THE VODOU PRIESTESS: MAMA LOLA
I found Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola to be an innovative and intimate “ethnographic spiritual biography” exploring the lived realities, material and immaterial, of a Haitian Voudou priestess and her family in New York City from the late 1970’s through the 1980’s. (xiv) Brown’s approach is innovative because she treats her subjects’ as multivocal and fluid. Brown heeds her own advice and contrary to most ethnographic scholars before her, appropriately represents her own, albeit limited, voice, and positionality as similarly multiplicitous and in flux, reciprocally performing “meaningmaking” with Alourdes and family. Brown’s many voices aptly declare numerous interrelated aims, including “to describe as fully and accurately ... Alourdes’ daytoday practice of Haitian Vodou”, to “plant images of quotidian Vodou practice in the minds of thinking people, images that would linger and soften the formulaic association of Vodou with the superstitious and the satanic”, and to portray “Vodou embedded in the vicissitudes of particular lives.” (xv, xiv, 15)
Karen McCarthy Brown’s organizing schema is a tradeoff between chapters about Alourdes’ ancestors and one’s in which Brown describes events and themes centered around one of Alourdes’ spirits. Brown’s chapters on Alourdes’ family tree are fictionalized short stories meant to “tap a reservoir of casual and imagistic knowledge” in the face of risking a “lifeless”, “forgotten”, and irrelevant. (19) In doing so, Brown invokes Gede’s knack for seeing life from new perspectives and imaginatively recuperates omitted and misrepresented histories of Others. In “Joseph Binbin Mauvant” she artfully describes Aloudes’ greatgrandfather’s disappearance or return “back to Africa”. It is in these chapters where it seems Brown raised my eyebrows most. While reading each section my mind’s ear listened...
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