Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson
The issue of diversity in speculative fiction is having a particular spike at the moment. If you’re not familiar with the latest controversy with the folks over at the Science Fiction Writers of America, let me try to bring you up to speed. Author N. K. Jemisin posted the text of a speech she delivered at a convention in Australia, highlighting racism, sexism, and other prejudices both in America and in the speculative fiction community at large. She praised Australia’s efforts to create a more inclusive present out of a painful past, hoped that America would learn from their example, and called for a Reconciliation in speculative fiction. Huzzah!
Then Theodore Beale, a SWFA member and let’s call him “a real piece of work”, responded with a particularly racist screed. I’m linking you to Foz Meadows’ response to his response, which tears it apart. I will never cease to be amazed by the passionately hateful responses some people have towards extraordinarily basic ideas, like “people of color are people” or “women are people”. (I’m reminded of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency, which is very Feminism 101, and the disproportionate response to her Kickstarter.) And it’s rarely ever tempered, respectful disagreement. Here, it’s accusing black people of being inherently violent and savage. Such vitriol only shows how important it is to highlight and support authors of color, especially in speculative fiction. (Take this post and imagine what it looks like limited to speculative fiction. Youch.)
And that is what was on my mind when I picked up Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine. I enjoyed her work as an editor on So Long Been Dreaming, a speculative fiction collection highlighting both writers and characters of color, so I was curious to see Hopkinson without her editing hat on. Sister Mine follows two sisters in Toronto. The twin daughters of a celestial being and a mortal woman, Makeda and Abby were born conjoined twins. The surgery to separate them has left Abby with a limp, but she’s made a career for herself using her singing mojo. Makeda, however, has no mojo to speak of, and, as the novel opens, has decided to finally make a life all on her own, away from her sister and anything supernatural. But their father, cursed with a mortal body to punish him for procreating with “the help” and suffering from Alzheimer’s, is missing, and Makeda must team up with Abby to find him before the mortals notice him using his power over nature.
You would not be wrong to think of Anansi Boys in brief passing when reading the synopsis. Beyond the scant similarities in plot, both novels share a certain ramshackle, lived in atmosphere. But the novel are separate beasts, more linked in my reading because “urban fantasy” and I usually do not play nice with each other than because of their content. Makeda and Abby’s world is bright and flexible. Bright in Makeda’s sharp voice and flexible in that new and strange elements—such as Lars, Abby’s boyfriend who is also Jimi Hendrix’s guitar—pop up out of nowhere but fit in snugly. The celestials are quickly but vaguely defined, giving Hopkinson a lot of room to maneuver. There’s a dreamlike quality that pervades Sister Mine, which is both to its benefit and its detriment.
Honestly, it’s a bit of a fever dream (although it is miles better and more coherent than the last book I described that way, the incomprehensible Thornfield Hall). While Makeda has a very clear goal—define herself as a person, not a twin or nonmagical child of a magical family—events just sort of occur, forcing the characters to react instead of act. That’s fine for setting up a novel: obviously, I, as the reader, will not understand why these events are happening until I’ve read the story and learned why. But keeping your characters passive throughout the entire novel is a little disappointing. Although, I suppose, that’s part of the point of Sister Mine: Makeda, mojo-less and mortal, is raging against forces utterly out of her control. But the unforgiving, headlong pace doesn’t help one bit. It’s a heady rush to read, but it ends up feeling sort of haphazard.
Further complicating matters is the fact that consensual incest occurs in Sister Mine and I cannot unlearn what the Phelps twins have taught me. This is definitely a personal thing rather than a comment on the quality of the novel’s content. I mean, I’m very glad it’s consensual and a happy relationship for the people involved, but it’s still something that I just can’t stomach.
Bottom line: Sister Mine is bright and flexible, but also a bit of a fever dream, making it leave less of an impact than I’d like. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.