Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Obeah as Conduit in Elizabeth Nunez’s When Rocks Dance

Academic journal article The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online)

Obeah as Conduit in Elizabeth Nunez’s When Rocks Dance

Article excerpt

When Rocks Dance, Elizabeth Nunez's first novel, centres on Marina Heathrow, daughter of a white cocoa planter and his black concubine, in turn of the twentieth century Trinidad. Marina is the first of her mother's nine children to survive birth and infancy, and is supernaturally protected from illness and injury as the result of her mother, Emilia's supreme sacrifice - leaving her last pair of twin boys to die at the edge of a forest - in adherence to her African spiritual beliefs, and in defiance of her white lover/master. Emilia had previously suffered three stillbirths, all twin boys, and Marina is a manifestation of her punishment as well as her blessing. Marina carries the spirits of her dead brothers inside her but is unaware of this, as Emilia has judiciously shielded her daughter from Obeah, the power to which the young woman owes her very existence - and her supernatural strength. When Marina finds herself pregnant eighteen years later, mother and daughter must reconcile (and the new mother must reconcile herself with Obeah) for the sake of her unborn children. In addition to Emilia and Marina, Marina's mother in law Virginia, too, comes to rediscover herself through Obeah. Virginia is the wife of a disgraced Portuguese Jesuit priest, and the adoptive child of a white mother who arranged her marriage as a means of removing her young charge from the sexual advances of her own (white) foster father. Virginia, still a child at the time of her marriage, was nonetheless raped by her purportedly celibate husband, who subsequently rejected both his wife and his only son, Antonio. Forced not only to bear the trauma of rape alone Virginia suffers a loveless marriage, and her son is cursed to pay for the sins of his father. All the women Antonio impregnates die in childbirth, with their children; Marina - the Obeah she embodies - is his final hope. Virginia, Marina and Emilia have each turned their backs on Obeah at some point but must reckon with it in order to survive, as it comes to determine their common destiny. Obeah is one of the few forms of agency available to these disenfranchised black women - along with the promise and potential of their bodies - and functions in this narrative as Nunez's ultimate reckoner: it punishes these women's non-belief as much as it protects them from it.

It is through Obeah that these women return to their community, their faith and each other. Obeah operates in this novel as a conduit between the spiritual and material, and brings those two planes (back) together for black survival in the so-called New World. Moreover, Obeah emerges as a communal force, one that is intuited, embodied, and that avenges the wrongs done to this community by the hegemonic violence of slavery and colonialism. Through Obeah these characters redress their physical, political and psychological trauma on spiritual terms, and transmute their material loss into spiritual rediscovery. The author's "quarrel with history" is the internalised, post-Enlightenment separation, within colonised individuals, of the spiritual from the scientific world/s (Baugh). Her novel presupposes a pre-existent cosmological order from which present humanity has been estranged, and charges us to place spirituality not only "at the centre of critical discourse" but in our everyday, lived experiences (Rahming, "Critical Theory" 305). Obeah is not merely a belief in When Rocks Dance but a reality that keeps these women alive in the present, past and future. Its logic is not, strictly speaking, "rational," but magic, a magic that holds as much truth for the Trinidadian descendants of enslaved Africans as the Christianity they were forced or tricked into adopting. It has the power to reintegrate the diaspora and recreate, through spiritual means, a culture and identity that have been materially lost.

While exact definition is difficult to agree upon, Obeah can loosely be described as an association of syncretic, African-inspired spiritual, religious and cultural beliefs and practices that originated in, and are still popular throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, despite being illegal in most of the region's territories. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.