Storytelling invokes a magical playfulness. Two new favorite lyrically-told and transcendent stories that I read recently are The Storyteller's Death by Ann Dávila Cardinal and Everything the Light Touches by Janice Pariat. Each celebrate storytelling and while they're characters, cultural heritage, settings, and pacing are quite different, they share clear anti-colonial themes and immersive sensory experiences with readers. And both books published in October 2022. If you enjoy vivid and heady prose with realistic insights into life's challenges while simultaneously invoking redemptive hope from storytelling and magical realism this post is for you!
An engaging tale of resilience, The Storyteller’s Death reveals the generations in a Puerto Rican family and is a vivid pleasure with emotionally moving layers of story—including Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggle toward sovereignty. Heroine Isla is coming of age in the 1970s-1980s, discovering family secrets, including their bigotry and generational trauma. When Isla turns eighteen, this novel also becomes a propulsively suspenseful mystery.
Early in The Storyteller's Death, the young heroine Isla shares a memory about her grandmother's storytelling.
“When my abuela settled in a chair and the words “I remember the time…” escaped her lips, anyone nearby would stop and gather around her. She held court from her cane rocking chair, the smallest of her yappy dogs scattered over the expensive but severe dress that stretched across her breasts. I would sit at her feet, next to her support-hose-varnished leg, mesmerized by her ability to ensorcell with tales about the family; long-dead relatives and their lives on the island. What I loved best was that her stories always had a hint of magic woven through them, like a silver thread that glinted now and again. My abuela was never particularly kind to me, always criticizing and pointing out where I fell short compared to my cousins, but her tales were funny and nostalgic, and it was never clear if they were true. And as I would come to learn, it didn’t really matter.”
Ann Dávila Cardinal refers to herself as Latine, a gender neutral term for someone of Latin American descent. In addition to being a writer she is the Director of Recruitment for the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She wrote in Tor.com, "magical realism is the literary movement of the colonized, and Puerto Rico is the longest lasting colony in the history of the world." She spent much of her childhood in Puerto Rica with storytelling family members and she revealed in an interview at the back of the book this story is semi-autobiographical. Learn more about Ann Dávila Cardinal here: http://anndavilacardinal.com, opens a new window
Book clubs will also enjoy the thoughtful discussion questions in a “Reading Group Guide” within The Storyteller's Death.
Janice Pariat describes Everything the Light Touches as a quartet of travel narratives. The four different characters in this quartet are vibrantly connected by an enigma of a divine fabled tree, the Diengiei. This tree is said to grow with the leaves of many different plants and so large it shades over all other plants. The Diengiei fable comes from Khasi cultural stories, an indigenous people in northeast India; Janice Pariat’s family includes Portuguese and Khasi heritage. The light in the title represents curiosity and knowledge and each character is compelled by their own quests. The likable-flawed characters in this novel find meaningful relationship connections as they visit various places such as India, Himalayan Mountains, Italy, and Lapland and experience a deep sense of place, nature reverence, environmental & social justice, liminal intersections, and magical realism. The inspired and engaging humor, and enchanting leisurely pace is an invitation for the reader to slow down and reconnect with the Earth—to be open to a different way of seeing. With contemporary (21st century) and historical (18th & 20th century) eras this read feels classically timeless.
At the opening and closing of Everything the Light Touches, Pariat includes charming storytelling invocations:
Let us wait, let us listen.
When we gather, we gather as though for the last time.
Who knows when the hearth will glow with welcoming fire, and when it might expire? We gather as we always have. We gather safe, we gather warm.
What will it be tonight?
Tonight, it will be our story.
The one with a tree, the one with a tiger, and the small bird who knows.
The rest is smoke—but where’s the fire?
Here, here, gather close.
Here is the song and here is the story, we cannot pry each from each.
Take both, we offer them lightly.
Tonight, what will it be?
This story that holds all stories, this song that carries all songs.
How abundant are we, shifting, unfurling, gathering every future that could be?
How do we grow but slowly?
Where do we turn to if not toward the light?
Here the darkness, here the sight—bound together, like song and story.
How to live but lightly?
How to learn but gently?
All the while journeying through life after life after life.
Gather, gather, around the fire, listen, listen.
Janice Pariat’s latest work is the profound result of nearly ten years of research and writing. She credits Robin Wall Kimmerer, opens a new window among her influences (enrolled
member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation). Pariat is a creative writing and art history professor at Ashoka University in India. Visit the author's website: https://janicepariat.com, opens a new window
With their evocative prose, both Everything the Light Touches and The Storyteller's Death remind me of Téa Obreht. Obreht is another wordsmith of insightful, vivid prose, and magical realism. In case you aren't familiar with Téa Obreht, I wrote of my admiration for her when Inland was published several years ago; read more about Obreht’s realistically magical storytelling & word-Singing, opens a new window. And if you decide to read Téa Obreht, Ann Dávila Cardinal, and Janice Pariat, I hope you'll consider sharing your perspective with me.
Finally, as I am personally oriented to this region near the Kansas (Kaw) and Wakarusa Rivers and I want to honor and acknowledge local traditional Native lands of the Dakota, Delaware (Lenape), Kansa (Kaw), Kickapoo, Lakota, Osage, Sac and Fox, Shawnee, and actually hundreds more tribes who find connection here with Haskell Indian Nations University. As Ken Lassman (author of Wild Douglas County, opens a new window and Kaw Valley Almanac, opens a new window) noted: “Haskell Indian Nations University is the United Nations of tribes, with members of hundreds of tribes coming here over the lifetime of its existence."
- Shirley Braunlich is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.
My heartfelt gratitude to the authors and publishers for sharing advance review copies of each book. Everything the Light Touches by Janice Pariat is published by HarperVia, opens a new window. The Storyteller's Death by Ann Dávila Cardinal is published by Sourcebooks, opens a new window.
Appreciation to Denise Low, opens a new window for helping me make sure I acknowledged each Native American tribe by their preferred name.
I am compelled to admit my bias toward Everything the Light Touches by Janice Pariat. As a celebration for my 30-year anniversary of public service at Lawrence Public Library I was invited to select a new book for the library's collection to mark this milestone. While I’m very fond of each novel in this post, Pariat’s latest work is my choice with a resonant connection of environmental & social justice in literature.