Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

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Afro-Carribean Voudun and Speculative Fiction in Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring*

Kim Wells

“Got a black cat bone/ I got a mojo too/I got a John the Conqueror Root,/I’m gonna mess with you.”  “Hoochie Coochie Man” Muddy Waters, 1954

“You will do well, but you need the Black Cat Bone.  Sometimes you have to be able to walk invisible. [. . .] We went out to catch a black cat.  I must catch him with my own hands. [. . .] when the water boiled I was to toss in the terrified, trembling cat.  When he screamed, I was told to curse him. [. . .] The bones of the cat must be passed through my mouth until one tasted bitter. [. . .] Before day I was home, with a small white bone for me to carry.”  From Mules and Men, 220-221.  Zora Neale Hurston. 1935.


August 2008

            In 1980, during his presidential campaign, George H. Bush used the phrase “voodoo economics” to describe Ronald Reagan’s economic policy.  The phrase was a home-run, a soundbite moment of speech writing which has stuck with us since then as a label that means manipulative, fake, and even deceptive policies put forth by government agencies, especially related to the economy.  The phrase has not remained limited to the economy, though, and as John Bartkowski points out, the phrase has expanded beyond economics and into the popular imagination, supported by the media, to rest on the characterization of Voudun[i] as “lies, impotent superstition, and trickery” (567).   Bartkowski reveals that as recently as the 1990s, “the Army’s leading expert on unorthodox religions,” Chief Warrant Officer James Dibble, portrayed Voudun and Santeria[i] in Mother Jones magazine as “analogous to the drug threat” and stated that the U.S. has “a problem with nontraditional groups in this country.”  Dibble further alleged that “Both Satanism and Voodoo have potential for diabolical use” (qtd in Bartowski 566).  As this misrepresentation shows, in the public mind, Voudun remains a murky, dangerous threat, akin to devil worship.  Descriptions of magical rituals within these non-white cultures seem frighteningly alien and exotic to the “middle America” that the government was playing to when Dibble made these claims, and any mention of alternative beliefs instead are portrayed as evil.  Bartkowski’s article argues that in popular culture in the U.S., Voudun has been portrayed as “black” or “hex” magic for a long time, and that these portrayals largely ignore any evidence that suggests Voudun as instead a religion practiced by many African-American and Afro-Carribean people (as well as whites) that “has acted as a positive force in the lives” of those adherents and has “played a pivotal role historically in sustaining the African cultural continuum and in promoting Haitian liberation from colonial domination” (559).  Arguments like Bartkowski’s, however, do not seem to get very far at changing the perception of Voudun as at best, fake, and at worst, evil.  

            In direct opposition to this portrayal of Voudun as an empty, superstitious cult of black magic where practitioners use fakery and human sacrifice to frighten the populace into submission, or even a system of manipulation or deception, this essay argues that the Afro-Carribean Voudun in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring (1998)  are Magical Feminist forces for modeling positive empowerment in the lives of the novel’s characters, largely because of the monetary empowerment those characters are able to acquire via those systems of magical religious belief.  That these characters then use the self-reliance provided by new financial power– the Voudun Economics– they acquire to support their infant children shows the inherent feminism in economic empowerment, and allows both texts to function as a means of teaching the feminist philosophy of power through self-sufficiency. It is no accident that the famous quotation from Virginia Woolf that a woman needs “500 pounds and a room of one’s own” to be a woman writer has become a slogan for feminism, and not just for women writers.  Women need economic self-sufficiency and privacy in order to seek and gain any kind of success.  Money is power, and in these novels, the ability to earn money and therefore support one’s family directly equals power for these women. 

Viva la Voudun!: Religion as Féministe Resistance and Preservation

“Marassa élo, I have no mother here/who can speak for me./ Marassa élo I have left my mother in Africa./  Marassa élo I have left my family in Africa/ I have no family to speak for me/ I have no relations to speak for me/ Marassa élo.” (invocation to the Twins, Qtd. in Métreaux 152-3)

            Voudun is popularly best-known and much-maligned as a form of black[i] magic wherein its practitioners dance around killing chickens and creating zombis,[i] but in reality, it is as much a powerful anti-patriarchal religion as anything else, and often a force for positive power and change within the communities wherein it has flourished.   As the invocation to the Twins[i] in epigraph shows, Voudun is a way of speaking the unwritten history of family, and through it, preserving (even if with changes) a culture that might have been completely lost from (among other things) the oppression of slavery.  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.  If “the master” feared the hatred of the slave, and feared the consequences of pushing that slave too far into dangerous magic, perhaps fear mitigated his actions somewhat. Certainly, the more cruel such a master was, the more s/he had to fear from a slave population’s hatred.  Voudun, mostly, gave the slave enough hope, power, and social connection to continue resisting complete acceptance of slavery.[i] Voudun’s power to resist and to shape events amounts to more than superstition, more than even religion.[i] The religion is a hybrid of complex power exchange between what should be competing forces which, in the mind of the Voudun believers, live in harmony: traditional folk beliefs and Catholicism.  In an article about Marie Laveau, Professor Ina Fandrich quoted the saying “in Haiti, 80 percent of the population is Catholic and 20 percent is Protestant, but 100 percent is voodoo” (Calongne para 13).  As a religion which is a fusion of the Catholicism of patriarchy’s slave-owners and the often more matriarchal religions brought along with the slaves, Voudun takes what it likes from the oppressor’s religion, reshapes it, pays lip service to the rules and then radically rewrites the society in which it thrives.  As a literary trope, then, Voudun is compatible with feminism in its means, ends, and goals.  Both Voudun and feminism work to overthrow an oppressive status quo that gives one group power over another on the basis of an unfair system, and both do so by using “the tools of the master” but in a way that transforms those tools so that the slave has power over the master, the weak over the strong. 

            Voudun provides a way for those out of power to fight back against those who would abuse its devotees, as Métreaux argues: “for the slave, the cult of spirits and gods, and of magic too, amounted to an escape; more, it was an aspect of the resistance which he sustained against his lot” (emphasis mine, 31-2).  Voudun allowed the slave the ability to resist complete assimilation into an alien society that treated him/her as chattel.  For example, Voudun played an important role in the slave uprising and subsequent rebellion of 1791-1804 which made Haiti the first black independent republic, as Sidney W. Mintz argues: “vaudou surely played a critical role in the creation of viable armed resistance by the slaves against the master classes– and against the armies of other powers besides France, interested in resubjugating the once immensely powerful colony” (11).  Haiti was able to retain that hard-earned independence from other countries because many feared the strength of the country’s leaders, who in turn, traced at least part of that strength to their religion.  But even more importantly, Voudun helped form the cultural memory of the people of Haiti, and its art, literature, and folklore are all influenced by the religion, in one way or another.  Métreaux argues:  “In spite of brutal uprooting from their own social milieu, the slaves contrived to resurrect, in exile, the religious framework in which they had been brought up” (30).  In resurrecting this ancestral religious system, the slaves created the first black-led New World country, where they were in at least some control of their lives, and they managed to create a hybrid system where the past, present, and future were under their own control rather than the control of slaveowners.

            First, we should briefly examine the structure of the religion.  While there are so many different types of religious practice that can be characterized as Voudun, and each practice is as individual as the people who practice it and the places where it can be found,[i] there are some similarities that most Voudun practitioners have in common.  These include a “body of basic beliefs and practices that typify vaudou throughout Haiti:  the twin cult, the loa and their specific personifications, the phenomenon of possession, the role of the dead, the relationship between gods and the land, and much else, [which] provide a core of belief” (Mintz, in Métreaux intro 13).  Voudun is not organized in the same manner of Christian religions– there is no one leader, or head of the church, and no established doxology.  Within Voudun’s pantheon we do find acknowledgment of an all-powerful god, but he is believed to be distant and unconcerned with the daily workings of human life.  As Mami Gros Jeanne explains in Brown Girl in the Ring, the loa are “the ones who does carry we prayers to God Father, for he too busy to listen to every single one of we on earth talking at he all the time” (Hopkinson 126).  So, Voudun practitioners appeal to the loa, patron gods based (sometimes loosely) on a transplanted African pantheon, for help in various daily aspects of their lives.  In a sense, the loa are very like Catholicism’s saints– instead of bothering a distant God, who is “too busy” for the everyday problems of humanity, the Voudunienne asks Erzuli for help with matters of love, Baron Samedi for help with issues of life and death, Ogu for help with disputes, etc. In return for intercession, the loa might possess the body of the querant, to fulfill the god’s needs and pleasures.  The religion varies depending upon where it is practiced, from Cuba to New Orleans, and each individual practitioner may have a different focus and ritual.  Aside from the basics, with all the differences in Voudun, it would be hard to briefly pin down an exact nature of all aspects of the religion, which is one of its strengths.  Therefore, for the purposes of our discussion, we will focus on at least defining the ritual practice of possession by the loa

            Possession is defined by Métreaux as when “a loa moves into the head of an individual having first driven out [. . . ] one of the two souls that everyone carries. [. . . ] The relationship between the loa and the man seized is compared to that which joins the rider to his horse.  That is why a loa is spoken of as ‘mounting’ or ‘saddling’ his chual (horse)” (120). Métreaux argues for possession’s “fundamental role in the framework of Voodoo” (120) and devotes a large portion of his discussion to the conditions under which a person is possessed, how they appear during possession, and what kinds of possessions might occur depending upon the needs of the possessed.  According to those possessed, the loa are there to protect the Voudun practitioner when s/he has no power to protect him/herself, to give a person strength and information.  Métreaux records a “profession of faith” that he says “sums up, fairly well, what the devotees of Voodoo expect from the loa” (95): 

The loa love us, protect us and guard us.  They tell us what is happening to our relations who live far away, they suggest to us remedies which bring us relief when we are sick . . . If we are hungry, the loa appear to us in a dream and say: “Take courage: you will earn money” and the promised money comes.” (95)   

The loa, then, offer the help that extended family, lost forever in the Middle Passage, would give to those who have been taken away from that family.  The loa are the larger community of influence that would have provided comfort, aid, and protection for the individual in the world.  The loa guide their “horse” on decisions of great importance in their lives, and often provide the answers for the possessed when no other help can be found.  In a large way, the loa influence the daily lives of the Voudun believer in a way that the distant Christian God never does, and thus, one can see their appeal for helping change an unfair system, and their usefulness in a work of fiction that speculates on great, yet intimate and immediate societal change. 

            Partially using possession, characters addressed in this essay find a way to empower themselves financially, and by embracing the benefits that the period of being possessed grant them, each character finds her own way of dealing with the issues at hand, and finds a means to empower herself financially, for the good of herself and her family’s lives.  In this way, Voudun becomes a partner to feminism, becoming a means for the women of the novel to resist the problems of poverty and lack of control in their lives. 

Afro-Carribean Voudun and Speculative Fiction in Brown Girl in the Ring

            Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring was a winner of the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest.  Hopkinson has received many awards for her work, including the World Fantasy Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the Phillip K. Dick award for science-fiction in paperback, and the Ontario Arts Council Foundation Award (Collier 443).  The novel also won the Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel (Nelson 97).  Her work has received this critical acclaim largely because it challenges genre expectations, manifesting a richness of culture that transcends definitions of fantasy, science fiction, or women’s writing, and makes us aware of the power of all storytelling that challenges expectations of identity.[i]  Sarah Wood argues that “Hopkinson locates Brown Girl at the margins of science-fiction, thus making use of the malleability of this territory’s boundaries in order to offer a space for possible new emergent identities” (216).  The novel uses this malleability in the margins of several genres to create several new epistemologies of women’s power.  The text is part science-fiction and fantasy, part post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story and part age-old mythic folktale– and most importantly for its status as a Magical Feminist text, it uses many of the elements of the religion Voudun to develop the story’s search for power and identity.  These elements include prophetic visions, ritual, herbalism, and possession by the loa.  These elements help the novel’s protagonist become a figure of strength through her growing awareness and acceptance of the intricate blending dance of her Afro-Caribbean roots and culture with the Canadian world in which she lives. 

            The novel is set in Canada and makes heavy use of Caribbean folklore and myth; Sarah Wood argues that the Caribbean maintains a “striking but ethereal presence” (217) in the novel.  She asserts that the novel is both the “speculative fiction” that Hopkinson calls it and a kind of “syncretic fiction” that rewrites genres and “challenges our assumptions” about the structure of science fiction and fantasy, as well as our assumptions about boundaries of nation and postcolonial narratives (225).  This syncretic fiction is Magical Feminism, challenging the borders of genre at the same time it models shifting boundaries of class, race, and gender.  Even with its setting in the soon-to-be-accomplished future, or even a modern-day Toronto, the practice of Voudun in the novel retains a strong element of real tradition one would recognize as Voudun immediately– from the presence of the loa in everyday lives and their influence on important real events, to the specific rituals we see Ti-Jeanne practice. 

            How or why does this Canadian-written, Afro-Caribbean text participate in Magical Feminism?  John Lowe, in “Calypso Magnolia, the Caribbean Side of the South” argues for a re-definition of the Carribean and Gulf of Mexico as having the influence on the Americas that the Mediterranean has on Europe and the Middle East.  Lowe points out the way that Caribbean cultures were spread throughout the Americas, from South to North America and the United States in between.  He argues that by defining American Literature only in terms of the artificial borders of the modern United States, we miss out on important historical, cultural, and literary influences in our postmodern, global culture.  The influence of the entire Americas, all of the land surrounding “our Mediterranean” should, he claims, create a more complete understanding of cultural change and growth. 

            The claim that New Orleans is the center of our American Mediterranean, and reminder that the Louisiana Purchase stretched from New Orleans far north to the Canadian border “insists on a criollo cultural model of coastal rims, ideally thought of as a cradle of myth and legend” (Lowe 55).   Lowe reminds us of the Odyssey’s opening lines “Many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea” and draws a parallel with the pains of the Middle Passage suffered by many who became the residents of the Caribbean.  I would add that it is important to consider the migration of a large group of Canadian French to Louisiana, those who became Cajuns/Acadians came south to the lands just south of New Orleans and have had great influence on the cradle of “Our Mediterranean,” as well.  Finally, the connection, via the Mississippi River, between New Orleans as the U.S. home to Hoodoo and parts north also reflects the transmission of slavery’s influence North, to freedom and Canada.  A virtual route of transmission can be traced over the entire breadth of North America. 

            Sarah Wood points out that Canada has officially recognized itself, in 1971, as multicultural (318).  Thus, exploring a Canadian Afro-Caribbean text as part of an exploration of multi-cultural Magical Feminism seems not only okay but essential to an understanding of how an image– the woman magic user– shapes us, and how that image models empowerment across genre boundaries of all kinds.  Thus, the Afro-Caribbean Canadian Brown Girl in The Ring represents Voudun as a manner of preserving a community and resisting the larger power structures of so-called modern, or rational society. Using Voudun, Hopkinson’s novel further explores cultural trends towards a changing urban future, and her work allows us to examine a new awareness of multicultural influences in a way that illuminates feminism. 

            Gordon Collier argues that the novel’s title “bears on the nature of the narrative” and that by understanding the Caribbean song “Brown Girl in the Ring” we understand something of the Toronto-Caribbean protagonist’s necessary “survival skills and inventiveness” (445).  He explains that the ring-game song involves a little girl who stands at the center of the ring, and must “invent a dance move, chosen by the brown girl in the center, which other girls must copy” (445).  The best imitator of the dance move replaces her predecessor as master of the dance.  However, I argue that in Hopkinson’s novel of this title, the imitation each girl must master in the dance is also related to possession by the loa.  When a person is possessed by the loa, they perform intricate moves depending upon which loa is riding them, moves which are recognizable to any initiate as belonging to each particular spirit.  When the “brown girl” in the center of the narrative, Ti-Jeanne, masters the ability to dance the traditional moves that define each loa and his/her power, she also begins to master her own dance of balancing her cultural “moves” and power to survive. She becomes the center of her circle, leading those on the edges as she learns to teach Voudun and becomes a healer and community leader. Thus, possession is revealed as a way of modeling an intricate dance of power and cultural balance, and cultural re-centering..

            In this novel, Voudun’s magic, including possession, becomes a way of refiguring the “triple threat” of “race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression” (Collins 221); imagining Voudun as an equalizer illustrates how one element can change interlocking traits of influence into benefits instead of problems.  By using Voudun[i] to define the futuristic setting of the narrative, Hopkinson participates in a project that, by “viewing the world through a both/and conceptual lens of the simultaneity of race, class, and gender oppression and of the need for a humanist vision of community, creates new possibilities for an empowering Afrocentric feminist knowledge” (Collins 221).   Hopkinson, writing in a genre which still does not include very many women writers (let alone of African or Caribbean descent,) features her character’s culture instead of blurring it, and thus, illuminates a new view of  the people living within those urban centers that are often the setting of futuristic science-fiction.   Hopkinson’s use of Afro-Caribbean Voudun denies the Hollywood image of Voudun, illustrating the changing beliefs and personal growth of the novel’s protagonist.  The reader finds a greater understanding of Voudun as a real religion as we follow the protagonist through her experiences of possession into a life where she has control over her own destiny in a very pro-feminist manner.  Most importantly, through Voudun, Ti Jeanne’s race, class, and gender actually become three prongs of her strength instead of a means of oppression; once she finds a connection, through magic, to her own powers, she then finds a career intertwined with those powers, a career that actually rises out of her race, class, and gender instead of battling with it.             

            The novel centers on Voudun, and especially possession by the loa, as one source to power and self-determination.  The novel sketches the adventures of a young Afro-Carribean woman and her Voudun priestess grandmother in a near-future but post-apocalyptic Toronto.  Following a series of chaotic Riots, the government and anyone who could afford to leave the dangers of urban-blight and the city has fled to the safety of the suburbs.  Anyone left in the nearly destroyed inner city, “The Burn,” must negotiate new power structures largely run by gangs of Afro-Caribbean drug-dealers.  Ti-Jeanne, a newly single mother whose ex-boyfriend (Tony) is a recovering drug-addict, turns to her grandmother for help.  When the premier of Ontario needs a heart transplant, Ti-Jeanne and her grandmother are caught up in the life-and-death power-struggles with the ganglord, Rudy, and can no longer live in the safety the grandmother’s position as community healer provides them.  Mami Gros Jeanne is killed by Tony because her heart is a match for the premier’s, and her heart is sold on the black market to the premier’s associates.  Ti-Jeanne then turns to her grandmother’s religion, including magic rituals, powers, and the loa, for help, and uses her new understanding of Voudun to empower herself to save her own life and the life of her child. The novel’s protagonist transforms herself through her growing knowledge of her history, both familial and cultural, her growing self-confidence as a mother and person, and her connection with magic through a Caribbean Voudun tradition, which she learns through necessity and tries, at first, to reject.  The reader follows her education about the tradition, and her eventual acceptance of her place within the community, seeing her grow in strength and learn to value her community as a healer/priestess. Her growing knowledge of magic, here represented by Voudun, allows her empowerment through her profession, and a choice in what to do with her life, one of the most important elements of feminist freedom. 

            As the novel opens, detailed descriptive passages not only sketch the scenery but characterize the power-relationship that the community has with its resident witches/Voudun priestesses.  In an early sequence, Ti-Jeanne hurries home approached on the street by men “offering presents in return for ‘a little time’ with her” (31).  Instead of seeming threatening, or even like a type of objectification, turning Ti-Jeanne into something that can be exchanged for these “presents,” this scene actually illustrates Ti-Jeanne’s strong position within her community.  Because of their offers, we see her connection to the powerful Mami Gros-Jeanne, her grandmother, the community’s healer and a powerful priestess.  Instead of showing a young woman as needing to attach herself to a male to achieve a position of authority or power or safety, this novel show the opposite as true.[i]

            Ti-Jeanne’s power, in this relation to a powerful female community leader, arises not from fear but from respect and authority.  This is a positive kind of influence and position for Ti-Jeanne, not mere protection but potential.  It is also a position that Ti-Jeanne can work hard to earn for herself through education, not her body or beauty.  After Mami-Gros-Jeanne is gone, Ti-Jeanne can choose her own place as the community’s healer.  There is a healthy respect for her status and the men do not try anything too aggressive, because, as Ti Jeanne thinks “she was Mami Gros-Jeanne’s granddaughter, and nobody wanted Mami mad at them” (31). Still, it is not just fear that motivates the men to leave her alone, but respect, and Mami’s professional authority as a healer and magic-woman (as well as her position in the center of the community).  The men cannot risk Mami’s help not being there in the future; she has power more because of her choices as a healer who gives to her community than as one who might harm them: “They needed Mami when winter coughs were racking their lungs or their women were giving birth” (31). 

             It is economic authority, the status of her grandmother as a medical professional, and her role as a Voudun priestess which initially grants Ti-Jeanne the safety to walk alone through the streets where even the male taxi driver hurries away in fear “mov[ing] off quickly, not even looking around for more customers” (10).  The men who approach her are not too aggressive in their sexual pursuit of Ti-Jeanne because they need her grandmother’s continued help and goodwill. These scenes demonstrate the strength in what patriarchy has denigrated as a weak, female kind of job– nursing.   The strength of influence shown here, center a commonly maligned role of Voudun priestess instead as respected community leader. 

            For Ti-Jeanne’s strength to become her own, rather than borrowed from her association with her grandmother, she has to grow and accept what she has previously denied.  We learn that Ti-Jeanne, as a seer who can tell the future, can “see with more than sight.  Sometimes she could see how people were going to die” but she rejects the power because she considers it a part of obeah or black magic.   At first she thinks that she “hate[s] the visions” (9) but they become a source of strength and power for her by the novel’s end.  Her ability to see visions makes her more open to the first appearances of the loa in her life than she might have been and make her even more respected when she finally does become a part of the community she at first shuns.  Even though she doesn’t initially know it, Ti-Jeanne’s foreknowledge of the future is considered one of the most powerful types of Voudun.  Métreaux explains: “the gift most prized in a priest is second sight” (63).  He also asserts that “a good hungan is at one and the same time priest, healer, soothsayer, exorciser, organizer of public entertainments and choirmaster [. . . ] influential political guide [. . .  and] accepted counselor of the community” (64). Ti-Jeanne’s lack of knowledge about what one culture claims is superstition and another seems as strength signifies a disconnect that the ritual of possession eventually helps correct. 

            Ti-Jeanne’s patron loa, Papa Legba, a trickster and gateway/borderlands figure, fulfills, in part, the cultural misunderstanding Ti-Jeanne first has that her Grandmother’s religion is evil.  When she first meets Legba, Ti-Jeanne sees him as a devil figure, even calling him a “Jab-Jab” from the French for “Diable” or devil.   But like Legba, Ti-Jeanne transforms, as she eventually learns to use trickery and balance to ride the crossroads between her own modern Toronto and the Toronto of her grandmother’s spiritual past.  She gains power when her loa trusts her to right the balance of magic Rudy has disrupted when Rudy uses obeah-driven black magic, to force the spirits to work for him.   Legba follows her throughout the novel, first appearing as the Jab-Jab (devil) in her visions, and then later revealing himself to her in his form as her patron loa.  As the Jab-Jab, he encourages her to stop giving her “will over into other people hands” and makes her realize she must “decide what [she] want to do for myself” (220).  Eventually, Ti-Jeanne calls upon this loa for help when she is immobilized by the poison/drug Buff[i] and she is then possessed by eight of the loa, who grant her the powers of elemental magic and the radical change that they carry.  They bring lightning, a flood, and inflict a wasting disease on one of Rudy’s thugs.  We see Ti-Jeanne changing from her initial fear of the visions of the Jab-Jab to becoming like him when she feels “a silent kya-kya, a jokey Jab-Jab laugh” as she figures out “like the spirit tree that the centre pole symbolized, the CN Tower dug roots deep into the ground where the dead lived and pushed high into the heavens where the oldest ancestors lived.  The tower was their ladder into this world.” She thinks it is “A Jab-Jab type of joke, oui” (221). 

            Ti-Jeanne  finds enlightenment through her intuitive vision of the tall building at the same time as she identifies with the laughter of the trickster figure.  “With a flash of instinct” she realizes that the modern Toronto symbol of power where she is trapped can also be a hybrid crossroads for traditional power, and the insight opens her further to the loa’s possession. Shango and Oya arrive first, and then come Oshun and Emanjah, “water goddesses both” (222). None of them leave her body, before Shakapana, “lord of disease” (222) shows up.  The poisons brought by Shakapana are eased when Osain “the healer” arrives, and then further taken away by Ogun “who- wields-the-knife” (222).  Finally, Papa Legbara/Legba, Prince of Cemetery arrives.  Each of the loa trust Ti-Jeanne because she, like her grandmother, serves the spirits instead of demanding they serve her.  Ti-Jeanne dances the loa’s personas and through their powers, turns her weakened position– immobilized by the drug– into a strong one where she defeats her physically stronger enemies.  In turn, the loa are able to defeat Rudy and solve a problem that had put their own powers out of balance. 

            The complex nature of power as both tool and threat is also shown here because while the loa give her power, they also put her life in danger.  After Ti-Jeanne is possessed by all eight loa and therefore is able to defeat the more experienced magician, Rudy, Papa Legba admires Ti-Jeanne’s strength in channeling the power of others, of being a “vessel,” but warns: “you do a thing I never see nobody do before.  For a few minutes there, you hold eight of the Oldest Ones in your head one time. [. . .] Do not try it again, eh?  It could burn your brain out” (229).  Ti-Jeanne’s service to her community guarantees that when she needs power, the loa grant her their strongest magic through their possession of her, at the same time warning her of the danger of too much power. 

            The gaining of this power shows Ti-Jeanne’s strength as well.  Guided by the literal spirit of Mami Gros-Jeanne, as well as the teachings of her strong grandmother, Ti-Jeanne shows a natural ability for magic that few others can handle.  This, as the most obviously magic scene in the novel, brings the reader the climax of the story and illustrates the authority and power of a woman who serves the community.  This moment illustrates basic principles of the magic of Voudun through possession by ancestral spirits and service to those spirits.  It also shows that power is not simply a one-way exchange, that there are dangers associated with it as well and, in so doing, the novel demonstrates a feminist but alternative path to empowerment: acknowledgment and understanding of one’s culture, tradition, and history. 

            Finally, at novel’s end, Ti-Jeanne has temporarily taken over Mami’s role as spiritual leader and teacher, gaining her own position of authority by becoming a central authority and healer in her community.  Because of her healing practice and role as herbalist and Voudun priestess, Mami’s influence on the community reaches even past her death, and we see this influence extend to Ti-Jeanne.  In a final moment of the novel, Ti-Jeanne sees her old goat, Harold, suddenly look up at her and sneeze “Eshu!”  Then, she “briefly could see his bones through his flesh.  Another vision, a joke from her spirit father” (244).   Ti-Jeanne answers the trickster’s reminder of mortality: “Well, Papa, look my answer here.  I go do this for a little while, but I ain’t Mami.  I ain’t know what I want to do with myself yet, but I can’t be she” (244).  We see, then, that while Ti-Jeanne has not yet decided where she will go, and what she will do for a living, she will not be bullied into someone else’s life, even by her patron loa.  The potential we see in her at novel’s beginning is still being realized, but it is potential that she is choosing to control. 

            The novel shows a powerful woman using her interlocking cultural traits as strengths, and in so-doing, demonstrates a feminism at its core that models (among other things) self-agency, self-sufficiency, and cultural self-love.  Ti-Jeanne’s economic empowerment as a healer who can make a living as the community’s doctor is hand in hand with the personal power that illustrated by her forgiveness of her boyfriend, Tony.  Tony says “I don’t know how a person learns to be so strong” (246).  She has the strength to realize his weakness and forgive him, even while she will not forget.  Ti-Jeanne now feels in control of her own life, and that control is something gained through her experiences of Voudun possession.  Experiencing the strength of the gods helps her realize her own strengths.  By coming to terms with and then using her Afro-Caribbean magic, rather than using the energy of that community in a self-serving way, Ti-Jeanne comes to terms with her own sense of power and maturity. 

 



44. I will spell the word “Voudun” throughout this essay; when a quotation uses a different spelling, I will keep that spelling intact.  Bob Corbett argues that scholars sometimes use different spellings, based on approximating the way it is pronounced in French Creole, such as “Vodun, Vodou, Vodoun, Vaudou, Vaudoux. Each of these is an attempt to spell the word in a way which represents how it is pronounced in Haiti. Actually the word is seldom even used by Haitians. They do not refer to the religion by the name Voodoo, but speak of people ‘following the loa,’ or ‘serving the loa’” (website).  In Brown Girl in the Ring Mami calls what she practices “Shango or Santeria or Voudun or what, we all doing the same thing.  Serving the spirits” (126).  I will spell it the way Mami does.  I will use the spelling that is used by Hopkinson for any other Voudun-related word.  Similarly, in Mockingbird, the religious system created by the protagonists’ mother is not called by a name, but the Riders is capitalized, and each of the Riders’ names is capitalized.  But since it Mockingbird’s spirits are very like Voudun’s loa, I will call the system there a type of Voudun.

45. Also known as Lucumi, Santeria is often paired with Voudun in popular misconceptions of both Afro-Carribean religions, and Santeria is probably just as misunderstood.  It is defined as a derivation of Yoruban religions beliefs brought to the Carribean, and especially Cuba, by slaves and influenced by Spanish Catholicism.  It is legally recognized in the U.S. as a religion (De la Torre 840).  Adherents of Santeria consult orishas, and participate in ritualistic ceremonies often misunderstood by U.S. culture as black magic.  This is the religion supposedly represented by the 1987 movie The Believers where the plot also involved child sacrifice, a charge often leveled upon both Vodou and Santeria. 

46. A discussion of the implications of racialized words like “black” and “white” to describe bad and good magic would be ultimately important in further study of these issues, but is beyond the scope of this particular discussion. 

47. As in one of the worst examples:  the 1993 movie Weekend at Bernie’s II where the two befuddled main characters revive the ridiculously still-convincing corpse of their dead host, Bernie, using pigeon blood (because the live chickens ran off) and a few ill-formed, mispronounced words of a Voudun spell, without any acknowledgment or understanding of Voudun as a complex religion.  One of my students once used this cheap-tricks comic-effect scene as an oral-aid/example to define Voudun in a class presentation, much to my horror, but this demonstrates the ingrained nature of the stereotype.   Another example of Hollywood-ized misrepresentation of Voudun is the 1996 version of The Crucible, where Tituba starts the Salem girls down their path to witchcraft with voodoo dolls and naked romps around a fire in the woods.  In another popular film, Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire (1994), slaves dressed in traditional white Voudun ceremonial clothing kill a chicken and dance around a bonfire to try to chase off the vampire Lestat and their newly-vamped master Louis.  The depiction recognizes that Voudun would be part of a New Orleans slave society’s way of dealing with the fears but still portrays it simplistically. We also see this kind of  representation in the 1962 film, Burn Witch Burn, where the witchcraft the pretty professor’s wife practices was learned in Haiti and very clearly is meant to look like Voudun, absent any acknowledgment of the gods and traditions, and so is portrayed as only black magic, necromancy, and cheap spells.  One notably more nuanced portrayal of Voudun in literature is Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, (1992) which shows Voudun’s political protest spirit in addition to its magical nature, and acknowledges the history and gods that are a vital part of the religion.

48. The Twins are figures of an almost equal footing with Legba as first of the loa in ritual, often invoked as part of the opening ceremonies as a way of asking for intercession (Métreaux 146). The Marassa are defined as the divine twins, the first man and woman, the first ancestors. They embody archetypal, polar forces akin to yin and yang.

49. See Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred (1979) for a modern-day science-fiction exploration of the way slavery could wear down resistance of even an independent person born into freedom. 

50. Charles Chesnutt portrays a complex example of Voudun as a means of gaining power for disenfranchised slaves and former slaves in “The Goophered Grapevine” (1899) where the former slave Julius tells a story about a grapevine being “conjured” and causing bad luck as a way to retain his personal use of and control over the valuable asset.  Julius, all the while playing a “fool” and pretending to disbelieve the story himself, tells complicated tales of cause and effect, related to “Conjure” or Hoodoo (the American cousin to Voudun), to the white potential buyers of the property, attempting to influence them.  The stories, and fear of a Hoodoo conjurer’s alleged lingering curse and power, allow Julius, a man with little or no control over his own life, to influence others through his story-telling. So those with power– the wherewithal to buy the land and restrict Julius’ use of the asset– consider their actions mitigated by Julius’ stories, even if they do not truly believe him or the magic he describes.  For another interesting portrayal of Hoodoo, read part two of Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935).  Hurston explores Haitian Voodoo, as well, in Tell My Horse:  Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938).

51. Largely Haiti, other Carribean islands, and any community with large cohesive groups of these countries’ population, like New Orleans, which once had such large portions of its slave population originating from Haiti that when Haiti revolted, New Orleans slave owners tightened security there, fearing similar revolts on the mainland.  Sutton E. Griggs, in Imperium in Imperio (1899), addresses this revolutionary spirit and includes Voudun as one element of the “hidden nation’s” plan to overthrow slavery.

52. Hopkinson is one of the more academically noticed of the Magical Feminist texts.   Most of the work on her deals with various aspects of her portrayals of Afro-Caribbean cultures and seems to mention the element of magic almost as an afterthought, comparing her to Magic Realist authors but failing to see the political element to those comparisons.  See Giselle Liza Anatol’s“A Feminist Reading of Soucouyants in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring and Skin Folk  for a discussion of a succubus-like figure in Haitian mythology.  Anatol’s reading of the Soucouyant argues that Hopkinson fails to rehabilitate the female figure of the Soucouyant in the way she does other marginally “bad” figures in the story.  I believe that one cannot strive to make all figures “good” in a story that deals with complex representations.  The succubus in this novel would be more aptly compared to a vampire than to a witch.  Gordon Collier’s “Spaceship Creole: Nalo Hopkinson, Canadian-Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, and Linguistic/Cultural Syncretism” explores the density of Creole Caribbean influence and references in Hopkinson’s work, including Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber, and argues that the syncretic mixture of Caribbean elements with science-fiction’s dystopic genre makes the novels a unique way of looking at a postcolonial multicultural society.

55. Buff is a fictional drug which, in the novel, is that which Haitian folk culture believes makes zombies.  It is derived from the Bufo toad, and in the novel, it is used to paralyze Ti-Jeanne as Rudy’s magic ceremony works to get her to turn her will over to him.  Hopkinson creates a drug-trafficking system akin to drugs that haunt other urban sci-fi but uniquely Haitian.  In creating a drug which has its roots in Voudun mythology, Hopkinson skillfully blends Afro-Caribbean myth and folklore with modern urban science-fiction’s typical features. By deftly creating this Haitian drug, Hopkinson also subtly critiques the way drugs rob a user of his/her will, creating a literal zombi.  See Collier, 446, for more discussion of the drug within the novel. 


Works Cited

Bartkowski, John P. “Claims-Making and Typifications of Voodoo as a Deviant Religion: Hex, Lies, and Videotape.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37.4(1998): 559-579.

Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press,1979.

Calongne, Kristine. "LSU Expert Uncovers Birth Record of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau." LSU News. 15 September 2006. <http://www.lsu.com/UNV002.NSF/(NoteID)/61C507C8B1A35EDF86256B8A0073633C?OpenDocument>.

Collier, Gordon. "Spaceship Creole: Nalo Hopkinson, Canadian-Caribbean Fabulist Fiction, and Linguistic/Cultural Syncretism." Matatu 27-28 (2003): 443 -56.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Corbett, Bob. "A List of the Major Loa." 16 July 1995. <http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43a/126.html>.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti. New York: MacPhearson, 1983.

Hopkinson, Nalo. Brown Girl in the Ring. New York: Warner Books, 1998.

— . “E-mail to Kim Wells.” 11 February 2007.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. New York: Perennial Library,1935.

— . Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. New York: Perennial Library, 1938.

Lowe, John. “‘Calypso Magnolia’: The Caribbean Side of the South.” South Central Review 22.1(2005): 54-80.

Métraux, Alfred. Voodoo in Haiti. Trans. Hugo Charteris. New York: Oxford UP, 1959.

Nelson, Alondra. “Making the Impossible Possible: An Interview With Nalo Hopkinson.” Social Text 20.2 (2002): 97-113.

Wood, Sarah. “‘Serving the Spirits’: Emergent Identities in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring.” Extrapolation 46.3 (2005): 315-326.

Waters, Muddy. “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Hoochie Coochie Man. BMG Special Products, 2005.

Weigman, Robyn. “Feminism’s Apocalyptic Futures.” New Literary History 31 (2000): 805-25.


*this essay is a shortened section of my dissertation chapter, "Voudun Economics: Possession And Empowerment Through Magical Feminist Capitalism". The entire gigantic download of the dissertation is available online here.



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