Nalo Hopkinson is becoming one of my favorite writers. Her novels are creative and humorous, informative and provocative. Sister Mine, like Brown Girl in the Ring, is set in Toronto and revolves around a family with formidable spiritual powers. As with BGITR, celestial beings or gods are characters in the story, and these gods are rooted in Caribbean religion/spirituality. While the search for lost mojo is a big part of this novel, and that part is fascinating and fun, the dominant theme that runs through is about power, difference and wholeness. Hopkinson manages to bring in concepts of disability and a sort of “class” difference that can either divide or become sources of unity and strength.
The main character Makeda is a twenty-something woman in search of her mojo, which is best described as magical power or talent. Makeda’s father, Boysie, is a demigod or celestial being whose powers provide growth and healing, particularly among animals and plants. Boysie’s brother is Death (aka Uncle John/Jack/Legs), and other family members have powers that influence bodies of water, weather, and so on. Makeda’s mother Cora is/was a powerless mortal woman whose ancestors had always been enslaved servants to the celestials. When Cora and Boysie got together and Cora became pregnant, the celestial family was disgusted. The occasional rendezvous with mortals was okay, but marriage and procreation were taboo. Makeda and her twin sister Abby were born conjoined, and according to family lore, when they were separated, Abby began to die. Uncle Death should have carried her over to the other side, but instead, he and Boysie saved her, a flagrant and unforgivable violation of the order of the universe. As punishment, Cora was turned into a sea monster, and Boysie was stripped of his soul and his mojo, and he was made human. Death’s punishment was to have to watch this horrible thing happen and be able to do nothing about it.
Flash forward a few decades and we find that Abby, though mortal and having a body that was harmed by the separation, possesses a formidable mojo related to music and her voice. She performs and teaches, while Makeda is mojo-less and frustrated. She feels left out of the family, useless, and desires a break of another sort from Abby. Though they love each other, they fight like cats and dogs, each thinking that she has carried the other and not been appreciated. Makeda has resolved to move out of their home and into a funky loft apartment in a warehouse that is home to an eclectic population of musicians, including a charismatic fellow named Brie. Makeda senses a mojo-like glow from both the building and Brie and is excited to move in, but trouble with dad throws everything into upheaval. Boysie has been suffering from Alzheimer’s and living in a nursing home. He suddenly goes missing and at the same time his soul, which Uncle Death had imprisoned in a safe place, has also escaped. The tension and stress between Makeda and Abby intensifies when circumstances force Abby to reveal the truth about their origin to Makeda, a truth which could prove deadly for Makeda.
Themes related to destructive power hierarchies and the notion of disability run through this novel. Makeda and Abby embody this dichotomy: on one hand, Abby has physical disabilities which make her seem weak in the human world, but her mojo makes her powerful in the celestial world. Makeda, on the other hand, is mojo-impaired, which makes her seem weak to her family. For celestials, being human, being without mojo, is a shameful sort of disability, and having more mojo makes one more impressive. Through her characters, Hopkinson shows the jealousy and destruction that result from this way of thinking. Various characters try to steal others’ mojo or deny their own mojo, usually with disastrous results. Among the celestials there is resentment and backstabbing, and they are arrogant and condescending toward those of lesser or no magic. For example, Abby’s boyfriend Lars is Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in human form (I love that bit!); he is a magical object or tool from the family’s point of view and they are appalled that Abby would consort with such a person/thing when she is closer to being a fully celestial being than that. And Abby herself, without realizing it, can be condescending to both Makeda and Lars. Moreover, the girls’ mother’s family is fully human and enslaved, and they have been for generations; no one seems to give a thought to that until Aunt Suzy asks Makeda to intercede on their behalf for release.
As you might have guessed, this celestial world is pretty screwed up, what with priorities all linked to power. The most touching passage in the book, which shows just how ass-backwards the celestials are, comes from a meeting between Cora, now a sea monster, and her daughters. I hope I don’t give away any secrets by quoting it, but it so beautifully summed up parenthood, having a child with a difference, and unconditional love that I can’t resist:
[Cora to child] You are my daughter. I was happy that you had come to me alive.
[child] Mom, it’s not that simple. Looking after me as I was, it would have been exhausting.
[child]Sometimes you would have hated me.
[child] And then hated yourself for hating me.
[Cora] I know. I knew it then. But looking at you, in that moment, I did not care.
I love the idea that real power is not in what you can do, but in how you give of yourself and serve others, and Hopkinson hits that message home with vigor. She is superb at writing dramatic climactic scenes, and she does not disappoint in Sister Mine. Makeda is a wonderful character: smart, funny, brave and vulnerable. She is very aware of her own weakness vis-a-vis her family but she is loyal to them and loving. She catches herself being unfair and never gives over to self-pity. I think readers will root for her to be successful on her own and to find and appreciate her own talent/mojo. At the root of this story is the idea that whatever one’s power or magic may be, it is simply not possible to exercise it alone or to be full and complete without other people, no matter what their “class” (demigod, human, or somewhere in between).