Photographer Stephanie Keith has a sharp eye, a frank and unpretentious manner, and a vigorous, roving curiosity. For the past several years, she’s been documenting Voodoo ceremonies in Brooklyn’s Haitian community. Her early work in this area (captured in a 2007 NPR slideshow from which the image above was taken) centered on a priest Keith trailed, at his invitation. When he moved away, she started working with Marie Carmel, a priestess.
Carmel will be the subject of her brief presentation at the Powerful Women event — devoted to unusual manifestations of female power, and also featuring novelists Marlon James and Marie Mockett — that I’ve put together and am hosting tomorrow (Friday) night at Housing Works. Below Keith answers a few questions.
You were working with a male priest when you started out, but now you’re focused on a woman. Do people (and the spirits) interact with her differently?
The first Voodoo priest, called a Hougan, moved to Miami, so now I work exclusively with a woman priestess, called a Manbo. Her name is Marie Carmel. A Hougan and a Manbo can do the exact same things; there is no differentiation between sexes in Voodoo. The Spirits interact differently with personalities rather than if a person is a man or a woman.
Does her role as a figure of authority extend beyond the supernatural sphere?
She grew up with her grandmother in Haiti and her grandmother was a Manbo there. My sense is that she is a born leader. She is an imposing physical presence who has a great deal of self-confidence. Her life as a Manbo is a 24 hour affair — she cannot separate her personal life from her spiritual life. When not performing Voodoo ceremonies, she is giving advice, interpreting dreams, and being the center of a big social scene which is basically her Voodoo family — those whom she has initiated.
Are there particular rules that a Manbo must abide by outside of ceremonies, or does she get to structure the rest of her life any way she wishes?
She can structure her life any way she wants. She just needs to be available to the community if they need her. She also makes her living doing spells, baths and whatnot, so she needs to work enough as a priestess to support herself.
Does a Manbo face any of the cultural hang-ups Western women — especially female religious leaders and figures — do about sex? Is she expected to be a virgin, for example, or to marry, or not marry, or are sexual expectations not really part of it?
Sexual politics is not an issue in that Western sense. The only thing I’ve noticed is when a Manbo is possessed by a Male Spirit, she has her assistants take off her jewelry so as not to seem too feminine.
Sometimes I write little draft pieces of my novel on my phone while commuting, but Peter Brett composed a whole book this way.
“There is so much wrong with Philip Jonesâ€™s ‘English writers outperform rivals’ post,” but let’s start with the title.
The Esquire writer was a bit weird, since he seemed to be reviewing his idea of my persona, as opposed to the book. It was a bit too “it puts the lotion on itself for me.” (Have you seen this, by the way?) I’m the Coolest Writer in America? — I spend 95 percent of my time in my house padding around in pajamas covered in dried minestrone. (The Coolest Writer in America is obviously Mr. Freeze, DC Comics villain and author of the memoir Early On I Made A Decision To Incorporate A Cold Motif Into My Crime Sprees: A Life). Of course Benji is conflicted, confused, disassociating, plodding along. To confuse his adult self’s ordering of his teenage self’s experience with “post-conflicted” is a bit dense.
obliquely parallels the fate of the [Mississippi Gulf Coast] town of its title. “Even before Katrina,” he writes, “when Waveland was all there, it wasn’t a high-toned beach town; it was more like 10 miles of down-on-its-luck trailer park. After the storm, it was 10 miles of debris, snapped phone poles, shredded sheets in the trees.”
Recovery has been slow because, basically, there is nothing to recover, especially for Vaughn, whose wife, Gail, kicked him out shortly after the hurricane.
“Why don’t you just move along,” she’d said one day.
Derek Graham’s Rock My Religion, a remarkable early ’80s documentary of sorts, contends that evangelical revivals and American rock music — which we usually think of as having come together starting only in the last couple of decades — were linked from the start.
Graham formulates a history that begins with the Shakers, an early religious community who practiced self-denial and ecstatic trance dances. With the “reeling and rocking” of religious revivals as his point of departure, Graham analyzes the emergence of rock music as religion with the teenage consumer in the isolated suburban milieu of the 1950s, locating rock’s sexual and ideological context in post-World War II America. The music and philosophies of Patti Smith, who made explicit the trope that rock is religion, are his focus. This complex collage of text, film footage and performance forms a compelling theoretical essay on the ideological codes and historical contexts that inform the cultural phenomenon of rock `n’ roll music.
(Thanks to Michael Aaron Lee, who unearthed the clip at Ubuweb, “a treasure trove of artsy video miscellanea.”)
“Mummy selected at random”: The New Republic posts reviews Nabokov contributed to the magazine in the early 1940s.
The earliest known dust jacket (circa 1830) wrapped the book like a parcel and is a pretty homely specimen.
“Not a woman I liked, on the whole.” Hilary Mantel reviews Miri Rubin’s Mother of God, and contemplates the Virgin Mary.
a. Franz Kafka
b. Nikolai Gogol
c. Robert Musil
d. Osip Mandelstam
2. Which writer, whose handbag was stolen at a London reading, said, it “doesn’t mean I won’t write the bloody book, but … [i]t’s a horrible feeling of violation because, you know, I think it’s one thing to have your credit card stolen, it’s quite another to know that a stranger is reading your scribblings. I mean, it’s just so much a violation”?
a. A.L. Kennedy
b. Zadie Smith
c. Hilary Mantel
d. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
3. Which British novelist, who became one of the most popular authors of his era after refusing to follow in the footsteps of his father and three older brothers — all lawyers, said of his writing: “I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing was to aim at what excellence I could within them. I knew that I had no lyrical quality. I had a small vocabulary and no efforts that I could make to enlarge it much availed me. I had little gift of metaphor: the original and striking simile seldom occurred to me…. I knew that I should never write as well as I could wish, but I thought with pains I could arrive at writing as well as my natural defects allowed”? — quote contributed by Jessa Crispin
a. Graham Greene
b. Joyce Cary
c. W. Somerset Maugham
d. E.M. Forster
4. Which writer, born in the States during the Victorian era, once said, “After all, one knows one’s weak points so well, that it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others”?
a. Oscar Wilde
b. Henry James
c. Dorothy Parker
d. Edith Wharton
Art in the face of poverty: Jill Lepore’s essay on Edgar Allan Poe is oddly, blithely withering, but it’s informative.
“Not that I care. I don’t want to be a professor.” J.M. Coetzee reads Samuel Beckett’s letters.
I’ve been looking forward to my friend Laila Lalami’s first novel since her story collection, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, was published back in 2005. Secret Son is finally out today, and — although, having witnessed its transformation over a couple of drafts, I’m not entirely objective — it’s well, well worth the wait.
Youssef, who’s grown up in a tin-roof shack with his mother, learns that the father he believed dead is actually a wealthy businessman living nearby. No sooner does the boy become integrated into the man’s rarified but corrupt world, however, than he’s cast back to the slums, where people are now in debt to Islamic fundamentalists who provided aid after a flood when the government offered only empty promises. Below Lalami discusses what it was like to write such an extended work from a man’s perspective. Her insights are an interesting counterpoint to some of Marlon James’ comments, in last week’s interview, about the challenges of finding his way into his second novel, The Book of Night Women, which is narrated by a teenage girl.
I remember clearly the day I began working on the manuscript that became Secret Son. I was in the middle of revisions for my first book, and I wanted to try my hand at something new. When I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling, I had a blurry image in my mind of a young man, hands stuffed in his pockets, walking home to the shack he shares with his mother after watching a movie at a nearby theater. I followed that image and others like it, pixel by pixel, for the next five years, finding out more about this character as I went along.
Youssef — for that turned out to be his name — is a shy, bookish, gullible young man who learns that his dead father — whom he had always thought was a poor and respectable schoolteacher — is in fact a wealthy businessman living in the same sprawling city, Casablanca. Youssef sets out to find him and, much to his surprise, is welcomed into his father’s liberal, sophisticated, yet corrupt world and begins to learn that it isn’t possible to change who you are.
Now that Secret Son is being published, one of the first questions I get asked is, “What is it like writing from a male point of view?” I’m never sure how to answer this; perhaps it’s because I don’t think there is such a thing as a single, unified male point of view. I can only describe what it was like to write from this particular man’s point of view. There were some things about Youssef that felt extremely personal for me — for example, his attempts to negotiate various identities, classes, cultures, languages, and so on — and others that were not at all — for instance, his first sexual experience with a prostitute. But that was my task as a novelist; I had to use my imagination and my empathy to get at the sum of all those experiences.
Perhaps the reason I’ve never dwelled on the gender difference between my character and me is that I feel (with apologies to Flaubert) that Youssef, c’est moi. Youssef studies English at a university in Morocco (as did I); his mother is an orphan who was raised in a French institution in Fès (as was mine); he is gullible (as, unfortunately, am I); he speaks French fluently (as do I); yet he never quite feels at home with the French-educated élite (neither do I).
As a novelist, of course, I’ve used these details and shaped them according to the needs of my characters and plot. I made Youssef very poor and his father very rich to add more tension to their reunion; I had the mother lie about her origins because it seemed to fit with her character; I introduced temptations I was never exposed to; and so on. Overall, it’s been a wonderful experience, even though it was also sometimes difficult and even painful. So I don’t know what it’s like to write from a male point of view, but I do know how Youssef views the world and how he feels about it.