Speculating the Caribbean

June 2018

Karen Lord, ed., New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales of the Caribbean (New York: Peekash, 2016); 143 pages; ISBN 978-1845233365 (paperback)

What happens when Caribbean literature reconstitutes itself to engage with ubiquitous themes in new and inventive re-presentations? How are emerging writers connecting to, as Karen Lord says, the “longstanding tradition of Caribbean literature with fantastical or speculative elements” (7)? Lord’s New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales of the Caribbean responds with a focus on the genre of Caribbean speculative fiction (CSF). In this collection of eleven stories and the foreword, theory is converted into literary praxis as the pieces substantiate the editor’s claim to a Caribbean speculative sensibility. The diverse batch of writers found therein reflect varied literary nuances, each attuned to not just, as Lord says, the fragility of home and away but also the internal conflicts that envelope the characters (8). Each story flows into the other as familiar worlds collide—Trinidad, Barbados, Puerto Rico, the United States. What remains is a motley of Caribbean issues reconceptualized by an evocative genre that compels readers to alter their own notions of Caribbean literature. The stories in this collection address a variety of themes and interests involving Caribbean identity, ranging from concerns about landscape to childhood, race, and migration. From the outset Lord poses the problem and also the solution: that Caribbean speculative writings have gone unnoticed because of their permeation into the “bulk of our literary canon” (7). As such, a different way of engaging the literature is required, a new way of looking at the age-old themes, a theoretical accompaniment to the new directions that writers such as those found in New Worlds, Old Ways are taking.

Part of the CSF project entails an understanding of the ways it operates interchangeably with folklore, myth, and parable to draw attention to distinctions while retaining an awareness of their inseparability. This dualism is intersected, interrogated, and at times complicated as the characters grapple with individual and collective histories. In the penultimate story, Ararimeh Aiyejina’s “Past Imperfect,” one of the characters alludes to “scattered fragments of shattered visages swirling in the wind around [us]” (125). To read the depth of New Worlds, Old Ways is to bring together fragments of a Caribbean speculative fiction genre that creates linkages among past, present, and future conceptions of being Caribbean.

A few stories underwhelm both stylistically and thematically as they meander awkwardly toward underlying issues, while others transition smoothly between tropes of speculative fiction and Caribbean postcolonialism, at times blurring any apparent distinctions. Stories such as Tammi Browne-Bannister’s “Once in a Blood Moon” and Richard B. Lynch’s “Water Under the Bridge” end abruptly, each leaving the reader wanting more and frustrated by the sudden climax. Portia Subran’s “A New Life in a New Time” and Aiyejina’s “Past Imperfect” do the opposite by sacrificing substance for style and length. But three stories stand out for being superior, at least where genre and sociocultural context intertwine.

Brandon O’Brien’s “fallenangel.dll” is one of the finest stories in the collection for its seamless interweaving of sociocultural and political exigencies with an alternate resolution of what actually occurred. The author’s fresh twist on Trinidad and Tobago’s Flying Squad controversy delves into the country’s corruption and uncontainable crime dilemma.1 O’Brien manages the subtle and unconventional representations while preserving the “reality” of the contextual past. In “Quaka-Hadja” and “Cascadura,” more direct forms of radical engagement with speculative tropes are explored. The former, written by Brian Franklin, effects a cyborgian incorporation of racial and familial themes intrinsic to Barbados but shared across cultures. As Franklin speculates on issues of otherness, the quaka-hadja is envisioned as the archetypical outcast struggling to be acknowledged.2 Early in the story we learn the source of inferiority for the protagonist Lia, which stems from being bombarded by magazine photos: “The glossy image of the pouting woman with the thin, high eyebrows” (100). The mechanical design of beauty is set against the figure of the quaka-hadja puppet as Lia epitomizes the scientific construction of the body upon which notions of racial difference are established. She remains, in the eyes of her father, “still half a woman” and therefore never allowed the freedom to self-fashion her subjectivity (102). Franklin’s story explores anxieties about belonging to the Caribbean through the protagonist’s perception of herself as well as through the externally mechanized responses to her body. In “Cascadura,” H. K. Williams focalizes the theme of otherness through the stoical Renae, whose frustration with her immortality is matched by her perpetual alienation in New York. “Landless” with “no island to return to,” Renae is forced to live an ageless state of exile  (139). The dystopian future depicted in the story is characterized by altered bodies and “blurred ethnicities” (138). Williams’s take on the legend of the cascadura sees her Trinidadian protagonist remain rooted in the Caribbean if only via memory.3 In fact, the central idea of reconnecting to something forgotten—and in some cases to something that has never occurred—is represented in different forms throughout each story.     

Following Lord’s summation that “the problem is not quality, it is definitions” (7), the stories attempt to set the parameters of CSF by reimagining alternate situations that are relatable as much as they are implausible. In the process they highlight “the recent past” that have continued in the “ongoing present” and will shape the future trajectory of the Caribbean individual and society (8). The collection stands out for bringing into focus emerging writers who possess a speculative sensibility that is keenly aware of the sociohistorical complexities of the Caribbean and yet is creative enough to augment new dimensions of what it means to belong to the region. For the most part the stories are carefully insightful, while at other times they struggle for clarity. But in all cases they take up Lord’s challenge to relate, connect, identify, and project into the future the age-old concerns that have predefined Caribbean subjectivity. Postcolonial issues reinvent themselves in each story. Landscape, nostalgia, otherness, politics, violence, and migration are a few of the themes that recur throughout the collection; they take form in cybernetics, magical elixirs, animorphs, or just ordinary people attempting to come to terms with the nature of their extraordinary existence. As befits the text’s assemblage of diverse characters, there is a swirl of personal and intergenerational histories that converge within the space of each story, creating a dialogic reading experience whereby the stories overlay each other toward a steady progression of a conjoined whole.

New Worlds, Old Ways fulfills its promise of arriving at a recognizable genre of Caribbean speculative fiction. Prior to this collection we have not had any reader-friendly approaches that have directly addressed the genre of Caribbean speculative fiction. Lord, and the various writers in the collection, have given readers access to a hitherto unexplored genre, one that differentiates as well as connects to the treasure trove of Caribbean literature. The collection is a boon for scholars and reading aficionados of the Speculative Fiction genre. And as the editor states, true to its word, New Worlds, Old Ways offers both depth and delight without disappointment. It suggests that if one looks closely enough, they will find that Caribbean fiction has always been speculative.


Jarrel De Matas is a final-year postgraduate student at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. His research focuses on the developments of Caribbean postmodernism and speculative fiction and the conditions under which they have reconceptualized postcoloniality. He is published in the Journal of Comparative Politics and the Journal of West Indian Literature.


1 The Flying Squad was an overt group of police officers who became notorious for the use of draconian crime-fighting exercises in the late 1980s. The group was secretly revamped in 2012 under the title the New Flying Squad Investigations Unit (NFSIU).

2 The quaka-hadja is a Barbadian adaption of the archaic term quockerwodger, which refers to a toy puppet controlled by strings.

3 As the legend goes, eating the cascadura fish creates an inextricable connection to Trinidad to the effect that regardless of whereever one travels, one will always return.


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