Having spent the last several years writing novels based in Puerto Rico, I’ve been obsessed with reading and recommending as much Caribbean literature as I can, and last month I decided to exclusively read work from Afro-Caribbean speculative writers. To that end I completely immersed myself in the work of the following five writers, and I feel like I’m in the middle of the most vivid, beautiful, and mythological fever dream—one I don’t want to wake from.
In the interest of keeping the dream going, I’d like to pass on these five stunning titles to you.
Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson
I need to start with speculative royalty, Jamaican born Nalo Hopkinson. Hopkinson’s career began with a roar in 1998 with Brown Girl in the Ring, a brilliant, magical realist novel that won numerous awards. These days she’s probably best known for her contributions to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Universe. But this month I dug into a classic, her 2001 short story collection, Skin Folk. The world is not safe or secure for the inhabitants of these stories. The vulnerability of the initiation into womanhood in the reimagining of little Red Riding Hood in “Riding the Red.” The cost of greed for a river nymph’s adult children in “Money Tree.” She also writes of storms, like the glass storm that carelessness with technology produces in “Under Glass.” But there’s justice too. A serial killer/rapist is thwarted with help from some senior citizens and birds in the horror story “Snake.” And then there’s “Fisherman,” an erotic story featuring a trans main character that was well before its time (keep in mind, this was written nearly twenty years ago). There are more stories that feature the skins we take off and put on (sometimes literally, as in the story “Ganger (Ball Lightening)”), and they range from science fiction, to eroticism, to magical realism, and fantasy. All in all, it’s a wild and beautifully written speculative roller coaster that has something for everyone.
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis
Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, a Trinidadian author living in Canada, is one of the more original and thought-provoking novels I’ve read. Ever. So, gods Apollo and Hermes are hanging out in Toronto when they make a wager. The bet? If dogs were given human consciousness, would they end up being even more unhappy than humans? To prove or disprove it, they find the fifteen dogs of the title at a veterinary clinic, give them human consciousness, then sit back and observe. Hijinks do not ensue. What results gives the reader pause to consider what makes one “human,” what is love and, what began the bet: happiness. Comparisons to Animal Farm are inevitable, however I found it more…visceral than Orwell’s novel. Its lens is less a political one (though it’s there) and more focused on the personal. It’s a dark, existential romp through the dog park, with a dash of Greek mythology thrown in to give it a classic feel. It is guaranteed to get you thinking (and you’ll never look at dogs the same way).
Unraveling by Karen Lord
If you look up Caribbean sci-fi, Barbadian author Karen Lord shows up on every list. Lord’s work is science fiction canon. I had the honor of serving on a panel with her at the Miami Book Festival this past November, and that’s when I picked up a copy of her latest, a fantasy novel entitled Unraveling but didn’t get to dig into it until this month. You could say it is a murder mystery, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but it takes that genre and adds gods, diasporic African folklore, alternate universes, and labyrinths, resulting in a speculative procedural that you’ll never see coming. Follow along with Miranda Ecouvo, a forensic therapist (human) in “The City” as she works with Chance and his brother The Trickster, two supernatural “undying” characters pulled directly from myth, to solve a murder mystery. There are so many layers of meaning to this complex novel, I’m sure half of them went over my head (metaphysics shut my brain off), but the writing is beautiful and the characters engaging. It’s a trip you won’t regret.
The Marvelous Equations of the Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim by Marcia Douglas
Speaking of trips, The Marvelous Equations of The Dread: A Novel in Bass Riddim by Jamaican author Marcia Douglas is a work that defies traditional description. It is a novel-length poem, a musical (the book is divided into “tracks” instead of chapters) and mythical tale of Bob Marley, reincarnated as a homeless man who lives beneath a clocktower in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s a post-colonial, surrealist dream that travels back and forth through time, from the real world to the “Dub-Side,” or the afterlife. She paints a vibrant image of the “salt-and-sugar-island” until you smell the “exhale of the nutmeg tree,” hear the ting-ting of Fall Down Man’s brass Africa earrings, see Bob meeting with the ghost of Hailie Selassie to discuss everything from Babylon to Zion in the Dub-Side. This book is a lyrical masterpiece, but do yourself a favor and listen to the audiobook version and lose yourself in Douglas’ own Patois-flavored lilt.
The Jumbies series by Tracey Baptiste
And I can’t finish any list without a call out to children’s lit. The Jumbies books by Trinidadian author Tracey Baptiste, are part of a middle grade series based on Caribbean folklore. Starting with The Jumbies in 2015, followed by Rise of The Jumbies in 2017, and the latest installment, The Jumbie God’s Revenge in 2019. The three books follow the growing up (and growing power) of Corinne La Mer, a young girl who is dealing with ancient supernatural powers that threaten her Caribbean island. Rise of The Jumbies draws on African folklore, sending Corinne on a hero’s quest deep in and across the sea. I was particularly excited about the last installment as it is about the wrath of the god Huracan and the storms that threaten the island. This book came out as I was working on Category Five, my own supernatural hurricane related tale, so I inhaled this gorgeously written book in one sitting. This series is sure to appeal to the young people in your life as well as anyone interested in Caribbean mythology and just gorgeous writing.
I feel as though I’ve spent the last few weeks immersed in the mythology and magic of the Caribbean shores, dipped into history and the afterlife, dodged hurricanes of glass and visited with the king of Reggae. But, I guess that’s it. It’s time for me to depart from these fantastical worlds. I can’t help but feel grief-stricken. But I find solace in the hope that perhaps you will explore the work of these brilliant authors. (Okay, I’m lying. I’m not done. I’m halfway through the spectacular Black Leopard, Red Wolf from Jamaican author Marlon James and I plan to extend my stay in the land of myth, for just a little longer…or maybe forever.)
Ann Dávila Cardinal is a novelist and Director of Student Recruitment for Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). She has a B.A. in Latino Studies from Norwich University, an M.A. in sociology from UI&U, and an MFA in Writing from VCFA. Every January she runs VCFA’s Writing residency in Puerto Rico. Cardinal co-wrote Sister Chicas (2006), a contemporary YA novel. Five Midnights is her first solo novel.