Nalo Hopkinson is one of the brightest new stars in the world of speculative fiction. Her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, won the Aspect First Novel contest in 1997. Her second novel, Midnight Robber, has been nominated for this year's Hugo, was a finalist for the Nebula Award, and was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year in 2000; it is also on the short list for this year's Tiptree Award, as well as the Canadian Sunburst Award.
One of Hopkinson's great strengths is her masterful and unique use of language. Readers will enjoy listening to the rhythm behind the music of her words as she reads in her melodic Caribbean accent. Indeed, language is the first thing one notices upon opening a Nalo Hopkinson book, but the surprises don't end there. The combination of language and strong storytelling makes Hopkinson's work compelling.
One of Hopkinson's talents is using speculative elements to explore human relationships, especially the delicate relationships between family members. Hopkinson does not shy away from telling hard truths, and her books explore both the tenderness and the difficulties of family life. There is a kind of duality in these relationships that she examines close up; we see, in her work, how the power that parents have over their children can be both extremely comforting and undeniably terrifying. Her books feature protagonists who are initially young and helpless; through the tough realities of their interactions with their parents, they begin to learn the more about themselves, and discover aspects of themselves that would have remained hidden had their relationships with their parents been entirely unproblematic.
Midnight Robber is the most disturbing example of Hopkinson's use of the duality of parent-child interactions. The novel opens with the protagonist, Tan-Tan, living a cushy life as the daughter of the Mayor of Cockpit County on the planet Toussaint. Her only problem is the neglect she suffers from her biological parents, who brought her into the world as another pawn in their heated, passionate marriage. Tan-Tan develops a fascination with a Carnival figure, the Midnight Robber; during Carnival, the Robber stops people in the streets and tells them a fantastic tale in exchange for coins. The Midnight Robber is known for being good with words, good at coming up with outrageous, fascinating stories on a moment's notice; this kind of freedom of speech, of demanding attention, of being confident enough to know oneself worthy of such attention, is the perfect complement to quiet, almost invisible Tan-Tan. Already we see a duality in her personality.
Tan-Tan is not entirely neglected, despite her parents' preoccupation with their own lives. Tan-Tan is cared for by a human nurse as well as the house computer (called an "eshu"). Indeed, the entire planet is kept peaceful by a pervasive watchdog computer called "Granny Nanny." Every citizen on Toussaint is implanted with an "earbug" nanotech device when they are born, which allows them instant communication to their house eshu, and to Granny Nanny. Granny Nanny is almost inescapable, preventing premeditated crime and generally regulating human interaction on Toussaint. Unlike other works that use this kind of "Big Brother" element, here Granny Nanny is benevolent, only interfering when she judges someone's well-being is in danger. She is the ultimate judge, the balance to all that is wrong in Tan-Tan's life. Unlike Tan-Tan's parents, Granny Nanny, through her house eshu, has only Tan-Tan's best interests at heart.
When Tan-Tan is seven years old, her father, Antonio, is forced to confront his wife's adultery; he manages to go behind Granny Nanny's back by befriending a group of people that use "headblind" houses, houses that have no eshu, into which Granny Nanny cannot see. Here he obtains a poison that kills his cuckold, sending Antonio to jail and, ultimately, to exile.
The exile is the planet Toussaint in another dimension, a place called New Half-Way Tree. The journey is one-way; there is no communication between the two worlds, and no way to return to Toussaint from New Half-Way Tree. New Half-Way Tree is a rough place, with no Granny Nanny -- indeed, no advanced technology at all. It is the negative image of peaceful Toussaint, where the bad are sent to be away from the good.
When Tan-Tan realizes her father is going to be taken to jail, she hides away in the trunk of the car carrying him off, afraid of being separated from her Daddy and desperate for his love and attention. By the time she's discovered, it's too late to return her home, and she has to stay in the jail cell with her father until her mother can pick her up the next day. However, Antonio discovers a way of escaping into exile before Granny Nanny can pronounce judgement upon him, (perhaps deciding upon life imprisonment instead of exile), and he selfishly takes his beloved Tan-Tan with him. Together, they climb the Half-Way Tree.
In the wilds of New Half-Way Tree, Tan-Tan comes to realize where her true comforts came from back on Toussaint. Her relationship with her father is suddenly much closer, much more constant, than it had ever been, and it becomes increasingly clear that her father cannot take care of her properly on the hard, backbreaking prison planet they've come to. Tan-Tan finds herself longing for home, and almost immediately misses her house eshu as much as she misses her own mother. Ironically, her earbug device becomes horribly infected, because children were not meant to cross the dimensional veil. The object that used to keep her safe now almost kills her.
The child is exiled with her father, and yet she misses the comforts of home, and those who truly took care of her there. She still clings to her father, surrounded as she is by unfamiliar things, but she is not the only one missing familiar things.
The book takes a disturbing turn when her father begins to note her resemblance to her mother, and gives her his wedding ring to wear on a string around her neck. This gift initiates a horrible mockery of a wedding night, as Antonio takes the resemblance too much to heart, and rapes his daughter on the night of her 9th birthday. What had been the comfort of having her father near is negated by Antonio's abuse of his power over his daughter.
As Tan-Tan's role for her father splits in two -- she is now both daughter and, although he has remarried, in some senses his wife -- her own personality copes with the situation by splitting as well:
Daddy's hands were hurting, even though his mouth smiled at her like the old Daddy, the one from before the shift tower took them. Daddy was two daddies. She felt her own self split in two to try to understand, to accommodate them both.
Tan-Tan becomes both "good Tan-Tan," who does as she's told and loves her Daddy, and "bad Tan-Tan," the Robber Queen who makes "strong men quiver in their boots when she pass by," whom no one can hurt.
Just before her sixteenth birthday, Antonio makes the mistake of raping her one last time. He had stopped, more or less, after she had to have an abortion when she was fourteen, but in a drunken rage he attacks her the night before her sweet sixteen birthday party. This time Tan-Tan is armed with a birthday present, a long, sharp hunting knife. When she feels it digging into her side during the rape, bad Tan-Tan takes over:
It must have been the Robber Queen, the outlaw woman, who quick like a snake got the knife braced at her breastbone just as Antonio slammed his heavy body right onto the blade.
The town Tan-Tan is living in has vigilante justice, and self-defense is not considered a mitigating circumstance. Tan-Tan is saved from hanging by a douen (an indigenous sentient species) named Chichibud, who had befriended her the first night after she had arrived on New Half-Way Tree. They escape on the back of his packbird, Benta, narrowly escaping the posse and hunting dogs chasing her, who are bent on carrying out their "eye for an eye" justice on Tan-Tan.
For the second time in Tan-Tan's life, she has been torn from her home, and again because of her father's behavior. This time, however, Tan-Tan is not leaving her home passively, although her flight is not what she'd intended; she had been planning on escaping her father by running away to another town called Sweet Pone with her friend and partner, a man called Melonhead.
Chichibud and Benta bring Tan-Tan to the home of the douens, a huge tree called a "Papa Bois," a daddy tree that provides food and shelter for the douens. The daddy tree is a direct contrast to Antonio, as it provides shelter and without asking anything in return. However, because Tan-Tan is the first human ever allowed into the daddy tree, the rest of the douens are unhappy that their home has been violated by the "tallpeople."
Tan-Tan must pass a test to prove her willingness to keep their secret. She is thrown a live tree-frog and is expected to eat it. She does so, with Chichibud's help, but the whole experience is humiliating in an unpleasantly familiar way to Tan-Tan, as it reminds her of things her father had forced her to do. Good Tan-Tan does what she must to survive, but it makes her suspicious, unhappy, and very lonely.
While living with the douens, Tan-Tan has to relearn family ways, to allow herself to be cared for in a way that does not hurt her in return. It has been at least 9 years since she had the overarching parental figure of Granny Nanny to depend on, and it's hard for Tan-Tan to accept that kind of care again. She is grateful for the sanctuary, but distrustful of good intentions.
Unfortunately, this first experience with true family love is with a family that is quite alien to her. She learns that the so-called packbirds are in fact female douens (called hinte), and she has to learn to see them as adults instead of beasts of burden. Although all young douens can fly, only the hinte can fly as adults, and male douens must partner with them if they wish to fly again. This kind of interpersonal dependence is almost alien to Tan-Tan, who has spent most of her life listening to her human parents (and parent figures) fight.
The douen family structure of mother, father, and offspring, is unfamiliar to Tan-Tan because of the females' powerful role in douen society; they are bigger than the males, and they are the ones who protect the nest. When visiting human settlements the women mask their true strength by posing as pack-birds, perhaps so they will not threaten the security of the human male role. The douen males are much smaller than humans and are treated as inferiors, almost slaves; a hinte's size alone would make her a threat to a human man, if the humans realized they were sentient as well.
Ultimately, Tan-Tan is too human, and possibly too old, at sixteen, to properly adapt to douen ways. The ways in which she doesn't fit into her new home are, at first, not her own fault: for example, her urine kills the maggots that recycle douen excrement, and special arrangements must be made for her to be flown down to the forest floor every time she needs to urinate. Douen food mainly consists of maggots and centipede-like insects, and after her first meal of plain salad, Tan-Tan views her sanctuary as more of a punishment.
Her inner voice, that of mocking Bad Tan-Tan, continually rides her for her faults, taking all her discomfort as just punishment for killing her father. Tan-Tan is frustrated by her dependence upon the douen, and tries to make herself less of a nuisance, despite Chichibud's reassurances:
"I can't eat the way allyou does eat, I can't move about the daddy tree the way allyou does do it, I can't even take a piss without it causing somebody some botheration!"
Chichibud said, "We don't mind. You is guest. You need to give your body and your mind time to heal after what Antonio do to you."
No, not that. Talk about something else. "But none of the other douen want me here."
Tan-Tan struggles for some control over her life, something she's never had before. Her attempts at self-sufficiency in an alien society bring out her stubborn side. As she attempts her first solo climb down the daddy tree, she is infuriated by the stares and taunts from the douen and hinte who come out to watch her. One douen even confirms her worst fears, by telling her she has brought misfortune upon their heads by being there. Finally, the Robber Queen rises within her, and Tan-Tan gives a speech:
"Morning, sir, morning, ma'am, howdy lizard pickney. Ooonuh keeping well this fine hot day? The maggots growing good in the shit? Eh? It have plenty lizards climbing in your food? Good. I glad."
It is this self-sufficiency that eventually causes Tan-Tan to bring misfortune down upon the douen. She is sent to live on the forest floor with Abitefa, the daughter of Chichibud and Benta, who will soon be coming into her own womanhood. Abitefa is resentful at first of Tan-Tan's accompaniment, but accedes to her parent's wishes. The two become friends, living together on the forest floor, sharing girlish adolescent camaraderie. But Tan-Tan is hungry for her own people, and as soon as she discovers a nearby human settlement she begins to sneak into it. At first she thinks she just wants to see "tallpeople going about their business," but she soon finds herself stepping in as the Robber Queen and defending the poor, downtrodden people in the towns. These good deeds quiet the "Bad Tan-Tan" voice inside her that is always dragging her down, confirming her uselessness. Tan-Tan becomes addicted to this freedom from her personal demons.
During one of these exploits as the Robber Queen, Tan-Tan saves a young man from a brutal beating by his mother. Tan-Tan grabs the lash and begins lashing the woman, asking her how she likes the beating she'd been giving her son. When the son steps in and tries to save his mother, Tan-Tan is bewildered:
How could he stand to touch that woman? How could he love her when she hurt him like that?
Her bewilderment gives us a glimpse into the hurt done to Tan-Tan by her father. She still loved him so much that when he hurt her she had to split her personality to deal with it, yet she cannot recognize this phenomenon in others. Tan-Tan does not stop to self-examine, but attempts direct intervention instead: she tells the woman not to hurt her son anymore, claiming that she, Tan-Tan the Robber Queen, would know if she did and come punish her for it.
Tan-Tan is soon plagued by another, more tangible memory of her father: she discovers she is pregnant from his final rape. (This situation is reminiscent of Octavia Butler's work, particuarly the Patternmaster series.) Unable to find a settlement with a doctor to help her abort the baby, she is forced to learn to live in the bush with an unborn child dragging her down, both physically and emotionally:
Is the baby, the monster baby that was round and hard now like potato in her belly. . . . Resentfully Tan-Tan dug her fingers into her stomach. The defiant thing inhabiting her didn't yield. Her head pounded with anger. She could only drink what it let her, eat what it permitted.
Tan-Tan finds herself subject to someone else's needs once again, but this time it is something literally internal, something she cannot rid herself of. Her need to be her own person, to follow her own rules, has become such a necessity to her that she continues to ignore the douens' request that she not go into human settlements. And indeed it is not long until Janisette, Antonio's wife at the time of his death, comes seeking vengeance on Tan-Tan at the settlement where she's been playing Robber Queen.
Tan-Tan escapes, but Janisette easily follows her trail into the bush, and the daddy tree is no longer a secret to humans. It is a painful decision, but the douen have little choice but to destroy their home and move to other daddy trees farther away. Tan-Tan has to sit by, the guilt of what she's done weighing her down as she watches the home of the people who had saved her destroyed by their own hands.
Tan-Tan has lost her home for the third time, and a father figure for the second. In her need for independence, for the freedom from the ghost of her father she only obtains by taking on the persona of the Robber Queen, she has caused the death of the daddy tree, and this time the fault is truly hers.
The douen replant the tree immediately, using biological means to help it grow very quickly at first. The morning after the destruction of the daddy tree, there is an adolescent tree growing where the huge daddy tree once stood. It is not yet ready for douen inhabitation -- indeed, it is a long way off -- but the possibility of a new home in the future gives us a brief glimpse of hope. This kind of replanting in the face of a father's death echoes Tan-Tan's unborn child, a "reseeding" by her father that seems at first a curse, but later turns out to be something else entirely.
Accompanied by Abitefa, who was exiled from her people because of Tan-Tan's mistakes at the same time Tan-Tan was cast out, she makes her home in the bush, stealing into human settlements and performing as many Robber Queen good deeds as she dares with Janisette still on her trail. She is now without a home, truly on her own without adult interference or supervision for the first time in her life.
During this time in the bush, Tan-Tan comes to know herself, and discovers what she's made of. When she stumbles on a settlement that has indentured servants locked in the fields by ball and chain, she turns and runs away. She is ashamed that when confronted with true evil, she flees from it, and she doubts her role as Robber Queen. Instead, she is learning judgement, learning the difference between situations she can influence and those she's better off avoiding. Slowly Bad Tan-Tan and Good Tan-Tan are merging, learning to work together. She is paying for her "sins" in the hard life of the bush.
Finally, Tan-Tan stumbles upon Sweet Pone, the settlement that she had been planning on running off to with her friend Melonhead before her sixteenth birthday. She finds Melonhead living here, and he does not let her escape back into the bush, but comes after her, happy to see her well and alive. Her pregnancy, well advanced by now, is hidden by a large cape, but it doesn't take long for Melonhead to notice and ask her if it's Antonio's child. Tan-Tan is unable to answer him, and he lets the question go.
Tan-Tan is unable to stay away from the settlement, and she soon realizes that her feelings for Melonhead are growing. She has spent enough time with herself that she is nearly ready to let someone get close to her again, and this time she discovers more about human interaction than she'd ever known was possible:
Touching Melonhead made her feel good, an unalloyed pleasure untainted by fear or anger. So different than she'd ever felt before.
The climax of the book comes during the Carnival celebration in Sweet Pone, when Janisette catches Tan-Tan, who is too pregnant to escape this time. Tan-Tan, strengthened by her relationship with Melonhead, fired up by her Robber Queen costume, finally gives a speech that is not a made-up story, but the truth of what happened between her and Antonio.
In this beautifully written scene Tan-Tan finally integrates Bad Tan-Tan and Good Tan-Tan; she finds her voice and shames Janisette for not helping her as a child. She proclaims to the entire town the story of what happened to her, and whose baby she is carrying. She is the opposite of the quiet, ignored Tan-Tan who was taken by her father to New Half-Way Tree. She has grown from the frightened fugitive running from her father's murder into a brave young woman facing her history and allowing herself to justify her act of self-defense. There is shock, some disgust and a great deal of admiration showered down on Tan-Tan by the end of the speech, and even Janisette is swayed by the speech and leaves her for the last time. And, just as Tan-Tan has started facing her demons, she goes into labor.
An unnamed narrator makes occasional appearances in the novel, speaking to someone we cannot see, talking him through a tough time by telling the story of Tan-Tan. In the final pages that we learn that this is Tan-Tan's house eshu from Toussaint, talking to the fetus in her womb. The earbug that had not died when Tan-Tan went through the dimension veil provided Granny Nanny and the eshu with a means of tracking Tan-Tan and they, being good parents, found her. By the time they found her she was too old to hear them, but Granny Nanny was able to suffuse the fetus with the "nanomites" necessary for communication.
As Tan-Tan gives birth to the son that her father gave her, the seed he planted as she destroyed him in self-defense, she brings Granny Nanny, the benevolent parent-force, to the wilds of New Half-Way Tree. This final scene completes the cycle, confirms for us that there is something good in everything bad and something bad in everything good. Much as the rebirth of the daddy tree brings the promise of safe haven in the future, so too does the baby, Tubman, bring the hope of freedom from oppression to the hard world of New Half-Way Tree.
Heather Shaw is a transplanted Hoosier now enjoying life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published short fiction and articles, and has been known to read her poetry at such places as a San Francisco Sex Education benefit, a Lollapalooza Poetry Tent, and a poetry slam or two. Her ongoing goals are to further her fiction career, maintain her online journal, dance in the moonlight, and read, read, read. Heather's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives. Visit her Web site for more information.
An interview with Nalo Hopkinson in Strange Horizons.
Nalo Hopkinson's Web site, with information and novel excerpts.
Another article on Midnight Robber.
A conversation with Nalo Hopkinson discussing Midnight Robber.
Nalo Hopkinson on her writing background.
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