Once upon a time, in a land not so far away
The Caribbean has a vast cast of wondrous characters that have become part of our cultural heritage. Carol Mitchell looks at why these mythical beings are still important – and suggests some fantastical fiction you should put on your Christmas list
Caribbean fantasy literature is as colourful and varied as every other aspect of our islands’ culture. It is bursting with richness, featuring a wealth of mythical creatures designed to strike fear and wonder in the hearts of children and grown-ups alike.
The genre is closely informed and inspired by our folklore, a base ingredient in Caribbean storytelling, which includes the songs, histories, games, traditions, recipes, crafts and expressions that combine to form our culture. This results in a range of stories that typically involve a hero’s journey, a trickster and a healthy sprinkling of jumbies, duppies, ghosts and spirits. These narratives teach the same lessons that tales of old aimed to impart – lessons that underscore the importance of community, survival and curiosity; lessons that retain their value today.
Not surprisingly, many elements of Caribbean folklore have their roots in Africa. Songs and stories that may once have kept a child from the continent’s natural dangers may also have provided some level of mental escape while Africans endured the tortures of the middle passage. For those who survived the journey, sharing folklore would have served to preserve cultural norms, to protect memories of the homeland, and to pass on traditions. The infamous Anansi, for example, is a mischievous, shape-shifting spider whose character originated in West Africa and whose stories are now very popular worldwide; it forms the background for many Jamaican fantasy narratives.
Other aspects of Caribbean folktales are said to have come direct from Europe. For example, the soucouyant – a creature well known in the French West Indies and islands such as Trinidad, St Lucia and Dominica – is believed to have been born of a French vampire legend brought from Europe and infused with African lore. This myth takes a variety of forms, but usually involves an old woman who sheds her skin and flies across the night sky in a fireball in search of human blood.
Spice for the pot
Regardless of their origins, once the stories arrived in the Caribbean, they absorbed the flavours of their new environment. Papa Bois, the protector of forests and animals, and Mama Dlo (also called Mami Wata in St Lucia and River Mumma in Jamaica) embody the idea of water and woods as important resources in need of protection, and are believed to be remnants of First Nation culture.
The folklore that feeds our literature today has been simmering for years in an ever-burning coal pot, cooking, absorbing and changing. Newcomers from Asia and other areas of the world add rhythms and stories; migrant workers spread tales to other lands and return with new lore to spice up their own pots.
Caribbean fairytales have evolved in another fundamental way. In those early days, folk tales were passed on verbally, from one storyteller to another. As these orators spun their tales, they might have got down on all fours to imitate Anansi’s stealthy crawl, or enacted the triumphant cackles of the Guyanese baccoos Boysie and Boya – creatures not unlike, but significantly more complicated than, the genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Today, it is certainly a challenge to translate this very physical aspect of storytelling to the printed page or an electronic tablet.
Pride on the page
With all of these changes to Caribbean traditions, why do we continue to fuel the fire of folkloric storytelling? Myths and legends had specific purposes in the past that are not relevant today. We no longer need fantastical tales to explain the unexplainable. That bump in the night would once have conjured images of the chains of a rolling calf blocking the way with its monstrous body and fiery eyes. A sudden flash of light across the night sky would have been put down to a blood-sucking soucouyant. A missing child might have followed the backwards feet of a mischievous douen into the woods. An errant young man may have encountered La Diablesse, who dazzles unlucky souls with her beauty (her long dress hiding her cow foot and true nature), leading them to their doom.
Modern knowledge and science now provide more logical answers for many of the phenomena once rationalised by this lore. However, the thrill of the possibility that such creatures exist has fed our cultural identity and pride, and our literature plays an important part in stirring the pot. The 2016 paper ‘Recollections and Representations of Folk in the Classroom: Teacher Perspectives’ suggested that “Folklore… not only presents a record of local histories, but also has the potential to aid post-colonial youth as they develop their perspectives and positionalities as Caribbean adults.”
In addition, the changes we have seen to our folk traditions do not devalue them. The pot does not become less sweet because any feature is used elsewhere or because a new feature is incorporated. In fact, the additions that stick become a part of the mélange that makes our Caribbean stories unique. Our rich culture deserves to be maintained and passed on, and an understanding of that has allowed the Caribbean to develop its own niche in the fantasy genre, with characters who have found a home on the pages of today’s literature.
Travel to mysterious worlds from the comfort of your own couch with these otherworldly books, all sprinkled with a little magic in the vein of Caribbean folklore
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Featuring a cast of almost-washed-up gods, this contemporary adventure tells a tale of power waxing and waning using a blend of fantasy and ancient and modern mythologies.
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
The first in an epic series, this book tells of Fitz, a lonely teen cast out of his home, who may be destined to save a kingdom. Proof that fantasy isn’t just silly elves and unicorns but can also be brutal, emotional and real.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
A hunter and a group of misfits dodge danger in urban and rural ancient Africa on a quest to find a missing boy. Fast-paced, epic novel filled with African history and mythology.
Escape from Silk Cotton Forest by Francis Escayg
The Trini author writes of the corrupt Kingdom of Ierie, a rebellious teen in search of revenge, the bewitching power of La Diablesse and a large cast of terrifying mythical creatures.
The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
The classic trilogy follows Frodo and the members of the Fellowship on their quest to protect the powerful One Ring from falling back into the hands of the Dark Lord Sauron. World creation extraordinaire.
A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
This complex saga tells the story of the fate of the Starks of Winterfell, their allies, and their enemies as they battle to win the game of thrones.
Greyborn Rising by Derry Sandy
Trinidadian swords-master Rohan and a reformed soucouyant band together to protect the world from the preternatural creatures of the Grey. Non-stop action with compelling heroes and heroines.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling
Harry’s magical adventures begin on his 11th birthday, when he discovers that he’s a wizard… the first in the global bestselling series.
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
On a fictitious Caribbean island, a gutsy young heroine battles evil jumbies while confronting the possibility that she may be one herself.
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
The Jamaican-Canadian writer tells a coming-of-age tale with a sci-fi edge: Tan-Tan and her father find themselves thrust into a brutal world where monstrous creatures from folklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds.
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
The Barbadian writer’s debut novel, winner of the Frank Collymore Literary Award in Barbados, reimagines a Senegalese tale with artful storytelling, a likeable heroine and plenty of magic and adventure.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
Set in post-apocalyptic Africa, this story follows a young Sudanese woman with magical abilities who seeks to defeat her would-be murderer and change the society that allowed him to come into being. A cautionary yet hope-filled tale.