One day in 2014 I met Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby. While I know how we met in a literal sense, I still can’t explain how we connected, how we went from a conversation on a cold but sunny spring day to working together in Cuba. All within a year. I’ve given up trying to explain the connection, because Dr. Flanders Crosby has since then introduced me to worlds far more difficult to explain.
And yet, that is exactly my role and purpose with Secrets Under the Skin—to find a way to explain. As a creative nonfiction writer, I’ve used literary strategies to make sense of the otherwise ineffable in my life. My grandmother, who was instrumental in my becoming a writer, often explained her life in Cuba, a life filled with contact from spirits, using stories. I had always thought they were just stories. That’s until Dr. Flanders Crosby invited me to Cuba for the first time.
Everything I did to prepare for that journey failed to ready me for the experiences I had. I had dedicated my MFA in Creative Writing from Georgia College & State University to writing about my grandmother’s journey from Cuba. I read Caribbean literature; studied Santería, Arará, Yoruba and Lucumí; performed literary criticism on narratives of Caribbean diaspora, Cuban exodus, and fragmentary identities. But none of it compared to dancing at a ceremony, to kneeling before a sacred altar, to feeling the percussive beat of other worlds. The friendships I made with Roberto, Melba, Miguel, Andrea, Mario-Jose, and others have not only changed the things in which I believe, they have also changed the power of my belief.
Now, my role and purpose with Secrets Under the Skin has become my role and purpose. I inherited a gift from my grandmother that has now become a responsibility. Mine is a journey to Cuba. The significance of the Arará in Cuba is that they access a plane of existence beyond ritual, beyond what could be called “consciousness.” Through performance, they transcend an existential metaphor to synthesize meaning with doing. A spirit possession is not just a symbolic act. It is an aesthetic, sensual experience that is what it’s supposed to mean. I have found no other way of explaining this other than using literary metaphor and creating a mimesis in prose.
A first step in this process is writing four blogs for 49 Writers. The blogs are narratives of the self—a self that acts as the medium between the performed experience and the researcher. The choice to write the experience using highly aesthetic language based in personal observation provides the reader with the opportunity to experience the culture using a “discourse of simulation,” as several ethnographers have called it. In other words, when the scholarship takes on a performance of its own, research also becomes a metaphor.
Ultimately, I hope my role and purpose will honor the performance of religious ceremony in Perico and Agramonte. I hope that when others read my work, they can at least understand the very special lives in an island that is usually only thought of in a political sense.
The following blogs were originally published by 49 Writers. They will provide the framework for a book length project.
In order of publication, the blogs are: