When I was telling my girlfriend about Nalo Hopkinson’s urban fantasy, Sister Mine, she said it sounded like the author was on LSD when she was writing it. I think that’s a pretty apt description, and I mean that in the best way possible. Let’s see—what really epitomizes the wonderful oddities of this book is the fact that there’s a character who used to be Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. You know, he’s an enspirited object, currently in human form. The main character’s sister is dating him. No big deal.
That guy is just one of the rich cast of characters—most of them people of colour and some sort of variation on human—in this Toronto-set novel. Our protagonist is Makeda and she has a unique yet familiarly dysfunctional relationship with her twin sister Abby. The fact that the two girls were born conjoined is the most ordinary part of their lives. You see, their mother is human but their father is a celestial, a demi-god—not the top god, but you know, the kind with a lot of the powers and magic you would expect a god to have but the faults and quirks of a human. Their dad’s family wasn’t exactly thrilled with his choice of partner so they’ve punished him by turning him into a temporary mortal and Makeda’s mom into a giant silver lake creature who lives in Lake Ontario. The circumstances surrounding the girls’ separation are mysterious—Abby was left physically disabled (she uses crutches) and Makeda has been left with a distinct lack of celestial mojo (magic). So she’s a part of this magical world, but has none of her own magic to participate in it. She lives biculturally, not really fitting into the ordinary claypicken Toronto world, but feeling intensely left out of her sister’s world.
Sister Mine is set in a fantastical world informed by Afro-Caribbean mythology, but this is mixed with a realist, contemporary Toronto, full of sketchy old warehouses, Lake Ontario beaches, old folks’ homes, and the racist microaggressions aimed at black folks on the city’s streets. Another way that this books feels very like the diverse Toronto that I’ve encountered is that there’s a very casual, everday inclusion of difference—of race, sexuality, gender, ability, age. I really appreciated how Hopkinson doesn’t make differences into capital I issues, but rather includes people of all stripes naturally and with dignity. Oh my god, it’s like people in real life! Just living their lives and not being cis, white, straight, male, and/or able-bodied. It’s unfortunate that this kind of diversity in literature is rare.
I want to talk a bit about sexuality in this novel, because I find Hopkinson’s handling of it pretty fascinating. I mean, there are queer and polyamorous sexualities in here, of course, but that’s not really the boundary pushing part of Sister Mine. If you’ve read any other reviews of this book, you’ll know what I’m talking about: (consensual) incest is the norm in the celestial world of Sister Mine. I actually find the reviews I’ve read that are squeamish about the incest kind of funny. People are so resistant to anything that makes them remotely uncomfortable. Most of the reviews (on goodreads and other places) seem to fall into two categories: they either avoid discussing the incest in the book at all or mention that it made them uneasy and that they wished it hadn’t been a part of the book. I admit, the incest—I kind of hesitate to call it that because it’s never referred to as such in the book, but anyway—made me feel kinda weird too. That’s why I think it’s a feeling worth investigating. Discomfort can be a pretty powerful signal and learning tool. For example, I think it’d do a world of good for most straight people (and I think this happens even to the ones who claim to be ‘down with the gays’) to think about why seeing queer couples be physically affectionate makes them uncomfortable. In Sister Mine one thing that’s especially hard to deal with is the combination of incest and queer sexuality. I’m not sure I have any intelligent conclusions about this, but I found Hopkinson’s depiction of sexuality new and thought-provoking and challenging. It’s just great that she’s not afraid to go there.
The attitude she writes with reminds me of Samuel Delany’s science fiction: it’s boundary pushing and it’s unnerving sometimes and it’s edgy. You don’t want what you firmly believe to be true or normal or right to be challenged. But both Delany and Hopkinson refuse to write nice stories about queer folks who, for all intents and purposes, are the same as straight people. I mean, we’re all humans but we’re not the same. If that’s what you want to read about, that’s cool. But you’re not going to find it here. And for that, I thank you Nalo Hopkinson.