Without stories, we are nothing but shells, only giving others the physical form of ourselves. Stories ground the spirits and forces around us and make them real.
Oya priestess Isoke Nia expressed this sentiment last night at the Schomburg Center in Harlem at the enlightening tribute to the Yoruba orisha, Oya, and writer Octavia Butler. Part of Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute’s Roots and Stars series, Oya and Anyanwu was the first program of what will be a series of five programs for the end of this year and going into early next year. Hosted by program director Desiree Gordon, this year’s theme is “change,” slightly evoking President Obama’s slogan from four years ago. But this was for the divinity of changer herself, Oya, and her manifestation in the works of Octavia Butler.
The panel included Oya Nia, science fiction and fantasy writer Ibi Zoboi and DJ, dancer and poet Sabine Blazin. Nia set the foundation for the discussion describing how she became the first Oya priestess in her house, her experience as one, and the characteristics of the Yoruba religion and Oya. As the warrior-goddess of wind, lightning, fertility, fire, magic and the guardian of the underworld and cemeteries, Nia defined Oya as a force we all feel daily in the wind, the air, and the energy released in the last breath. She had come to see the cemetery as not negative, stating, “we are all living and dying at the same time.”
From Oya’s relationship to another orisha, Chango, to her use of the machete to her other role as guardian of the marketplace, Oya represents the spinning around and ever changing face of life. Nia also went further into Lucumi religion, mentioning the eleke beads as part of the initiation into Orisha worship, that the different orishas are only different aspects of one god because god is so powerful and vast that we need something that we can recognize and identify and through divination, one can find out which orisha claims your head (and sometimes the answer may not be to one’s liking).
Nia part ended with apataki, which are the stories about the orisha, transitioning to Ibi Zoboi. Zoboi is a Haitian-American writer who has written speculative fiction stories, including “Old Flesh Song” (Dark Matter), “At the Shores of Dawn,” “The Harem,” and “Mama Kwanzaa and Her Seven Children” and now teaching a course on female archetypes. She had written a paper for a Medgar Ever’s College symposium on Octavia Butler, called “Oya’s Brood: Mythology and the African American Woman”,” named after the character, Lauren Oya Olamina in Parable of the Talents, and Lilith’s Brood collection. Zoboi spoke about how she came to be a speculative fiction writer before she even knew what that was and how it was mostly influenced by her venture into African mythologies and spirituality after taking a Caribbean Literature class in college and studying Kemetic mythology, implying that African cosmologies were already speculative. She gave the example of an over 700-page book, Indaba The Children, a book of Zulu cosmology stories.
Zoboi recounted her connection with Butler (they share the same birthday) and how not only did she give her ride after a book reading, but also attended Clarion West writing workshop as Butler. She noted that the presence of Oya is in works like Parable of the Talent, in phrases like “God is change,” but Zoboi also felt that because of Butler’s environment, she was not able to go far enough with her writing. Nia agreed saying that she was a “channel of memory,” but was writing without recognition resulting in her work falling flat in some areas, such as with Mister Doro in the Patternist series. Yet, they acknowledged that Butler was Oya-like in that she changed the world of science fiction and speculative fiction. Zoboi said she uses African-centered thought in her work, including Kemetic mythology, Yoruba Lucumi and Haitian Vodou, comparing Oya to Haitian Vodou goddess of the marketplace, Ayizan. For her, the stories in these are not factual, but are mythology and symbology to help shape the world. She even treats the writing process as a kind of spiritual ritual, going into as she said, a “mini-trance.”
The panel ended with Sabine Blazin, who formed Oya Sound and Brooklyn Mecca. Oya represents for Blazin a lineage of strong women, including her grandmother. Blazin includes Haitian (she is also Haitian) and Yoruba music in her Afrobeat/Afrohouse works and she found her spiritual connection to the “underworld” or “ancestral realm” dancing in the club before she became a DJ. Before the presentation of Blazin’s piece, the discussion turned to the “alienness” of Oya in that she is a migratory figure, originally outside the orisha pantheon, but was incorporated in, changing the spiritual system. Also, Oya represents a shapeshifter, much like Anyanwu of the Patternist series, things that all three
panelist could relate to, Nia who is a foster child who everyone claims that she is part of their group, or the other two who are children of immigrants.
The dance and poem performance at the end with two dancers, Anne Franco as Oya and Ashley Brockington (from M. Asli Dukan’s M.O.M.M.) as Anyanwu was a celebration of the continuum of the Oya spirit, from an ancient religion to modern science fiction and afrofuturism, through a moving show of the constantly changing form of the figure.
The next program of Roots and Stars will be December 12 and will be about the rites of passage or the African time travel machine.