Carnival-Conjure, Louisiana, History and the Power of Women's Ethnographic Narrative

By Gourdine, Angeletta K. M. | ARIEL, July-October 2004 | Go to article overview

Carnival-Conjure, Louisiana, History and the Power of Women's Ethnographic Narrative


Gourdine, Angeletta K. M., ARIEL


With its reference to the United States' pelican state and her own native parish in Jamaica, Erna Brodber's 1994 novel Louisiana compels an analysis of the spiritual and cultural connections between African Americans and black Jamaicans. Brodber creates a broad cultural matrix, linking religion (1) to oral history, myth-making, and carnivalesque self-manifestation. Through these affiliations, she fictionalizes ethnography, critiques it as scientific historiography, and challenges the cultural narratives it produces. (2) The world-view of Louisiana is shaped by what I call Carnival-Conjure, a fusion of fiction, science, anthropology and religion. Just as Christianity, for example, is grounded in a mythic narrative which explains the creation of the world and the situation of humans in it, Carnival-Conjure speaks a people's sense of their individual and collective life histories. In Brodber's novel, Carnival-Conjure is an alternative discourse that challenges epistemological difficulties posed by historical and anthropological representations of black individual and community experiences. Carnival-Conjure is formed at the intersection of two practices and capitalizes on their shared center: the body.

In my discussion of this hybrid, carnival functions as a qualifier for conjure. Generally, conjure refers to a body's spiritual beliefs and the activities consummate with those beliefs (conversation and contact with ancestral spirits). Carnival, its sister practice, refers to both a celebratory performance (Mardi Gras) and also the immaterial force that guides the physical body's participation in the practice (desire for escape or for invisibility). This Carnival-Conjure merger draws on what Danow refers to as the carnivalesque: narratives which regard the "supernatural as natural, take fiction as truth, and make the extraordinary or 'magical' as viable a possibility as the ordinary or 'real'" (3). But, Brodber's fusion of carnival with conjure intensifies the value of each mythos. Louisiana directs its participants not only to conjure's magic but also to carnival's role reversal and breakdown. In the novel, carnival is not a spectacle creating temporal suspense, allowing for everyday identities to be masked while others are performed. Instead Brodber creates a conjure-infused carnival, as the novel's protagonist and its readers, engage in "revelations that have the peculiarity (like myth in the past) of obscuring as well as disclosing" (Glissant 79). Carnival and conjure in the novel work together to make these seeming oppositions collaborative.

Carnival-Conjure provides a vehicle for Ella to "jump out of [her] body but still look at her body" and affords her a space to manifest the spirit she discovers by virtue of getting outside of her physical self so as to experience more intensely her spiritual self (43). The spirit, once obscured by the physical body and its experiences, discloses a greater meaning to that body, allows it to be read as text and to speak as subject. Ella the researcher is transformed into an activist and the body of her narrative becomes a cultural and spiritual black space. Ella's intellectual project becomes "understanding the nature of the spirit" (Brodber "Black Space" inthefray.com). To do so, Ella comes to rely on an aesthetic that weds objective science, oral history, and fiction.

In her contribution to the published proceedings from the first convention of Caribbean Woman Writers and Scholars, "Fiction in the Scientific Procedure," Brodber describes ethnographic writing as a fiction of "objectivity" (165). In an effort to counter the monotony of this writing Brodber began recording her feelings prior to interviewing the informants. To her mind, ethnographic writing was akin to "vomiting and defecating, and [she] flushed away the effort." (3) The relationship between writing and physicality becomes clearer to Brodber when she returns to Jamaica from an ethnographic field trip. …

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