does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Spirit Possession

Spirit possession figures prominently in two of my novels. In Choosing Sides, the young protagonist Angélica receives the Holy Spirit and, while speaking in tongues, calls a young man to missionary work in México. In Hidden Warriors, Andrea Norman is stunned to discover that her demure best friend, whom she believed to be a secular anthropologist, turns out also to be a priestess of the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion.

I don’t share the belief system of either Pentecostalism or candomblé. As a multicultural writer, though, I feel compelled to honor each in a phenomenological way.

Phenomenology: the philosophical investigation and description of conscious experience in all its varieties without reference to the question of whether what is experienced is objectively real.

Because of my childhood in the Pentecostal church, I had an easier time describing what happens when the Holy Spirit anoints Angélica.

“… she started vibrating as if charged with electricity and then abruptly checked her spin. Standing in place, still trembling, she heard herself utter, “. . . ika bababanda ... samakatabanda ....” Barely aware of the unintelligible syllables spilling out of her, she was more conscious of the unspeakable joy filling her with a lightness she’d never even thought possible before.”

Angélica emerges from that trancelike state only to see a young guitarist pointing to her and saying,

“‘That young girl … has been God’s instrument for calling me to missionary work, aleluya, and … I vow that, within the year, my wife and I will leave for México to carry out His Word.’”

She has no recollection of having issued such a call to missionary work.

In Hidden Warriors, describing being taken over by a deity of the candomblé pantheon posed a greater challenge. In the Pentecostal church, though, I had spoken in tongues, another trance-like spiritual experience. Using that background and extensive research, I created a scene in which atheist Andrea unexpectedly comes upon a ceremony featuring her friend Flora in full possession by an orisha.

“… The drumbeat intensified. Like sweet virgin turned harlot, Flora strutted around the room. Undulating sensuously … her now lurid body strained outrageously against her elegant form‑fitting yellow silk gown. Wherever she went now, they thrust gifts at her—gold bracelets, jewelry, perfume, silks. She acknowledged them haughtily. … Over the thumping drumbeat, I … saw the shadowy responses of those she deigned to honor with her words. Sometimes they twitched in fits. Sometimes they cried. Still others collapsed in place after contact with her. She held a mysterious, terrifying power over those in the room, a power defying all reason…. Who was this woman?”

Flora, too, does not recall later what happened while in trance.

I used to reject categorically the validity of otherworldly phenomena. Now, nudged by the “fantastical” realm of quantum physics and also by personal experiences, I simply accept that I just don’t know. Interestingly, the world’s appetite for the religions described above is, if anything, growing. Harvard religious scholar Harvey Cox considers Pentecostalism to be the world’s fastest growing religion. In some Third World countries, it is already the majority religion. Candomblé is one of several thriving syncretic religions, including Cuban santería and Haitian voodoo, which emerged from the African Diaspora. I might not get much support in certain evangelical circles for saying this, but African religious influences may even have played a role in the early development of Pentecostalism. In a talk about Yoruba religion given to a comparative religion class, I speculated about potential African influences in the early development of the Pentecostal religion.

This is why I love to write fiction. One day, I might be in a U.S. Latino working class church describing a young girl speaking in tongues. The next day, I could be in an Ipanema penthouse describing a wealthy matron overtaken by an African-derived goddess. It’s easier and more fun than getting on an airplane.


Ann Victor said...

Fantastically interesting post. I believe in spirit possessions. It's hard not to, living in Africa.

A Cuban In London said...

What a gem of a post. As an Afro-Cuban dance tutor, you nailed that candomble session very well. Both candomble and santeria differ slightly. The Brazilian branch was brought from Ketu, whereas most Yorubas taken to Cuba came from Oyo.

Many thanks for this great post.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Ann, it is interesting to me to observe how spiritual beliefs which have historically resonated with Third World people—the majority on the planet—now are embraced by many of the old order. Had you asked me about this possibility when I was growing up, I would have said you needed to check your sanity.

Cuban in London: Wow. To receive from you that seal of approval — “you nailed that candomble session” — is a true honor. It’s one thing to do extensive research. It’s another to actually capture the heart and soul of that type of experience. You made my day.

Kathryn Magendie said...

What gorgeous writing - ! I love that last seemingly simple sentence "Who was this woman?"

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Glad I found your blog -- and I am going to track down your books when I get a chance. As for a life that has contained a set of mini-lives, seemingly unrelated, I, too, have had that kind of life. However, in the long run, I think they all kind of join together. For me, that has been true, and it looks like that has happened with you in the things about which you choose to write.

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you, Kathryn. As I am in the middle of a writer slug (I don't call it block :-)) finding out that I can produce "gorgeous writing" at least some of the time inspires me.

Elizabeth, thank you for stopping by my blog. I am glad you want to track down my novels, but they still await publication. When the universe allows me to say otherwise, I will let you know.

A Cuban In London said...

Thanks for you comment just now, Judith. And that's how I feel about most fiction, too. Sometimes it's better to travel an author's mental fantasy realm to find out about real-life events than attempt the same with non-fiction.

Greetings from London.