When the Cicadas Return










Insect Dreams


Insect Dreams
by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson


"Weaving lush, lyric prose with historical research, Rosalind Palermo Stevenson’s novella Insect Dreams follows the noted seventeenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian on her trip to Surinam to study insects. What makes the novella different is that despite the historical grounding—Maria Sibylla really did travel unescorted to Surinam and witness the horrors of the Dutch slave trade—the novella works on the reader’s mind more like a malarial dream vision coming at the reader in a series of vivid images as alive and detailed as the jungle they conjure: “Birds tear towards the sun. Their wings on fire like the wings of the Holy Spirit. Tongues aflame for all the earth to see,” or worse still the fetid air itself: “and all the while the heat is breathing itself into her, needling and insistent like the mouth of an insect.” The poetic imagery allows Palermo Stevenson to bring not only the possible world to life but the “impossible” as well: “There is a beast, there is a beast in Surinam. A white beast seen prowling in the grasses near the sugar farms. The Indians say it is the jinn of a demon that lives under Piki Ston Falls. That it will come and slash slash with its teeth as large as Waha leaves. That it will come to take its dwendi, its lady mama girl, to make its wild monkey bride.” Though the reader always stays grounded to the character of Maria Sibylla, her foibles and loves, the novella unfolds in a mythic space where the reader is never sure quite what is real and what is merely the result of heat-induced fever, a liminal space between the real and irreal, between historical fiction and prose poetry, between the rationality of the white slave holders and the “superstition” of the natives. It is within this shadowy borderland that Palermo Stevenson works her magic, reminding the reader that true discovery sometimes takes place at the edge of our known reality. In the process, she explores not only the symbiotic relationship in nature between beauty and horror but also the complex awakening of a woman’s spirit. A breathtaking work from a visionary new press."

--Peter Grandbois, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Dalkey Archive Press

"Insect Dreams is a stunning story, half historical fiction, half fever dream in which the noted naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) travels from Holland to Surinam in South America. What brings her to the New World is a passion for the unknown:

There are creatures that no one has seen. Creatures that have not been classified, counted, entered in the journals and the record books of science, whose shapes defy the patterns of logical construction, whose colors are as if from other worlds, self-regenerating, pure, infinite complexity and variety, sketched by God, painted by angels, life miraculously breathed into them, life, alive, free, that no one has seen, that she, she must see.

The juxtaposition of memories from Holland, the interjection of the slave trade, Merian’s explorations in the New World, possible love, possible impossible beasts, form a vast yet condensed canvas, told in the most sensuous language. Merian is in love with the details of the world, and so is Stevenson."

--Jeff VanderMeer, Locus OnLine






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Rosalind Palermo Stevenson is the author of the novella “Insect Dreams” (Rain Mountain Press 2007). Her fiction appears in the anthologies “Poe’s Children” (Random House 2008, edited by Peter Straub); “Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana,” (Fordham University Press 2008, edited by Carol Bonomo Albright and Joanna Clapps Herman); and, Trampoline (Small Beer Press 2005, edited by Kelly Link). Her fiction and prose poems also appear in many literary journals including Web Conjunctions, First Intensity, Italian Americana, Spinning Jenny, Skidrow Penthouse, River City, Washington Square, and Phantasmagoria, among others. She has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes and her short story “The Guest,” was awarded the IAWA fiction prize for Italian-American writing, and was selected as Italian Americana’s best story of 2005. Rosalind lives in New York City.