Monday, November 30, 2015

Patricia Appelbaum

Patricia Appelbaum, an independent scholar of religion and American culture, is author of Kingdom to Commune: Protestant Pacifist Culture between World War I and the Vietnam Era. Her new book is St. Francis of America: How a Thirteenth-Century Friar Became America's Most Popular Saint.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
Because someone close to me is working in Haiti right now, I’ve been rereading Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. It’s very rich. Not only was Brown one of the first to use ethnographic methods to study religion, her book did more than any other to make Haitian Vodou visible and respected. I sometimes assign excerpts to my students to show them that Vodou isn’t just about sticking pins into dolls – which is new information for many of them.

In Brown’s innovative presentation, the chapters alternate between ethnography and storytelling. Each pair of chapters focuses on one of the Vodou spirits, from the peasant Azaka, earthy and local, to Gede, the spirit of death and transformation, who takes on particular importance in the Haitian diaspora. The stories, based in Mama Lola’s family history, illustrate the character of each spirit and the particular way he or she works to shape events. The ethnographic chapters give us vivid descriptions of complex Vodou practices and astute analysis of their meanings for everyday struggles. For a people who have faced repeated social disruption, says Brown, Vodou provides an adaptable system that enables adherents to survive, cope, and heal, in the company of a complex community of spirits and humans.

On this reading, I was particularly struck by the ways in which women have moved into a more prominent place in Vodou in urban and emigrant society, and the ways in which Vodou has changed to reflect their struggles and strengths. But every time I read this book, I find something new.

In a very different vein, I recently read Margaret Bendroth’s The Last Puritans, a new history of American Congregationalism. I especially liked the way the author asked questions not only about history, but about memory – the ways people construct the past, the ideas they have about it, how they engage with it in imagination and play, what they choose to “remember” or “forget,” and how all of this builds the sense of who they are. (Maybe it isn’t so distant from Haitian Vodou after all.) For Congregationalists, the image of the Puritans has been a source of identity since the nineteenth century. But the meanings of that image have changed over time, responding and adapting to changes within the Congregationalist community and to wider historical forces. This narrative resonates with some of the questions in my own book, where I reflected on what history means for practitioners of religion. How do we best understand the relationships between history, imagination, and spirituality?

I like to read fiction during my down time, and not long ago, I discovered Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. It’s both a novel of ideas and a compelling page-turner. Essentially, it’s the story of a woman artist trying to make her mark late in life. It plays with a lot of themes and ideas – masks, deception, puzzles; identity, and the multiple identities that one individual may contain; bodies; aging; women and gender, in private life and social life; parents and children; madness and sanity; seeing and listening and being seen. It reflects in complicated ways on women’s struggles, especially over being seen and heard. The author also did a remarkable job of writing in multiple voices. Since the novel presents itself as an edited collection of various people’s writings and statements, we hear not only from the first-person narrator, but from the psychiatrist and old friend, the aging failed poet and lover, the new-age healer, the daughter, the sardonic art critic. All are convincing.

I also loved Kent Haruf’s tender story Our Souls at Night. It’s about a man and a woman in their seventies who form an unusual and caring relationship. What I liked best about it was that they had both lived imperfect lives that didn’t work out quite the way they had planned.
Learn more about St. Francis of America at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue