The Easthound

by Nalo Hopkinson. Available at Published 2012, After: Dystopian and post-apocalyptic tales, ed. E. Datlow & T. Windling; and 2015, Falling in love with hominids.

Like ‘Mazes,’ ‘The Easthound’ doesn’t have the hallmarks of typical sci-fi: no science, tech, or space/time travel. But it fits our broader definition of sci-fi (adopted from PKD) in that it ‘dislocates’ us from our real world and delivers a ‘shock of dysrecognition.’ And crucially for our class, this story shocks us into an altered perspective on language.

The story opens with a group of kids sitting around a fire playing a word game. It seems like an ordinary scene from our own real world: kids bantering, bickering, passing a liquor bottle around; nothing is obviously off. But then we start getting clues. 

(This kind of structure is common to many of our readings – you’re thrown into a world in medias res and have to gradually piece together how it’s different from ours. We talked in class about the words and phrases that tipped us off: references to fears of growing (‘If you ate too much, you grew too quickly’), the passing reference to Millie’s ‘handless wrist’ (what?!) and her habit of sleeping outdoors in the warmer months, even, as Anna pointed out, the sentence ‘Everyone could see it’ at the very beginning of the story – all give the reader a growing sense that something is wrong in this world.)

Eventually it becomes clear that these kids are living in extreme and constant terror of something they call the Easthound. The big reveal comes about two-thirds of the way through the story. (ALERT: Stop here if you don’t want spoilers! Go read the story; it’s short!) Things are explained straightforwardly in a few paragraphs and then the action resumes, mounting quickly and precipitously until the end, which feels like leaping off a cliff. When you finish reading you immediately want to go back and reread, and doing so is immensely rewarding: you realize that Hopkinson’s narration all along was strewn with wordplay around wolves, moons and cycles.

What does this story have to do with language and linguistics?

The world has been destroyed; the human species is doomed. How does a kid explain a horror like this? How does anyone decide to go on living?

An answer ‘The Easthound’ offers is: with language.

Millie believes that she made the pandemic happen, by simply misreading the word eastbound as easthound on her dad’s phone. She thinks her utterance of the never-before-uttered word easthound worked like a curse and unleashed the disaster.

We can see how this might happen (as one of you said in class): a kid makes a silly mistake, gets teased and feels horribly embarrassed; then her mom comes home a monster and attacks everyone and both parents die and the whole world falls apart. Later the kid thinks, ‘Why did this happen?’ and her mind just remembers that bad stuff started happening as soon as she said easthound, and she confuses temporality with causality: instead of ‘I said easthound and then the world fell apart,’ it’s ‘I said easthound and so the world fell apart.’  

Is it ridiculous for a kid to believe such a thing? At first sight, yes. But we have to pause and remember all the things we adults take for granted that we do allow language to do in our world. 

With language, a worn-out piece of green paper can be seen as a $100 bill and traded for new shoes, a used bike or a nice meal for two. Language enables us to transfer property, get married, hold elections.1 If I say ‘I quit,’ people will expect me (and possibly force me) to stop coming to my office; if I say ‘Class is dismissed,’ everyone will get up and leave.

We learn to call these performative speech acts in intro linguistics. We read Austin’s first chapter of How to Do Things with Words. It’s a fun day of class. But we don’t often (at least I didn’t) spend enough time being surprised by the fundamental observation:

We can use language – just language – to change other people’s behavior.

If we stop taking this fact for granted, we can truly appreciate that we’re dealing with a shocking, extremely valuable but also extremely dangerous power, bordering on the occult. If Millie can make Citron (who usually doesn’t see her as an authority) leave the shelter against his will, just by saying ‘I claim leader,’ why shouldn’t she also believe that she started the pandemic just by saying ‘easthound’?

(To be clear: I believe there is a principled difference between the two cases, but I believe it’s more important for people to puzzle through the difference on their own–that’s how we get to experience this sense of dysrecognition.)

Which is worse: to blame yourself for the end of the world, or to believe that there is no explanation at all? The children in ‘The Easthound’ have decided to let things be meaningful. They super-charge language by establishing new language games, speech-act rituals, and linguistic taboos. And perhaps this is related to why Millie decides to make her last act meaningful, too, when it would have been so easy not to.

Our next story, ‘Solitude,’ takes the idea of language as magic and runs with it. And ‘Speech Sounds,’ which we’ll read later on, is also about a world-destroying pandemic, but the role of language plays out very differently in that story.

  1. I must cite Searle 2007 ‘What is language: some preliminary remarks’ here, since that paper got me to a deeper appreciation of money, marriage etc. as language-dependent institutions. Searle has since been found to have violated sexual harassment policies at Berkeley and has had his emeritus status revoked. ↩︎

4 thoughts on “The Easthound

  1. Anna Kofler

    Hello everyone! These are my collected notes, not particularly cleaned up, but I hope it is still helpful to remember some of our discussions from class.

    Nalo Hopkinson – “The Easthound” 2012
    Background to Hopkinson: born in 1960 in Jamaica, grew up in Guyana and Canada
    Literary family – mother library technician, father poet, actor, playwright
    Teaches writing at universities, today in California, also an artist who creates sculptures
    Won several awards as a sci-fi writer
    Experienced serious illness, anemia, which lead to a severe financial crisis and ultimately even her homelessness for 2 years where she had to find shelter with various friends and friends of friends

    The Easthound: Post-apocalyptic setting, pandemic turning people into zombies/werewolves?  coming off age, puberty & body transformation, being afraid of the future & growing up

    Discussion questions:
    • General remarks about the story – how did you like it & why? What feelings came up while reading the story? Where there any specific parts of the story that stuck with you? Do you know why?
    Importance of telling stories for humans (even for survival?)
    • What is the setting, how do we know about it? – US, dystopian image of the real world, TVs existed
    • Characters: sociolinguistic background  dialogue and narrative voice: “damned well”, “Uck the fuh is that easthound shit?”, children seem to be quite well educated, maybe some in the group more than others, do you think there is a class/social difference between the characters? What shows it?
    • What genre would you place Easthound in? Is it obvious for you or not? Why?
    “Speculative Fiction” –> often called a “super genre,” speculative fiction can encompass any narrative — from sci-fi and fantasy to superhero stories and fairy tales — that diverges from “mimetic fiction,” or true-to-life storytelling set in our world that doesn’t bend reality or break the laws of physics.

    Linguistic features:
    • Did you notice any interesting linguistic features of the story? Why do you think did Hopkins include these features in the story?
    loup-garou = werewolf (loup = wolf), creating a loop by using the song to start and end the story, the “loup” game; getting loupy,
    Framing of the story, creating a “loup” through the song “Black Betty” – folk song with a long history, adapted in many versions e.g. version by Ram Jam (1977) well known –> work song of slaves, refers to transportation taking prisoners to jail, whip used on slaves, bottle of whiskey (given as a wedding present)
    Everything comes around again – fresh leeks, spring tide, deep and wide
    Oral tradition and influence from Caribbean cultures  use of rhythm, repetition; language game at the beginning of the story

    the children are hiding in warrens (= KaninchenBau)

    using the word “to sprout” to describe the mutation process – interesting choice? Why? – to sprout – is usually something positive? a sprout is also a young person; description of the mutation: “…she could hear them, more keenly than she’d ever been able to hear. She could smell them. The easthound could track them. The downy starvation fuzz on Millie’s arm was already coarser. The pain in her handless wrist spiked. She looked at it. It was aching because the hand was starting to grow in again. There were tiny fingers on the end of it now. And she needed to eat so badly.”

    • How does Hopkins apply language to create the dystopian setting?
    Early hint that something is wrong in this world: “The coat had been getting tighter around him these past few months. Everyone could see it.” Explicitly stating that people are able to see something – draws attention to something that might go unnoticed otherwise/is considered normal, Grice’s Maxim of Manner –> only things relevant to a conversation are stated

    Use of neologisms and wordplay –> typical for speculative fiction, “The Easthound” also features neologisms or invented words –> the title: Easthound –> what is that?? contributes to the creation of its futuristic or otherworldly setting. Hopkinson might also employ wordplay and puns  loup, warrens, black betty? to add layers of meaning to the story.

    • How are dialogues used? What do they reveal about the relationships and dynamic between the characters? Are they realistic? Why / why not? In what sense (not)?
    J: “The easthound bays at night”
    M: “Easthound?” “Uck the fuh is that easthound shit?”
    J: “It’s my first line,” “You can play or not, no skin off my teeth.”
    C: “The game?” “We gonna play?”
    M: “I’m in.” “At night the easthound howls,” growled, “but only when there’s no moon.”
    C: “No moon is so bright as the easthound’s eyes when it spies a plump rat on a garbage heap.”
    Mi: “Garbage heaps high in the…cities of noonless night.”
    J: “You’re cheating. It was ‘garbage heap,’ not ‘garbage heaps.’”
    Mi: “Chuh.” dismissive motion with her good hand “You just don’t want to have to continue on with ‘noonless night.’” Smirking
    J: “And you’re just not very good at this game, are you, Millie?”
    M: “Twins, stop it,” told
    J: “I didn’t start it,” “Noonless night, a rat’s bright fright, and blood in the bite all delight the easthound.” Triumphant “Loup!”
    S: “Aw, jeez, Jolly! You didn’t have to end it so soon, just cause you’re mad at your sister! I was working on a great loup.”
    Mi: “Jolly’s only showing off!”
    M: “Nuh-uh-uh,” chided “You don’t get any treats until you start a new game.”

    Speech acts – when speaking you are always also actively doing –> the speech between the characters also creates/reproduces their social relationship; playing a game to escape reality; eastbound becoming easthound  creates a real pandemic?
    Politeness theory – save face, loose face, who has the power in the group and how is it enforced? What shows cooperation between the children?

    • Is there something that gives the story hope? – the children still look out for each other, they know there’s no hope for themselves, so they try to protect each other as long as possible, even when it means sacrificing oneself earlier

    1. Marjorie Pak PhD Post author

      Thanks so much for bringing in these thoughtful remarks and questions to guide our discussion.
      I really enjoyed the exercise you suggested of reading only the dialogue. The story still gets told, but very differently.
      Minor point: the Gricean maxim you refer to here is probably Relation (‘be relevant’) or Quantity-2 (‘provide only as much information as is required’), rather than Manner (which has more to do with packaging – conciseness, clarity, orderliness, etc.).
      Your biographical info about Hopkinson – particularly her work as a visual artist and sculptor – also got me thinking. The non-dialogue narration of the story includes so much detail about the physical world – you almost feel like you can reach out and grab some of the objects she describes.
      Sometimes in this class we read another story of Hopkinson’s called ‘Message in a Bottle,’ where the main character is an installation artist. It’s not on the syllabus this semester, but I’m happy to share copies of the story with anyone who wants to read it.
      Thanks again!

  2. Katheryn Prather

    Notes from Discussion 1/26/24:

    Initial impressions:
    – Zombies or werewolves?
    – Eerie setting with buildup to the reveal
    – Dialogue stoodd out –> especially oral storytelling and the link between stories and survival.
    – werewolves (& vampires) can hold associations/conotations of coming-to-age
    – the survivors are children, who still “don’t know how the world works”

    On the title:
    – Millie and Jolly invent their own words/understanding (siblings with their own understanding of language)
    – Speech Acts at play in the story (e.g. “I claim leader” and Millie’s belief that she caused the pandemic)
    – Full-circle moment: Jolly is the first to say “easthound” in the story and then becomes one (foreshadowing?)

    The World/Werewolves:
    – loup (French) = wolf
    – other references throughout to moons, wolves, and cycles
    – other wolf association: the rugaru (New Orleans) is a wolf-man that eats misbehaving children
    – centrality of moon/night –> 3 days = 2 sleeps
    – groups of children = warrens, wolfs hunt rabits

    Other discussion:
    – On the quote “Instinct often led Sprouteds to where the people they loved were.” What does it mean that it’s not just any people, but those they love? Mercy killings? Something else to the tragedy of the situation?
    – Loup-de-lou game and trying to break the loop/loup (related: Citron’s comment that the “tree will have to start over”)
    – “Sprouted” associated with growing. From “growth spurt”? Why connect to plants and not directly to people? A dehumanizing effect?
    – Places that the world came through for people: “Everyone could see it.” and “They didn’t talk about skin coming off, either.”
    – Relationships established via language, e.g. nicknames (Millie is the Younger One, Jolly Kidder)
    – talk about the meanings of meaning (how do we understand meaning?) and their relationships to language and with other meaningful things
    – Structure of the piece: dialogue as a root, with Millie’s commentary via narration to give further insight.

    1. Marjorie Pak PhD Post author

      Thank you, Katheryn!
      This was such a good discussion. Among other things, it got me thinking a lot about Millie’s emotional development over the course of the story, which I hadn’t really considered before.
      One thing I noticed in several people’s written comments was a version of the question: ‘Why would someone write a story like this?’ It’s a really good question and I’ll try to set aside a few minutes to talk about it next time.


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