Popisho: A Novel, by Leone Ross
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN: 9780374602468, 480 pp)
On the first anniversary of his wife’s death, something is in the air as Xavier Redchoose gets up before dawn and begins what he expects will be a trying day. Little does he know, however, just how trying that day will be.
Popisho by Leone Ross takes place over 24 hours in the magical archipelago of Popisho. In that day, a sprawling cast of characters grapple with addiction, sex and sexuality, the marginalization of indigenous people, political corruption, grief, and thwarted love. Oh and all the women’s vaginas fall out.
In the tradition of Nalo Hopkinson and Karen Lord, Ross creates a world suffused with magical realism and rich in Caribbean culture and language. The novel’s title invokes the author’s Caribbean heritage. In Jamaica, a poppy show is a ridiculous spectacle. Similarly, in Trinidad a pappy show is a farce, a pretend, a pantomime.
Everyday life in Popisho is indeed a spectacle – the unburied dead walk as zombies trying to rebuild their bodies. Ancient rumours tell of a terrible cleansing storm unlike any ordinary hurricane (the “autoclaps” of Jamaican usage comes to mind) and all islanders are born with magical abilities. Xavier Redchoose can flavour food with his hands. The mayor is known for superhuman speed. Anise Latibeauderre—Xavier’s lost love—is a healer and demand for her services increases sharply as women seek to reattach their vaginas.
Not all want to, however. Of one character, Ross says: “As she sat looking at her newly independent vulva, it occurred to Lyla that it had long been a nuisance.”
For some women, their genitals have been both an asset and a liability; a source of income and of burden, bringing gifts alongside male harassment. For the mayor’s virginal daughter Sonteine Intiasar, her vagina is a wellspring of pleasure she was just beginning to discover and its detachment hours before her wedding night could not have come at a worse time.
Readers of Ross’ short story collection Come Let Us Sing Anyway know she is an author concerned with all aspects of female sexual experience. In the story ‘The Mullerian Eminence’, a man discovers women’s disembodied hymens, many of which tell traumatic tales of abuse. In Popisho, Ross continues her exploration of the ways that a woman’s identity is often irrevocably bound up with her sexual organs – as though she is little more than this one dimension. This vein of Swiftian satire continues in her novel.
Popisho may be a fictional place, but the issues that play out there are very real. The novel centres the experiences of those often left on the fringes while speaking truth to power and excoriating corruption. It is this engagement with and challenge to the real Caribbean space that makes Popisho an example of the most magical of magic realisms.
Breanne Mc Ivor is an award-winning Trinidadian writer. Her short-story collection Where There Are Monsters is published by the UK’s Peepal Tree Press.