Christianity came to the Caribbean around the same time Columbus lost his compass. It’s become a mainstay, if you will, along with corruption and self-serving governments. The Caribbean is made up of (nominally) Christian nations, but these countries also practice syncretic forms of neo-African religions like Vodou in Haiti, Shango in Trinidad, Santeria in Cuba, Obeah and Myal in Jamaica, both of which have been outlawed since 1898. These religions have a long and complicated history in the Caribbean, but because they are so deeply embedded in Caribbean consciousness, we don’t often pay attention to their effects on the lives of Caribbean folx.
Some of the books below recognize not only the role of these different forms of religion, but also the existence of neo-African religions within even a “strict” Christian practice. Some highlight religion’s role in healing and resistance, as well as the way it shapes gender identity and sexual presentation in Caribbean societies. Fiction recognizes and brings to light the hypocrisies of religion, as well as its organizing role in society, from superstitions to homophobia. These are a few of my favorites:
Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
x Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
Narrated by the same Yunior of all of Diaz’s books, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao uses fukú as a motif. In the prologue, Yunior, narrator of all Diaz’s books, talks about fukú, the curse or bad luck that “every Dominican believes in.” Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930-1961, was fukú of the DR. Fukú followed families directly touched by Trujillo, like the De Leon family, from which Oscar Wao descended. Its opposite force, zafa, is the good luck that immobilizes fukú. The narrator claims not to believe in this, but the whole book is rides on the assumption that it is real, and that he does, at least subconsciously, believe it.
Book of Night Women
x Marlon James (Jamaica)
In this book, warfare isn’t just physical—i.e. enslaved folks fighting to survive and reclaim their humanity—but also spiritual. Homer, the head house slave under whom the protagonist Lilith, a dark-skin, green-eyed slave girl, works and lives. Lilith discovers that Homer and the women of the kitchen special knowledge of herbs and use it to debilitate the plantation owner and overseer. When an Obeah spell is cast on Lilith by Circe, with whom she used to live), Homer uses Myal, the “white magic of Akan,” to reverse the spell. Spirituality was the main tool of the underdog, and this book shows how enslaved people used its esotericism to their advantage.
Last Warner Woman
x Kei Miller (Jamaica)
Warner Women are Revivalist women who have been called to warn, i.e. to foresee doom and warn those who would be affected. While Revivalism is mainly Christian, it has lots of drumming, spiritual dancing, hand-clapping, and spirit possession—a little African flavor though no direct beliefs. Adamine Bustamante, born in a leper colony in Jamaica, has the gift of warning, but is ignored or even blamed for bringing the messages she does. The world does not heed her warnings and so she stops. Feels like a metaphor.
Dreaming in Cuban
x Cristina Garcia (Cuba)
This book follows three generations of Cuban woman and their responses to Fidel Castro as Cuba’s leader. Celia, the head matriarch dives into revolutionary work after her husband dies. Her second daughter, Felicia, after a series of physically and emotionally traumatic events, embraces Santeria, much to Celia’s disdain. Felicia participated in the rituals, became healed by their practices, and was eventually initiated into the elekes herself. This book shows the marginalization of Santeria in Cuba, as the neighborhood scorned a Santero’s house (thinking it devil work), while showing the delicacy and power of the practice. Eventually, Felicia dies, in part because of her own weakness, in part because her mother violently destroyed her altar.
x Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)
Within this collection of short stories, Vodou is a common presence, even if not explicitly. The mix of African and Catholic beliefs are woven throughout the stories of ordinary people facing ordinary despair. It shows that Vodou is both a religion and a culture, as it influences people’s beliefs, social order, and the process of healing from trauma.
John Crow Devil
x Marlon James (Jamaica)
This book explores and exposes the hypocrisy of Christianity. The Rum pastor was chased from his church by another pastor who, a little too vociferously, claimed to want to “return the church to God.” He advocated and practiced violence, banished those who did not follow his rules exclusively, in the name of Christianity. Other people followed him, but the Rum Pastor realized there was something off about this man, his strange scars, his occult-like texts strewn in his office. And during this time, there were several rolling calf sightings in the small country town. Turns out this new pastor was a practitioner of a darker spirituality, but used Christianity, which in itself contains both good and evil, as the only way to God.
(Cover photo by Pascal Müller)