Fusion of the Worlds: An Ethnography of Possession among the Songhay of Niger

2This ethnography is an academic upgrade to Stoller and Olke’s In Sorcery’s Shadow, which was their well-received memoir of Stoller’s 10-year apprenticeship to a Songhay (Niger) sorcerers. Unlike the previous work of personal experience with more solitary sorcerers, Fusion of the Worlds attempts to show one spirit possession troupe’s ability to operate in many different Songhay “worlds.” That is, Stoller wants to show his readers how possession troupes often facilitate a variety of practices. These include the relationship between the individual and the group, remembering the past, engaging in political dialogue, relating Songhay religious practices with Islamic ones, and even negotiating rainfall. Possession troupes, like his from Tillaberi, Niger, are much, much more than performers–they are creating, maintaining, reflecting, identifying, mocking, celebrating, critiquing, and changing the Songhay world. Stoller claims they are fusing the world of the possession troupe and its performances with the rest of Songhay life. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, one which is actively and continually constructed by the troupe and its audience.

Stoller uses large sections of quotation, either from tape-recorder transcriptions or field notes, and he argues that this is really the best way to understand the Songhay. This may be true, but it makes appreciating Stoller’s thesis much more difficult. The long sections of stories can be enjoyable, but it can also be laborious for those of us who many read this book without a desire to learn the intimate details of Songhay life. It delays academic discussions to privilege the many stories that help show the troupe’s activities. This is fair in one sense, but it fails to provide a strong narrative thread for readers to follow. When Stoller has theoretical contributions, they are often short or delayed until the Epilogue. While some readers may be thankful for this, it was a more serious problem for me.

For instance, there are many useful implications of Stoller’s suggestion that Songhay possession theater is much more than the framework for theatrical presentation of cultural history. However, when he argues that we should look to the “inner space” that is cultivated by these performances, readers should instantly recognize the cultural dilemma inherent in any interpretation he offers. Even as an initiate, the troupe’s performances were never directed at him, and therefore the only access to the inner life of the Songhay is through language. Stoller musk ask, and his participants must answer him. Thus, the entire work is one of translation where Stoller does his best to make sure that his translation is recognizable to BOTH the Songhay (for accuracy) and his English-reading audience (for intelligibility). When he claims that more is going on inside, we should be aware that his translation has now moved into interpretation and theorizing. This isn’t a bad thing–after all it is most scholars’ goal to say something meaniningful–but it may mean that the very idea that possession might act as a “microcosm of Songhay culture” is closer to what an observer (and not a participant) would say.

Is this nitpicking? No. The integration of interpretation and transcriptions has been achieved with better results by others authors. If reading about poession is your thing, I encourage you to reader Stoller. However, if you want a BETTER book about possession, I encourage you to read Mama Lola instead.

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