Dysfunctional Fabulist Families: Nalo Hopkinson's "Sister Mine"
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Sister Mine
author: Nalo Hopkinson
pub date: 03.12.2013
pp:
tags: Young Adult & Children's Literature , SF

Jessica Langer on Sister Mine

Dysfunctional Fabulist Families: Nalo Hopkinson's "Sister Mine"

March 23rd, 2013 reset - +

MAKEDA AND ABBY were born as conjoined twins. Separation saved them, though it was the doom of their parents due to some complicated godly politics, and each girl ended up missing a piece of herself. For Abby, it is a piece of her leg, and for Makeda, her mojo: her connection to the “Shiny” spirit world of her father’s divine kin. Although the girls grew up close, and were at one point lovers — an uncomfortable bit of reading that nevertheless makes perfect sense in the context of their partial divinity; gods, after all, have always made a habit of marrying their relatives — their spiritual separation along with their physical one has made their relationship complex and sour by the start of the novel.

Makeda, refusing to rely on her sister any more, opens the book by moving into the Cheerful Rest, which this Torontonian reviewer has decided is either the Global Village backpackers’ hostel at the intersection of King and Spadina or a spiritual cousin. It is a building that, like many other things in the novel, is “inspirited.” Many things, somewhat randomly, possess spirits in this book: so many that there seems to be a great forest of ensouled objects popping up across the pages, in much the same way as the kuzdu stretches its proliferating vines across the city. And that kudzu vine? Its name is Quashee, like Tan-Tan’s mother’s lover in Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber — yes, it too has a soul, and an important one at that, as the reader comes to realize. (I am trying studiously to avoid spoilers in this review.)

The novel is in some ways a spiritual twin to Hopkinson’s first book, Brown Girl In the Ring, which won the inaugural Warner Aspect First Novel Contest in 1998 and the Locus Award in 1999. Both are novels set in downtown Toronto and have the city at their hearts; both involve young women with family issues that have much to do with their connections (or, in the case of the protagonist Makeda, lack thereof) to the spirit world. But where Brown Girl was a tautly plotted and extraordinarily incisive dystopian tale of power and its abuses, Sister Mine is … well, to be perfectly honest, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly it is.

It’s fabulism, certainly, with an element of the absurd that, despite its occasional overuse, I find generally fun rather than overwrought. (One character is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. Yes, really. And Makeda and Abby’s mother is Lake Ontario’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster.) It’s a story about dysfunctional family dynamics that will be familiar to any reader who has ever experienced sibling rivalry or dealt with squabbling relatives at a funeral. In that vein, it’s a story of how difficult it is to be the child of a god, a theme that’s been popular in literature since the Greek myths; Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys covers some similar territory. To some extent, it’s a ghost story: an angry ghost, or “haint,” pursues Makeda through much of the novel, though it is not what it seems to be. It’s a mystery: The Case of the Missing Mojo. Often, these elements come together in a harmony that makes for engaging reading, but at times the book seems literally to lose the plot in a jumble of competing themes and narrative threads that tangle and trip over each other.

At the center there is a story of the sisterly love and difficulty between Makeda and Abby. They are simultaneously singular and plural, separate and together, like the conjoined-twin singing duo of “Millie-Christine” out of which Makeda makes art; they need each other and yet repel each other like magnets with the same polarity. Their particular dilemma extends to the supernatural, but it is familiar to anyone who has ever needed and resented another person at the same time. The two sisters squabble and shut each other out, hang up on each other, pull away from and then return to each other in the orbital dance of loving someone who drives you crazy. Love, in all its many varieties and difficulties, is the emotional heart of the novel.

The story of Makeda and Abby, though, is often buried beneath subplot after subplot that sometimes feel like interruptions rather than organic additions. That the novel veers crazily from one to another like a drunk motorcyclist seems both a weakness and a strength. There is love, death, fear, loss, the horrors of drugs (even if the “drug” is a trance brought on by magic-inflected partying), family dysfunction, the trouble with messing with things you don’t understand, the vagaries of divinity, the power of music, the power of sisterhood. The trouble with this proliferation is that the novel ends up lacking a certain focus; it is a loose collection of threads rather than a tightly woven tapestry. All the more surprising is that this is a problem in a novel by Hopkinson, who is normally one of the tightest and most effective plotters in the genre.

That said, the variety also makes for a novel that’s engaging and difficult to put down, and the world of Sister Mine feels rich and full. The novel’s pantheon is a motley and imaginative crew that includes a silver-haired Medusa named Aunt Cath, a god of lightning who enters on a horse wearing a sequined Flash costume, and “Uncle Hunter” — who seems to be an approximation of a god of war but dresses like an Alabama deer poacher — along with more recognizable gods like “Leggy John,” the girls’ uncle and the god of death, who echoes the Haitian deity Papa Legba. Hopkinson is gifted with both a fertile imagination and the ability to pull off absurdity, so that a flying carpet held aloft over downtown Toronto by hundreds of tiny metal birds elicits delight rather than a groan. And ultimately, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a romp through a huge variety of settings and characters; what the novel lacks in focus it makes up for in pure fun.

Finally, it is important to note, I think, the treatment of race in Sister Mine, because it is so matter-of-fact and so powerful in its matter-of-factness. Race is not the point of the novel; it is important, rather, because of its effect on the characters and their relationships with the world around them. In Anansi Boys, Gaiman dealt with race by very deliberately never mentioning it; Hopkinson takes a different and more effective tack here. Nearly all of the characters are black, and they live in the world as black men and women; their experiences are informed by their relationships with their own blackness and with others’ reactions to it.

The ubiquitous background racism of Toronto simmers constantly, occasionally bubbling up into the foreground, as when a woman with her daughter sees Makeda’s battle with her haint and says with disdain, “Those people are always brawling in the street, liks dogs. It’s a disgrace,” or when an argument between Makeda and Lars (the aforementioned guitar) causes others to avoid them, because “nothing cleared a room faster than a black man and woman arguing.” When Makeda and Abby are making their way in the dark to the shore of Lake Ontario late in the novel, Makeda shouts at her sister to turn off the flashlight; her primary concern is not that she will trip and fall, but rather that the flashlight is “like a beacon to the cops.” For all Toronto’s reputation on the world stage as a happily multicultural metropolis, and for all the Canadian government’s lip service to the value of diversity, Sister Mine speaks truth, real truth, about the quotidian prejudice with which black Torontonians live. (Aunt Suze’s excoriation of what is often called “hipster racism,” the semi-ironic appropriation by others of black slang, makes one want to stand up and cheer.)

In the end, perhaps Sister Mine’s simultaneous lack of narrative focus and thematic consistency — of love, of home, of family, even when these things are neither easy nor straightforward — is part of the purpose of the book. It is, after all, about dualities and the tension in which they are always held, and about the attraction of opposites, and about the ways in which we are defined as much by what we are not as by what we are. It is not a perfect novel, and it’s not Hopkinson’s best, but it is certainly well worth reading.

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