A Book Review of Blood & Honey Icons: Biosemiotics & Bioculinary by Donna Snyder

Blood & Honey Icons: Biosemiotics & Bioculinary by Dr. Danica Anderson, Connie Simpson and Erin Hilleary (Dec 28, 2012)

I bought this book to support work with South Slavic survivors of war and war crimes in the Balkan conflicts of the late 20th Century. For my money I got a complex book that ably serves many roles: a socio-political history of that specific conflict and related prior wars; an anthropological study, particularly of the women there, its mythology, its cultural artifacts from pre-historical times to the present, and the Slavic immigrant community of Chicago; a primer on reading tea leaves and coffee dregs; a set of iconographic images to use in self-discovery; a book of recipes of traditional ethnic food; and a lesson on healing practices useful for victims of violence and trauma anywhere. All that in one book of 208 pages.

The first section of the Book, subtitled Biosemiotics: The Pedagogy of South Slavic Female War and War Crimes Survivors [and] Female Social Collective Practices is written in the language of academic social studies, a study of how the bodies and neurobiology of South Slavic women have been affected by threatening and frightening episodes expressed through archetypes. The technical jargon makes this section somewhat dense, but not impenetrable, due to the ample and vivid illustration of scholarly concepts with lucid and compelling examples from Danica’s own childhood as a member of the South Slavic immigrant community of Chicago. Her father, a rural man, and her mother, who had been interred in a World War II prison camp, immigrated to the United States, where Anderson was born, although she did not learn English until second grade.

Anderson’s experience as the child of non-English speaking immigrants mirrors the life of many immigrants where I live on the border of El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Chihuahua, people whose families live here but surrounded by the culture of the country left behind. As the children of immigrants living on this side of the border, once Danica learned English, even as a small child she had to interpret for her parents and other elders. Her close involvement with the immigrant community resulted in her own emotional experience of the traumas suffered by those older than she, as well as providing her direct experience of the culture’s female social collective practices. The South Slavic traditions were inculcated into her heart and life, particularly the kolo, the ritual and social circle dances she learned as a child and which she draws upon in her healing work with trauma survivors, not only victims in the Balkan wars but also elsewhere in the world such as Haiti, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and Uganda where other great catastrophes and atrocities have occurred and people have suffered the affects of constant war.

The book itself reflects the kolo, the circles and repetitions of the dance, the stories and images repeated in various sections in such a way as to integrate memory with understanding in the reader. In addition to the linguistic, anthropological, and neurobiological discussion in the section on pedagogy, the book has a section of artistic images, icons taken or adapted from prehistoric art and later folk tales. These lavish images can be downloaded from the kolo website, along with the text of the book, and instructions are provided on how you can use the images to find insight into your own history and personal growth. This section is truly beautiful, and yet conveys complex data of many millennia of life in the Balkan region, which can be translated and integrated into a universal consciousness.

Each icon accompanies a description of its cultural source and its relationship to the current situation of the widows and children survivors who populate the region. Each of these modern stories are moving, even horrific, yet are shown in the context of movement from trauma to an indigenous form of treatment and healing. Each icon is also associated with a recipe for traditional South Slavic ethnic food, with an emphasis on locally grown, natural foodstuffs, agriculture, and husbandry. These recipes mirror the current upsurge of an interest in local products and self-sufficiency in the permaculture movement here in El Paso, which has close ties to the political advocacy and cultural work of La Mujer Obrera, the region’s garment worker labor organization. I find these parallel connections between women’s cultural and political work and the movement to buy locally grown and natural foods fascinating, and not at all likely to be coincidental.

Because of Anderson’s focus on the healing of the widows and victims of mass rape and other military violence and terrorism, there is also a focus on women’s traditional ways of finding community. In South Slavic culture, one common practice is the reading of tea leaves or coffee remnants after sharing a hot drink and sweet bread. Consequently the book provides a section explaining the practice and providing instruction. In the Mexico and US borderlands, many women practice indigenous healing, from curanderas, who use herbal remedies, to sobadoras, who practice a fierce and effective type of massage therapy, to brujas, women who practice indigenous magic or witchcraft. While some grandmothers read tea leaves, others use eggs in a variety of ways.

The book is divided into overviews, summaries, icons, cup readings, and bioculinary traditions, as well as lengthy endnotes and an index, reflecting the scholarly practice of Anderson, who is working on her PhD while continuing her international work and writing.

Reading this book, I became enamored of the imagery from the South Slavic culture throughout its existence. I developed a keen admiration of the folk ways of the region’s women, the kolo and healing practices, the passing of memory from mother to daughter, both in their homeland and in their immigrant communities. I found hope for healing, not only for the women and children of the Kolo, but for our own sisters and brothers of Juárez, the families of the murdered women and girls who are victims of the internationally notorious femicides, and the entire Juárez community wrecked by years of narco wars and military violence. I hope others here and everywhere will buy this book and share its lessons so that we can all move into a future of health and peace.

-Donna J. Snyder

Versions of this book review were previously published in the El Paso Times and Return to Mago.

Donna J. Snyder is the author of Poemas ante el Catafalco:  Grief and Renewal, released by Chimbarazu Press in 2014.   In 2010, Virgo Gray Press published her chapbook, I Am South, which will be reissued in Fall of 2014 as a perfect bound book.  NeoPoiesis Press will publish her collection, Three Sides of the Same Moon, poems about Goddesses, crones, and oracles, in 2015. Her work has been published over 100 times in journals, anthologies, and ‘zines. Currently, Snyder’s poetry or book reviews appear often in VEXT Magazine and Red Fez, and she is a contributing poetry editor for Return to Mago. She founded the Tumblewords Project in 1995 and continues to present free weekly writing workshops in the borderlands, where she lives in El Paso. Snyder worked as an activist attorney until recently, advocating on behalf of indigenous people, immigrant workers, and people with disabilities.