Everybody knows the legend behind Isabel – that she has green skin, grass for hair, that she feeds on the poisonous Caribbean plants. When Isabel begins appearing in Lucas’s room the day his new girlfriend disappears, he turns to her for answers, and finds himself lured into her world: a world that may cost him his life.
Isabel – the poison incarnate, the living legend of Samantha Mabry’s A Fierce and Subtle Poison – does not come from a real Caribbean myth. Mabry pulled inspiration for her from Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” where a young woman named Beatrice becomes “infused” with the poison of the plants she tends to daily, which belong to her scientist father.
But inspiration is all Mabry pulled from her. The stories of Isabel and Beatrice end quite differently, and though Isabel’s inspiration might not be Caribbean, her world most certainly is.
“There’s the Dominican myth of la ciguapa threaded throughout A Fierce and Subtle Poison. Traditionally, it’s said that la ciguapa lures men into the forest to seduce and then kill them; she is both beautiful and horrible; her feet face backward so it’s impossible to tell where she’s been and where she’s going. Lucas hears the story of la ciguapa from his mother when he’s very young, so he sort of mashes that story up with all the other stories he’s heard about Isabel. And like most stories associated with Isabel, it sort of fits and sort of doesn’t.”
The survival of Isabel’s poisonous self is linked to the disappearance of island girls, but there was no intention on Mabry’s part to symbolize a sort of culture clash.
“I wasn’t really wanting to set up a culture war, a good versus bad thing, where the original culture is ‘good’ and the outsiders are ‘bad.’ Or maybe I was. For sure, I was interested in creating these two mixed race teens and seeing how they would develop their identities based on their histories and bloodlines and experiences, both past and present,” said Mabry. “I was also interested in exploring the different sources and effects of poison, literal and figurative. Like, who or what is poisoning who or what? What are the results, minor or devastating? Who suffers, the giver or the receiver? Is the poison coming from within or without? Or from both? How does all this affect identity?
“I’ve told this story before, about my grandmother, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico and lived there until she married my grandfather – who was stationed there in the military – and moved with him to Texas in the 1940s. Once in the US, she was able to slip right into the ‘all-American’ culture. My father never really heard her speak Spanish at home, unless she was on the phone with her relatives. Occasionally, she would go home to visit family, and when she came back to Texas, she’s say, ‘The Americans are ruining my island.’ To me, this is amazing. My island. Like, what does this mean? In America, she could be so ‘American.’ When she was in Puerto Rico, she was Puerto Rican, which, for her, was something very different. Like, obviously there’s this white European influence –it’s been that way for centuries and is still happening. And that history was, like, embedded in her. I wanted to explore identity based on all these centuries of history of conquest, the collision of natives and outsiders.”
Lucas, through whose eyes Isabel’s story is told, is a white-passing boy who lives in Puerto Rico and carries with him all the burdens of that role – the conqueror, the elite, the privileged – and struggles with his heritage and the complicated feelings stemming from his whiteness.
“He comes across early in the story like a white person fascinated with Puerto Rican culture, or worse, as a white person attempting to ‘play’ Puerto Rican,” said Mabry. “I think that much of his fascination with magical stories comes from his desire to separate himself from his father –truly, the conqueror figure in the book – and regain something from his past that he’s lost, both in the immediate sense and going back and back into history.”
Don’t mistake A Fierce and Subtle Poison as a story about a boy’s fascination with mortal myths. The heart and soul of the story is Isabel, and though the story is told through Lucas’s eyes, it is undoubtedly her story.
“In a way, this story is about control, specifically how one teen girl is – for a good portion of her life – controlled by a variety of forces. Lucas starts off wanting to control this girl as well, but he doesn’t really know that’s what he’s doing. He would probably see it as him being curious or fascinated, but he’s quite desperate to figure her out,” said Mabry.
“I thought about Lucas as his own character, yes, but also as a device whose purpose is to put forth the story about a girl who would never tell her own story because her story is for no one but herself. All I could offer then is that if someone is writing a story about a girl through the voice of a boy, then the boy doesn’t get to have all the answers. He may never get to have all the answers because girls are not puzzles meant for solving.”