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River Mumma is a funny and fantastical tale from Toronto-based author Zalika Reid-Benta. Based on Jamaican folklore, the story blends the enchanting elements of magical realism and the relatable humour of contemporary fiction—and it’s set right here in Toronto!
River Mumma has received glowing praise from authors Catherine Hernandez, Cherie Demaline, Alicia Elliot and more—this is one to add to your fall reading list, if you haven’t already.
The story follows Alicia, a millennial Black woman in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. One evening, the Jamaican water deity River Mumma appears to Alicia, telling her that she has twenty-four hours to scour the city for her missing comb. A wild, magical adventure across the streets of Toronto ensues, as Alicia dives deeper into her family history, learning more about herself along the way.
“I hope that it’s a fun read, a cinematic read, sometimes a scary and funny read, but I also hope the various themes, from self-realization to the effects of colonialism, that I explore but don’t try to answer also come through,” says Reid-Benta.
We were curious to hear more about these themes, the folklore that inspired River Mumma, and Reid-Benta’s favourite nod to Toronto in her novel.
Can you tell us about your connection to Jamaican folklore, and how it inspired River Mumma?
I grew up hearing mostly Anansi stories but did hear about River Mumma, and was told about duppies. I’ve also read a lot of books about Greek gods or Greek mythology, from YA books to adult fiction that reinterprets certain myths or stories and I always felt like Jamaica had a wealth of interesting folklore and I wanted to write something that included that.
Why did you choose the figure of River Mumma to be at the centre of the story?
I grew up hearing stories here and there about River Mumma and there are a lot of picture books about her but I also specifically researched deities and figures in Jamaican folklore. I just really love water—I’ve always wanted to write a story where water was a central focus and then I came across Lorna Goodison’s poem “The River Mumma Wants Out”. There’s a particular stanza in the poem where River Mumma no longer wants to be the guardian of the waters, she wants to meet P.Diddy and experience snow, so I thought what if River Mumma came to Toronto? So it snowballed from there.
River Mumma has both contemporary and magical realism elements. Why did you want to incorporate both genres?
I originally thought I was going to write a high fantasy YA novel with Jamaican folklore, it was actually a part of my bio for a while but for a few years I’d been thinking about the “millennial” experience and what that means, as well as some conversations that were happening on social media about culture and appropriation. I had also recently rewatched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Superbad and had revisited some of Octavia Butler’s work and came across Lorna Goodison’s poem, so it all kind of came together into me writing this story. I didn’t consciously think of all of that at the time, I just kind of stopped writing my high fantasy mid-sentence and started writing River Mumma but looking back this is a streamlined—if you can imagine that—version of what happened.
We love it when our city is part of the story! What was your favourite Toronto spot that you included?
It’s a tie between University College at UofT and the Royal York. UC because it was just really fun learning more about the legend of Diabolos and Reznikoff. The Royal York because it was a late addition to the story—that entire sequence was supposed to happen somewhere else and I had tried two drafts with that other location and my editor just didn’t think it was working, so on the third go around I swapped it out for the hotel and it worked so much better, and it was a really fun sequence to write.
What ideas were you hoping to explore when it comes to diasporic identities?
It’s interesting, with my first book, Frying Plantain, a central tension of the collection is Kara not feeling Jamaican enough or Canadian enough and feeling as if she doesn’t fit. Whereas with River Mumma, I wanted my characters to all feel very comfortable in being diasporic, in switching between patois and English while also using slang, they thrive in the hybridity that Kara is so tense about. That being said, they all still have a lot to learn about their identities and their history and their connections to each other in order to sort of be fully realized people.
So I wanted to explore the different ways that can happen, the different ways children of the diaspora try to connect to themselves and to their roots. For Heaven she reads as much as she can about traditions, Mars, who doesn’t even really think about his roots or his connections, he’s still comfortable with the slang, with the music, with the food, and Alicia goes through an actual spiritual awakening rooted in learning about her family history. This is all to say that I was trying to get across that there is no one way to celebrate or love your culture or connect to your culture and that it’s an ongoing conversation.
We’re always curious about how writers write. What did writing this book look like?
It was a lot different than Frying Plantain, it was faster. I wrote it during lockdown so that’s how I spent my time besides working. Before, when I thought I was writing the high fantasy YA novel, I had also gone back to Jamaica just to be there, just to see things like the cotton trees. I also read a lot of books, which is why there’s a work cited at the end of the novel. I went to every place mentioned in the book multiple times, recorded routes, it was a very involved process but it didn’t feel like it took a lot of time.
River Mumma is out now — get your copy here.