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Nalo Hopkinson's novel Midnight Robber (published in 2000) is prefaced by the poem "Stolen" by David Findlay. According to the novel's colophon, the poem's copyright is dated 1997. However, according to the online magazine Strange Horizons, which published it under the title Stolen Song, the poem first appeared in Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber. Since copyright has obviously not expired, I reproduce only the first few lines here:

I stole the torturer's tongue
it's the first side of me some see
the first line you hear

What is the relevance of this poem to the novel?

  • For the record, the poem is available online. Mind adding that link to your question? – Rand al'Thor Aug 29 '18 at 23:30
  • @Randal'Thor Thanks. I have added the link and a few other comments (difference in title, copyright year). – Christophe Strobbe Aug 30 '18 at 9:39
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The poem is a nod to the use of Caribbean creoles in the novel.

My best source for this is actually something I found as one of the top hits when I searched the web for david findlay stolen in the hope of finding the full text of the poem. Here's an essay by Nalo Hopkinson herself (previously published on this defunct site) in which she explains some of the major cultural themes of the novel. It's worth reading the whole thing, but I'll just quote the most relevant bit:

I'm also experimenting with the complex sets of codes that are Caribbean creoles. (I know one pretty well, and bits of two others.) Caribbean cultures are hybrid cultures. Hybridity was a strategy for survival and resistance amongst the enslaved and indentured people. They all came from different cultures with different languages and then had an alien culture and speech imposed on them. They had to find ways to use elements of all the cultures in order to continue to exist. That hybridity is reflected in the languaging we've created. I've tried to reflect that in Midnight Robber, largely in the way the characters use language when they speak, but also in the language of the narrative. I've tried to write the book as it might be written if it were actually an artifact of the fictional culture I've created. "She ain't want to go down in the gully, oui" is standard English for them. So is "She didn't want to go down into that gully."

The stylistic choices are quirky, and much to the patient annoyance of my long-suffering writing group, can seem inconsistent. They aren't really. I realised after a while that I was using a Trinidadian mode of address for emphasis/irony and a Jamaican one to signal opposition; the latter coming at least in part out of my recognition of the ways that Rastafari has created "dread talk" as a language of resistance. I'm fascinated with the notion of breaking an imposed language apart and remixing it. To speak in the hacked language is not just to speak in an accent or a creole; to say the words aloud is an act of referencing history and claiming space. The people of the Nation Worlds in my novel have done that, have left Earth to a place where they can make their own society. Their speech, written and spoken, reflects the reasons they've made that journey. Hence "Stolen Song," the poem that starts off Midnight Robber (and thank you David Findlay, for permission to quote your work).

Midnight Robber deliberately undermines the standard linguistic tropes of mainstream science fiction, which are influenced by ancient Greek and Roman cultures via American technology. In the Carib-colonised planet of Toussaint, people speak a mixture of creole languages: stable natural languages which were developed from a mixture of different languages, often reflecting several different cultures coming together. Hence the relevance of the poem about stealing tongues: speakers of a creole language have "stolen" many of their words and turns of phrase from other languages, but now they've made them their own.

The poem, of course, is playing on a double meaning of the word "tongue". In juxtaposition with "torturer", it's likely to make the reader think of tongues as in body parts. But a better interpretation, at least in the context of Midnight Robber, is to think of tongues as in languages. In many cases, creole speakers have "stolen" the tongue (language) of the Europeans who once oppressed or enslaved them (their "torturers").

The author has also spoken more in an interview about what she was trying to do with the use of language in Midnight Robber:

I had a specific project with the second one that's probably summed up best by "Stolen," the poem at the beginning of it written by David Findlay. The first line of the poem is, "I stole the torturer's tongue." In many ways, that's what Caribbean Creoles did. I wanted to see what a language might look like that was shaped by its own history. I think part of what was happening was when I would write stories and workshop them, and I would write people speaking the way I know people speak, and if they were speaking Creole I would get comments like, "She can't use a word like this because she's obviously not educated enough." Educated has nothing to do with your accent, or the way you choose to speak when you're using the vernacular (and every language has its vernaculars). So it was partly my thinking about how to get it across that someone might choose not to sound North American but might nevertheless speak in vernacular. And I have other colleagues who are North American -- I have a friend who's an African American woman who when she writes her black characters in a futuristic context has been told in her workshops, "No one's going to speak like this in the future." Apparently we're all going to sound American -- white, middle class American. So it was interrogating that a little bit. That kind of hegemony of language. And then trying to figure out: How would you write something futuristic and still keep a sense of the language and a sense of the history of the people in the story?

I've blended three English Creoles -- Jamaican, Trinidadian, and there's the occasional Guyanese reference. Which are the places in the Caribbean where I've lived. All of which meant more research into language. I swear, that'll be my first criterion now when I write -- no research. I blended the languages to see what would happen. It isn't so much an ongoing project -- it was a project for that novel. I will always have characters from the places I call home, and I'll always try to make them speak the way they might. That's really difficult to put down, because often we're talking about an oral form. If you tried to directly transcribe the language you use when you're sitting talking with your buddies it would not work in writing. So trying to get a sense of Creoles on paper and still have it be readable and understandable -- and sustain it for 400 pages -- was work. And I'm still trying to work it through with the new novel a little bit -- I'm not doing it as heavily. I'm trying to get a sense across of how the characters think about language. The main characters you meet at first are in Saint-Domingue -- Haiti before the Haitian revolution. They are speaking French Creole. Of course I have to write that in English, but I want to get a sense of how they think about language. Because the language they're speaking is a combination of many African languages and French and probably Spanish.

As to why it's so important, Creoles in particular are often subversive languages. They come out of having to take on a language of the colonizer and then change it to meet your own needs. I wanted to get across a strong sense of subversion and even playfulness that can happen when a language grows that way.

Again, she was deliberately trying to subvert certain cultural norms, like the association of "standard" English with good education. She wanted to describe a culture in the distant future where people don't speak like typical white middle-class Americans but in the Caribbean vernacular languages that she knows. Midnight Robber was, as she says in the same interview, her way of breaking the rule "Never write a whole novel in Creole".

I also found an interesting essay on the use of language in Midnight Robber to explore issues of colonialism. There's a lot more to be said about this than will fit in a single Stack Exchange post, but I hope I've at least answered the question of why Findlay's poem is relevant to Hopkinson's novel.


For the record, the poem was first published in Midnight Robber, but now it's freely available to read online. The first few pages of the novel are also available online (as a short excerpt for review, which I believe falls under "fair use"), in case anyone else wants a taste of the use of language in this story.

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