Of Folklore, Feminism, and Fire: An Afternoon with KU Associate Professor of English Giselle Anatol

[by Creighton Nicholas Brown]

University of Kansas Professor of English Giselle Anatol spoke about and read from her newly published book, Things That Fly in the Night: Female Vampires in Literature of the Circum-Caribbean and African Diaspora to a packed audience at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas on Thursday, April 2.

Reflecting on the genesis of her project, Anatol said,  “When I was a child, my mother, aunts and uncles, and grandmother regaled me with stories of the soucouyant, a demonic figure from Trinidadian folk culture.” During the day the soucouyant appeared as an old woman, but when night fell, she “peeled off her skin, transformed into a ball of fire, and flew from house to house, where she sucked the blood of her unsuspecting neighbors.” The soucouyant is also known as Ole-Higue or Loogaroo in other Caribbean cultures.

Anatol noted folklore is often employed as cautionary tales for children. Folklore tells girls how to conduct themselves and boys what can lay claim to. Anatol observed that the tale of the soucouyant exposed deeper cultural beliefs about women, sexuality, and power.

Connecting the act of biting and sucking blood of her victims to acts of sexual penetration, the soucouyant, according to Anatol, can be read as not only depicting female sexual agency, but also and equally a masculine violence toward the female soucouyant. The surest way to catch a soucouyant is to strike the ball of fire with a stick, so when she returns to her skin during the day, she can be identified by her bruises. Woe to the lightning bugs!

After finishing her presentation, Anatol took questions from the audience. She spoke of the lasting legacy of colonization and slavery in Caribbean, which contributed to the diversity of soucouyant traditions in the Caribbean and parts of the southern United States. 

Susan Earle, Curator of European and American Art at the Spencer Museum of Art, introduced Anatol’s discussion, formerly titled “Giselle Anatol: Vampires in Caribbean and African Diaspora Literature.” Earle suggested that while “[Anatol’s] book focuses on the literary arts, it also opens discussion of the visual arts.”

This event also featured Colère, a painting by Salnave Philippe-Auguste, which provides the cover image for Things That Fly in the Night. Colère is part of the Spencer Museum of Art’s permanent collection of Haitian art, which is one of the largest collections in the country.