Black Smoke: Healing and Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon by Margaret de Wys
Originally published by Sterling Publishing in 2009 under the title ‘Black Smoke: A Woman’s Journey of Healing, Wild Love, and Transformation in the Amazon’, this review is written from the Inner Traditions edition, 2014. De Wys is a composer and sound installation artist, and after her initial ayahuasca experience she has travelled extensively working with traditional healers, and has also authored the book ‘Ecstatic Healing’.
The proliferation of ayahuasca books, specifically those detailing personal journeys, have been steadily on the rise for the last decade, coupled, as it is, with an increasing cross-cultural awareness of ayahuasca use: Seekers have increased; media coverage finds its article-type (menace or medicine?); scholars look for increasingly novel ways to further knowledge about subjective experience, and uncover medicines. Through all of these approaches the popular Western narrative of ayahuasca is determined.
Travel and journey are very important contexts in drug literature generally – both as metaphor and narrative – and this is especially true of ayahuasca as an exotic, jungle decoction. In many respects, through the continued re-hashing of journey metaphor, it is has become a generic of drug literature and certainly a defining feature of personal narratives. Black Smoke opens thusly, and thereby introduces a host of necessary narrative features:
I arrived at Mariscal Sucre Airport in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, in the middle of night. My body, unaccustomed to the altitude of nine thousand feet, felt heavy and slow, but there was also a nervous energy about me, an aura of excitement and dread (Wys 2)
For the reader, it displays all the contextual necessity they need to know when embarking on someone’s ayahuasca journey book. 1) A new and exotic setting, 2) the realization that one’s body is not prepared or is ill (as the author’s was), and 3) excitement and fear in equal measure – and, of course, the literal journey is always the metaphor for the experience of ayahuasca itself, the journey into the brew.
William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg’s epistolary The Yage Letters (1963) also begins with the journey to find ayahuasca: “Dear Allen, I stopped off here [Panama] to have my piles out. Wouldn’t do to go back among the Indians with piles I figured.” The integrity of the body and the journey to ayahuasca, to the other is present there, albeit displayed in Burroughs’s inimitable style. While Burroughs was after a quick-fix junk cure though, Margaret de Wys was there for there for a more complete therapy for her cancer.
Black Smoke is divided chronologically into three sections that somewhat loosely describe the journey of practicing ayahuasca shamanism: Initiation, Apprenticeship, and Partnership. Using a series of short form chapters (only the opening one is longer than 10 pages for instance,) De Wys guides the reader through the shamanic training process – told as her personal journey.
Initially set in Ecuador, looking for a cure for her cancer, de Wys meets her guide, Carlos, an experienced shaman brimming with insight and shamanic knowledge: “The mountain lives and feels” he said. “The most direct source of healing and divine power is concentrated on the mountain because the purist energies come from the high pinnacles of earth” (Wys 66). The deep, spiritual appreciation for nature later manifests as environmental concerns, and therefore nature – and ayahuasca – represent a medicine for personal and cultural woes.
This nature, however, is also exotic and represents an important departure from one phase to another, whether that be geographically or biographically, it is often the same. Having a psychoactive, plant-induced experience is integral to this narrative process. In the past the shaman would take the brew, not their ‘client’, in order to divine information about disease and cure, tribal unrest, and bad juju, but the role of ayahuasca has changed. Here, in the Western drugs narrative, it is the object of interest.
Your average Western seeker after healing, I’d imagine, wouldn’t bother to travel to South America in order for a shaman to take the ayahuasca medicine and simply provide them with information on treating their condition – they expect a healing experience facilitated by the psychoactive brew. Suggestion and lucid mind-states themselves become an important aspect of the healing process. The shaman is not just a diviner and plant curer, in this way he heals through the manipulation of mind states in those who require the healing.
On returning to the United States to her husband, the doctors confirm that her cancer has cleared up, and Carlos’ treatment is deemed a success. Yet, there is a duel aspect at play. De Wys has become free of her cancer, but has also become free of her prior ‘self’, or ‘identity’, due in large part, no doubt, to the action of ayahuasca, and its management:
Now I had a future. And freedom. To do what? It dawned on me that my expectations, ambitions, plans, relationships, sense of belonging, were all blasted. The experiences in South America had healed something in me, but they had shattered my world. I struggled to find a bridge between my life with my family and my other life—my life as Other (Wys 82).
Emailing from South America, Carlos requests that de Wys return and assist him, learning the way of the plant. When she arrives, he takes her to see his family, and she begins to assist him during his healing sessions. She dryly notes that she included some trashy novels where the “pirate steals the girl and talks her to the Caribbean”. She is, of course, expertly seduced by Carlos—her old world finally succumbing to the glamour and power of the new. In a Crocodile Dundee-esque escapade, he travels, in the section ‘Partnership’, to New York with her, where he is unleashed on the urban folk.
In the end, Black Smoke’s greatest strength is the theme of liberation, which de Wys examines quite consistently through a number of devices, such as her illness, her family life, her working life etc. However, its greatest weakness is offering nothing new to the reader. Ayahuasca, and its lessons, are so often reduced to a nudge through mid-life, which in some way, although of course relevant at times, diminishes the strength of the ayahuasca narrative. It is reduced to woolly, pop psychotherapy dressed in shamanic garb. Ayahuasca is incidental to these ‘coming of mid-age’ books, and is little more than a romantic device.