of Teme-Augama Second Chief Rita O’Sullivan, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that Teme-Augama signature on the Robinson-Huron Treaty was irrelevant (1991), as the First Nation adhered to it nonetheless. Thus the Crown had outstanding legal obligations to the Tema-Augama. In 1992, when less than 1% of original old pine growth remained, Ontario’s Minister of Natural Resources agreed to start formal treaty negotiations with the Deep Water People–who had at this time been seeking redress for the expropriation of this land for one-hundred and twenty-five years. 

Treaty processes ground to a rapid halt in 1995 when a provincial judge lifted a land caution, which allowed for and 75% of Teme-Augama land to again be opened to resource extraction. By 1996, Indigenous peoples and their allies (mainly environmental activists) were actively protesting incursion into traditional territory with blockades and other protests–including the destruction of a logging bridge near River Valley. Ontario entered into negotiations with the Temagami First Nation (TFN) and the Teme-Augama Anishnabai (TAA) in 2000. In 2002 the parties reached a tentative agreement, which included 127 square miles of land and $20 million in financial compensation. As of this writing (in September of 2014) that agreement remains to be ratified by the community.


By extending the political discourse of Teme-Augama land claims into dystopic fiction, Hopkinson projects and amplifies settler colonial anxieties over Indigenous land claims and the tenuous occupancy they reveal to colonialist “land owners”. According to M.H. Abrams, a dystopia is “a very unpleasant imaginary world in which ominous tendencies of our present social, political, and technological order are projected in some disastrous future culmination.” As dystopia, Brown Girl in the Ring is a realization of the repressed settler fear surrounding Indigenous sovereignty and the rightful claim to land, a “threat” which settler Canadians can no longer continue to ignore without serious, material repercussions for industry and the state–as, for instance, the Teme-Agama blockades demonstrate.

Brown Girl in the Ring

The dystopia in Brown Girl is predicated on a successful Teme-Augama land claim (an event that is still withholding in the real world) and the fallout from that precedent-setting decision. In the first pages of the book, Hopkinson presents her readers with a list of newspaper headlines that trace the contingency of Toronto’s economic collapse through a number of specific events–all leading back to the land claim. From start to finish, the list reads:











Hopkinson’s list is a causal chain linking Toronto’s economic collapse and transformation into a “war zone” to Indigenous peoples’ rightful claim to traditional lands. Gordon Collier (the only critic I am aware of to take note of this aspect of the novel) makes the connection explicit: “Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring is set in a Toronto of the future whose economic infrastructure, along with that of Ontario, has collapsed as a result of litigation by native peoples” (my emphasis).

What Collier fails to examine however, is precisely why Hopkinson, who is otherwise clearly aligned with Indigenous causes (Dillon), would choose to draw a line connecting Indigenous reparation and the collapse of Canada’s economic centre. Why are land claims attached to the collapse of the settler colonial nation state in this novel and what is Hopkinson suggesting by extending the Teme-Augama debates into this dystopic narrative?

I argue that Brown Girl in the Ring amplifies what Warren Cariou identifies as a “widespread and perhaps growing anxiety suffered by settlers regarding the legitimacy of their claims to belonging on what they call ‘their’ land.” Brown Girl in the Ring tacitly traces Canadian dystopia even further back than the newspaper headlines suggest–to the roots of settler colonialism and stolen Indigenous land.

While I forefront it here, the land claims issue is a seemingly minor part of Hopkinson’s novel. Following the initial trail of newspaper headlines, the Teme-Augama lawsuit appears to be of little importance in Brown Girl. Despite a few passing references by Ontario’s Premier to the exorbitant cost of the claim, the issue is never raised again. As Ti-Jeanne, the novel’s protagonist, points out, “all of that was old-time story” (12) and, as such, it remains a background component of the novel (perhaps explaining why the issue is so often left out of the majority of criticism on the book).

If the past is recalled at all by Hopkinson’s characters the focus is always on the riots, “the Riots changed everything” (14), not the call for reparations which is loudly asserted as the beginning in the nation’s official record. As such, the settler colonial implications of the dystopia are effectively written out of the novel, amplifying a contemporary politics that is built on the fiction of terra nullius. In Brown Girl, the narrative of anarchism, which the denizens of ‘Toronto now revel in, is built upon an elided history of Indigenous labour and land, echoing the founding colonial myth of “discovery,” albeit it here from a radical leftist perspective, which identifies redress as the ruin of the capitalist nation state.

This is not to suggest that Hopkinson is participating in settler colonialism. Rather, Hopkinson’s setup in Brown Girl illustrates the ways Indigenous land and land claims are the sine qua non of the settler colonial narrative–without distinction between right or left. Indigenous culture and politics bookend Brown Girl and set the context through which the entirety of the story must be read–even as those issue are pushed to the background.

While they are technically absent subsequent to the newspaper headlines, Indigeneity is re-introduced into the narrative in the novel’s final scenes when the lone Indigenous character, “Frank Greyeyes,” stands up “and present[s] his pipe to the four directions, redolent with burning tobacco” (245).

The re-appearance of the Indigenous figure in the closing moments of the novel reminds the reader that the entirety of Brown Girl must be read through the Indigenous perspectives (as suggested by the use of “eyes” in the character’s name) that founds and closes it. In this sense Indigenous presence and perspective is intrinsic to the novel’s composition. The reader must interpret these events through the events that provokes them, or be misinformed entirely. However, to take Indigenous actions as the source of the dystopic reality–as Collier does–is to badly misinterpret the novel’s political orientation and to contribute to the erasure of colonial violence.

What Hopkinson illustrates in Brown Girl are the ways in which the “official” narrative works to absorb land claims issues into a political agenda aimed at bolstering the authority of the State. Since settler society is based on privileges accrued through the denial of rights to Indigenous society, when that social order is challenged the reaction is bound to be chaos and the imposition of a police state. 

Rather than fore-fronting Canada’s (failed) responsibility to the Temagami as the founding problem behind Toronto’s collapse, the newspaper headlines trace a chain of causality that legitimizes the use of martial law and strips all citizens of Toronto of their rights as citizens. Inasmuch as the disenfranchised community affirms that it was “the Riots [that] changed everything” the State is able to retroactively establish its position as reactionary rather than causal, legitimizing its authority and (re)establishing its own necessity.

The State of Exception

What Brown Girl indicates is the way in which legitimate claims for land restitution, operating in tandem with settler colonial anxiety, are absorbed into the State narrative as a stanchion for deregulated State control. In this sense, Indigenous land becomes the basis what Giorgio Agamben (borrowing from Carl Schmidtt) calls the  state of exception, “the very condition of possibility of juridical rule and, along with it, the very meaning of State authority” (17).

According to Agamben, sovereign power is performative, which is to say that it generates and maintains its authority (tautologically) through demonstrations of that authority. In order to do so, the sovereign not only creates it also suspends and breaks Law. In stepping outside of Law, into the state of exception, the sovereign negatively affirms its validity in a gesture that Agamben compares to the logic of negative theology:

The exception is to positive law what negative theology is to positive theology. While the latter affirms and predicates determinate qualities of God, negative (or mystical) theology, with its ‘neither… nor…,’ negates and suspends the attribution to God of any predicate whatsoever… Only because it has been negatively presupposed as what subsists outside any possible predicate can divinity become the subject of a predication. Analogously, only because its validity is suspended in the state of exception can positive law define the normal case as the realm of its own validity. (17)


Agamben’s point here is, for the most part, an elucidation of Carl Scmidtt’s work. What he brings specifically to the discussion, however, are the material stakes of the state of exception: not just how this idea functions in the terms of metaphysics, but how it is connected specifically to land. According to Agamben, Schmidtt illustrates how the link between the sovereign and its authority as such “the sovereign always implies a zone that is excluded from law and that takes the shape of a ‘free and juridically empty space’ in which the sovereign power no longer knows the limits fixed by the [sovereign] as the territorial order” (36).

Critical Indigenous studies scholars should recognize the “fee and juridically empty space,” as a differently coded iteration of terra nullius–which, of course, is not an empty space, but a space that has been named as empty in order erase Indigenous Law in order to implement “civilization”.

Indeed, as Agamben argues, “In the classical epoch of the ius publicum Europaeum, this zone  corresponded to the New World, which was identified… ‘as a ‘temporary and spatial sphere in which every law is suspended’” (36-7). Indigenous land then, as terra nullius or state of exception, becomes the physical space against which the sovereign constitutes its power as such and homo sacer, the denizen of terra nullius becomes a type of energy cell–the fuel to perpetuate the machinery of sovereignty.

Agamben’s most startling claim then, is that while it would logically follow that the state of exception (as physical space) is receding, the logic of the sovereign demands continued expansion. In this conception, “political organization is not regressing toward outdated forms; rather, premonitory events are, like bloody masses, announcing the new nomos of the earth, which (if its grounding principle is not called into question) will soon extend itself over the entire planet” (38).

“Doughnut Holes”

In Brown Girl, the State’s reliance on the state of exception is signaled in the State’s use of Indigenous redress as a means generate a land base in which the sovereign can  manifest and exert its authority as such. The Canadian state becomes Law–is able to levy absolute control of its citizenry–by declaring a part of itself outside of law, as exception. Hopkinson writes,

Toronto city core is the hub… Now Imagine the hub of… as being rusted through and through. When Toronto’s economic base collapsed, investors, commerce, and central government withdrew into the suburb cities, leaving the rotten core to decay.  (4)

Elsewhere, the protagonist refers to Toronto as a “doughnut hole” (10), the space of lack that constitutes the thing as such. Toronto, as state of exception, thus becomes a means to fuel the nation state, as “citizens” within that space literally become an energy source, or “biomaterial” (Hopkinson 153). The state as feeding from the state of exception is made most obvious in the Ontario Premier’s search for a human heart, which she needs for a transplant. Crossing into what was once Toronto, the Premier’s private police force kills and steals a heart from a Jamaican-Canadian woman who, because of both race and class, continues to live in a dangerous, lawless territory.

The government workers steal her heart from her body and transport it back into the State proper, eventually transplanting it into the Premier’s body–illustrating the excised community’s function as homo sacer, or bare life: denizen of the state of exception. The transplant functions as an metonymic allegory for the State’s ability to integrate the ardour of a disgruntled citizenry with its own agenda, not only stealing that vitality, but actually thriving off of it.

Canadian Political Reparations

Read from this perspective, Brown Girl is a rather startling critique of Indigenous land claims in Canada, given how it seems to affirm settler colonial anxiety. However, I also want to suggest that the critique of Indigenous land claims that Hopkinson offers here provides a new way to approach the arguments against redress and restitution offered by conservative critics like Jeffrey Simpson, who base their arguments on a certain anxiety about the dissimulating effects of reparation for the nation state, a sentiment which, in Canada, has most famously been traced to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau:

Study the past, Mr. Trudeau argued, but in a country as diverse as Canada, with so many entrenched beliefs of particularistic grievances, no government should be apologizing, because the apologies would never stop. We can only be just in our time, Mr. Trudeau declared.

How right he was. Once started, the victim industry gained new adherents. Groups never stopped pressing governments for formal recognition of past wrongs. Their demands varied. Some wanted just formal recognition; others an official apology. Some wanted money for individuals or their descendants; others preferred funds for institutes, plaques and educational programs.

What each sought was an official legitimacy for their historic grievance. None, of course, looked beyond their own group. None worried about precedent. They focused understandably and insistently only on their own cause.

While there are a number of offensive generalizations in this argument, what critiques such as Simpson’s disavow is the basic principle of gift economy behind all reparations movements. While, for him, it appears that reparations come at the expense of the taxpayer, in reality, as I illustrate elsewhere, successful redress gives as much as, if not more than, it takes. The Canadian state is not going to collapse into an economic wasteland simply because it gave land or money to a historically wronged group. However, as Hopkinson illustrate, redress can retroactively be labelled as the cause for economic collapse in order to serve the purposes of the government.

However, by focusing solely on the immediate economic value of reparation, the gift of redress becomes yet another way to maintain the status quo and preserve control over resources. Indeed, as the end of Hopkinson’s novel demonstrates, in emphasizing financial growth (the Prime Minister’s “change of heart” is directed towards rejuvenating Toronto’s financial district) more important debates on hospitality, compassion and clemency, which would speak to the root of the problem, are never considered in detail because economics play such a large role in determining the direction of reconciliation. As such, any “revitalization” of culture, or the restoration of agency to previously ignored subjects, such as that which Brown Girl ends with, is contingent on the benevolence of the State.

According to Rey Chow, totalitarianism is a passive aggressive ideology. A type of governing that takes its authority not from the display of power, but from benevolent gestures that mask power:

Typical of totalitarian rule’s self-representation and self-legitimization is a kind of language, verbal or visual, which proclaims/presents a notable, respectable idea/image of ‘the people.’ The point of this kind of language is to seduce—to divert attention away from the ruler’s violence and aggressivity at the same time that sympathy/empathy with the good idea/image is aroused.

As speculative fiction, Brown Girl in the Ring is a fictional extension of the ways in which the Canadian government can levy redress and reconciliation (roundly considered to be inherent goods) as a means to feed the authority of the settler colonial state and its performance of regret. Given that it was written over a decade previous to Stephen Harper’s “String of Apologies”) it’s a prescient tale, and one we should be vigilant against.

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