Things that go bump in the night inspire MFA alumna’s creative writing
March 23, 2023
It didn’t have to be Halloween to hear ghost stories during Soraya Palmer’s childhood. Instead, her parents told her about the legends and folklore from their cultures throughout the years.
From these, Palmer, a 2014 graduate from Virginia Tech’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program, began an obsession with folktales, fairytales, and any other stories within that realm.
Palmer’s father told tales about growing up with his siblings and seeing the Rolling Calf — a popular myth in Jamaica about a bull with a chain-link tail who breathes fire. Meanwhile, her mother read her a story she had written about two children and the Lagahoo, a shapeshifting Trinidadian folklore character, often half human and half animal.
Palmer incorporated these narratives into her own work as she wrote her debut novel, “The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts.” Chapters of the novel, including the prologue, were written during a class with Matthew Vollmer, a professor and director of the MFA program with whom she will do a book reading with at 6:30 p.m. on April 4 at the Montgomery-Floyd Public Library in Blacksburg. Vollmer will read from “All of Us Together in the End,” for which he received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly.
For Palmer’s book, she tried to follow the energy of the legends that inspired her. Her chapter about the Rolling Calf, for example, is more like a ghost story because the Rolling Calf tends to be told as a scary legend. Chapters about Anansi the Spider, who is a trickster, have a playful vitality, similar to the classic trickster tales featuring characters like Br’er Rabbit.
But for those who aren’t fans of horror, they shouldn’t let the word “ghost” in the title deter them from reading Palmer’s novel. She assures readers that she doesn’t think any of her chapters are actually scary.
Not only did her parents' stories help fuel her novel, but they also taught Palmer the importance of oral history. She said a lot of oral history originates with women — often maids, housecleaners, or slaves — telling stories, but that the tales are not attributed to them.
“When you look at older literature, it’s often dominated by white men, even some of the older fairytales, like the Grimms’ fairytales,” Palmer said, “but those stories came from the women that they heard them from, whose names we will never know.”
Writing this book is one way that she can amplify such stories. She began to expand upon this during her time at Virginia Tech. While she had worked on stories in this realm for some time, it was a classmate’s suggestion to put them together into a book that led Palmer to connect the tales. Palmer’s novel, which is about a Caribbean-American family that is invested in storytelling and folklore, was written in part as her thesis.
Also, during Palmer’s time at Virginia Tech, she chose the title for her novel, which stood out to her as one that would pique her interest as a reader.
Following the completion of her MFA, she received a master’s in social work from Hunter College in New York City. She is now at Steps to End Family Violence, a nonprofit organization also located in New York City, working with criminalized survivors, primarily women who are victims of domestic violence and face criminal charges for resisting their abuse. The criminalization of these women comes not from actions they made of their own volition, but from either coerced actions or actions of their former partners, Palmer said.
Working with Steps to End Family Violence allows her to pursue a passion for prison abolition work and to advocate for her clients to receive reduced or dismissed charges through writing advocacy letters and proposing alternative to incarceration programs.
Palmer’s current career may seem unrelated to her time at Virginia Tech and to “The Human Origins of Beatrice Porter and Other Essential Ghosts,” but these two aspects of Palmer’s life are more connected than one might think. While she does not write about criminal justice in her fiction, her creative work and professional work are connected through the concept of liberation.
“In a lot of ways, the Caribbean allegories are related to liberation,” Palmer said, “especially in a lot of trickster stories, where the little guy overpowers the stronger ones. These are empowering stories that I never learned in history class.”
And these stories of emancipation and liberation of slavery connect to Palmer’s current work with prison abolition. She views mass incarceration as a new, veiled form of slavery, and she devotes her professional life to combatting this issue.
Palmer holds a similar respect and passion for liberation in general, and she channels her strong beliefs into a career in social work as she strives to chip away at vast amounts of unjust incarceration and victim blaming. Learning the importance of oral tradition and folklore from a young age instilled her with a reverence not only for the stories themselves, but also for storytellers long forgotten. Her book serves as a creative outlet through which Palmer can share this reverence.
Written by Hannah Ballowe, a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program.