— Originally published on October 3, 2021 in the Stabroek News
If anyone had taken me aside last month and asked me what came to mind when I heard the phrase “gothic horror”, I would have given them a very narrow description. I would have told them about dilapidated mansions looming amid clouds of billowing fog, the haunted characters traversing their halls and the tell-tale hearts under the floorboards beating out the rhythm of their guilt and anxiety. And, of course, said characters, spending their lives in spooky monuments to their triumphs and woes, would be white.
But last month, my perception of the gothic genre was blown wide open. I attended FiyahCon, Fiyah Literary Magazine’s virtual convention for speculative fiction writers, artists, and readers. One of my favourite panels during that weekend was about “Non-Western Gothic”, where authors from the American South, Caribbean, Nigeria, and the Philippines introduced the audience to the essence of the gothic genre. One of the panelists — the Trinidadian-Canadian short story writer Suzan Palumbo — had a definition that captivated me. She said that the gothic stories center characters who have been isolated in some way, whether physically, socially, emotionally, or mentally. The stories then evolve from these points, showing how the characters respond to the isolation.
I had read one of her stories this February in The Dark magazine and I had loved it as it is. Now, armed with this new information about the genre, I revisited that story and searched for more of her work. I loved all her stories but selected just three to review for this month. October is Spooky Season, after all, and a great time to indulge in some Caribbean Gothic.
“Priya is drawing lotuses with chalk on the driveway, unhappy with each blossom’s symmetry, when a shadow lurches across her designs…She decides to trace the undulating shadow on the blacktop in yellow chalk. Its bulk encompasses her flowers, and as she closes the shape, a spot begins to ripple at its center.”
While drawing lotuses on her asphalt driveway, Priya accidentally summons a Rakshasi. The giant monster looms over her life, influencing her from the shadows by amplifying her anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The Rakshasi says she’s helping Priya, making her suffer to perfect her art by scaling her angst and negativity. When Diwali comes and her brother Videsh notices the shift in her being, Priya makes a decision that will hopefully change her life.
“Tara’s Mother’s Skin”
“You eat the rice you pick out of the dirt?” I asked Tara’s Mother. I’d found her sitting on a wooden bench in the gallery of her squat, concrete house, massaging her inflamed elbow…
“Yes, Farrah, I cook the rice the children throw at me when they pass on the road. It’s good food they waste when they pelt it at me.”
Farrah is a university student on a mission. She has returned to her village intent on interviewing Tara’s Mother: the person rumoured to be her community’s soucouyant. She wants to tell the woman’s truth, separate rumour from fact, folklore from reality. But as the interview progresses, the Soucouyant forces Farrah to turn her investigations inward. As she reflects on her own life, she draws similarities between herself and Tara’s Mother and discovers that there are facts in rumours, and reality within the folklore.
“Laughter Among the Trees”
“I was fourteen when we retreated south west on this stretch to the suburbs of Toronto – me in the back of my parents’ station wagon, the emptiness of Sab’s seat corroding our ability to speak.”
The camping trip was supposed to be normal, just a way for Anarika and her family to relax and have fun. But then Anarika’s little sister, Sabrina, disappears on the first night of the trip. All efforts to find her are futile and the family returns home, one member short and traumatised.
As Anarika tells us the story of Sabrina’s disappearance, and the decades before and after this pivotal moment, slowly see how grief manifests and consumes the rest of the family, and how much Anarika sacrifices in the end.
Caribbean and Diasporic Gothic
There is so much to unpack in each of Palumbo’s short stories, but at their root, all of them centre a character who feels isolated in some way and is thus emotionally and mentally stressed. Either the effects of the isolation or it’s solution manifests as something otherworldly or monstrous. The character is then given a choice: beat it or join it.
In each of these stories, the main characters — all of whom are Indian Trinidadian immigrants in Canada or local Trinidadians— are isolated very early in their lives. In “Personal Rakshasi”, Priya’s sense of isolation comes from being ostracised by her classmates, some of whom call her and her brother freaks just for being brown. When they leave her out of social events, she turns to art as a coping mechanism and that is when the Rakshasi attaches to her. What makes her situation worse is that her father doesn’t initially believe that the Rakshasi even exists, and her brother initially teases her about her exclusion or copes by fighting anyone who dares mock him. This leaves her feeling even lonelier and the Rakshasi grows stronger because of it.
Similarly, in “Tara’s Mother’s Skin”, Farrah is also isolated in school. This time, she is isolated by her fellow Trinidadians: the aunts who say she would be pretty if her eyes weren’t so big and the bullies who call her a Douen and punish her for simply existing or striving to be her best. Even Tara’s Mother, the rumoured Soucouyant, has been isolated. She raised her daughter on her own, doing what she needed to survive and ensure that her child completed school. Farrah pointed out that her village should have helped to support her. Instead, Tara’s Mother’s neighbours started spreading a rumour that she did obeah to stretch her money and their children, in turn, call her a Soucouyant and mock her.
Anarika’s circumstances are similar to Priya. She is an immigrant, a transplant from Trinidad to Canada. Her isolation began when she was just four years old, when one of her classmates says she ‘talks stupid’ because of her accent, and when a teacher pulls her aside to teach her to pronounce her words properly.
Her family later isolates her when her little sister, Sabrina, is born. We only get Anarika’s perspective throughout the story, and according to her, her family doted on Sabrina and neglected her because she was a true Canadian in their eyes, unlike herself and her parents who are Trinidadians masquerading as Canadians. They spoil Sabrina and in turn, Sabrina quickly learns how to exploit her sister for her own gain, and there is little that Anarika can do but tuck herself away.
After Sabrina disappears, her father starts drinking and her mother frequently dissociates, leaving her alone with her own grief and forcing her to find her own destructive coping mechanisms to deal with the loss because she doesn’t have the support she needs from her family.
But it’s not all despair for these characters. Priya and Farrah in particular find silver linings in their predicaments. Even though Priya’s brother, Videsh, initially joined the pile-on and made her feel more isolated when they were teenagers, he opens a door to guide her to a solution when she returns home from college during Diwali. He was even the one to encourage her to go to art school, even though her father was sceptical.
Farrah, too, finds an open door to her problems. She finds a kindred spirit in Tara’s Mother, realising that she wants peace, yes, but she also wants a way to escape from the people who hurt her and a way to fight back against one’s enemies. She learns that by learning to protect yourself against bullies and fight back, you become monstrous in their eyes. She chooses to become the monster.
Anarika also finds a solution to her isolation. Like her parents, she finds unhealthy ways to cope with her grief. Outwardly, she may seem like the poster child of successful immigrants, but the disconnect between her illusion and her reality is one of the most heart-breaking forms of isolation in this selection because Anarika isolated herself from herself. Later, when she finally learns what happened to Sabrina and the dark secret her mother harboured for decades, she decides to end her family’s suffering in the only way she thinks may work. The ending of this story is as disturbing as it is sad.
I love Palumbo’s short stories. She captures so many of the ways teenagers and young adults can feel isolated generally, but she also captured the type of angst that is specific to the Caribbean diaspora. I truly hope that she goes on to publish a collection of her work and I hope to see her at more speaking engagements. Listening to her articulate the elements of the gothic genre during FiyahCon, and reading her fiction thereafter gave me a new appreciation for gothic horror, and I will certainly be reading more short stories and novels from the region within this niche.
Want to read more of Palumbo’s short stories? Check out the following:
Want to read some more gothic stories? Check out these stories from the Non-Western Gothic panellists: