Ingrid Rojas Contreras (author of The Man Who Could Move Clouds) reviews The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts for The New York Times. She writes, “In Soraya Palmer’s debut novel, two sisters find solace and salvation through enduring Black diasporic tales.” [Also see our previous post New Books: The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter.]
What happens to stories that are born of another land? When they migrate multiple times and across multiple generations? Soraya Palmer’s ambitious and passionate debut, “The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts,” is a thoughtful exploration of these questions.
The novel takes place in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where two sisters, Sasha and Zora, are born to an ever-fracturing family. Their father, Nigel, grows violent when he drinks, and their mother, the titular Beatrice, suffers from draining and paralyzing headaches. The girls find support where they can, at times in each other, but often they find solace in returning to the tales of their Caribbean immigrant parents. These stories, both mythic and real, are part of a larger Black diaspora, dating back to a people who survived forced migration in the 1500s, enduring that dark trans-Atlantic journey from Africa to the unfamiliar, newly colonized Americas.
Sasha and Zora listen rapt as their father tells them about furry, bull-like creatures with glowing red eyes; as their mother tells them of the goddess Mama Dglo, who is part snake, part woman; as both parents speak of the trickster spider Anansi, who is a god and also a weaver of stories. These are the Ashanti Ghanian folk tales that allow the girls to name fear, and to name salvation.
The novel is at heart a story about a family falling apart. Sasha and Zora’s father goes to live with another woman. Their mother becomes dangerously ill. While the sisters have always had each other, this changes when Sasha goes off to college, where she discovers her attraction to girls and realizes that binding her chest makes her feel an ease in her body she’s never experienced before. Meanwhile, Zora dreams of becoming a writer and journals restlessly. When the family does connect, they do so over stories, through the Ashanti tales of before, and also through other fables that turn out not to be tall tales at all. A story their father once told about the Rolling Calf, for example, turns out to be the disguised truth of what happened on the awful, stormy night when his brother died. In the Porter family, truths too difficult to say find expression in the language of myth.
The novel is told in alternating points of view, shifting between each sister, and also a third, unnamed narrator who sounds a lot like what Anansi might sound like. This voice is at times over the top (“By the time you finish reading this I will be dead and you, dear reader, will have forgotten all about me”), inspired (“Now let’s just say there was a spider. Let’s say she was a goddess who was stolen from the sky who then fell into the ground in pieces. Let’s say she was transformed into a woman and then back into a spider into a line in your book into an absence on the page that the world cannot see”), and playful and teasing (“How much can you remember about your first time? And do you wish to remember it?”). This narration, timeless and omnipresent, telescopes out from the story of the Porters and places the family in a larger context across time. It made their story feel larger, part of an ancestral order of tales of families and love and magic, but it also acted as an obstruction at times, insulating the reader from the story at hand.
“At times, stories need to be reinvented just to get through the telling of them,” Palmer writes. This is a book written with the gods of storytelling in mind; it highlights what stories can do — that it’s not just the stories that evolve with each telling, but we ourselves who are rearranged too. [. . .]