From Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing to Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, there’s been a growing interest in restorative historical fiction. Spanning centuries and continents, these epic-like tomes work to remedy the historical ruptures occasioned by slavery and trace the ancestor’s lineages to contemporary Black experiences. One could argue that Llanos-Figueroa’s Daughters of the Stone, a finalist for the PEN/Robert Bingham fellowship that was first published in 2009 and later reissued in 2019, is an early and pioneering example that paved the way for others. Hailing from a prolific short story writer who appears in numerous publications including Chicken Soup for the Latino SoulDaughters of the Stone is Llanos Figueroa’s grievously overlooked debut and anticipates many of the trends in current Black historical fiction.

Daughters of the Stone is a grievously overlooked debut.”

Divided into five sections each named after a different focaliser, this multigenerational tome begins the moment Fela — a woman taken from Africa in the mid-1800s — arrives at her second sugar plantation in colonial Puerto Rico. Though having had her tongue cut out by her mistress after protesting being raped at the hands of her master, Fela is a stately woman who unwillingly invites the lechery and ill intensions of the town’s caballeros. She is also a woman with a secret. Before she and her husband, Imo, were separated and sold into slavery, they carried out a spiritual ceremony in which they merged the essence of their unborn child with a very special stone, a motif which also upholds the narrative backbone of Gyasi’s Homegoing. When she lets her owner act out of his desire, Fela becomes the first in a long line of women who are bound together by their love for one another and that same stone, passed down through the generations.

Fela’s daughter, Mati — a cuarandera or gifted healer who inherits the plantation once her owner-father and his barren wife die — gives birth to Concha, a stubborn woman who squanders her healing gift and turns away from the old African ways. It takes her mother’s death and her daughter, Elena, a college-educated nurse who is a modern New Yorker respectful of her ancestor’s alternative ways of knowing, to help Concha see the error of her ways and recover her true self. All these stories culminate in that of Carisa, a writer disillusioned with her white-washed university course who voyages back to Puerto Rico and later West Africa in order to learn the truth about her people.

Daughters of the Stone is a vitally important historical document that gently signposts the historical trajectory of colonial and postcolonial Puerto Rico, leaving you to find your own way through the full spectrum of humanity contained within it.”

In this multigenerational tale about Puerto Rican slavery and its legacy, Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa explores deeply human questions about the difficulties of motherhood, family love, and community connections, and of course history itself. In fact, what’s most captivating about Daughters of the Stone is the glimpse it offers into the history of Puerto Rican slavery. In an American world, the Southern model of slavery dominates popular understandings of what slavery looked like. Llanos-Figueroa writes against this circumscribed approach: she offers an invaluable recreation of smaller Puerto Rican plantations where many slave women spend days embroidering in tight-knit communities.

Based on years of first-hand archival and interview research gathered from communities across Puerto Rico, Daughters of the Stone is historical fiction that verges on non-fiction and takes on the quality of an essential historical document. Even before arriving at the concluding author’s note, that fact is apparent from the cohesive intricacy with which this vibrant and unforgettable world is brought to life. Reminiscent of Girl, Woman, Other, this one is hard to put down: each section and generation flow effortlessly into one another, working synchronously to tell what feels like a single, self-contained story.

“The novel is based on years of first-hand archival and interview research gathered from communities across Puerto Rico.”

With many elements being briefly hinted at but never fully explored, that self-contained quality is not always an asset. Llanos-Figueroa vaguely gestures at the family’s roots through pre-colonial African myth painted in cryptic details or communicated in blocks of italicised reminiscence that are difficult to resolve. The key example is the original sin, that is, the debt Fela owes to the Yorùbá goddess Mother Oshun, a debt that drives her actions and by extension the entire plot. Another would be how exactly Mati — the second-generation cuarandera blessed with unbelievable healing powers that earn her a reputation across the region — comes to regain the plantation and the birthright she was originally swindled out of.

While such blind spots are understandably uncomfortable, they lost somewhere in an evocative Puerto Rican landscape populated with vibrant characters. It must also be acknowledged that these blinds spots are the result of Llanos-Figueroa’s enormous ambition and desire to reconstruct pre-colonial histories that slavery did its utmost to erase. Ultimately, these puzzles reinforce a theme that undergirds Daughters of the Stone: colonisation and slavery have imposed white ways of seeing and knowing the world that devalue the epistemological virtues of intuition, trust, and simply accepting that some things defy cerebral explanation.

“Colonisation and slavery have imposed white ways of seeing and knowing the world that devalue the epistemological virtues of intuition, trust, and simply accepting that some things defy cerebral explanation.”

As certain readers may emerge puzzled, others will have the cultural context to solve these puzzles, including that of the generational curse which is a common motif in African historical fiction found in novels like Kintu and Homegoing. Llanos-Figueroa’s debut novel is a vitally important historical document that gently signposts the historical trajectory of colonial and postcolonial Puerto Rico, leaving you to find your own way through the full spectrum of humanity contained within it. This is, without a doubt, a once-in-a-lifetime undertaking and anyone would be a fool to miss it.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

DAHLMA LLANOS-FIGUEROA was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City. She attended the New York City public school system and received her academic degrees from SUNY at Buffalo and Queens College(CUNY). As a child she was sent to live with her grandparents in Puerto Rico where she was introduced to the culture of rural Puerto Rico, including the storytelling that came naturally to the women in her family, especially the older women. Much of her work is based on her experiences during this time. You can find her @Writer1949 on Twitter or on her website.

Daughters of the Stone is a pioneering debut in Afro-Puerto Rican historical fictionDaughters of the Stone by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
Published by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa on 14 March 2019
Genres: Afro-Latinx, Historical fiction, Women's fiction, Afro-Caribbean, Debut, Literary fiction
Pages: 316
Format: Paperback
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four-stars

It is the mid-1800s. Fela, taken from Africa, is working at her second sugar plantation in colonial Puerto Rico, where her mistress is only too happy to benefit from her impressive embroidery skills. But Fela has a secret. Before she and her husband were separated and sold into slavery, they performed a tribal ceremony in which they poured the essence of their unborn child into a very special stone. Fela keeps the stone with her, waiting for the chance to finish what she started. When the plantation owner approaches her, Fela sees a better opportunity for her child, and allows the man to act out his desire. Such is the beginning of a line of daughters connected by their intense love for one another, and the stories of a lost land. Mati, a powerful healer and noted craftswoman, is grounded in a life that is disappearing in a quickly changing world. Concha, unsure of her place, doesn't realise the price she will pay for rejecting her past. Elena, modern and educated, tries to navigate between two cultures, moving to the United States, where she will struggle to keep her family together. Carisa turns to the past for wisdom and strength when her life in New York falls apart. The stone becomes meaningful to each of the women, pulling them through times of crisis and ultimately connecting them to one another. Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa shows great skill and warmth in the telling of this heartbreaking, inspirational story about mothers and daughters, and the ways in which they hurt and save one another