The Djombi and the Wormhole: A Review of Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo

 Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo (Easthampton: Small Beer Press, 2010); 224pp; ISBN 978-1931520669 (paper).

• February 2011

Wormhole: Physics. A hypothetical interconnection between widely separated regions of space-time.
Oxford English Dictionary

Karen Lord’s debut novel is slippery. It begins as a fairy tale with “Once upon a time” but soon switches to African folklore with the arrival of its protagonist, Paama, borrowed from a Senegalese fable. Spider tricksters and omnipotent spirits called djombis suggest the supernatural, while a cooking stick that controls Chaos introduces physics. The seamless weaving of fantasy, folklore, and science creates a speculative text that is diasporic in its dimensions. Most compelling, however, is Lord’s ability to bring the past, present, and future of diasporic narrative together in a way that is not stereotypically timeless but instead innovatively time conscious.

Lord begins by returning us to the ancestral with the use of a storyteller:


A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. . . . All my tales are true, drawn from life and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a half-tamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can. . .

 Thus I seize this tale. (1)

This powerful and opinionated narrative voice tells us the tale of Paama, an exceptional cook, who runs away from a seemingly perfect match with her gluttonous husband, Ansige, after his bottomless stomach becomes too much to bear. The first few chapters relate Ansige’s buffoonish antics as he tries to win his wife back while at the same time satisfy his overpowering appetite. While humorous, Ansige’s story, thankfully, does not take center stage, but instead reminds us of the oral storyteller’s talent for relating amusing digressions that enhance the pleasure of listening. Storytelling has never been merely about relating plot; it also involves the practice of telling stories for their own sake, and the more stories a storyteller can weave into the main narrative, the better.

But we are not left resting in the comfort of the ancient storyteller. We are also educated in “stick science” (49). One of the most powerful djombis, nicknamed “Patience” by our storyteller, gives chef Paama a tool resembling a stick used to stir cou-cou­, the national dish of Barbados. But Paama soon learns that this stick controls Chaos. As one of the tricksters (a lesser form of djombi) explains, there are different possibilities in the universe, such that even the improbable could be possible if given the chance. The Chaos Stick is “a type of focus or control for the quantum fluctuations that determine whether a situation is Go or No Go” (52). Once the vocabulary of physics emerges from the mouth of a magical trickster disguised as a little girl, Lord’s readers cannot help but recall that they are reading a novel by a former physics teacher who lives in an archipelago that Antonio Benítez-Rojo has argued can only be described by Chaos Theory.1 The ancestral narrative form, then, embraces the concepts of contemporary physics and Caribbean cultural theory.

Further setting Lord’s novel apart is the subtle way that it also incorporates speculations of the future. As defined in the epigraph above, the wormhole is the elusive concept that would allow us to travel through space and time in an instant. It is the science fiction that makes shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5 marginally plausible. It is also the mode of travel that djombis and tricksters choose most frequently:


It was as if some small piece of the world had silently imploded and extruded itself elsewhere, and the unseen breach had pinched off and healed itself over like a cell budding off from its parent. When it was done, the Trickster, Alton, and Neila stood staring at the empty space that had held Paama and the indigo lord [a djombi]. (100)

With a little less elegance than his previous employer [the indigo djombi], [the Trickster] waved a forelimb in the air and stepped through the crack in space and time. (133)

The indigo djombi, the original owner of the Chaos Stick who wants it back, uses this mode of travel to educate Paama about the vagaries of Chaos by showing her examples of human losses and gains that happen, as our storyteller explains early on, during “a time that was, a time that is, or a time that is to come” (1). Because of his own pessimistic view of human nature, the indigo djombi highlights human losses to convince Paama how little benefit the power of Chaos affords, but it is he who learns from Paama to renew his faith in human possibilities.

Lord’s readers, however, learn that the temporal framework that undergirds her digressive novel is what is truly revolutionary about this twenty-first-century story. Lord turns the “timeless” folktale into a subtly scientific exploration of time travel that forces us to question the ethics of interfering with universal chance. While the digressions of the storyteller may seem unfocused, it is clear that the narrative itself is keenly aware of how it plays with time. As a result, Lord’s adoption of the African diasporic narrative past avoids atavism and instead embraces a distinctly Afro-diasporic future.


Alisa K. Braithwaite is an assistant professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She researches Afro-diasporic contemporary culture, with special interests in speculative fiction and fashion.


See Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans. James Maraniss (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992).