I just read the short story "Shift" by Nalo Hopkinson, which is freely available online. It's a modern, Caribbean-themed story inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest.

One thing which confused me on the first reading was the use of pronouns. The story starts off written in the second person:

“Did you sleep well?” she asks, and you make sure that your face is fixed into a dreamy smile as you open your eyes into the morning after.

But then, not long after this, there are some paragraphs written in the first person:

She tell me say I must call her Scylla, or Charybdis.

I didn't notice this pronoun switch at first, and when I did, I foolishly assumed it was an inconsistency in the writing. Turns out Nalo Hopkinson is a much better writer than that: for the paragraphs in second person, "you" refers to Caliban, while Ariel is "she"; for those in first person, "I" refers to Ariel, while Caliban is "he", and "you" is used to address the readers.

My question is: why switch pronouns in this way? It's confusing on a first read - you only slowly realise that there's more than one viewpoint character - although it's all perfectly consistent once you figure out the pronoun scheme and treat the two types of paragraph separately. What does this stylistic choice add to the story?

  • (Choice of pronouns may seem like a trivial concern, but I asked another question about it before and got some quite interesting information.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 20:21
  • 1
    And what does the title mean? I haven't read the story yet, but it seems like it might be relevant.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 0:06
  • @PeterShor True, and I think "what does the title signify" would make an excellent second question about this story.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 16, 2018 at 8:33

1 Answer 1


Nalo Hopkinson's story "Shift" reuses characters from Shakespeare's play The Tempest, a play that has frequently been discussed with a specific focus on colonialism/post-colonialism, race and identity. The story reuses several words, phrases and elements from the play. For example:

  • Hopkinson's Ariel calls Caliban his "mooncalf brother"; in The Tempest (Act II, scene 2), Stephano and Trinculo call Caliban a "moon-calf".
  • Ariel's "Ban ... Ban ... ca-ca-Caliban" in the story echoes Caliban's "'Ban, 'Ban, Cacaliban" at the end of The Tempest, Act II, scene 2. (The exact punctuation and the presence of apostrophes depends on the edition you consult.)
  • The "split tree" refers to the "cloven pine" in which Sycorax had imprisoned Ariel before her death and from which Prospero had freed him/her.
  • The paragraph in which Caliban talks about Miranda refers back to Prospero's accusation "thou didst seek to violate / The honour of my child." (The Tempest (Act I, scene 2))

There are a number of differences, of course. For example:

  • Sycorax is still alive, while in The Tempest, she died before Prospero's arrival on the island.

  • Ariel is Caliban's younger sister, while in The Tempest, Ariel is a kind of spirit that was Sycorax's servant. (Ariel may have been Sycorax's servant before her arrival on the island, and not a "native" of the island. See ActI, scene 2: "Thou, my slave, / As thou report'st thyself, wast then her servant; / And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate / To act her earthy and abhorr'd commands".)

  • The story is set in modern times on an island where Ariel speaks a language inspired by English creoles, possibly Jamaican Patois. (I wouldn't claim it is pure Jamaican Patois.) Assuming that the island is Jamaica or inspired by it, it may be worth noting that Jamaica was a British colony between 1655 and 1962. The Spanish were chased by the British in 1655, they left behind many African slaves. The British later brought more African slaves.

  • The island in The Tempest is most likely a fictional island in the Mediterranean, since King Alonso's ship in the first scene was on its way back from Tunis (for the marriage of Alonso's daughter Claribel to the King of Tunis, see Act II, scene 1) back to Naples. However, the play was probably partly inspired by the shipwreck of the Sea Venture on Bermuda in 1609, and Ariel says in Act 1, scene 2 that Prospero once asked him to fetch something from the "still-vex'd Bermoothes". In addition, Gonzalo's speech in Act II, scene 1 ("I' the commonwealth I would by contraries (...") sounds very similar to an excerpt from Florio's 1603 translation of Montaigne's Essays, more specifically, the essay "Of the Canibales" / "Des Cannibales". These references, in addition to Prospero's treatment of both Caliban and Ariel (both are addressed as "slave"), invite retellings from a post-colonial point of view.

In Hopkinson's story, Prospero and Miranda do not appear as characters, nor do the other characters that were on the ship. Caliban is not someone else's slave but has a relationship with an unnamed "golden girl". Caliban has escaped the sea and his mother ("You had been swimming for her life. (...) She's coming. Sycorax is coming for you.") and has tried to adopt European or Western culture. Unlike Ariel, he uses grammatically correct English ("like something out of some Englishman book", in Ariel's words), uses a toothbrush and other products of European civilisation and makes allusions to a fairy tale where a kiss turns a frog into a prince. This is a civilisation that has tried to subjugate nature, as can be seen in the "marina algae capsules; iodine pills": things that come from the sea are available in artificial containers created using technology.

But his integration into European civilisation is imperfect: he gets the fairy tale backwards and his feet are "floppy, reluctant", they "plash around", "they slip and slide and don't want to carry you upright". He has undergone a change or "shift" (hence the story's title) away from his original nature. Due to this change, he has lost his identity or, to use a play on words, "I-dentity", so he can no longer refer to himself as "I".

As a consequence, there is also no "us" or "we" in his language. This is visible in phrases such as "As you both pass the old man", "You both turn" (Caliban and the "golden girl"), '"Yes, Mother," you both say" (Caliban and Ariel) and even "the three of you" (Caliban, Ariel and the girl).

The story switches between the point of view of Caliban, who refers to himself as "you", and Ariel, who uses the normal "I". The switching between both narrators is also noticeable from the difference in grammaticality: Ariel does not conjugate verbs correctly, uses "him" instead of "he" or "his", "them" instead of "they", sometimes omits pronouns or the verb "is/are", often uses "me" instead of "I", etc.

When Sycorax appears as a kind of sea creature, she seizes Caliban with her tentacles and transforms him: "you become a sunflower", "the change that wreaks you". To borrow a word from The Tempest Act 1, scene 2, he undergoes a sea-change. This is another "shift" (see the story's title), presumably restoring his original nature and identity. This is why the story ends with Caliban finally saying "I" for the first time.

At the end of the story, the girl says, "It's not a brush-off". Through the use of pronouns, the story might be saying that there can be no "we" between the colonizers and the colonized when the colonized betray their own roots. (If one party betrays their roots or feels that they should do so, they aren't interacting on an equal footing.)

There is more to say about this story than what I have written here, but a discussion of the use of pronouns did not seem possible without drawing in a lot of other aspects.

  • 1
    Nice answer, thanks. I'm understanding more now about the depth of this story and how many subtle references there are to various issues, especially racism and colonialism. I'm glad I posted this question, because the pronoun thing actually relates very closely to one of the major themes of the story, identity.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 11:30
  • Maybe this is too obvious to bring up, but Caliban's change echoes the purported change in The Tempest: Of his bones are coral made.  Those are pearls that were his eyes.  Nothing of him that doth fade,  But doth suffer a sea-change  Into something rich and strange.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Aug 19, 2018 at 13:51
  • @PeterShor A "sea-change" is exactly what Caliban undergoes in the story, so I added it.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Aug 22, 2018 at 10:44

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