Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction

The first year I attended The International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts, I was approached by two gentlemen who'd just received some money to start up a press. They wanted to focus on the literature of the fantastic. Had I ever, they asked, considered editing a fiction anthology? I had, but I was still new to being published at book length, and the opportunity hadn't yet arisen.

whispers cover

Would I, they asked, consider editing an anthology of Caribbean fabulist fiction for them?

I said that I might. (I knew I'd want to do some research on the press, ask my agent's advice, then talk terms with them before I could be more certain than that.) Then I asked them what "fabulist" meant. (There's a discussion of that same question on Jeff Vandermere's blog.) That question was the inception of the anthology Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, from Invisible Cities Press.

The cotton tree, or silk cotton tree, is also called the ceiba; it's a tall tree with thick roots around which pits and caves form. Spirits are supposed to live in those pits and caves, and people will be cautioned to avoid the roots of the ceiba tree. Some people will tell you that it's actually the spirits of the ancestors that inhabit the roots of the silk cotton tree. History lives in those roots; memory. I decided to make the metaphor of the cotton tree root be the organising theme of the anthology.

Below is the invitation that I sent out to writers of Caribbean heritage:

Bring out your duppie and jumbie tales; skin-folk flights of fancy; rapsofuturist fables; your most dread of dread talks. Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction is to be an anthology of fantastical fiction in Caribbean traditions. Seeking fiction written from within a Caribbean or Caribbean diasporic context. Fabulist, unreal, or speculative elements such as magic realism, fantasy, folklore, fable, horror, or science fiction must be an integral part of the story.

The stories began to arrive, from Caribbean writers of African, South Asian, European and (no doubt) indigenous ancestry, representing Guyana, Haiti, Trinidad, Saint Thomas, Jamaica, Barbados, Cuba, Grenada, the Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Antigua and Saint Vincent. Some writers declined the invitation, saying that they were busy with other projects or that they didn't do the type of writing that would fit the theme of the anthology. I tried to find Caribbean Asian writers of fabulist fiction, but was unable to contact those few about whom I heard. (At the time, I hadn't heard of Karin Lowachee -- she hadn't yet won the second Warner Aspect First Novel Contest.)

Some writers sent two or three stories. A few people wrote work specially for the anthology. Some of the work was not what I was looking for, but much of it was. Kamau Brathwaite, to my surprise and delight, sent me a new storypoem of his. Wilson Harris and Antonio Benítez-Rojo each gave me permission to reprint a piece of theirs. I received or found stories from Marcia Douglas, Jamaica Kincaid, Robert Antoni, Toby Buckell, Opal Palmer Adisa, Claude-Michel Prévost, Pamela Mordecai, Olive Senior, and so many more. There's a list of contributors up on the Locus website.

I ended up with a thick file of energetic, stylish, challenging, satisfying stories, some of which had common themes: memory and history; faith and healing; family; the power of the sea; humour; identity; the power of dream. Compiling that anthology was a very special project to me. (It's interesting how many people end up spontaneously calling it "whispers from the cotton root tree." I'm not sure why that is.)

The cover painting "Mermaid and Butterflies", is by Michel Ange Altidort, ©The University of Central Florida Library

The book has long since gone out of print, and Invisible Cities Press is now a publisher of martial arts books, under new management. When I called to ask them whether they had unsold stock that I might buy, they were pretty sure they didn't.