Nebula Shorts: Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island

I love stories that play with non-narrative forms to tell stories and I also love short stories with self-explanatory titles, so Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island is off to a roaring start for me before I started the first paragraph.

It does exactly what it says on the tin and is styled as a series of excerpts from books about the eponymous cannibal women of Ratnabar Island, an island somewhere in the Indian Ocean (either part of the Andaman Islands or close to them). The excerpts are from fictional books ranging from 1904, to 1943, to the present day and represent accounts from different view points. The more recent books include reflections on the history of the island by descendants of immigrants (forcibly taken) from the island.

‘9. Gaur, Shalini. “We Can Never Go Home.” Hungry Diasporas: Annual Humanities Colloquium, May 2008, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.
“We know Ratnabar’s coordinates. Aerial reconnaissance has confirmed people still live on the island. But how do I set foot on its shores, with my English accent and my English clothes, and not have them flee from me in the terror that was taught to them in 1891? Where do we go, descendants of stolen ones, trapped between two islands and belonging on neither—too brown for English sensibilities, too alien now for the home of our great-grandmothers? How shall we live, with Ratnabar in our blood but English on our tongues?”’

At one level we have a sketch of an island, encountered by British explorers in 1891 who had an encounter with the inhabitants who appeared to be only women. Some children were taken and one was enrolled in a British school were there was an incident…

Published in the Horror & Dark Fantasy magazine Nightmare, the story dabbles with its horror and speculative elements. It strongly implies that Ratnabar’s women were not only ritual cannibals but gained powers from eating human flesh. The clash between their culture (and powers) and the modern world plays out in hints and fragments among the excerpts.

It is very nicely constructed. As such styles of story are, it maybe unsatisfying if you want a clear revelation or a distinction between rumour, folklore and what is true within the context of the story. You can choose to read it as having no speculative content at all, after all a description of any group of people will include rumour and folklore both external and internal to the society. I think that ambiguity helps exacerbate the themes playing out in the story. The shifts in tone, voices and writing style also is very effectively done:

‘None of us could have foreseen what she and Emma Yates whispered into each others’ ears behind closed doors as they planned their foul feast.’

Folklore, the relative power of women in different societies, the clash of the modern and pre-moden viewpoints and the alienation of diaspora communities all play out in the accounts. Genuinely impressive.


7 responses to “Nebula Shorts: Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”

  1. I liked this fairly well, considering that I’m not much a fan of horror. It’s interesting to note that the last few citations are from works written by the ancestors of the student compiling the bibliography, and that the presence of supernatural powers seems to be confirmed by different references.

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