Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book Review: "Spells Of A Voodoo Doll"

Spells of a Voodoo Doll by Assotto Saint (Masquerade/Richard Kasak Books, 405 pages)

The late Assotto Saint (1957-1994) did not mince words or suffer fools gladly. His motto, if he were given the opportunity to choose one, would have been: "My duty is to tell the truth as I see it." If you didn't like what he saw as the truth, and many didn't, that was your problem. He was a rebel with a cause who fearlessly marched to the pulpit during a friend's funeral "to avenge your censored queer legacy" and "to stand a pompous minister who under his breath/damned us for mass-invading his holy territory." For Saint it was important that black gay men "become whistleblowers" and "become powerful enough to stand tall and not fall, thrive and not just survive."

That attitude permeates Spells of a Voodoo Doll, a mostly autobiographical collection of his poems, essays, fiction, song lyrics, and plays that explores his life as a black gay man "living with/dying of AIDS." It is easy to see why those who flinched at his whistleblowing were glad to learn he had Kaposi's sarcoma lesions in his mouth so that "the bitch will have to shut up." But they forgot one thing--Saint was still able to wield a mighty pen.

And that pen, especially in the poetry sections, vividly details a short but brilliant and productive life. In these sections Saint reveals that he was born out of wedlock in Haiti, that he was brought up by an aunt and uncle when his mother, with whom he was later reunited, moved to Switzerland, that he was "seven when I realized my attraction to men," that he didn't "believe/in the foolishness/of spiritual/afterlife," and that he and his Swedish lover Jan (also deceased) "loved the New York Knicks basketball team, our terrace in spring & summer, soap operas, The Today Show, & our friends. We were committed & devoted to each other."

Many of the poems express his deep love for Jan before, during, and after Jan's illness from AIDS. To those who believe gay men are incapable of having long-term relationships, they have only to open Spells of a Voodoo Doll to have that belief refuted again and again.

The best and most memorable parts of the book are the poetry and essay sections. The essays "Haiti: A Memory Journal," "Why Winnie Mandela Should Go to Jail," and "A Match with Ashe" show that Saint was a gifted essayist and thinker. Although the Mandela essay digresses a bit toward the end, it is a strong indictment against homophobia and violence.

All of the short fiction are really sections of the three plays that appear at the back of the book and are more interesting than the plays, all multi-media pieces, as a whole.

Michele Karlsberg's brief introduction is a resume of Saint's career and tells the reader nothing about how she came to know him or anything about their relationship. Plus, she mistakenly identifies the Other Countries writing collective as "the start of a renaissance in black gay writing" when in fact it was the Blackheart Collective. Saint, in his essay "Why I Write," correctly calls Blackheart's founder, Isaac Jackson, "a groundbreaker in openly gay black publishing."

Overall, Spells of a Voodoo Doll is an important tribute to the legacy of a black gay man who called himself Assotto Saint, and thought of himself as the Impossible Black Homosexual because he was "not afraid/to stand my ground."

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