Sunday, October 5, 2014
Nan Domi: An Initiate’s Journey into Haitian Vodou (San Francisco, CA: City Light Books, 2013) by Mimerose P. Beaubrun
Reviewed by Kantara Souffrant
Nan Domi: An Initiate’s Journey into Haitian Vodou is the recently translated (French title: Nan Domi, le récit d'une initiation vodou) account of Mimerose P. Beaubrun’s journey as a Vodou initiate. Those familiar with Beaubrun know her as one of the co-founders and lead singers of internationally known Haitian mizik rasin (“roots music”) group Boukman Eksperyans.
Few individuals also know that Beaubrun attended Université d'État d'Haiti, where she earned a degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Fewer still may know that Beaubrun is a mambo (a Vodou priestess). Indeed, Beaubrun’s intellectual pursuits and interest in Haitian culture, particularly her studies of Haitian Vodou and the lakou system of communal living, are at the heart and the frustrations recounted in her experience as a Vodou initiate. In short, at the center of the work is the documented conflict between Beaubrun’s ability to “distinguish between temporal knowledge, accumulated in the intellect, and consciousness […] the line of demarcation between the temporal and the eternal domains” (268).
The title, “Nan Domi,” refers to the action of lucid dreaming. It is not sleeping, but the ability to enter the world of the spirits via one’s dreams. To be in “nan domi” is to be in communication with others within one’s dream body—to be temporarily suspended between the temporal and eternal.
The demarcation between the temporal and the eternal domains are most evident in the genesis of the book Nan Domi. As stated by Madison Smartt Bell in his Preface, Nan Domi, is not the book Beaubrun originally intended to write. She initially embarked upon publishing a book based on her decades long field research on the lakou systems in Haiti. However all her materials including notes and recordings were lost in a flood. What remained were Beaubruns own experiences entering into lakous and the ways they functioned to preserve, protect and renew the “multidimensional life [spiritual, economic and cultural]” of its members (31). As a participant living in the lakou system Beaubrun’s deep knowledge and study of Vodou was realized in her study of nan domi, literally translated as “in sleep.” To be in nan domi, is to be in a state of lucid dreaming. As Aunt Tansia, Beaubrun’s “teacher” and one of the major characters of Beaubrun’s work explains, one is not “asleep” in nan domi but in a “state of the unknown world that [has] no connection to the imagination,” for ‘”it is real.’” Thus, Nan Domi the book, houses Beaubruns experiences learning about lucid dreaming and her own development as she comes into consciousness and develops the ability to dream into other worlds.
What makes Nan Domi a standout from other texst on Haitian Vodou is Beaubrun’s willingness to share her personal accounts of Vodou, and to resist the urge to justify Vodou’s mysticism to a Western audience. As we follow Beaubrun’s journey we see the ways that the philosophies of Vodou require a level of complexity and suspending our intellectual over tendencies to quantify and qualify experiences—to determine rational explanations in our pursuit of “knowledge.” Vodou, in other words requires adhering to embodied knowledges and truths rather then a total dependence on the validating of facts. Unlike other books on Haitian Vodou such as the canonical Alfred Metrieux’s Voodoo in Haiti, Maya Deren’s Divine Horseman: The Living Gods of Haiti, or even the collected volume Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers edited by Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Beaubrun’s Nan Domi is not a Vodou apologist text. It neither deliberately recoups Vodou from an avalanche of negative portrayals and stereotypes, nor does it provide a base understanding of Vodou philosophy through a systematic and linear articulation of major themes and concepts in Haitian Vodou in a way that might be more digestible for Western readers. Instead, Nan Domi, posits Vodou’s universality. As Beaubrun highlights throughout her text and Madison Smartt Bell argues in his preface, Vodou’s African origins—the continent from which all people originate—speaks to Vodou’s universality, that it is “primary not primitive” across cultures and race, because Vodou maintains a “pulse of atavistic memory” capable of drawing all people.
Nan Domi begins with the idea of Vodou’s objective to “convey a universal message” (237). Yet instead of moving through a series of concepts and their application to Haitian life and Vodou services, we are taken on a humbling personal journey into the philosophy of consciousness and the world of lucid dreaming. Unlike previous accounts of Haitian Vodou, following Beaubrun’s journey allows us to engage with many of the undocumented aspects of being initiated—the moments of humility that include being chastised by Aunt Tansia and told that Beaubrun’s “self-pity and fear have blocked [her] energy,” that the ability to let go of ego-related and material obsessions, including knowledge, are vital to developing our Je (eye of consciousness). Ultimately, we as readers are given a glimpse of the required unlearning of particular behaviors and patterns of thought that are required in order to develop a level of consciousness and presence. As Aunt Tansia frequently tells Beaubrun, “you are so busy doing you forget how to do nothing.” Part of being an initiate, includes being able to develop a level of presences that is incongruous with the ways we have been taught to value time, activity and the pursuit of knowledge and material gain. This is not to say that Nan Domi is a gospel of or for doing nothing, instead the book hinges on Beaubrun accounts of how her training as a scholar and her academic and theoretical understandings of Vodou did not prepare her for the practice of Vodou—of working to develop her body, spirit, and mental faculties for the opening of consciousness and lucid dreaming.
Nan Domi is not a linear book. The various chapters of Nan Domi are episodes in her experiences where characters and philosophies are introduced. We are taken to various lakous and introduced to figures who highlight the many traditions of Vodou (Ginen, Kongo, Bizango, etc.) and the importance of developing Je in all of them. These journey’s aside, we are never given a singular definitions of concepts nor do the teachings of the book follow a clear beginning, middle and end. It seems that the book, similar to Beaubrun’s experience as an initiate is always in process. The lack of linearity is not a failure of the book but another way in which Nan Domi, as an initiate’s journey into Vodou captures the circuitous lines of thought and the many hiccups that Beaubrun faced as an initiate and attempts to distill for her readers. Nan Domi: An Initiates Journey into Vodou, will appeal to those interested in studying or journeying into Vodou and readers interested in religious and spiritual philosophy, as well as scholars with an interest in women’s studies. Yet, perhaps those with the most to gain from reading Nan Domi, are fellow scholars and academics of Haiti/Haitian Vodou who, similarly to Beaubrun believe they have a sufficient understanding of the theoretical concepts and workings of Vodou. Such readers may find that lessons imparted to Beaubrun apply to us as well: that we are too “fixed” in our current patterns, that our weakness in fully developing our ability to see between worlds, lies in our continual reliance on what we think we know and what we deem (im)possible. For such readers we might learn how to unlearn in order to be reborn.