I’m obsessed with all things voodoo, and even more so, hoodoo, but that’s a separate topic for another blog post. Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading anything and everything about it, especially books that used it as the foundation for the magic in their worlds. I was in love with voodoo because I was inundated with the western image of witchcraft, religion, and spirituality. Many books that feature witches pull their magical traditions and world-building from pagan European traditions. I loved those witches, but I didn’t find many brown ones as a young reader. I wanted to be included. So the use of voodoo, voodoo priestesses, and magic extrapolated from voudon or vodou, excited me. It’s from Africa. I found it refreshing to see something that reflected people who looked like me and encompassed many of my cultural values, whether it be superstitions or beliefs about my ancestors.
From this season’s American Horror Story: Coven to the CW’s spin-off show The Originals set in New Orleans, voodoo is showing up on TV, and trickling into the publishing industry. There has been a surge in voodoo appearing in YA Literature over the past few years. Two titles have come to my attention lately: Michelle Zink’s This Wicked Game and Kiki Sullivan’s The Dolls.
As a middle school librarian, author, and literary development co-founder of CAKE Literary, I consider myself a stakeholder in the children’s/YA book community, and I have been keeping my eye out for these books. And honestly, as a member of an American subculture, I watch for titles that present aspects of my culture or representation of black iconography in YA and children’s fiction. I always hope that the books do the traditions justice. But there’s always a nagging worry that the traditions will be trampled in the name of entertainment and universal marketability.
I was excited to read Michelle Zink’s This Wicked Game because I’ve read a few of her other books, and enjoyed her Prophecy of the Sisters trilogy. Her writing is smart, clean, and compelling. Plus, I am a librarian that needs diverse titles to serve a diverse student body.
The plot in a nutshell (SPOILERS AHEAD): Set in New Orleans, Claire is apathetic about Voodoo, despite being the great-great-granddaughter of voodoo queen Marie Laveau through her father’s side. This birthright ensures her membership to “The Guild”, a voodoo society that her parents are members of. One day when a woman orders a restricted item from the family shop—panther plasma, used to kill people—she alerts her parents. Her parents immediately whisk her off to her first Guild meeting with the other families.
Claire reports what happens, and learns that two more restricted orders were placed in the shop. Also, Claire has been dating Xander in secret. He is the son of the most prominent Guild family. The two of them start investigating the mystery, and break into the house of the woman who ordered the black plasma. Inside they find a photograph of the Guild members marked with Xs on some of the faces. The Xs connect with Guild families who have suffered from recent break-ins in their houses. Rooms had been ransacked for personal objects. Xander’s house is also broken into.
Claire notices the identical photograph at her house, but a man has been cut out of the photograph. Xander and Claire get together with Sasha and Allegra, who are two other prominent first-born Guild members. They decide to locate the exiled Crazy Eddie. They venture out to the seedy outskirts to find the old man. Crazy Eddie has been anticipating their arrival via his visions. Xander has also been having dreams and visions of Claire being sacrificed, and he’s been unable to help her. Crazy Eddie divulges past Guild secrets. He tells them all about Maximilian, the absent man from the photograph, and the details about his expulsion from the Guild. Claire’s great-great-grandma was anti-black magic, and rejected Maximilian from using the Cold Blood spell to save his dying child. In true villain fashion, Maximilian did it anyway and swore revenge against the Guild if his little girl died. She did die.
To counteract Max’s desire to use black magic, Claire’s great-great grandma spoke to the gods. She also assured that the spell would not work, as well as made an addition to the spell that required a special ingredient that Maximilian would be unable to get. She also did a counter spell. The teens put together all of these details because one of the grandmother’s journals was stolen. They point to Maximilian as the one responsible for the break-ins, and somehow found the addendum to the spell. They believe that he is plotting revenge on the Guild’s first-born children. Claire uses voodoo magic, and is able to watch her great-great-grandma in a dream as she writes the Cold Blood spell and the counter spell. Claire tells the crew and they band together to perform the spell and block Maximilian. Before they can complete their task, Claire is taken by Maximilian and Eugenia, the woman from the very beginning who wanted to buy the black panther plasma. They prepare for a voodoo sacrifice and start to bleed Claire. This harkens back to everyone’s visions — and her blood ends up being the essential spell ingredient. Xander, the rest of the teens, and Crazy Eddie rescue Claire just in time and enact the counter spell. Like magic, Claire is able to chant the right spell and call on the gods. The spell washes away her fear. In the end, she wakes up in the hospital and finds out that the others alerted their parents and the Guild. The police came, but Maximilian — of course to probably set up for a sequel — escaped. Claire feels better about voodoo and the belief system, and is more enthralled with her boyfriend Xander.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am being selfish in what I wanted from this book.
First and foremost, I am a writer and would never want to be told what to write. I fully support creative expression and freedom. Write what you want, and if you’re not writing what you know — research. Furthermore, if you’re writing about the cultural traditions of a group of people outside of your own, make smart choices and think of the people who belong to those groups. Honor them! Be responsible and sensitive. I won’t assume that Michelle Zink isn’t Creole or doesn’t have African ancestry or ties to voodoo.
Whether she is connected to the community or not, why not make her main character reflect the heart of the voodoo tradition? In a YA publishing world that produces a massive number of books that feature white girls as lead characters, why not change it up and make this character reflect the heart of voodoo — black? Why neglect this opportunity?
Did she think it would alienate her readers or her base? Was she insecure about writing a black character? She wrote the black male love lead Xander.
Instead, Claire’s dad was African-American and a descendant of Marie Laveau (this famous voodoo queen was of mixed heritage and believed to be the daughter of a black woman and a white planter, as well as her daughter Marie Laveau II). Claire’s mother is a white woman, so it isn’t unlikely that she would/could be a blonde girl without many traces of the markings of African ancestry. New Orleans is a wonderful stew of cultures, which creates a fantastic mix of people, food, and traditions. The history of the city is complicated by these racial implications and cultural mixing. Voodoo is influenced by it as well. I wish the book pushed boundaries, and took the rich traditions of the city and its various cultures to explore, alongside her elaborate plot. Instead people are barely described. Their races and cultural iconography are missing. The flavor of their language and world-views are absent. Claire Kincaid reads like a white girl (I realize this statement is multi-faceted, inflammatory, and deserves it’s own post). Her black father and his link to Marie Laveau felt convenient, and like an accessory to the novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy her connection to this heritage. I didn’t feel it inside Claire or her thoughts, feelings, reactions, etc.
Mara Brock Akil, an American TV writer and producer said something that struck me: “My work is driven by my belief that the human spirit needs validation. It starts from the moment we’re born, and yet we’re born into a country whose greatest exports are images… Everywhere we turn — museums, TV, movies, magazines, and books — we’ll see beauty reflected. Unless you’re black, and a girl.” Her words stuck with me and made me think of this book because I selfishly wished the author validated those missing girls from YA fiction who are the darker faces of voodoo. The faces that brought this complex tradition over on slave ships.
I realize this is a lot to ask of someone. I realize that it is selfish. I realize that I have no right to tell someone what to write. I realize that in a nutshell, I am calling Michelle Zink a cultural appropriator or accusing her of making poor decisions in terms of her use of voodoo. Yet still, I wished that she (and her publisher Dial) made better decisions when tapping into a vast and rich cultural tradition attached to a marginalized group that has had a long history with cultural appropriation for profit. If it weren’t for this history, I think this issue wouldn’t be so loaded. And let me be clear for the Goodreads trolls or Internet bullies coming my way, I do not think that white people can’t or don’t practice voodoo. It’s like the same as a white person owning a taco stand. It happens. It’s fine. Those tacos are probably freaking delicious. This is a great benefit of living in a multicultural society. I just wish when authors use voodoo that they honor it by having practitioners reflect the tradition’s African roots. If kids of color only get a fixed number of books written from their cultural traditions a year/their POVs, wouldn’t it be nice if some of them featured characters who looked like them?
Another book that is coming out through a packager The Story Foundation is Kiki Sullivan’s The Dolls. In Publisher’s Marketplace the book is pitched as:
Kiki Sullivan’s THE DOLLS, pitched as Pretty Little Liars meets True Blood, in which a girl returns to her tiny Louisiana bayou hometown only to discover that she is the powerful missing link in a trio of voodoo queens who rule the town – and the gifts she’s inherited may be tied to her mother’s death years before, to Sara Sargent at Balzer & Bray, in a two-book deal, by Holly Root at Waxman Leavell Literary Agency on behalf of The Story Foundation. (NA).
This much I can guess about the novel if the current trend of whitewashing voodoo continues:
(1) The protagonist is another white girl
(2) The voodoo queens are each from a different racial group — one black girl and another white girl (most likely — might have some Spanish or Native American ancestry to reflect old racial groups from colonial New Orleans)
(3) There’s an attractive black male love interest who looks mixed (fair skin, maybe light eyes)
Voodoo is fun and interesting. I get it. People want to incorporate it into their worlds. Go for it. But think about it’s roots and history. Think about the people who came from those traditions. Don’t leave them out or relegate them to side-kick characters when really it’s their story to tell. Give those characters an opportunity as well.