Stephanie Keith documents the life of a Voodoo priestess

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.

Marie Mockett interviews Colson Whitehead

At one of our first dinners — or was it during a marathon phone conversation? — I discovered that Marie Mockett shares my admiration for Colson Whitehead’s work.

I figured readers of this site would enjoy someone else’s perspective on his writing for a change, so I invited her to interview the author (who’s become a friend) about his new novel, Sag Harbor.

Her thoughts, and the discussion with Whitehead, are below.

Colson Whitehead can subvert expectations with a single sentence. When Maud asked me to interview him in conjunction with the publication of his marvelous new book, Sag Harbor, I was excited; I’ve been a fan since I stayed up all night devouring The Intuitionist years ago. But I also prepared myself for the unexpected (as you will understand once you click on the Silence of the Lambs Lego opera link he sent to me).

With Sag Harbor, Whitehead leaves the surreal and abstract worlds of The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt for a vividly captured summer of 1985 on the very grounded Long Island. Sag Harbor is hysterically funny, as Whitehead’s novels have always been, with plenty of observations about popular culture and race, and scathing social commentary. Benji (or Ben, as he would prefer to be called) is an upper-middle class African American fifteen year old caught between multiple worlds, including the delicate boundary between childhood and adulthood. He’s old enough to wonder about his sister’s absence from family gatherings, but young enough to make sure he has mastered the lingo of his peers. “You could also preface things with a throat-clearing ‘You fuckin’ — as in ‘You fuckin’ Cha-Ka from Land of the Lost-lookin’ motherfucker,’ directed at Bobby, for example, who had light brown skin, light brown hair and indeed shared these characteristics with the hominid sidekick on the Saturday morning adventure show Land of the Lost.”

With each page of Sag Harbor, I marveled over his virtuosic prose, and deadly wit. But Whitehead is a serious artist, and the story is not purely a light and airy read. While he has always demonstrated compassion for his oftentimes isolated characters, Sag Harbor is infused with the anxiety of adolescence and a new warmth wrought from nostalgia.

An Esquire review of Sag Harbor contained this line about your work: “He seems post-conflicted, awfully comfy in whatever skin he’s in.” Is the adult Benji, looking back on his teenage years, post-conflicted? How do you feel about people wanting you to stand as an author who works out conflict for them? (Note: the reviewer did say he is jealous of you).

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.
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On Frederick Barthelme’s Waveland

My brief appreciation of Frederick Barthelme’s Waveland is up at NPR. The novel, his twelfth work of fiction,

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.

Here’s an excerpt. See also Bookforum’s review and praise at Esquire.

Rock my Religion: where Shakers & Patti Smith meet?

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.”)

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled and posted by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30 pm, and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to Ms. Cerand at lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication. Due to the volume of submissions, events cannot be considered unless the date appears in the subject line of your message.

MON, Apr 27: John Wesley Harding (Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead) and Laura Lippman (Life Sentences) are featured “Upstairs at the Square” with host Katherine Lanpher [Full disclosure, as always: I am very involved with this series]. 7PM, FREE. Continue reading…

The readings from new work trivia quiz

Fellow Poe fan A.N. Devers won the trivia quiz I handed out at last week’s Readings from New Work event. (Actually, she tied with Joseph Clarke, but I disqualified him because he’s my brother-in-law. He says he guessed on every answer and hopes his triumph bodes well for the architect exam.)

For fun, the questions:

1. Which writer’s first literary effort, “printed at his own expense,” was “a long and very bad romantic poem” called “Hans Küchelgarten” that he wrote in an attempt to establish himself as “a great poet in the German romantic style”? (He later “bought back all the copies and burned them.”) — anecdote contributed by Carrie Frye

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
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Woman Writing Man: a dispatch from Laila Lalami

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.