Unsettled in Utopia
A review of Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber” (Warner, 2000).
By Derek Newman-Stille
Nalo Hopkinson’s “Midnight Robber” is a narrative about home, memory, and communication. The planet Toussaint is settled by Caribbean people from earth who honour their history through events like Carnival and who remember the history of slavery in their tales. The travel to Toussaint is celebrated as a different type of crossing – crossing the stars by choice instead of being forced to cross the ocean by slavery and the tales of the people of Toussaint explore the interconnections between these two types of travel that brought them to where they are now. Nalo Hopkinson explores the dangers of travel and the issues that travel creates regarding ideas of home and belonging. She intwines ideas of exile and colonialism, exploring the way that these ideas can intertwine – being removed from one place without choice and displacing people from another. The people of Toussaint send those they view as criminals through a gateway to another world called New Half-Way Tree where their exiled lives interfere with the indigenous population of the planet and displace them. Most of the exiles arrive onto New Half-Way Tree with an assumption that they are better than the indigenous inhabitants, treating them as people who are in the way at best or wanting to eliminate them. When Tan Tan arrives from Toussaint to New Half-Way Tree, she wants to treat the indigenous inhabitants of the planet with respect since Toussaint culture is focused on the idea that there should be no masters and everyone should be treated with respect. Yet, her attempts to interact with the indigenous population mark her as an outsider to both populations.
Although Hopkinson situates Toussaint as a Utopia in many ways, creating a society that is based on notions of equality, that is open to different types of relationships, and is a place where people are not subjected to back-breaking labour, she creatively questions the utopia she writes. In order to make way for the human inhabitants of Toussaint, the nanite system the planet uses eliminated indigenous fauna that it viewed as threats to the new inhabitants, causing mass extinctions. Although the nanite system allows people to communicate more readily and have access to information, it also interferes with ideas of privacy and everything on Toussaint is surveilled. Further, when the society views someone as subversive or dangerous, they are sent to New Half-Way Tree, where the egalitarian notions of Toussaint only apply to human beings, not the indigenous population, the Douen and the Hinte.
Hopkinson illustrates that the notion of home – especially the notion of home for people in exile – is always complicated.
Midnight Robber is a tale about tales, delving into the fuzzy border between reality and myth and the way that memory and who we are always becomes partially mythologized. TanTan becomes partially mythologized as stories about her circulate amongst the populations of New Half-Way Tree and she is integrated with the tale of the Midnight Robber. She hears tales about her that have been turned into myth and story and she both finds herself in these tales and simultaneously discovers that she is uncertain who she is. As people stop believing that she is real, something about her sense of selfhood is also made etherial and unclear. TanTan, like the community of New Half-Way Tree, is unsettled.
To discover more about Nalo Hopkinson, visit her website at http://nalohopkinson.com.
To find out more about Midnight Robber, visit http://nalohopkinson.com/writing/fiction/books/midnight_robber