Nalo Hopkinson

Invisible Cities Press / 318 pages / 16 October 2000

ISBN: 0967968321

There can only be one reason why a person would not be a fan of Caribbean fiction, especially fabulist fiction: they simply haven’t had the pleasure of encountering it… yet. Nowhere else will readers find the warm, ready welcome extended by Caribbean storytellers. Now, if you took my strong suggestion and dived into Patrick Chamoiseau’s Chronicle Of The Seven Sorrows, you already know this is true, and you’ve been hungering for more. If you missed Chamoiseau’s brilliant novel, now you can pick up the slack and get started with Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction.

The mere fact that it’s edited by the extremely talented Nalo Hopkinson should be enough enticement to lure many readers in. Add to that a truly bone-chilling story by Hopkinson herself — a unique and sinister twist on a familiar plot. Then, take into account the creative magic of the twenty authors featured in this anthology, and you have a sampler tailor-made introduction to the realm of Caribbean fabulist fiction. It’s an introduction not soon forgotten.

Marcia Douglas’ “What the Periwinkle Remember” starts off the compilation perfectly with the blend of mysticism and sensibility that marks this branch of fiction. The excerpt, from Madame Fate, allows us a glimpse into the life of a shape-shifter, her daily struggle for survival and the wonders of her transformation. In “Spurn Babylon,” Tobias S. Buckell brings together the tragedy and hope of the present with the losses of the past and grants the protagonist a chance to bridge that gap. The unquestioning acceptance of the Charlotte Amalie residents embodies the strength and spirit of the people within Caribbean literature.

The dominant and often abusive role of the man in these societies is illustrated by the reminiscences of an impressionable child, long grown up and moved away, in the brutal and darkly humorous “The Village Cock.” Jamaica Kincaid further explores the complex dynamics between the generations of family in the too-brief “My Mother.” The importance and vexation of familial ties is reinforced again and again in these stories.

But, every tale in Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root, no matter how dark, has a liberal sprinkling of the wry humour that allowed these characters to persevere in the face of hardship and loss. Lillian Allen serves up — in a short, sharp jab of wit — an updated, all-too-familiar version of a creation story. The wickedly funny exchange between “Uncle Obadiah and the Alien” and the convoluted arrangements in “My Grandmother’s Tale of the Buried Treasure and How She Defeated the King of Chacachacari and the Entire American Army with Her Venus-Flytraps” are as entertaining as the titles promise.

Two of the most intriguing narratives come late in the book, closing the anthology with a bang. “Soma,” Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar’s tale of the ultimate longing to fit in with the masses, takes on a strange and disturbing face that argues eloquently for non-conformity. Most unusual and rewarding of the selections is “My Funny Valentine.” Kamau Brathwaite’s puzzle of a love letter requires readers to surrender their own notions of language and flow with the narrator’s peculiar thought patterns.

There is so much more to Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, but the best way to discover this is to read it for yourself. Travel from the almost forgotten past to the jumbled present in these tantalizing selections. Wander through this anthology and you, too, will be out searching for more to fill that hunger.