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 clichÃ© 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.