Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Things that Fly in the Night – review

Author: Gizelle Liza Anatol

First published: 2015

Contains Spoilers

The Blurb: The Things That Fly in the Night explores images of vampirism in Caribbean and African diasporic folk traditions and in contemporary fiction. Giselle Liza Anatol focuses on the figure of the soucouyant, or Old Hag—an aged woman by day who sheds her skin during night’s darkest hours in order to fly about her community and suck the blood of her unwitting victims. In contrast to the glitz, glamour, and seductiveness of conventional depictions of the European vampire, the soucouyant triggers unease about old age and female power. Tracing relevant folklore through the English- and French-speaking Caribbean, the U.S. Deep South, and parts of West Africa, Anatol shows how tales of the nocturnal female bloodsuckers not only entertain and encourage obedience in pre-adolescent listeners, but also work to instil particular values about women’s “proper” place and behaviours in society at large.

Alongside traditional legends, Anatol considers the explosion of soucouyant and other vampire narratives among writers of Caribbean and African heritage who in the past twenty years have rejected the demonic image of the character and used her instead to urge for female mobility, racial and cultural empowerment, and anti-colonial resistance. Texts include work by authors as diverse as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, U.S. National Book Award winner Edwidge Danticat, and science fiction/fantasy writers Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson.

The Review: When I saw that this volume, which carries the secondary title “Female Vampires in Literature of the Circum-Caribbean and African Diaspora”, was due for publication I became very excited as the soucouyant myth receives little attention (in Europe anyway). The name (or a variant thereof, namely soucriant) is used for the vampire type in the film Byzantium but the vampires are whitewashed racially and the core lore of the creatures (shedding their skin, becoming balls of fire and being destroyed in the sun if their skin is not back on by the morning light) is lost. It did not surprise me, therefore, that the film was not mentioned in the book.

The Byzantium vampires were, of course, most definitely vampires (and the film drew inspiration from both Byron and Polidori) but some might question the vampire pedigree of the soucouyant (both students of vampire folklore and scholars of the very circum-Caribbean literature examined in the book). Anatol admits, in her lengthy introduction: “I have also been asked by numerous African Studies Scholars: “Why are you using the word ‘vampire’? Isn’t that a European tradition?”” And suggests that, “I would argue, however, that failing to use the word “vampire” confines the African Americans’ traditions to a marginal status, perpetuating the idea among majority populations that the only “true” vampires – the only “real” vampires – are White/European.” Of course, here at TMtV we use the broadest church of the term vampire.

The book itself is scholarly, with extensive references and indexing. If there was a fault it was with me rather than the book. The majority of the literature looked at was unknown to me and has shown a gap in my reading that I am going to look to fill; certainly I now have a desire to read Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching and Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. However that gap in my reading made the book that little more difficult to work through than if I had been more familiar of the sources discussed. Of course not all the books were unknown to me, for instance Blood of the Vampire was examined.

I will add that Anatol does not mention the 1819 story The Black Vampyre: A Legend of Saint Domingo, and whilst not based on the soucouyant it was an unfortunate omission given that the 1819 story is the first American vampire story I am aware of, it is the first instance of a black vampire and it is apparently the first story to argue universal emancipation.

There is also no mention that the old hag folklore is not simply Circum-Caribbean and African Diaspora and has a lot of European equivalents (and the use of the same name of hag). Perhaps that is an indication of myth bleeding between the African slaves and the European slavers or perhaps just evidenced of it being a more universal figure. The Old Hag (like the soucouyant) is the outsider, at the edge of society and reviled as a symbol of the female fight against the male dictated “proper place” (and, as much as Byzantium whitewashed race, it did very much base its story on a level of misogyny that saw the two heroines hunted through the centuries by the otherwise exclusively male vampire society).

This is not the easiest book to plough through if the reader is unfamiliar with the majority of sources but it is still a necessary and welcome addition to vampire studies. 6.5 out of 10.

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