Nalo Hopkinson

Code Sliding

Midnight Robber has allowed me to imagine a world rooted in Caribbean culture and folklore, particularly the Trinidad carnival. It's about a little girl living on her home world who gets yanked hither and yon between her parents as they carry on a hugely troubled relationship. Stories of her adventures become mixed up in the oral folklore of her culture. The central theme of the novel is the midnight robber, a classical masquerade from the Trinidad Carnival. A man dressed in exaggerated, outlandish bandit costumes would waylay people in the street on carnival day and regale them with a speech he'd written, a stream of consciousness fabulation about how he was the son of an African king who had been stolen away into slavery and escaped, of how he'd risked life and limb in terrifying adventures far from his home until he'd become a bandit to survive. It's a powerful metaphor for exile and longing for home and it strongly references the Caribbean history of the African slave trade. The little girl identifies very much with the midnight robber masque.

Part of what I set out to do was to imagine what paradigms for technology a society might develop without the all-pervasive influence of American technology and the way it references Greek and Roman mythology (we talk about the "Apollo missions;" we've named planets after Greek and Roman gods; we call our cities "metropolises"). But a diasporic Caribbean culture might name its computer operating systems after a West African deity with the power to go anywhere, see anything. Its concepts of stewardship of its planet might be based in Taino values (the Taino are the indigenous people who were living in the Caribbean when Columbus stumbled on that part of the world).

I'm also experimenting with the complex sets of codes that are Caribbean creoles. (I know one pretty well, and bits of two others.) Caribbean cultures are hybrid cultures. Hybridity was a strategy for survival and resistance amongst the enslaved and indentured people. They all came from different cultures with different languages and then had an alien culture and speech imposed on them. They had to find ways to use elements of all the cultures in order to continue to exist. That hybridity is reflected in the languaging we've created. I've tried to reflect that in Midnight Robber, largely in the way the characters use language when they speak, but also in the language of the narrative. I've tried to write the book as it might be written if it were actually an artifact of the fictional culture I've created. "She ain't want to go down in the gully, oui" is standard English for them. So is "She didn't want to go down into that gully."

The stylistic choices are quirky, and much to the patient annoyance of my long-suffering writing group, can seem inconsistent. They aren't really. I realised after a while that I was using a Trinidadian mode of address for emphasis/irony and a Jamaican one to signal opposition; the latter coming at least in part out of my recognition of the ways that Rastafari has created "dread talk" as a language of resistance. I'm fascinated with the notion of breaking an imposed language apart and remixing it. To speak in the hacked language is not just to speak in an accent or a creole; to say the words aloud is an act of referencing history and claiming space. The people of the Nation Worlds in my novel have done that, have left Earth to a place where they can make their own society. Their speech, written and spoken, reflects the reasons they've made that journey. Hence "Stolen Song," the poem that starts off Midnight Robber (and thank you David Findlay, for permission to quote your work).

Linguists have a term for the way I've used language in the narrative. It's called "code-sliding." Caribbean speech has different modes of address. Speakers may choose to use different modes within a sentence, flipping from a relatively standard English, French or Spanish to a more creolized form to a deep creole. It infuses meaning into the language that goes beyond its content.

Caribbean writers have been writing in fluid modes of address for years. In 1986 Samuel Selvon (author of The Lonely Londoners, A Brighter Sun, etc.) told Frank Birbalsingh how he had stalled repeatedly when writing The Lonely Londoners, until he began to write in what he called "Caribbean language." Sometimes the text needed the poetic rhythms of Trinidadian stylings, sometimes those of English standard. When he used what seemed to suit each situation best, the work flowed.

It will be interesting to see how readers receive the code-sliding, and how clearly I communicated my intent. A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker developed languages for their created worlds based on the possible evolution of existing cultures; now I get to do the same.


This essay was previously published at http://www.sff.net/people/nalo/writing/slide.html