[Caribbean Literature]

A Suffering Savior: The Trials of Ella in Erna Brodber's Louisiana

Part Two: Ella's Healing Powers

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

Erna Brodber positions her protagonist Ella as perhaps the most heroic female figure in Caribbean literature to date. She seems to embody the figure of the healer for the Louisiana community she inhabits. Ella exhibits her healing powers on a variety of levels. To begin with, she (and her mentor Madam Marie) functions as a comfort for many displaced souls, using her powers as a psychic medium to aid the community. For the sailors who pass through Madam Marie's parlor/inn, Ella serves as a means to reconnect with their diverse homes as she reconstructs the stories of their past. In particular, she connects with Ben, a wandering musician from her own home, Louisiana, St. Mary's, Jamaica. Together Ella and Ben work through Ben's traumatic past so that he can move on:

Ben's story is so accessible. All I needed was her name. And Ben, dear Ben is so cooperative. "Her name was Lilieth," was his first sentence. And I continued...My job was to help him relive his painful past. He had to take it from there. (103-105)

Using her psychic powers, Ella takes on the role of Lilieth (a student of Ben's that he impregnated and then abandoned) so that Ben can work out the anguish he suffers still over her. Ella plays these roles for many of the men who come through, in addition to providing a place where West Indian men can gather and feel tied together, even as she also draws them (commonly through music) into the world of the South and New Orleans. This welcoming of West Indian men into the world of the South serves a purpose beyond merely their comfort. For Ella's larger mission involves uniting the two formerly disparate communities. As part of her social science background, Ella explains that she seeks to understand why "the nature or extent of the influence of black America on the Caribbean and vice versa has [not] been explored as it should." (154)

Ella also goes a long way towards healing work for women. Her first encounter with the spirit world comes in having her body possessed by the spirit of Mammy King, the old woman whose history she was investigating (with the tape recorder) for Columbia university. Through her otherworldly connection with Mammy, Ella also encounters Lowly, Mammy's friend who died years before. Gradually, Ella's connection with these "venerable sisters" as she calls them, moves beyond a social science investigation of the history of a small community. The tape recorder and the power of their voices in her head gain symbolic significance as the novel progresses. For Ella now becomes the scribe in addition to the conduit. Through her ability to write, she gives a voice to these woman who, though they worked tirelessly as activists, had no means to spread their words to others. In effect, Ella (and later her husband Reuben, even later the imagined black woman's press described in the introduction) has helped these women move from the oral world to the literate world, has finally represented their voice in the medium of print.

Finally, Ella helps to provide a potentially healing vision for those emerging from the bonds of colonialism. Brodber's serious account of Ella's psychic powers, and Ella's references to "different yet logical systems of knowledge" point to the hypothesis that Brodber is perhaps trying to push across. Many Postcolonial authors attempt to author new visions, new ways of examining traditional processes of historical domination and cultural subjugation. Brodber and Ella propose that another way to access this new vision comes in developing an alternative epistemology. For, if knowledge can be gained through means superfluous to the five senses (as it can in Ella's case) then one can subvert the previous judgments of history. No longer do the sciences of history and sociology stand as absolute, given these processes that lie outside their understanding. Furthermore, by delving into the notion that death brings an end only to the body, not to the spirit, Brodber has given one educated in North America (Ella) a powerful experience with African cosmology. In addition, by adding an alternative conception of death and the spirit to her novel, Brodber has further developed the notion that the West holds but one perspective out of many. By drawing the two currents (Western and African) of thought together into one novel, Brodber has thus reduced the cultural stranglehold that the West formerly held on both history and religion.


Brodber, Erna. Louisiana: a novel. London: New Beacon Books, 1994.

A Suffering Savior
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