I’ve always had a thing for tricksters, pranksters, and spirits with an occasional cruel streak in my fiction.
I got my start surrounded by stories stemming both from the folktales that my mother and grandmother grew up with in in the U.S. Virgin Islands and from a Classical mythology kick I could never quite shake. The books and stories that I had access to brought me Brer Rabbit’s tussle with the Tar Baby, Anansi’s inability to hold on to all the world’s wisdom, Obeah curses, and truly terrifying stories of jumbies – spirits of the evil dead.
And then there was the Bull Foot Woman.
The first time my mother told me about the Bull Foot Woman, I couldn’t have been older than five or six. We were walking back to our house along a poorly lit road that wound through the hills of St. Thomas and she told me a story about a woman who would walk half in, half out of the high grass that bordered the streets to hide the fact that one of her legs ended in a hoof instead of a human foot. I remember being able to picture her thumb jutting out in order to catch the attention of hapless drivers too distracted by her face in the dark to realize that the only people hitchhiking on the island are either tourists or up to no good.
In the version of the story my mother told me on that walk home, the Bull Foot Woman only scared the living daylights out any driver unwise enough to stop for her before vanishing into the night. My mother painted a picture of a prankster for me, not a predator.
In other versions of the story from across the Caribbean she was named La Diablesse. These stories were much darker, frequently ending with her luring men into forests and watching from the shadows as they blundered their way off of cliffs or into ravines.
I’d be lying if I said that the darker versions of the Bull Foot Woman weren’t my favorites once I found out about them.
I’m glad that my first brushes with Caribbean folklore involved a literal hitchhiker from hell and a spidery trickster because they sparked something that managed to influence my writing life almost twenty years later.
For much of my writing life, I looked outside of my Caribbean culture and skirted over what being Afro-Caribbean meant to me. I used to tell myself that since I was from a tiny, boring island that some people likened to a smaller version of Florida, telling stories about that place – even my own stories – wasn’t worth it.
Thanks to my aforementioned interest in “Classical” mythology, for years I wrote more about Medusa and Dionysus than I did a single figure of Caribbean mythology. I was twenty-four, returning to St. Thomas after being away at college, before my interest in the folklore of my home island and that of the islands around it was rekindled. With this new inspiration, I decided to do the legwork and hoofed it around to various points of interest on the island.
Returning to island folklore as a writer instead of as a reader was…difficult.
Take Anansi for instance.
For much of my childhood on St. Thomas, I wasn’t afraid of spiders unless, in the case of a tarantula that wandered into my room once, they were huge. The first Neil Gaiman book that I ever read was Anansi Boys and I carried the copy my mother gave me everywhere until I basically destroyed it. I used to watch my older sister play with the burrowing spiders that lived in our yard with envy, not fear.
I was a spider-person.
But to tackle Anansi properly is to tackle things like the weight of centuries of oppression and forced conversions to Christianity that stripped him of his power and resonance on this side of the Atlantic. These are things I have trouble working through on a good day when thinking about my own place in the world!
The Anansi of the so-called West Indies isn’t the same as the god worshiped in Ghana and believed to be responsible, in some stories, for the creation of the sun. I don’t think many people regard him as a god on St. Thomas – not even a former one. The Anansi I grew up learning about and that I wound up researching may have some aspects of the original god within him, but he’s largely depowered and portrayed as a minor league player.
I have yet to knuckle down and write about Anansi beyond vague references because every time I try, I hit a wall. It’s hard to fictionalize Anansi in my stories that while keeping his histories and importance intact, and believe me, I want to keep those aspects intact. Still, it feels right that the first story I ever sold was one that, in a rather oblique way, called back to my childhood fascination with all things Anansi. It feels even better that my second sale was for a story set in St. Thomas during Carnival where La Diablesse appeared in a significant supporting role.
La Diablesse is easier for me to adapt and evolve because her legends hinge on her mysterious nature.
I’m free to basically do what I want in developing her beyond “woman with a hoof and a dark sense of humor”. Outside of the story that my mother told me when I was a child and the ones that I’ve written myself, it’s been rare to see her portrayed as a trickster rather than a sprit who takes pleasure from pain.
For me, making La Diablesse a trickster in my writing feels right beyond sticking it to a modern-day society that thinks tricksters in mythology begin and end with Loki in the Marvel movies. It feels like a way of paying proper homage to the folklore that I was introduced to as a child while adapting her to fit the adult I am now. As a trickster, as my trickster, this version of La Diablesse has been a way for me to reclaim parts of myself and my heritage that I had previously put aside.
Back when she was a child, Zina Hutton once jumped out of a window to escape dance class in the Virgin Islands. Now she’s an aspiring fantasy writer who tends to leap headfirst into new stories and worlds the second that inspiration strikes. Zina lives in hot and humid South Florida where she’s never far away from a notebook and her precious Kindles. Zina currently works as a freelance editor and writer with publication credits in Fireside Fiction, The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, ComicsAlliance and Women Write About Comics and you can find her at Stitch’s Media Mix and on twitter as @stichomancery.