Q: How did you become interested in writing science fiction as opposed to other kinds of literature?
A: Fantastical literature is something I was always drawn to, even as a child. I loved folk and fairy tales—Anansi stories, for instance. From my father’s shelves, I was reading works such as Gulliver’s Travels and Homer’s The Iliadand The Odyssey at a very young age. I guess I just never outgrew the habit of looking for magical stories.
Q: What kind of culture shock did you experience in moving from the Caribbean toToronto at age 16?
A: It’s an experience I’ve not seen described much. I had lived in the U.S. as a child, when my father was studying theatre at Yale University in Connecticut, so I wasn’t totally unprepared. Still, the enormity of suddenly becoming a member of a minority (and not a very popular one at that), of being in lands where people spoke like the people in movies (and they said I was the one with the accent!), of being unable to get the foods I’d grown up with and loved, of eight months of the year having to clothe oneself in a space suit in order to be able to remain alive when one stepped outside one’s door is something to which I’m still not fully reconciled.
Q: The character of the “Midnight Robber” seems to be a central theme in your new novel. Why?
A: It’s a particularly Trinidadian metaphor for exile, which is what happens to Tan-Tan, the main character in the novel. The “Midnight Robber” is a classical masquerade from the Trinidad Carnival. He would wear exaggerated robber costumes and pretend to waylay people at Carnival time. Then he’d spin them a very wordy tale about being the son of an African prince who’d been stolen into slavery, who’d been brought to a land full of strange-looking people, who’d escaped and become a robber in order to survive. It’s a tale that Tan-Tan identifies with a lot after she’s been kidnapped.
Q: Why does the technology in the novel have different names than we’re used to?
A: In part, I was interested in how we think of technology. So many of our stories about technology and our paradigms for it refer to Greek and Roman myth and language: we name rocket ships “Apollo” and communication devices “telephone,” a human-machine interface a “cyborg.” It shapes not only the names for the technology we create, but the type of technology we create. I wondered what technologies a largely African diasporic culture might build, what stories its people might tell itself about technology. So a communication device that sees and hears becomes a “four-eye;” literally, a seer. The artificial intelligence that safeguards all the people in a planetary system becomes Granny Nanny, named after the revolutionary and magic worker who won independent rule in Jamaica for the Maroons who had run away from slavery. Rather than being a “Big Brother” paradigm it is an affectionate reference to her sense of love, care, and duty. The operating system that runs a dwelling is an “eshu,” named after the West African deity who can be in all places at once, who is the ghost in the machine.
Q: The intelligence that watches over the planet Toussaint knows everything that every human on it does, nearly all the time. Is this paradise or hell?
A: At some point, most of the way through creating the world I needed to tell the story, I realized to my surprise that I had created a utopia. I hadn’t set out to do that, am not sure I could have if I’d made a deliberate effort. It isn’t perfect; the person who invented the system saw the high level of benign surveillance as an acceptable trade-off for the kind of safety and high quality of life that the people would have. There are no poor people on Toussaint, and no wage slaves. And though Granny Nanny perceives all, she doesn’t tell all, unless she thinks it’s an issue of someone’s safety. It really does feel like being mothered, and sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a smothering thing.
Q: Why embed three fictional folk tales in the middle of this futuristic narrative?
A: I originally set out to write a novel in which a very human person becomes the stuff of legend. I wondered, when Tan-Tan starts hearing the stories that people are telling about her, would she deny them or try to live up to them? Does the story create the legend or the legend the story? And so I wondered what stories people would tell about her, and I decided that—as happens with tales that are passed down through oral tradition—the stories of her life would become blended with older folk tales. All three of the legends I created and inserted into the novel are inspired by existing Caribbean legends and folk tales.
Q: Why did you write this novel in Creole? What Creole is it? Are you worried that some readers will find it too difficult?
A: I grew up in a Caribbean literary community. It is perfectly acceptable there to write narrative and dialogue in the vernacular. It’s not that difficult to understand. I was interested in the way that Creoles can be accorded the full status of languages. The Creoles in this novel are the formal, written form of the language of the people in it. And the language shapes thought. If I had written MIDNIGHT ROBBER completely in English Standard, it would have had a very different feel and rhythm. I could say “Carnival revelry,” but it wouldn’t convey movement, sound, joy the same way that “ring-bang ruction” does. What I have done differently is created a hybrid Creole, since the people in the novel have formed hybrid Caribbean communities. It’s largely a blend of Jamaican and Trinidadian, the two vernaculars I know best. And whenever I worry that some readers may find the language to be too much work, I remember A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, two classics in the genre that were both written in invented dialects.
Q: Brown Girl in the Ring, your first novel, dealt with Afro-Caribbean magic, while MIDNIGHT ROBBER draws on Caribbean folklore. Do the Carnival characters and the alien creatures you introduce in MIDNIGHT ROBBER also derive from an African background?
A: They derive from a Caribbean background, specifically Trinidad and Jamaica, which, like all the Caribbean countries, are multicultural and multi-ethnic. The rolling calf, wrapped in chains with fireball eyes, seems to be what happened when the Irish mythical creature the phouka crossed the waters to Jamaica. Anansi the trickster, who in the tales I tell is replaced by Tan-Tan, my heroine, came with people kidnapped from West Africa. I enjoyed taking creatures from the folklore I’d read as a child and making them real. The Carnival imagery comes from Trinidad, where Carnival evolved out of an African response to the New Year’s Eve masquerades. It was a way to mock the whites, and to revive memories of old traditions, and to overturn the accepted world order—it’s a revolutionary celebration. You’ll find traditions in it that combine Italian commedia dell’arte with West African harvest celebrations. Then when indentured labourers began to be brought to the Caribbean from India, they incorporated a lot of their imagery and iconography into Carnival. It’s a very rich cook-up stew.
Q: Child abuse is a strong theme in MIDNIGHT ROBBER. In Caribbean culture, what is the attitude toward adults who sexually and physically abuse children?
A: As complicated and troubling as in any culture, and as tied up in history. As to physical punishment, if you whip your child, is that discipline, or is it abuse? What is it then if you don’t teach that child immediate, fearful obedience? The man who owns you both may well sell that willful child, or kill it. Now, is the whipping abuse, or is it an act of protection done out of an extremely painful love? And what is it 500 years later, if you’ve been raised that way and honour your parents, if people in your family have always raised children that way, and never question it as the only responsible way to socialize a child? And suppose your next door neighbors, who share a similar culture and history, for some reason don’t have the same tradition of whipping their children? Do you see them as better than you, or as irresponsible and uncaring? And you might imagine that childhood sexual abuse, which is an extreme abuse of power, is regarded with horror. As in any other culture, the horror is so great that often people don’t know how to deal with it.
Q: MIDNIGHT ROBBER is a coming-of-age story about a young girl raised in privilege who is suddenly thrust into an utterly alien environment. What do you hope that readers will take away from Tan-Tan’s experience to use for their own growth?
A: I’m hoping they will tell me what they’ve gotten from it. I don’t always have an aim when I tell a story; sometimes I just want to see how it turns out. I learn as much from the readers’ reactions to it as from my writing it.
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