Author Explores A Dark History Through A Magical Story In 'Rise Of The Jumbies'

Nov 12, 2017
Originally published on November 12, 2017 5:05 pm

Writer Tracy Baptiste was born in Trinidad where she grew up on fairy tales and the spoken folk tales of the island, including stories about creatures called jumbies. The mythical monsters inspired her to write her own Caribbean folk tale for middle schoolers.

Now, she's written a sequel that dives further into island mythology, as well as the darker side of its history. The novel, Rise of the Jumbies, centers around Corinne, the fiercely independent and half-jumbie main character. During her adventures throughout the book, Corinnne travels to West Africa, home of jumbie mythology, where she learns about the history of the Atlantic slave trade.

Baptiste first heard about jumbies when she was a child.

"They will eat you if they get half the chance to eat you," she jokes. As a kid, she heard stories about how jumbies would keep kids in line at night by hovering outside their homes and making sure they didn't wander around or leave the house.

Baptiste spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the mythological inspiration behind the novel's characters, how she addressed slavery in a book for young readers and why exploring that dark history is important for children.


Interview Highlights

On how she included so much mythology into the book

Well, I did a lot of reading, as much as I could. Because these are oral traditions, there really isn't a lot of stuff written down about jumbies, but there were a few stories I could find and what I did find is that there are jumbie-like creatures throughout the Caribbean. So I read as much as I could about all of these different creatures and then I combined it with the stories that I remember as a child.

On why she incorporated the history of the slave trade

I think it's really important to have that history and have that history be explored. I think there's a lot of shame in this history, there's a lot of pain in this history. And I thought that with this particular story and using Mama Dl'eau and the mermaids, I could address the things that have happened, but also have it be attached to something that was beautiful.

On why sharing that history with young readers is important

Children who are of African descent are going to hear these stories. And I remember when my son was, I think maybe he was five, and he was in kindergarten and he came home and he had just heard about slavery at school. I think maybe it was Black History Month. And he was just so upset about it and couldn't reconcile who he was with you know, these stories that he was hearing.

And you know, kids have to deal with this. They have to deal with the fact that this is a thing that has happened, and that this is a thing that happened to their ancestors. And it's a thing that has happened because of the way that people look, nothing else, no other reason. And grappling with something like that is really difficult for little children. And so I felt giving them this kind of story where something horrible happened, but something beautiful resulted from it, would be some small amount of comfort.

NPR's Digital News intern Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Writer Tracey Baptiste was born in Trinidad where she grew up on fairy tales and the spoken folktales of the island, stories about creatures called jumbies. Two years ago, she wrote her own Caribbean folktale for middle schoolers. And now she's written a sequel that delves further into the island mythology called "Rise Of The Jumbies." If you've never encountered a jumbie yourself, she gave us a quick description of them.

TRACEY BAPTISTE: They will eat you if they get half the chance to eat you. And growing up...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They're hungry.

BAPTISTE: Exactly. Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, these were the stories that I listened to all the time. People would tell these stories to kids, of course, to, you know, sort of keep them in line at night - make sure that they weren't, you know, going out and wandering around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So these are like the monsters under the bed if you will.

BAPTISTE: These were the monsters - well, they were actually the monsters outside the door because they were always outside the house. And you had to be very careful about making sure that they didn't get inside the house. There's just like all kinds of things that you could do to prevent these jumbies from getting inside your house and getting to you. Here's the things that you need to do to keep yourself safe. And then go to bed, sweet child.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The character of Corinne is the main character. And she is fierce and brave. But she also faces discrimination from those around her. She is half-jumbie so half magical. Tell us about her.

BAPTISTE: Oh, yeah. So Corinne is a very fiercely independent. And in book one, she really knows who she is. She really has herself together. And then this jumbie appears. And she didn't really believe in jumbies before this. And so all of a sudden, her world is shaken. And suddenly, she really doesn't know who she is and where she fits in and how she fits in. So when book two starts, she really is very much on shaky ground. And I also start the book with an earthquake to sort of, you know, really highlight that shaky ground that she feels like herself in. But, you know, she's that kind of person who will figure it out. You know, she's going to plow through no matter what.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the mythology of this book is so great. You have Mama D'Leau, the kind of the kind of goddess of the sea...

BAPTISTE: Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Mami Wata. And as you mentioned, you have Trinidadian roots. How did you explore and use this folklore? What sources did you use? How did you sort of come up with all this? Obviously, the jumbies is tales you heard as a child. But what about all these other characters?

BAPTISTE: Well, I did a lot of reading, as much as I could. Because these are oral traditions, there really isn't a lot of stuff written down about jumbies. But there was a few - there were a few stories that I could find. And what I did find was that there are jumbie-like creatures throughout the Caribbean. So I read as much as I could about all of these different creatures. And then I combined it with the stories that I remember as a child. But when I wanted to go into the West African roots of these creatures, then I had to do some more research into the Mami Wata legend. And because I really - I believe anyway that the reason that Mami Wata and Mama D'Leau are so similar is because when people were enslaved and brought these stories to the Caribbean, they kind of got merged and fused and intertwined. And so that's kind of what I was going for with Mami Wata and Mama D'Leau in "Rise Of The Jumbies."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. So you take this story to West Africa in this book from the Caribbean. Corinne travels with her friends and mermaids to the place where the mythology supposedly of the jumbies was born, which is in West Africa. And you tackle the dark history of the Atlantic slave trade. Tell us about why you wanted to take that journey.

BAPTISTE: I think it's really important to have that history and have that history be explored. I think there's a lot of shame in this history. There's a lot of pain in this history. And I thought that with this particular story and using Mama D'Leau and the mermaids I could address the things that have happened but also have it be attached to something that was beautiful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why make that connection for your young readers? Why have that sort of complicated history be part of a story like this?

BAPTISTE: Children who are of African descent are going to hear these stories. And I remember when my son was, I think, maybe he was five and he was in kindergarten. And he came home, and he had just heard about slavery at school. I think maybe it was Black History Month. And he was just so upset about it and couldn't reconcile what - who he was with, you know, this - these stories that he was hearing. And, you know, kids have to deal with this. They have to deal with the fact that this is a thing that has happened and that this is a thing that happened to their ancestors. And it's a thing that has happened because of the way that people look and nothing else. There's no other reason. And grappling with something like that - I think it's really difficult for little children. And so I felt that giving them this kind of story where, you know, something horrible happened but something beautiful resulted from it would be some small amount of comfort.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tracey Baptiste's new book is "The Rise Of The Jumbies." Thank you so much for joining us.

BAPTISTE: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.