Sister Mine: Nalo Hopkinson’s YA Magic Carpet Ride

Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine (New York: Grand Central, 2013); 320 pages; ISBN 978-1455528400 (paperback).

• February 2015

Nalo Hopkinson is one of the grand dames in black speculative fiction (known in a growing worldwide movement as “Afrofuturism”) and her young adult (YA) novel Sister Mine is a magic carpet ride through a fantasy Toronto, centering on a family of gods who wrestle with oh-so-mortal conflicts of identity and power. It’s lighter fare than earlier works—including Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), Midnight Robber (2000), Skin Folk (2001), and The Salt Roads (2003)—but Hopkinson’s fans will recognize her lush, textured storytelling and her exploration of personal history, sexuality, folklore/mythology, and relationships between gods and mortals, packed within a coming-of-age story. In 2014, Sister Mine won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Now that multiethnic speculative fiction is being more widely embraced (National Public Radio’s 2014 list of best science fiction and fantasy novels, for example, included Octavia E. Butler, Chang-rae Lee, Nora Jemisin, and Wu Ming-Yi), it is easy to forget that Jamaican-born Hopkinson was a virtual singularity when she roared onto the publishing scene with her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, in 1998.

Hopkinson draws on her Caribbean upbringing in her work (having been raised between Guyana and Trinidad, in addition to Canada), infusing her stories with history and myth in a genre in which black women were once scarcely found outside of the pages of Octavia E. Butler. Her book of short stories retelling classic European fairy tales through a Caribbean lens, Skin Folk, won the World Fantasy Award.

In Sister Mine, Hopkinson maintains a dance between the mundane and the magical, only slowly unfolding her premise at the start of her novel: we meet Makeda, who seems like a typical teenager or young twenty-something fleeing the thumb of her controlling sister, Abby. The magical element appears with Makeda’s observation of objects that are “Shiny” (with a hint of magic) from the first pages, evolving in later pages to encounters with shapeshifters, magical storms, a sea monster, and inanimate objects that come to life—including one of Jimi Hendrix’s guitars, which becomes one of the characters in the novel. As the story unfolds, we learn that the two sisters are the half-god offspring of a god and a mortal woman, that Makeda is pursued by a deadly haint she fights off with water, and that there is more to kudzu than meets the eye.

While the novel travels between our world and the otherworld, the central premise is tied to the familial relationship between Makeda and Abby, who were born as conjoined twins, offspring from a forbidden union between their mother (who loved two brothers) and a god. “We’d had to be cut free of our mother’s womb,” Hopkinson writes. “She’d never have been able to push the two-headed sport that was me and Abby out the usual way” (29).

During their separation, Abby took the brunt of physical challenges with a lifelong limp on uneven legs, but Makeda is bereft of the one thing she values most in a family half made up of “Celestials”—she has no mojo. Some of her relatives treat her with the scorn reserved for “Claypickens,” or normal mortals, and Makeda’s fiery emotions are often linked to her feelings of uselessness and inferiority.

Without revealing too much of the story itself, it’s safe to say that much of Makeda’s journey is her quest for respect, self-determination, and a greater understanding of her family history and how she fits into the whole. For all its magic, many of the plot’s elements are straight out of our world: a sister, Makeda, with primary responsibility for caring for an aging parent wants to strike out on her own life; two sisters grapple with the dementia, illness, and loss (literally) of their father . . . and his soul.

Makeda’s tantrums often make her character seem younger than the legal drinking age (albeit only nineteen in Toronto), especially when she squabbles with Abby, but the novel’s YA emphasis makes such a portrait feel natural to the story. Makeda measures herself most often in relation to what she perceives as her defects, especially in the eyes of her family. Like many YA protagonists, she sees herself as the ultimate outsider: “Bloody Shinies were so closemouthed about their pretty, gleaming world. They were the masters of not answering the question. Evasion, misdirection, bait and switch; whatever carrot would distract my dull donkey brain and lead my clodhopping feet away from their golden paths” (89).

Makeda’s outsider status is echoed with subtle shades of Toronto-style racism: she notes the troubles of “hitchhiking while black,” and one passerby admonishes her child, “‘Don’t look. . . . Those people are always brawling on the streets, like dogs. It’s a disgrace.’”

Music and its magical properties appear prominently in Sister Mine, from a (literally) magical rock concert early in the novel to a pivotal scene involving a concert with Abby much later. It is Abby—not Makeda—who has the lovely singing voice, as if the mojo itself is tied to song. And, of course, there is the recurring appearance of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar.

But the magic is also grounded in ancient beliefs. Hopkinson’s new interpretations of West African–inspired deities make for an exciting family life for Makeda and Abby, with winking references to Papa Legba/Elegua and fierce-tempered ocean goddess Yemaya, among others. Subtle language shifts, for example, “Oh gods” rather than “Oh God,” remind us that we are now in a polytheistic world.

Hopkinson also stretches beyond the expected to the nontraditional, describing incestuous (often playful) sexual relationships between cousins and siblings, all perfectly accepted within the story’s moral codes. While Hopkinson’s bold approach to sexuality may seem unusual for YA fiction, her handling of the subject is so matter-of-fact and expands our understanding of the characters so much that, again, it seems natural in the context of the story.

At times, the story felt a bit unfocused, and I wish I had learned more about Makeda’s younger magical relatives, who appear only briefly. But ultimately, Sister Mine is a story about the nature of family love and embracing one’s power through music and magic. For all Makeda’s envy of Abby, her love for her sister shines through as she watches her dance: “And my crippled sister threw down her crutches and began to dance. She ceased being a little girl constrained by braces and crutches. Her body moved in its own language. Suddenly, her shorter leg wasn’t disabling her. It was the crook of a comma, the illustrative pause in a devastatingly meaningful statement spoken in movement” (226). And since they are twins, after all, Makeda is also celebrating her own dance. Sister Mine is in the deft hands of a writer who has an unforgettable mojo all her own.

 

Tananarive Due is the American Book Award–winning author of the African Immortals series that begins with My Soul to Keep (HarperCollins, 1997). Her short story collection Ghost Summer will be published by Prime Books in June of 2015.