This is a legacy post from a blog I wrote in 2018 about language, storytelling, and the shape of things. Delivered here straight from the archives, please enjoy the following issue of The Quiet Post.
I finished Midnight Robber over the weekend and let me tell you: it is good. Nalo Hopkinson’s Afrofuturist novel is about a young girl named Tan-Tan who’s whisked away with her father to the prison planet of New Half-Way Tree, where she must reach deep into myth and story in order to survive, and in the process becomes a legend herself.
Though published years earlier, there are a bunch of parallels between what Hopkinson does and what Patrick Rothfuss is doing in the The Kingkiller Chronicle. Both stories present a character who’s become steeped in fable over time, and deconstruct the process that built them into their iconic personas, rooting out the kernels of truth in the fantasy. While Rothfuss does this explicitly, with an older hero, past his adventuring days, reflecting on his life and legend, Hopkinson’s themes are revealed in a more fluid, dreamlike space. The story of the present is mingled with tales of the future, of who our protagonist will become.
Hopkinson does this by intercutting the main narrative of Tan-Tan and her abusive father with myths, drawn from Caribbean and Yoruba culture, told about Tan-Tan after she makes a name for herself on New Half-Way Tree.
One of these myths keeps coming back to me in the days since I read it.
It tells the story of how Tan-Tan got saddled with a demon-like creature called Dry Bone. He’s a skeletal man, with rickety limbs and a slack jaw, whose presence is an unbearable weight on Tan-Tan’s shoulders. Dry Bone’s weight threatens to crush her completely—unless she feeds him. Constantly. Gathering food, cooking it, serving it, gathering more food, and so on, for weeks on end. The more Dry Bone eats, the thinner he becomes, and the more swollen his stomach. He serves as a representation of her guilt and loneliness, and his weight only ever lets up just enough for Tan-Tan to prepare his next meal.
As she’s out gathering food for Dry Bone one day, she has a small breakdown, and this is the part of the story I keep thinking about.
Tears start to track down Tan-Tan face. She weary, she weary can’t done, but she had was to feed the little duppy man. Lazy, the voice in she head say. What a way this woman could run from a little hard work!
I found that voice in her head woefully recognizable. I, too, have an inner monologue that makes me feel insufficient when I can’t keep up with expectations, even when the expectations I’m failing to meet are perhaps unreasonable, unexamined, or self-imposed.
Let me explain.
You ever have a book sit on your nightstand for upwards of a year, and when you finally get around to reading it, it’s so good that you want to kick yourself for not having gotten to it sooner? That was me with Midnight Robber.
On the other hand, and in the spirit of Tan-Tan and Dry Bone, I’m trying to be gentler with myself for not getting to all the things I want to do as quickly as I want to do them. And sure, not reading fast enough is pretty low-stakes in the scheme of things, but it’s also a residual effect of far more damaging expectations:
The belief, flawed or not, that I should be working faster, or more, or better. That I’m too passive. Not good enough. That when I have free time I don’t deserve it. That when I feel depressed I'm hardly worthy of it. What do I have to feel bad about?
Tan-Tan’s sense of laziness is based on a flawed assumption of what is true about the world. Dry Bone’s burden was a truth—the world can be difficult—but her feelings of shame over not being able to handle him are not. They come across as laughable.
Maybe it’s the same for you. How long have you suffered under monstrous expectations without questioning their foundations? The story of Tan-Tan and Dry Bone forces the reader to examine just who it is we feel we’re failing, by who’s metric, and whether any of that is important.
This sense of care in the midst of hardship is woven all throughout Midnight Robber. Hopkinson’s world is harsh. Actions have fearsome consequences, and those consequences don’t get walked back. And yet the book’s overall tone is gentle. The world—the real world—can be legitimately cruel. It’s not in your mind, you’re not making things up, and so you’re not weak, and you can’t kick yourself for stumbling or having a bad time of it. For not being strong enough to handle something you were not meant to be strong enough to handle. Expecting constant peace and productivity is as laughable as expecting yourself to be capable of satiating an ever-consuming demon.
This is twice now that Hopkinson has steered me away from self-loathing.
The first time was when I was lucky enough to see her speak on some panels at a storytelling convention a couple years ago. She was brilliant and affirming, and one thing she said has stuck with me ever since. (And I’m greatly paraphrasing here, based off a memory from 2015.)
“Sometimes all you can manage is to write one sentence, and you have to be okay with that being a full day’s work.”
It’s not applicable every day. I still believe in consistent habits and steady work…
But maybe not all the time. And maybe not quickly.