3 October 2017

Vodun In The UK

I've had Starfall in my "to-do" pile for so long that I forget how much has changed since 2006. When I began the book my concept of Vodun was informed by what I could find on the topic available on the internet. It was very much the only choice. The UK is one of the places on the face of the earth that could not be much more cut off from primary sources for research into the topic.

To illustrate lets consider that in 2006 Facebook had only just opened its doors to public access. So there would certainly be no chance of joining an appropriate public group on the platform to ask questions and learn more. Although the internet was supposed to be the great connecting medium through which we could learn about each other more deeply we have a way to go.

Even to this day I can understand why those who practice vodun are wary about talking on the public internet. As much as the internet is supposed to be acultural the facts of global politics mean that vodun is likely to be viewed with suspicion through the lens of the haughty anthropologist, the unrelenting skeptic or the mercenary marketing man.

Not that I saw this article from a low-quality British advertising paper at the time, but it sums up some of the things I wanted to stay away from. I want to think about things but I don't want to appropriate them. Vodun is not mine, I don't own it, no one does, but the thought habit of thinking about things studied as things owned is one that I am consciously trying to fight against.

I studied vodun, and one of the important reasons why I did was that it was going to be something very hard for me to become confident in. I wanted to appreciate without stepping over any lines. I wanted to celebrate the fact of vodun, as much as I could, on its own terms and for its own sake.

I think it would be fair to say that I was afraid of vodou when I started to look into it. Not in the manner you might expect. I had for it the same fear I had of what people refer to as Chaos Magick, I am dismissive of neither because whatever an individual may believe is within the realm of the possible the harm of disrespecting the practice is obvious to anyone.

Even if you have adopted an atheist and skeptical framework then you can still detect that those who have stared too long into any abyss emerge from the experience broken. No one can feel comfortable contemplating what someone who has been burned by that spirit fire may have seen and experienced in order to end up in pieces. All that differs is an observer's rationalisation of what exactly they saw and how they came to experience it.

In the decade since I wrote the core of Starfall white Western society has found the space for some useful consideration of vodou. I like this article from The Guardian in 2015, it manages to cover such a broad amount of topics and aspects from a few different perspectives that it makes for something to consider and digest, rather than attempting to be a satisfactory precis.

This is how most people in the UK and America
first experience any kind of vodou...

Having said that I am far less keen on the tone of this piece from just over a month ago on the BBC. This article definitely hits straight into the anthropological tone that attempts to historicise and contain the thing it studies. The Guardian piece has a far more chaotic mood, talking about people, places and even becoming poetic in its turn. Even when it seeks out the word of an anthropological source it selects carefully. The anthropologist Ira Lowenthal is interviewed, it would appear Lowenthal has a hard won grasp of what vodou is all about and can translate for those who do not find it in their blood:
Vodou says ‘no, I’m not a cow. Cows cannot dance, cows do not sing. Cows cannot become God. Not only am I a human being – I’m considerably more human than you. Watch me create divinity in this world you have given me that is so ugly and so hard. Watch me become God in front of your eyes.’
I think this quote captures, in its construction, an important thing that we have to take in about understanding vodou. If you are not part of a historical tradition that is grounded in enslavement, exploitation and degradation then you will take a lot longer to understand the nature of this spirituality. You can have been a beggar, an enemy, or an outcast, you can have been of low rank and status but unless you have been a slave (even via ancestry) you do not have an instant connection to the vodou loa.

Another interesting connection to Starfall comes out of the Lowenthal interview:
White people lost their spirits centuries ago. We lost it all. The Haitians believe we used to have spirits, but we were too stupid to keep them.
In a way this is a central theme of Starfall, the female protagonist, Carrie, is without a spiritual dimension as the novel begins. The antagonist, Thomas Rempstone, trades with spirits but tells himself he is practicing a kind of spirit science. The other protagonist, Dillon, possesses an innate spirituality, but he struggles with it. The novel's central problems are all about the fact that the Haitian loa are unable to understand the spirits of the British earth, in Starfall Britain is home of weak, confused spirits on the surface, below that surface an ecosystem of dark and powerful mystery that the vodou loa see as a real threat.

All of this spiritual uncertainty and turmoil is, to me, a real thing. Spirituality and the notion of spirits are not easy, you cannot run along a spiritual path. I guess that's why the fate of the UK vodou practitioner detailed in the Metro article above causes me a little intellectual irritation. His spiritual practice now identifies as shamanism. I combed a little through his site but he doesn't mention vodou obviously, if at all. I imagine, if pressed, he would answer that he has blended some of the practices of vodou into his shamanism. Maybe that's fine, but it seems off to me.

I cannot help but feel that maybe he has re-thought representing himself as one who knows the secrets of vodou because he feels that he probably doesn't and, besides, vodou is not as effective a brand for those looking to "find themselves" as the idea of a shamanic retreat. Vodou is for Hallowe'en, donuts, club nights and psychedelic UK rock bands.

This casual appropriation is one of the major obstacles for those outsiders trying to build up a real understanding of vodou. The assumed ownership of the term in order to peddle goods and services is the most crass display of what those who don't understand (and probably fear) the spirituality represent. Trivialisation, mockery, ingrained disrespect are all internal barriers that keep people away from the power they are defying. It is those barriers that are inside everyone who does not have the cultural history to just "get it". For me Starfall was a step in the process of learning respect and building that bridge.

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