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Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, edited by Nalo Hopkinson, Invisible Cities Press, 2000, 318 pp.

Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root is an interesting anthology, the type of project that makes reading in genre of science fiction and fantasy worthwhile. As Hopkinson points out in the introduction, this is not precisely a collection of genre stories in the way that most marketing of science fiction and fantasy understands it, making it at once an awkward and apt fit for her. Hopkinson herself has written two excellent science fiction novels, Brown Girl in the Ring, about urban decay and the survival of cultural backgrounds, and Midnight Robber, an examination of, among other things, nanotechnology in the context of Caribbean culture. The stories in Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root mostly continue with the same project of rooting writing in a sense of the Caribbean, even though they might approach the idea of genre from an oblique angle. The word fabulist in the subtitle is entirely appropriate.

The book is divided into seven broad topical sections. The first is "'membah" in which three stories deal with interruptions in and the persistence of tradition and heritage, memory and remembering. "What the Periwinkle Remember" by Marcia Douglas is an excerpt from a novel, and this excerpt is a story of an old woman looking back on her life. "Yurokon" by Wilson Harris examines certain myths and preconceptions about Caribbean people. "Spurn Babylon" by Tobias S. Buckell takes place in a village where a wrecked slave ship has washed ashore.

The second section is entitled "Science" and deals with the contrast between herbal lore and rituals and the Western ideas of science. Roger McTair's "Just a Lark" is almost a horror story, as long ago secrets and misdeeds come back in surprising ways. "Tears for Ersulie Freda: Men Without Shadow" by Claude-Michel Prevost is part story and part play, and tells of the process of creativity in the context of disapproval.

"Blood Thicker More Than Water" has three stories about family. H. Nigel Thomas' "The Village Cock" is about an abusive father, and the long journey of the family and the village to resolution of conflict. "Shadows Move in the Britannia Bar" by Ismith Khan is told by an old drunk in a bar, relating the rocky relationship between a father and son. "My Mother" by Jamaica Kincaid is a type of experimental piece, vignettes of a daughter's view of her mother.

The fourth section is "The Broad Dutty Water" in which the stories all deal with the waters of the Caribbean. "Mad Fish" by Olive Senior is a tall tale... or is it? Opal Palmer Adisa's "Widows' Walk" is perhaps my favourite story in Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root. A woman waits for her husband, who is overdue to return from a fishing trip. There are no overt fantastical elements, apart from a sense that the woman has of the sea as a rival for her husband's life. A vividly written slice of life. "Once on the Shores of the Stream Senegambia" by Pamela Mordecai closes the section.

"Crick Crack" covers storytelling, and begins with a short piece by Lillian Allen, "In the Beginning." Next is "Uncle Obadiah and the Alien" by Geoffrey Philp, which I found to be the funniest story in the collection, involving a patch of marijuana, aliens who look like Margaret Thatcher, and lots of hilarity. Robert Antoni fulfills all of the promises of the title of his story, "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." And there's one more story in this section: "Pot O' Rice Horowitz's House of Solace" by Ian McDonald, about a man who would like to open a brothel in a small town.

The sixth section of the book is entitled "Down Inside the Chute," and deals with ghosts or spirits. Hopkinson's own "Glass Bottle Trick" is a story of revenge. "Buried Statues" by Antonio Benitez-Rojo is one of the stranger stories in the book, about a small group of people living on an estate. "Soma" by Camilla Hernandez-Ramdwar is about the body, about hatred of the body, and what happens when the body defines you even more overtly than it may now.

The closing section of the book is "Dream." "My Funny Valentine" is a three-page poem by Kamau Brathwaite and the book concludes with "Devil Beads" by marina ama omowale maxwell.

Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root is recommended to anyone interested in Caribbean culture. Hopkinson has done wonderful work at organizing and presenting the stories, and Invisible Cities Press has put together a handsome edition.


Last modified: March 10, 2002

Copyright © 2002 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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