Price: Travels with Tooy

  • Prized ConversationAnthropologist and ethnologist Richard Price's recent book, "Travels with Tooy," is the winner of the 2008 Victor Turner Prize in ethnographic writing.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Prized Conversation
Travels with Tooy begins like a Joseph Conrad novel: Roland, a Martinique businessman and gamecock breeder, confides in Richard Price. Many of Roland’s affairs, including his lumberyard and his fighting chickens, are in a mysterious state of malaise, held back by a curse of some kind. He asks Price to use his mainland contacts to find someone to lift the curse.

Price, an anthropologist and ethnologist, is the Duane A. and Virginia S. Dittman Professor at the College of William and Mary. He lives in Martinique much of the year, along with his wife Sally Price, also an anthropologist at William & Mary. Roland came to the right man. Price has some 35 years of experience with the Saramaka people of French Guiana and Suriname in South American.

“In Martinique, Saramakas have a great reputation for being curers, much like the Haitians,” Price said. “But the Saramakas’ reputation is even stronger.”

Inquiry led Price to Tooy Alexander, a Saramaka man living near Cayenne, French Guiana. Roland agrees to retain Tooy and flies him to Martinique to begin the curing process. Price serves as a translator and he and Tooy begin a series of conversations leading to Price’s book, Travels with Tooy: History, Memory, and the African American Imagination. Published by the University of Chicago Press, Travels was recently announced as the winner of the 2008 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, a juried competition sponsored by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

Tooy stayed at the Price home during the first phases of his lumberyard exorcism, a process that included not only offerings of rum and the burial of a live toad, but also the Xeroxing of a photocopy of a charmed page of text. (Price later determined the original was taken from a 1660 French occult book.) Roland eventually gets cold feet and backs out of the return visits necessary for Tooy to complete the exorcism. Roland, an observant Roman Catholic, misunderstood Tooy’s intentions, Price said, and thought it involved making a pact with the devil.

Roland’s loss is ethnology’s gain, as Tooy and Price enter into a friendship marked by literally fantastic conversations and what Price calls a trip “down the rabbit hole” into an alternate world.

Though he uses a modern photocopier to duplicate his charmed page, Tooy is illiterate and, as Price says, “barely knows what a book is.” Nonetheless, Price refers to Tooy as an “intellectual,” and points out that Tooy has mastered several esoteric languages used in the practice of his Dúnguláli-Óbia rites—much as a Roman Catholic priest learns Latin.

Tooy lives in a world intimately populated by various spirits, deities and ancestors. The Saramaka are one of the numerous Maroon peoples scattered through the Caribbean, descendants of escaped or rebellious African slaves. Price said the Saramaka have always been more interested in their slavery-era ancestors than other African American groups, in part because their time of enslavement was so short that it left little sense of collective shame.

“They rebelled against slavery. They fought against it or escaped it,” Price said. “They’re proud of that.”

Tooy maintains in his memory a dense and detailed history of his people and of the deeds of his ancestors. During their many conversations, Price was able to augment Tooy’s oral history from his own years of study of the Saramaka culture.

A group of water deities, known as Wénti, are prominent in Tooy’s worldview. Tooy believes that the female members of this group control the world’s flow of cash. The book tells about a rock formation that marks a spot in a river known as “the mother of all money.” Price writes that under the water’s surface lies what amounts to the Wéntis’ Central Bank of the World.

The fiscal operations of the Wénti seem less mysterious than the workings of, say, the U.S. Federal Reserve, as Travels with Tooy tells us that Wénti maidens can occasionally be seen rolling their barrels of gold coins up out of the water and onto the beach to dry. Also, unlike the Fed, the Wénti are open to direct appeal from the individual.

“They like bright things, foamy things,” Price explained. “They like things that are cool in temperature. They don’t have anything to do with death and dark things. They don’t like rum or other strong drink. They do like champagne.” Price attends a ceremony at which beer is offered to the resident Wénti. He had been told that witnesses often have seen a hand come up out of the water to receive the bottle, but Price writes that he missed seeing the handoff.

Price says the Wénti have counterparts in the aquatic, gold-guarding Rhinemaidens of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Though Saramaka religion has African roots, Travels with Tooy shows how many of its elements are traceable to European culture. Tooy’s existence may recall aspects of Classical works such as the Iliad. In the Saramaka’s Caribbean, as in the Mediterranean of Homer, gods mix with the daily lives of mortals and so Tooy, like Odysseus, does what he can to use the gods’ workings to make his life better.

If Tooy uses the gods, the gods use Tooy as well. The book details instances of spirit possession, in which one or another of the deities enters Tooy’s body and speaks. Price records the events and transcribes them for the book, as he does with many of his regular conversations with Tooy. One god channeled through Tooy tells Price some interesting details about a Wénti town under the sea just offshore of the Price home.

Travels contains a final chapter, “Reflections from the Veranda,” in which Price adds context to the rich gumbo of African Caribbean culture that produced Tooy Alexander. The book also contains copious notes, a helpful “Dramatis Personae” section and an equally extensive section devoted to Tooy’s esoteric languages.

Price maintains that so-called “modern” people are no more rational than Tooy. “We’re all human, we’re all irrational,” he says. “To pretend that we’re not is a modern European conceit.” For literate, educated Americans awaiting the resurrection of their 401(k)s, wondering where it all went, Price makes an excellent point about magical thinking in our own society.

“Do you know what a derivative is?” Price asks. He pronounces the word slowly, as if the term for the complex financial instrument refers to a wood dryad endemic to one small tributary of the Rio Negro. “Can you explain it to me? Do you understand how derivatives work? Do you know anyone who can explain what a derivative is? No? Well we’ve based a lot of our wealth on them. How rational was that?”