Importance of language

What struck me most about Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber was not any of the obvious subjects addressed in the novel: race and gender issues, rape, incest, self-love, self-respect, etc; rather, the language she used to discuss these things was so exact in its strange dialect and such a crucial part of the novel. In most of the novels we have read thus far, there is some strange vocabulary that helps define the strange world we read about, but in general, the language in which the author tells the story is easily understandable. It is not so in Midnight Robber, where this Afro-Caribbean dialect is not reserved for dialogue but used in narration as well. The effect of this is that the reader must constantly pay attention to what is being said or he will miss the meaning of the words. Indeed, as I was reading it, if I started to scan paragraphs I would have to go back and re-read them because I really couldn't understand what had just happened in the story.

Obviously there are certain words that, like previous SF novels, are completely made up by the author. "Headblind," "nannysong," "eshu," and "datastock" are a few of these. "Headblind" refers to objects or situations that Granny Nanny, the omniscient and omnipresent computer, doesn't have access to; in other words, she is blind to them. One such item is real paper; the current equivalent, which Granny Nanny does have access to, is datastock, something that seems similar to word processing for documents. The sing-song phrases used to communicate with Granny Nanny and the house eshu are called nannysong, for obvious reasons. The eshu is a little less obvious; similar to Granny Nanny, it seems, it has no physical presence but exists within the "living" house simply as a.i. consciousness, and can control much of how the house operates (ie changing walls into mirrors when asked).

These made-up words are expected, almost cliché when it comes to science fiction, but real words--at least slang that is actually used in certain dialects--is not, and is much harder to read. In fact, it is unclear whether many of the unknown words are Hopkinson's creation or real slang, though probably the latter. "Allyou" is a pretty obvious word; a much better known term would be "y'all," and certainly means the same thing. On the other hand, "pickney" takes a while to figure out, but seems to refer to children, especially young and tricky ones. While "doux-doux" is unfamiliar to most Americans, it is not really slang, as it comes from the French word that means "sweet," and is obviously used as a term of endearment. "Nuh" and "seen" are a bit more difficult, however; "nuh" is apparently used similarly to its cousin "no" as questioning the previous statement. " 'Daddy, let we go home, nuh?' " (Hopkinson 72). Here, the equivalent would be, "Can't we go home?" Conversely, "seen" is a statement of agreement or acknowledgment (like "okay"), wherein the speaker has "seen" the import of the listener's previous words.

The vocabulary is not the only confusing part of Hopkinson's language, however; the grammar is what makes the novel truly difficult to read, at least until one has gotten used to it. For instance, possessive pronouns are most often the same as our usual subject pronouns: "She two arms hard with muscle . . ." (1); and subject and object pronouns seem to have switched places: " 'Them does only pay a pittance compared to we' " (8). Subject and verb are sometimes switched, verb form is seldom "correct"--in all, it can be quite a confusing read for anyone. What we must consider is, since books are meant to be read (and this one is likely intended for an audience who does not speak the novel's dialect), why make it so difficult to read? For one thing, the main aspect of culture lies in its language, so Hopkinson immerses the reader into her obviously different world immediately. Moreover, and more importantly, because the language makes the reader stumble and pick his way through, it forces him to concentrate better on what is being said. True, the reading will get easier as he makes his way through the novel and gets used to its style, but it still will catch him if he starts slacking off in attention because it is never a natural way of forming sentences in his brain. In this way, Hopkinson achieves the ultimate goal of an author: to make her reader immerse himself completely in the story and concentrate on what she is telling him.

Writing in dialect clearly sets Nalo Hopkinson apart from other Science Fiction writers, and is probably a large part of why both of her two novels are on our syllabus, and I think its for the reasons you mentioned, being forced to submerge yourself in the culture, pay attention to what's being said, which leads to some really internalized world-building.
Her technique was so effective, however, that I've been catching myself thinking in creole. A very bastardized version, clearly, since I don't nearly understand the grammatical rules, but I've got the rhythm, we's in place of us's.
She has impressed me.

Like Dragongrrl, I found that the language of Midnight Robber was one of the most fascinating aspects of the story. However, I didn’t realize that the dialect was actually Afro-Caribbean. I thought that the entire language was a creation of Hopkinson. I was actually kind of disappointed when I found out in class that most of the words were a part of the Afro-Caribbean dialect. To me, it made the novel less science fiction. I really liked the idea that Hopkinson had come up with an entirely new language and way of speaking for her world. Does the fact that most of the words are Afro-Caribbean make the novel less of a science fiction work? Or does it make Hopkinson’s novel even more revolutionary because she combines the traditionally white male genre of science fiction with the Afro-Caribbean world?

It is based on it, but from what I can tell there is a lot of new stuff added to.

Now the language wasn't too unfamiliar for me...as I've heard it before, or at least similar ways of speaking (in Jamaica it was a bit like that), so I didn't have a hard time reading it...but it certainly makes me stop from time to time randomly when a word is in what appears to be the wrong place.

I'm still curious as to why the narrative part of the novel is written in that language though...perhaps to keep the flow, or some other reason? Actually, thinking back to it it seems almost like it was mostly in that language....but bits and pieces would seem normal. I wonder if that's because I got used to the language or something, as it seems like it'd be a bit natural off the tongue...

I don't know if this is completely contrived on my part, but I thought the narrative part of the novel is stylized to represent a storyteller. We had mentioned in class the relationship between mythology and the mythologization of Tan-tan's life. From what I can recall, the opening of the novel is some character asking the reader if they are familiar with this tale, and then beginning to recount it.

It does definitely preserve a flow. I don't think I would have liked a jump in the language; it would seem too disjointed and shocking.