A Feminist Reading of Soucouyants in Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring and Skin Folk

Article excerpt

Using an interdisciplinary approach, this essay explores Nalo Hopkinson's use of Caribbean folklore in her fabulist fiction, particularly her representations of the soucouyant and La Diablesse: creatures that have conventionally been employed in Caribbean popular culture to condemn female power and socialize women according to patriarchal dictates.

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Soucouyant gon' come for you": the phrase chills Caribbean children raised on the folk stories of a diabolical creature who appears as an old, wrinkled woman by day but then at night sheds her skin, flies about the community in the form of a ball of fire, and invades houses through open windows and keyholes to drain the blood of her unsuspecting neighbours. Potential victims can thwart attacks by sprinkling rice or salt nearby, since the soucouyant must count every grain before leaving and thus risks either discovery in the midst of this arduous task or being incinerated by the deadly light of sunrise. Communal protection can be gained by rubbing the insides of temporarily discarded skins with salt or hot pepper: when the creature reenters this skin, she will expire from the sensation of burning flesh, or, upon hearing her screeches of agony, citizens can inflict a punishment, ranging from chasing the demon-woman out of the vicinity to a brutal death.

Stories such as this one are typically meant not only to entertain but also to encourage obedience in their young listeners. However, in an era when the distinctions between children and adults were much more obscure and entire communities enjoyed folk tales, the purpose might have involved an attempt to calm adult fears surrounding seemingly inexplicable events. As Nalo Hopkinson cites in her collection of fabulist tales, Skin Folk, the soucouyant myth might originally have been used during scientifically underdeveloped times to explain mysterious deaths, especially those of babies. Women have long had lengthier life spans than men, and, in a period when all life expectancies were significantly shorter, old women might have been believed to extend their lives through sinister, mystical means, including stealing the life forces of the young: those perceived to be the most vibrant members of the community. What is most striking to me is that a "neutral" characteristic such as longevity comes to be the source of suspicion and stigma for women, a population already deemed "other" in patriarchal societies.

The overwhelming body of soucouyant lore from the Anglophone Caribbean ascribes the condition exclusively to women; my intent in this essay is to interrogate how the soucouyant figure has been used to condemn female power and socialize women according to patriarchal dictates. Although recovering tales has been prevalent in Caribbean folklore scholarship, a sustained, critical examination of these "creature" stories--much less a feminist analysis--is relatively rare. Aside from introductions and notes, well-known collections such as Roger Abrahams's Afro-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World, Martha Warren Beckwith's Jamaica Folk-Lore, Daryl Cumber Dance's Folklore from Contemporary Jamaicans, Melville J. Herskovits and Frances S. Herskovits's Suriname Folk-Lore, and the work of Christine Barrow, Richard Dorson, and Elsie Clews Parsons, among others, tend to focus on the transcription and preservation of folk tales rather than analytical exploration. The more recent Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean, edited by Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, moves away from this trend, combining descriptions of folk traditions with extensive analysis of the significance of various practices and representations. Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert argue that African-derived religions and systems of belief have been vilified by mainstream culture, often in response to a real or perceived threat to European cultural and political dominance. …