Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ally School 8: To Writers Asking Me Questions About Vodou

I just answered this question on one of our Yahoo groups, American Voodoo Forum.  This is not the first time somebody has asked for information about voodoo curses, voodoo spells, voodoo dolls, etc.  Generally I've ignored these messages: at best they show sloppy scholarship and an inability to JFGI first.  But since the issue keeps coming up, and since we're dealing with the topic here, I decided it was time to respond.

Hi, I know little about Voodoo. I'm doing research for a fictional story I'm writing about a woman living in Haiti just prior to the slave revolt. I want to write about a curse placed upon her but I want to be sure such a curse would even be possible in the Voodoo religion. It would be a curse made out of anger and retaliation. The curse would be that she would live for 200 years without love and to be barren. Is this anything a voodoo priest using black magic could put upon a person?
Here's my input as a writer and as an initiated priest of Vodou.

First, the island was called "Saint-Domingue" during the period you mention, not Haiti . You need to research the history of Saint-Domingue during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) That should provide you with plenty of interesting material to create a convincing and compelling background. Placing your characters in that setting will provide plenty of opportunities for anger and retaliation on any side of the fighting. You will also find many chances to create alliances and counter-alliances to advance the plot. For most of Saint-Domingue's history it was socially divided between wealthy French plantation owners, a French working class composed primarily of artisans and small farmers, free blacks and mulattos, and slaves. There were also escaped slaves who formed settlements in the mountainous countryside and who played a very important role in the fighting for independence. All these groups engaged with each other in any number of friendly and hostile ways: lots of opportunity for heroism and romantic tension, not to mention some truly nasty villains.

Curses are definitely a part of Haitian Vodou and of most African and African Diaspora traditions. But the curse you are describing is a convenient story trope which has little to do with any living magical or spiritual tradition.  You can set your story pretty much anywhere and have someone curse your protagonist to loveless, barren centuries. A vengeful Egyptian priestess of Isis, an offended Elf-Queen, an evil sorcerer -- the possibilities are endless.

Which brings us to some of the thorny issues with your request.

It sounds like you're writing a romance or fantasy tale complete with a spooky spell and a plucky leading character who struggles against its effects. And you're looking to Vodou and Haiti to provide the scary elements and a suitably exotic backdrop. You're not the first writer to do this, nor will you be the last. Vodou is a showy and dramatic religion, which combines the over-the-top baroque weirdness of Catholic art with dancing, drumming and spectacular trance possessions.

It is also a living religion, with millions of adherents who may not be thrilled to find their spirituality used as some writer's local color. Not to mention American readers (black and otherwise) who may object to yet another tale of natives casting dat ol' jungle juju on the white folks. There's a very good chance those people are going to find your story an offensive rehash of some toxic stereotypes. This is a culture which has been the subject of books like Cannibal Cousins and movies like I Walked with a Zombie. Your "voodoo curse" has a long literary history and we have no reason to expect your witch doctor plot device will be any better than the many which have come before it and the many which are yet to be penned.

Let's assume you don't want to repeat those tired and ugly cliches. You want to treat the issue fairly and use Vodou respectfully. You want to have an accurate backdrop upon which you can present your narrative.

If you are going to set your story in Saint-Domingue, you will need to talk about race and class. Is your cursed protagonist white, black or mulatto? Is she the daughter of a plantation owner or the wife of a poor French artisan? Is she a dark skinned fieldhand in love with a brave runaway or the quadroon mistress of a dashing French soldier? People who complain that Americans are race-obsessed. We've got nothing on a culture which regularly used terms like "quadroon," "mulatto" and "octaroon" to define people. Your character's race and social status are going to determine how she interacts with everyone else in Saint-Domingue and how she gets cursed. Because these topics are controversial, because some of us like to believe we live in a postracial society while others know all too well we don't, you're going to have many opportunities to piss people off.

Are you ready to deal with the sexual politics on an island where slaves were considered their master's property? It was not uncommon for a black slave to endure repeated rapes by her owner, combined with ongoing brutal abuse from his resentful wife. Most young white men on the island had one or more mulatto mistresses, with whom they dallied until their return to France and a pre-arranged marriage. During the Revolution, as in many wars, rape was a tool of degradation and conquest. If your heroine doesn't experience this firsthand she will certainly be dealing with women who have. You really can't write a story set in Saint-Domingue with a female protagonist and not address this issue. And if you don't handle it sensitively you're going to end up with the bastard child of Gone with the Wind and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Of course, you don't have to take my advice. Quite a few people will tell you I am overly sensitive, that I should lighten up and stop taking things so seriously. You can certainly write and probably even sell a story featuring a dreadlocked savage with rattle in hand and bone in nose, complete with bare-breasted black women gyrating to the primitive drumbeat. For all the talk about humorless liberals stifling free speech, there is no shortage of outrageously offensive, exploitative and stupid material available in every medium. There's no law mandating that you show concern to the feelings of the Haitian people and their culture: there's no requirement that you act with sensitivity or avoid stereotypes which should have faded with the last minstrel show.

On the other hand, you did ask for advice concerning your story and voodoo, and so here we are.

TL/DR: If you're going to write about Vodou and the Haitian Revolution do your research and get at least a basic understanding of its history and the underlying social and cultural issues. Otherwise, set your story somewhere else and spare everybody the mess.