Thursday, April 9, 2015

Writing about Voodoo

Why witches? Because witches sing. Can I hear this singing? It is the sound of another voice. They tried to make us believe that women did not know how to speak or write; that they were stutterers or mutes. That is because they tried to make women speak straightforwardly, logically, geometrically, in strict conformity. In reality, they croon lullabies, they howl, they gasp, they babble, they shout, they sigh. They are silent, and even their silence can be heard. Xavière Gauthier, “Porquoi Sorcières,” 199.

Today, there's a cool newspaper story about my bookHoodoopocalypse, and I thank Judy Christy for the amazing interview opportunity.  Reading over the interview questions made me think about the content of my story again. Voodoo/Hoodoo.

People have asked me why I changed it to Hoodoo. Most people are pretty familiar with Voodoo (or think they are... I'll get back to that in a sec.) But a lot of folks don't know what Hoodoo is. It's kind of the same thing but also not really.

Hoodoo is a Southern United States version of Voudou. Voudou (Voudon, Voodoo, Vodeaux) is a real religious practice that honestly millions of people follow. It's a religion that is a mixture of Catholicism and the religious practices of the Africans and Caribbean slaves, especially after the 1700s or so. It was a huge part of the Haitian Revolution. The link is great, but it's honestly one of the only successful revolutions against Western slavery in history, and the religion certainly helped.

There's a neat description of "Louisiana Voodoo" on wikipedia, too, and it helps to understand that the practices are this mixture of folklore, herbal magic, witchcraft, and genuine "go to church on Sunday" religion. A lot of what I referenced in the book is from this kind of practice. I'm super familiar with it so it just permeates the made writing the book so neat because I literally could almost do anything. If magic is real, then you can play with every part of reality. This is a gift of amazing proportion for a fiction writer.

The depiction of Voodoo in popular culture almost always involves women dancing around in white dresses, a mean guy with a top hat and a cigar, often with a white skull-painted face. People got upset with the TV series American Horror Story because of this, actually. In spite of having a bad assed real life priestess and one of the most beautiful modern actresses playing her, they still landed on cliché and lazy research. You would think all that the religion needs is a couple of Voodoo dolls and cauldrons full of bones, too.

That is part of what I played with in Hoodoopocalypse, too, but I tried really hard to use authentic images rather than the Hollywoodized voodoo. Baron Samedi is a great bad guy, but he is not the only one out there, and he's not the only Voodoo loa, either.

Voodoo is neither black or white magic entirely. There is a blend, and just like with all human life, there are both good and bad practices. Kalfu, the bad guy in my book, is a dark-half of the Loa Papa Legba, who is a genuine good guy. Yes, there are spells and bad guys and lots of real magic in my book. That's the fictional element of the story. If you go to New Orleans, you're not likely to run into any Guédé who are going to trap you and put you to fighting in the SuperDome. Yet.

But seriously, I changed the title to Hoodoo because I was trying to focus the story more on a kind of home-grown magic practice, and not offend a bunch of folks for whom this is their authentic religious practice. I hope that I did an okay job with that. I have a whole chapter in my dissertation on Voodoo, by the way, if you're interested in it and learning more about how it as a religion actually was part of the slave/master relationship and real, true revolution.

To quote myself a little for a TL;DR moment:
Voudun is an example of a type of religious magic which, in its foundation and innate nature, resists hierarchy, empowers the poor and disenfranchised, and has preserved hope and history in several non-dominant cultures. As such, the greatest real-world magic of Voudun may be its ability to inspire great societal change. As early as 1959, Alfred Métreaux, in his foundational anthropological study Voodoo in Haiti (1959), wrote about the complex hegemonic exchange of power and fear in Vodoun’s history as he asserted about the complex relationship between those with power and those without: 
Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity: the anxiety which grows in the minds of those who abuse power often takes the form of imaginary terrors and demented obsessions. The master maltreated his slave, but feared his hatred. He treated him like a beast of burden but dreaded the occult powers which he imputed to him. And the greater the subjugation of the Black, the more he inspired fear [. . . ] it was the witchcraft of remote and mysterious Africa which troubled the sleep of the people in “the big house.” (15) 
In “troubling the sleep” of those with power, Vodoun gave its practitioners a little bit (and eventually, a lot) of power over their own situation.
Think about that a little, and then go read my book. It's pretty cool, and I'm so glad I wrote it. I hope people will give it a chance to keep them up at night.

Oh, and in my dissertation, I wrote about some amazing books by Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring), Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic), Sean Stewart (Mockingbird), Chitra Divakaruni (Mistress of Spices), the TV show Charmed, and a whole chapter on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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