Fantasy-Faction World Tour of Wonderment: The Caribbean
Welcome back to the Fantasy-Faction World Tour of Wonderment where we aim to shine a spotlight on different parts of the world and their contributions to the fantasy genre. In past editions, we have looked at Italy, Scotland, and The Netherlands so we decided it was time to jump across the pond and have a look at the Caribbean islands.
The Caribbean region is actually made up of just over 7,000 different islands and reefs. These islands are also known as the West Indies because when Christopher Columbus first found the islands in the 15th century he thought he’d discovered a sub-continent of India. If only he’d had Google Maps.
This collection of great nations has given us many wonderful things and arguably a new way of looking at the world, from the joys of rum and fruit hats to the peace of Rasta and the words and music of Bob Marley who once said:
“Don’t gain the world and lose your soul, wisdom is better than silver or gold…”
And so, with the idea of wisdom in mind I want to show you the world of Caribbean fantasy.
The islands of the Caribbean have a wonderful mix of separate cultures that have led to the creation of a rich culture of their own. Heavily influenced during times of world discovery and terrible slavery, the Caribbean culture has hints of everything from western European beliefs to African mythology. The folktales of the Caribbean link all of these influences and also hold the roots to most of the modern fantasy tales that come out of the islands. So, we’ll start there, where history hits myth with the characters of Caribbean folklore. As is normal with any folk tales, the names and stories do vary slightly amongst the island nations but hopefully what I’ve compiled are roughly accurate summations of each tale.
Duppies (or jumbies) are ghosts that roam the earth at night. To keep duppies out of your house while you sleep, you must sprinkle rice, salt, dandruff or any other small stuff around the outside of your house. The duppies, being rather OCD, have to count each individual grain/piece of flakey scalp before even considering entering the house. The aim is that there is so much to count that before they are done, the sun will have risen and the ghost has to return to the spirit world. If you’re a Peter V. Brett fan then think of this method as being like really rubbish wards. Duppies are said to live, along with devils and demons inside Silk Cotton Trees and it is apparently common for people to be afraid of cutting these trees down for fear of releasing the horrors that live inside.
La Diablesse is a woman who appears to be the most gorgeous thing any man has ever seen. She has sultry moves, a gorgeous figure and a flowin’ dress, which make her irresistible. However, beneath her large straw hat is a hideous face of sheer horror. Her long dress also hides the fact that while she has one human leg she also has one that is tipped with a cow’s hoof. She seduces men away from parties late at night and draws them deep into the forest before eventually killing them.
The focus of this story goes by many names. Generally known as either Mama Dlo/Glow or Dglo her name also appears as Mama Dleau or De l’eau deriving from the French for ‘of water.’ She is the mother of the water, protector of all river creatures.
When reading her stories you are reminded of tales of mermaids and the stories of sirens who would sing men to shipwreck, appearing as supermodels only to turn out to be monsters.
Mama Dglo is depicted as a gorgoues woman from the waist upwards with long golden hair that she sits and brushes next to a river or pool of water while singing silent songs to lure criminals in. Her lower half though, takes the form of an anaconda and it is said that when she is angered her hair turns into living snakes (like the Gorgon) and her skin becomes covered in shining scales. It is said that to escape Mama Dglo you must take off your left shoe, turn it upside down and immediately get out of there, walking backwards all the way home.
Much like Mama Dglo, Soucouyants go by many names including Old Hig and Old Higue. They are the vampires of the Caribbean. Generally they are described as being hideous old women by day and when the night hits these wicked creatures shed their old, wrinkled skin and change into balls of roaring fire. They then fly through the air searching for sleeping victims to suck dry of all blood from any soft part they can get their teeth on to. It is said that they then trade this blood for evil powers from a devil who is trapped in the Silk Cotton Tree. With these powers, they can then shape-shift into many evil forms including shrinking their size so they can slip under doorways to attack people in their homes.
Much like with the duppies, it is said that to catch Old Hig you must scatter grains of rice around your home to which she cannot help but try and count them. If there is enough rice or salt you can keep her counting until the sun comes up at which point it’s too late for her to get back to her skin. Another option is to find her skin while she is out of it and douse it with salt so when she returns she will wither and die in agony much like a slug or the opposite of the witch from the Wizard of Oz. The last option is to find the flaming ball and beat it with a stick. When an old lady appears the next morning covered in bruises you know you’ve got your demon. Sounds watertight huh?…
For the record, I’m not sure if Christian cross or holy water work on this vampire.
Beyond these few I have mentioned, there are loads more fantastic characters that you should look up and read about. Papa Bois is the short and hairy protector of the forests, there are Douens (dwens) who are the twisted spirits of children who died before being baptised and there’s the Lugarhoo (Lugahoo) that is a person who can shape-shift into fierce creatures or might appear as a headless man carrying a coffin and rattling chains.
These characters of Caribbean folklore and mythology are still incredibly important in Caribbean storytelling and these characters and tales seem to shape a huge amount of the modern fantasy stories that come out of the islands.
In regards to fantasy literature there are a ton of truly fantastic authors that the Caribbean islands have given us. Obviously, there are far too many to list in a short article like this, but hopefully I can give you a taster.
Caribbean Fantasy Literature
Nalo Hopkinson – Jamaica
Nalo Hopkinson is a Jamaican born writer. She is arguably one of the most popular of all the modern Caribbean sci-fi and fantasy writers. She has had three novels and many short stories published. Her most popular book, Brown Girl in the Ring is considered one of the leading pieces of Caribbean literature in any genre. It was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award in 1998, it received the prestigious Locus Award for Best New Writer and it was also a finalist in the 1998 Canada Reads competition.
Ms Hopkinson is also the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and was nominated for the 2001 Huge Award and the 2007 Nebula Award both for Best Novel.
Daina Chaviano – Cuba
Daina Chaviano is a Cuban writer and is said to be one of the three most important Spanish female writers in fantasy and science fiction – along with Angélica Gorodischer (Argentina) and Elia Barceló (Spain). She was the first Spanish author to be a guest of honour for the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) in Northern America and in 1998 her novel El Hombre, La Hembra Y El Hambre won the Azorín Prize for Best Novel in Spain. This book, along with two others, is part of a series called The Occult Side of Havana, which is said to not only follow old Cuban myths but also acts as a study on the psychology of the Cuban people. Amongst many other awards she has won the 2003 Goliardos Fantasy International Award in Mexico and was the gold medal winner in the 2007 Florida Book Awards.
Tobias Buckell – Grenada
Tobias Buckell is a prolific writer having poured out three critically lauded novels and a torrent of short stories. His stories have appeared in multiple anthologies and his tale In Orbite Medievali won first place in the fourth quarter writing contest for Writers Of The Future in 2000. In 2007 he was nominated for a Nebula award and in 2008, Buckell produced a novel for the Halo video game franchise entitled Halo: The Cole Protocol which went on to make The New York Times Best Seller list.
Karen Lord – Barbados
Karen Lord has twice won the prestigious Frank Collymore Literary Endowment – once in 2008 for her fantasy novel Redemption In Indigo and then again in 2009 for science fiction piece The Best Of All Possible Worlds. Along with Hopkinsons’s Brown Girl In The Ring, Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is considered to be one of the finest pieces of Caribbean literature to be produced in recent years. In 2011 alone, it won both the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and the William L. Crawford Award. It was also nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award.
Robert Edinson Sandiford – Canada
Okay, so Robert Edinson Sandiford was born in Canada, but his literally works have won him many Caribbean-based awards including the Barbados Governor General’s Award of Excellence in Literary Arts as well as the Harold Hoyte Award and the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award. He is also a founding editor of ArtsEtc: The Premier Cultural Guide to Barbados, which can be found here. His works began with realism, touching more on socio and cultural influences but as time has progressed he has moved further into fantasy with the likes of The Tree Of Youth And Other Stories.
There is only one main series of books that are produced in the Caribbean aimed purely at bringing fantasy stories, legends and mythology from the Caribbean, to the youth of the islands, and that is the Island Fiction series. This series has many great titles including Escape From Silk Cotton Forest where the hero has to evade Soucouyants, Lagahoos, and the giant, yeti-like Moongazers to escape the power of La Diablesse. Other titles include: Delroy in the Marog Kingdom, Night of the Indigo and The Chalice Project. For more information on this series you can check out the Macmillan Publishing – Caribbean website by clicking here.
So there we have it ladies and gents, a brief overview of Caribbean fantasy. I have almost certainly missed some incredible authors and stories that originate from the Caribbean so please let me know who they are in the comments below.
Before I go though, I cannot write an article on Caribbean fantasy without mentioning the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Love them or loathe them they are some of the biggest movies in the world right now and I’ve been wracking my brains for how to discuss them in a clever and intelligent way. It’s kinda hard given the source material…then it dawned on me –
You can have a picture of me and my favourite towel.
Visit the other countries in our world tour here: