Monday, June 28, 2010

Interview with Ócha'ni Lele (Part I)

This has been an excellent month for me. Not only did I get a chance to read an advance copy of Ócha'ni Lele's Teachings of the Santería Gods: The Spirit of the Odu - I had a chance to interview the author!  Lele is a great interview subject - intelligent, articulate and opinionated, with no fear of sharing his feelings despite whatever controversy may arise.  I enjoyed speaking with him and hope you enjoy reading his thoughts too!

Q: I remember a great deal of controversy after you released The Diloggún. Many santeros felt that you revealed too much information to people who were not initiates. As an author myself on Vodou, I’ve run into this problem. How do you respond to these critics?

A: Early in my career when I released my first book The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination I felt that I had to address my critics. As I’ve continued to write I’ve gotten a lot older and a little bit wiser; and I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to address any of my critics if I don’t want to. Not everyone is going to like everything I write; likewise, not everyone is going to like everything that I do. What’s important, however, is that I am happy with the work I’m doing, and that the orishas are happy with the work that I’m doing. Thankfully not one orisha has ever come down at a tambour to express dismay over my work, but many orishas have acknowledged how hard I work to both educate and illuminate the masses. As long as I’m right with the orishas, Olófin, and my egun, I’m on the right path.

As for revealing secrets, I’d like to argue a counter-point. The diloggún is our holy book, oral though it may be, and every Lucumí adherent has a right to know its proverbs and patakís. These are the spiritual foundation of our religion; and they are where the divinatory meanings of the odu originate. Sure, knowledge of ebó is a shaky area but no one has ever given me a valid reason as to why a member of our faith should not know about ebó. When it comes to the manipulation of the diloggún for divination, I’ve had a few priests argue those instructions should not be in any book; however, their argument has always been one that a fraudulent practitioner could open a hand of shells and start divining for the masses. Honestly, that has always been a danger. In my time I’ve known a few “santeros” whose initiations were suspect, and these were people who had large clienteles for divination. Over the years we’ve even had fraudulent priests moving among us, people claiming elder status when in truth they never had anything put on their heads. My books don’t create that danger; instead, I believe they help protect against that danger when an aleyo (outsider) or aborisha (orisha worshipper) goes to see a new diviner. Armed with a basic knowledge of divination, they know who is skilled and who is not.

Plus, anyone involved in this faith for any length of time soon discovers the flow of divination on their own. Mostly that’s how I learned it: by careful, critical observation. Well, that plus asking a lot of questions along the way, and making copious notes from memory when the session was done.

More importantly, I think my books help protect against fraudulent activity. Some of my biggest critics have been the most uneducated priests, and quite a few of these were diviners. The Diloggún created both a basic reference book and a standard of practice. While some orisha lineages do have differences between my text and their own practice, differences which are just as valid as my own, overall my technique is sound. A “diviner” untrained in divination cannot pick up a hand of shells, mumble a few prayers, throw a few random casts, and prescribe the most outrageous or expensive ebós for their clients. My other book Obi: Oracle of Cuban Santería fulfills the same function. I’ve often joked about “end-of-the-month” santeros, priests whose bills are due on the first of the month suddenly deliver end-of-the-month readings that financially gouge their clients – all because their own bills are due! If nothing else, my work helps bring an end to that practice – financial extortion.

Plus, as a writer yourself I’m sure you’ve discovered that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and the more you're on their lips, the more people will buy your book to see what the fuss is about. And the more they scream about the "revelation of secrets," the more people will want to buy it to have those secrets for themselves. Truly, there are no secrets in my book; there is nothing that an aleyo or aborisha could glean from my writings about the real mysteries – that which happens in igbodu (the sacred room) when the white curtain goes down. But if people want to scream that I’ve revealed those secrets, who am I to stop or correct them? Criticism, whether good or bad, creates buzz by word-of-mouth.

Q: How did you choose the patakís you chronicled in Teachings of the Santería Gods? You mentioned that for every one you transcribed and turned into a story, there were many more that could have been included.

A: It was a difficult process. When I planned my work initially, I envisioned a set of 16 books, each dedicated to one family of odu. I wanted to write a book of patakís for the parent and composite odu of Okana, one for the parent and composites of Eji Oko, one for the parent and composites of Ogundá, and so forth. Each volume would have been the size of The Diloggún, which was roughly 400,000 words (give or take a few thousand). Even in a work of that size, I would have to be selective. The number of patakís found in each odu is legion.

Unfortunately, I presented my proposal and sample manuscript after the recession hit. Publishing models were changing and works the size of The Diloggún no longer fit in with those models. The publisher really wanted the books, but asked me to start by writing a single book. That single book had an allotment of roughly 65,000 words. I was devastated.

When the contract arrived the devastation didn’t last long. As I rewrote within the publisher’s contracted length, I discovered that there was both wisdom and beauty in brevity. I reread both works dealing with diloggún as a system of divination, The Secrets of Afro-Cuban Divination and The Diloggún. In the pages of both books patakís were mentioned but not detailed, and those were the first ones I included in Teachings of the Santería Gods. After transcribing those, I went back through my collection of notes and picked the ones best illustrative of themes I wrote about in my previous two books. Following that logic made inclusion of appropriate patakís simple, and when I was done I was proud of the collection. Not only do I feel that they are best illustrative of the parent odu, but also I feel it is some of my best work. Even better – most of the stories are not well known, so the book will be a process of discovery and learning for readers.

Q: Okana is a fierce witch who is all desire and greed, but she finds her redemption through healing. The Little Monkey learns that "a good thing is repaid with bad," yet he still remains a chattering happy fellow, content to let others find their own good and bad. These and other patakís show a great moral complexity and a richly nuanced way of looking at the world. The Orisha and the Odu seem very human, with heroic virtues and tragic flaws.

A: And that’s exactly how it should be. I’ve noticed in recent years that most people catalogue the patakís as if they were facts and figures; however, myth and spiritual stories are not meant to be like that. Like any type of literature, they are filled with conflicting themes, powerful heroes and sometimes even more powerful antagonists. They are meant to be investigative and learning tools, springboards for discussions of ethics and morals. More importantly, they are meant to be entertaining. It was hard to instill all of these things into the patakís, but I think I did a good job. Obviously I must have, because you as an outsider picked up on all that and more!

Q: I loved the stories about Oshún. I've run into her a few times when I was doing readings for people who were interested in Vodou. She showed up long enough to say "NO! This one is MINE" and I had to tell them, "No, your path isn't Vodou; it's Lukumí." [I make it a point never to argue with Orishas, especially beautiful ones who carry daggers!]

A: I, like you, make it a point never to argue with the orishas! Even if they come barehanded, it’s never a good idea!