Washington, DC: RedBone Press, 2006
Reviewed by ShariLynn Robinson-Lynk, Wayne State University
Erzulie’s Skirt is the 2006 debut novel, consisting of part fiction and part non-fiction, by Afro-Dominican born author, Ana-maurine Lara. Erzulie is the most popular and most beloved Voudun lua, (spirit) in Voudun. She is a spirit of the sea and the goddess of love and feminine beauty. The reader receives an immediate introduction to Erzulie as the novel’s introduction consists of a conversation between her and one of her husbands, Agwe. Agwe, another Voudun lua of the sea and the god of all aquatic life, pushes for Erzulie to tell the story of the two main characters; Micaela and Miriam. And so begins this story of love and survival of two women through history and the Caribbean middle passage. As an additional interesting twist, Lara chooses to begin the story with the ending and proceeds throughout the novel weaving in and out of the past and the present; but perhaps somewhat confusingly labeling the initial sections, “now”, “before now” and “now” and the remaining chapters with the names and location of the primary characters.
The primary setting in the Dominican Republic (D. R.) and includes descriptive narratives about pre-colonial life on the batey, the sugar plantations, and life in the capital of Santo Domingo. Almost immediately the reader is presented with how difficult this life was, especially for Haitians. While Miriam is a little girl, she experiences her father being cheated. He presents one hundred stalks of sugar cane which he says should weigh, at least, seventy pounds. However, the man purchasing the sugar cane insists it is only fifty pounds. Because he operates the only sugar mill in the area, her father has to accept the amount he is offered. He walks away, “with his head held high” (22). This experience is followed by one of Miriam’s many lectures from her father to instill pride in her Haitian ancestry. It also leads to an unexpected conversation from her father that since her parents believe she will need an education to overcome being treated as they are treated, she will soon be going away with a Dona (lady/mistress) to school (23).
Perhaps recognizing the need to include as much as possible on the background of the lives of the primary characters, Lara does not simply tell a story, but also includes snippets of history. There are numerous examples of the over fifty year struggle between the D. R. and its neighboring smaller Caribbean nation; Haiti. As an example, Lara manages to weave inclusions about the painful history of the 1937 brutal massacre of over 25,000 Haitians ordered by Dominican dictator, General Rafael Molino Trujillo. The reader is told early in the story that Miriam is the only surviving child of her parents’ seven children due to this massacre. Perhaps to give poignancy to the political and generational effects of this history, Lara presents a direct situation of discrimination experienced by Haitians. It occurs when Miriam, along with her young son Antonio and Micaela are attempting to apply for a visa to travel to Nueva York (New York). They have hopes of meeting up with Micaela’s tia (aunt) who left years earlier and has only been heard from through the years because of the small envelopes of money she sends the family. Miriam is immediately told by the guard at the consulate that “Haitians have to go to Haiti to apply for visas” and the line in which she is standing “is only for Dominicans” as he turns his back on her. Micaela, however, is successful in receiving immediate assistance from the guard (138-139). Though perhaps painful to continually relive, the reader is always soothed by Micaela’s loving displays of affection and words of encouragement towards Miriam. An additional example, which is reminiscent of the popular ethnography addressing the negative effects of European and American tourism on the Caribbean, is provided when Miriam is on the beach braiding a French woman’s hair. The reader is privy to her dreamy thoughts as she struggles through her severe hunger pains while the woman and her friends laugh, drink and flirt with the sankies (young Dominican men known for being sexually charming who financially misuse European and American women) (148-149).
But, this is not just a historical novel. It is also full of Dominican Voudun spirits, ceremonies, including usage of its indigenous Spanish terminology and, indeed, often reads like ethnography. Perhaps taking a writing suggestion from the anthropologists’ beloved ethnography, Lara also includes three and half pages of extensive reference notes on the history of the Vodoun religion, its cosmology, ceremonial foods, rituals and symbols. Lara also includes many titles of other reference books. Additionally, there is a five and half page glossary of all the Spanish (and some Haitian Creole) terminology used. With the exception of one hand-drawn map of the Island of Hispaniola which consists of Haiti on the smaller left one-third of the island and the Dominican Republic on the larger right two-thirds of the island, with arrows mapping Micaela and Miriam’s journey through the middle passage, Lara strays away from anthropological ethnography and does not include any photographs. Perhaps to allow the reader to create her/his own visual images.
Lara’s novel will prove very valuable in the university classroom for those anthropology students seeking reading materials to increase their learning experiences beyond the usual. It gives descriptive, but tasteful, details of two women of color in love and will provide a reading example beyond those which tend to exclude positive stories of same-gender, people of color, love relationships.
Additionally, though Lara’s novel gives painfully descriptive details of life before, during and after European colonization in the Caribbean, she also still manages to ensure the reader is aware of the ancestral pride and spiritual resilience (not to be confused by the typical “happiness in the face of tragedy” typically and unfairly bestowed on many characters of color) experienced by the Caribbean people and will provide the reader with an example beyond those which tend to include only the negative effects of colonization on the Caribbean.
This is also a definite must read for all feminist anthropology scholars, particularly those with an interest in Caribbean studies; African Traditional or African Indigenous Religions and also Queer studies. Lara does a superb job of mixing all three of these subjects together in a “Creole literary gumbo” which makes for not only an entertaining and educational read, but an experience.
ShariLynn Robinson-Lynk is currently a 2nd year PhD student in linguistic anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. Her research interests include feminist anthropology and gerontology. She hopes to conduct her research among the aging Haitian community in Boston, Massachusetts. Additionally, she is a member of the adjunct faculty at Wayne State University School of social work where she teaches the graduate level course on LGBT issues in social work practice.