By Nnedimma Okorafor

“My message, if I have one, is to counter the monolithic idea of race, an idea which I believe is institutionally insinuated, especially in the United States. In the Caribbean, there is no such thing as ‘black’ and ‘white’: it is infinitely more complex than that.” – Robert Antoni

“Ayeeyosmio! You want me to give you this nasty story? Well, you best push up close here beside me so I don’t have to talk too long. Even though at 96 years of age I can’t make so much more noise anyway, and worse still since I lost the teeth.” — Robert Antoni, My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales.

My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales (Grove Press) by Robert Antoni is a book worth getting excited about. But don’t be fooled by the title — this isn’t erotica.

“The title is a little bit of a misnomer, a tease for the reader,” Antoni said. “The tales are obviously more bawdy than they are erotic. Though, I confess, there are genuinely erotic moments.”

The full title of this thin but sweet book is My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales with Stories of Adventure and Occasional Orgies in Her Boarding House for American Soldiers During the War, Including Her Confrontations With the Kentucky Colonel, the Tanzanian Devil and the King of Chacachacari.

“I liked the idea of a title which feels as if it wants to consume and overflow the boundaries of the cover,” Antoni said. “The way the stories keep spilling out of Grandmother’s mouth – even the thief who steals her teeth can’t shut her up.”

Antoni compared the book’s bawdiness to that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The prose is spicy in a more extraordinary way than flat-out sexual references could ever be. The flavoring comes from the voice, that of Antoni’s grandmother speaking through him. Antoni says that he felt as though he was transformed into her while he was writing the book.

“When I do public readings, people often comment that it’s as though I’m channeling my characters,” he said. “When I write in her voice, I ‘take my teeth out’ and put them in a glass of salted water.”

Antoni said that the main thing he sought was to capture the music and grammar of her voice. Some of this may have had to do with the way he learned to write.

“I wasn’t really learning to write, I was learning how to listen. For me, that’s the most difficult job a writer will ever learn: how to get themselves, their literary egos, out of the way, so that they can listen to their characters. Hear them speak in their own voices.”

And in My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales one certainly hears Antoni’s grandmother. Loud and clear.
Both Antoni’s real and narrator grandmothers were no ordinary grannies.

“My Grandmother lived in our home in the Bahamas when I was a child growing up. There was no TV, movies, not even much radio,” Antoni said. “My Grandmother was a brilliant, natural storyteller. She fed us tales about her days in Trinidad, where she lived most of her life, and Venezuela, where she was born. Though I had never been to either, I lived a vicarious life in those places through her stories.”

Antoni’s grandmother, who was half indigenous Venezuelan Amerindian, was widowed at a young age, left with a large house, two girls and five boys, and was forced to manage using her wits. Her efforts were enough to educate the girls at home and send almost all the boys, including Antoni’s father, to Canada to study medicine.

One of the ways she supported them in Canada was by converting her now empty big house into a boarding home for American soldiers during World War II. The soldiers replaced her own sons, and she became their adopted mother. To keep her soldiers out of the brothels she wove stories, many of the same tales she entertained Antoni with as a child.

And so this adventurous, imaginative woman spoke through Antoni. Only the first story, “My Grandmother’s Tale of the Buried Treasures and How She Defeated the King of Chacachacari and the Entire American Army with Her Venus-Flytraps,” came directly from his grandmother. Antoni heard one other story from a friend. He concocted the others in his grandmother’s spirit.

At 96 years old, Antoni’s spirited narrator is sassy, sensual and sophisticated. Half the time the reader doesn’t know if she’s exaggerating, talking trash or making it all up. And plenty of times one may wonder if the stories were true. But what’s a good story without a few twists and turns? Reading the book is like stepping into her grandson Johnny’s body and sitting at her feet with wide eyes and blushing cheeks. The stories are quite an experience to hear through the wise, old mind of a grandmother.
The book is a collage of non-linear folktales, stories and memories. A talking iguana, Colonel Sanders (yes, the one from Kentucky Fried Chicken), a snake-oil salesman, Sir Walter Raleigh, Eisenhower, and many other oddities make appearances in the book. Written in true storyteller fashion, there are stories within stories, plenty of repetition, meandering thoughts and digressions. But Grandmother always comes back to where she left off and all of the stories are connected in some way.

“In the Caribbean, no one island exists in perfect isolation, though they’re all surrounded by water,” Antoni said. “The tales all ‘speak’ to each other, and they add up to a history—history of the Caribbean, Grandmother’s history, and her grandson Johnny’s history.”

Mixed into the gumbo of tales is the political situation of the Caribbean island of Corpus Christi, where an alliance between Britain and the United States brought soldiers and other changes to the quiet island. But while Antoni comments on the political situation on the island, he is careful to leave the politics in the background.
“I always say that writers are politicians by nature, not by design. As soon as the politics becomes the message, in my opinion, the writer is in trouble,” Antoni said. “My message, if I have one, is to counter the monolithic idea of race, an idea which I believe is institutionally insinuated, especially in the United States. In the Caribbean, there is no such thing as ‘black’ and ‘white’: it is infinitely more complex than that.”

As far as future projects, Antoni is working on an historical novel about his mother’s family, who came to the West Indies in 1848. Antoni also has plans for a sequel to My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales called Lourdes Tales, in which Grandmother and a friend journey to visit a shrine with other West Indian women.

“Each tells a tale along the way, and, of course, the tales tend to be erotic — bawdy, good old-fashioned nasty,” Antoni said.

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