What Saves, Kills

Kasimma on new novels by Diane Marie Brown and Veronica G. Henry

Ihe na-azọ azọ na-egbu egbu: what saves, kills.

This Igbo adage is mostly employed by ndi dibia, healers who mediate between the spiritual and the human world. I have encountered variations of this saying in many books on occultism. The long and short of it is this: this is a world of duality. Good and evil are the same save for the level of vibration. Medical drugs have instructions for storage and dosage because if abused, the drug will switch from a saving agent to a killing agent.

Black Candle Women (Graydon House, 2023), Diane Marie Brown’s fiction debut, follows the story of five (Montrose) women: Augusta, the mother of Madelyn; Madelyn, the mother of Victoria and Willow; Nickie, the daughter of Victoria. They all live with Victoria in California. These women believe they are under a curse that kills whomever they fall in love with. When Nickie brings a boy home for the first time, her family struggles with whether to tell her about the curse or not, about their psychic gift or not, and about their practice of Voodoo or not. The story is told in multiple POVs. Through the eyes of the main characters, backstories come to the fore, secrets unfurl, and inner struggles spill. It is utterly fascinating how strands of love thread throughout this book in its many attending shades: a mother’s love, an aunt’s love, romantic love, love for spells, love for religion, etc. For example, Victoria’s love for her daughter, Nickie, is a brushstroke different from Willow’s love for her niece, Nickie. The same applies to Victoria and Willow’s practice of Voodoo: identical belief, different applications. In this book, Voodoo is very prominent. There are scenes of step-by-step descriptions about how to fashion a charm right from ingredients to execution.

The Quarter Storm (47North, 2022) will be the second book in which I encountered these depictions of practical voodoo. This urban fantasy/crime novel by Veronica G. Henry, author of the historical fantasy, Bacchanal, tells of Mambo Reina, a Voodoo priestess, who insists on using her gifts/powers to find a murderer and save a fellow Voodoo priestess from the police net. Set in New Orleans, this story starts with Mambo Reina in consultation with a client who wants her boyfriend to love her forever. It is the boyfriend who turns up dead hours later, setting off the events of the book. Mambo Reina is a rounded character. Henry did not buy into the story of the infallibility of people of the cloth. Mambo Reina is vulnerable, afraid (despite possessing powers), kind, stubborn, and erotic. (Mambo returns to solve a second crime in Henry’s The Foreign Exchange.)

What saves, kills. In these two books, that thing would be charms. Both stories explore Voodoo, a religion that originates in Haiti. Nan Domi, Mimerose P. Beaubrun’s memoir about her initiation into Voodoo, was my introduction to Lwa, Erzulie, and other Voodoo monikers, which feature in both Black Candle Women and The Quarter Storm. I am certain that the deities and spirits mentioned in these novels are real. What I do not understand is the detailed description of charm-making. I do not know if these are real charms or their fictionalized versions. Reading one book, or three (if you add the two fictions), is not enough to give one complete insight into a religion, yet I infer that Voodoo is not as shielding of their occult practices as other spiritualities I’ve read about. It is very near impossible to have a dibia write down or even utter to anybody how to fashion ọgwụ. It worries me, this idea of writing conjuration. It can be misemployed. It can be dangerous.

Mbala na-ama ojiri uche ya na-ama: when the frog jumps, it jumps with its mind. One can argue that those spells are not real. One can argue that it is a book of fiction, fiction! But what happens when you give a loaded gun to a child? Who takes the blame when that child kills someone? It is the person who should have used their mind but did not!

One does not become an occultist overnight. Even after initiation, the learning process is a lifetime commitment. A dibia will not teach another dibia how to fashion ọgwụ unless they are sure that that dibia will not use it for evil, to say nothing of a dibia even whispering conjuration to ofeke; nobody wants to incur negative karma. We are subject to the laws of cause and effect.

Okirikiri ka a na-agba ukwu ose a naghi ari ya elu. Why? Why can’t we just climb the pepper tree instead of running around it? Because sometimes, most times, slow and steady is the best way. Mambo Reina, in The Quarter Storm, makes this point when she advises the girl who came for the love potion to let things take their natural course. She also mentions it when she admonishes someone for misusing their knowledge of wizardry. Victoria, in Black Candle Women, also pushes back against using spells to solve ordinary life problems.

Ene na nwa ya ma ofu ọgọdọ: the antelope and its child are tying the same cloth. Forgiveness, friendship, and love are at the core of Black Candle Women and The Quarter Storm. They are unputdownable, these books. I enjoyed sharing the characters’ lives with them. I do love, love, how much these two books exposed us to the ways of Voodooism. Voodoo has been much maligned, and I am happy that these authors are stepping up and changing the narrative, boldly writing the stories that chose them, confident that their books will find their way into their readers’ lap. These books are tying the same cloth, a stunning garment that is both educative and entertaining. ∎

Kasimma is from Igboland (obodo ndị dike). She’s the author of All Shades of Iberibe. She is the 2022 Nikky Finney Fellow at the University of Kentucky and the Humanities Graduate Fellow at the University of Utah. Her short stories, essays, poems, and scripts appear in Solarpunk, LitHubNew Orleans Review, Magonprism, The Saltbush Review, Afreecan Read, Native SkinMeet Cute, and many other online journals and print anthologies. Kasimma is an alumnus of Chimamanda Adichie’s creative writing workshop, Wole Soyinka Foundation writers’ residency, and other residencies across four continents. You can read more of her pieces at kasimma.com/read-online/

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