Kala Trobe is a London-based author and esotericist whose award-winning fiction is complemented by her work as a tarot reader, essayist and explorer of spiritual/magickal practices and traditions. It was my pleasure to interview her for Reality Sandwich.
AD: Please talk about the various branches of your professional life and how they intersect. How did your metaphysical and esoteric concerns and experiences transmute into a profession?
KT: I've read Tarot professionally, as well as for friends and myself, for many years now – about 20. Once my books began to be published, from 2000 onwards, I received responses which encouraged me to help others integrate aspects of spiritual/magickal life with the practical, and it was at that point that the different disciplines really began to be cross-referenced.
Do you think that esoteric and arcane beliefs and practices are contingent upon a model of "knowledge as preserve of the initiated?" How might they relate to hierarchies? You mention in an interview that the paths of transformation and initiation are not easy, and not always pleasant. Do you think this path (in whichever esoteric tradition) is available to anyone who wants it?
"Ask, and you shall receive." Yes, of course initiation is available to all, but dedication to a path or Spirit is specific, and those who are truly willing to participate or give up aspects of the ego are far more likely to receive valid initiations. There is much confusion on the mundane level about what an initiation entails. For me, it's partly a process of reassessment and re-attunement to the spiritual overview – often involving a "death" process – and can be delivered via a number of sources. Regarding hierarchies, they are valid insofar as knowledge and information is actually passed down, rather than being a power play. But that goes without saying.
What is your view or prognosis of how metaphysical and esoteric approaches might heal eating disorders and addictions (mind-body-soul splits) that seem to be very modern maladies – at least in terms of the way they're now conceptualized as diseases?
Addictions and eating disorders have a long spiritual and religious history, as does the fast/feast cycle. In a non-religious context, the disaffected people who undergo these trials are often stimulating (perhaps subconsciously, and almost always semi-consciously) a dynamic which throws them out of the normal mindset.
In those who have undergone severe personal crises, self-criticism and self-reassessment tend to be more psychologically and magickally aware. It can be an initiation in itself. Self-starvation might be construed as an abreaction against being trapped in the body and whichever society one is caught in, and addiction to or reliance on drink or drugs often indicates a similar proclivity. It isn't simply escapism; with the latter, at least, it's an urge to embrace life in all of its beauty, to be in a kind of premature Nirvana. Refusing to eat, or eating too much and then purging, has a vast symbolic history – living life at its intensest extremes.
As far as healing such habits is concerned, I see these as processes and initiations, if natural. I make that clause because sometimes such disaffections can be "trendy," which is a whole other field. If innate, usually those concerned come through it stronger – stronger for having faced their inner daemons. If pursued through an urge to be "different," or as a cry for attention (take the average teen who thinks it cool to have a "problem") then it's simply a psychological phase.
Magick and a sense of oneself in a religious context can certainly heal these issues. Battles worth fighting are usually long-term and there are no easy answers. These situations are almost always unique.
Is a commitment to the esoteric and metaphysical dimension of life compatible with a commitment to social justice and liberal humanist philosophies of equality and freedom? For example, given your relationship to the pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, what is your opinion on the traditional Hindu caste system?
It ought to be, but obviously isn't always. I have great respect for, and attraction to, the Hindu religion and deities, but clearly their mundane manifestation hasn't always been "compatible with … social justice." The Buddha, on the other hand, gave up a palace in order to find the real world – within and outside his social and logistical peripheries. Despite Hinduism being a very ancient religion, it is changing with the times and some of the most extreme aspects of the caste system are becoming outmoded.
Regarding modern esoteric practices: they vary wildly and cannot be summed up in total. Wicca and modern witchcraft are extremely sociologically sound in the context that you describe – they tend towards the incredibly "PC." One of the obvious clauses of the "esoteric" is to look beneath the surface, at spiritual and metaphysical aspects and qualities. It follows that sociological aspects and expectations will be sloughed off at this point and thus become irrelevant.
I personally believe in reincarnation, or at least that we are all fragments of the same consciousness, and that we are supposed to experience all that exists, as in Blake's Proverb of Hell: "Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth." Therefore to discriminate because of race, gender or social status would be ephemeral nonsense.
What is your definition and practice of feminism?
To be myself, and free. I feel very privileged to be able to travel, love, write and live as I will – it certainly would not have been possible a hundred years ago.
My layperson's perception is that there are very few people of color in the contemporary pagan and esoteric scenes (at least not in the UK and USA). Am I mistaken? If so, who are some authors and practitioners on the scene? If not, why do you think this is the case?
There are very few people of color involved in paganism and the "esoteric" in the UK, true. Why this is, I wouldn't dare to speculate.
Can you discuss links between your fiction and non-fiction writing? Do you work on fiction and non-fiction in tandem?
The fiction is what might be termed "magickal fiction." I try to base it on metaphysical and psychological truths, but in an entertaining format. I prefer the framework of short stories and novels; that's my main focus at present. I have two novels pending. One, Spiritus, is modern gothic and set in Amsterdam. The other, The Wicked Stepdaughter, is more psychological. The non-fiction is easier to write, I find, though there's a lot less artistic leeway.
Is there a "performative" aspect to your work as a reader and consultant? How does that inform your writing?
Yes, reading Tarot – especially in a public place – is very much a performing art at times. People are paying for my time, so I feel I have to pack as much in as possible – whilst being both perceptive and articulate! I've met some wonderful people through the readings, and had some fascinating experiences, some of which I detail in Magick in the West End. That's a collection of short stories based in a fictional version of Watkins' Bookshop, where I really do work from time to time.
What role does costume play in your life and your spiritual practice?
A fun one. I've always enjoyed the sartorial side of spirituality. As a teenager I was very extreme in my look; I wore my angst and artistry very visibly. Nowadays, I'm much tamer visually, but I still enjoy that aspect of physicality. I'm fascinated by portraiture, and costume often constitutes a significant part of that – the photographs of Nan Goldin for example, which are often decadent and gender non-specific.
In magick, robes or dresses designed for ritual are helpful for creating a conducive mood. Contrary to popular belief about naked or "skyclad" magickal workings, I've never found that to be helpful – at least, [not] in group situations. A robe or black dress can be ideal, however, along with ritual jewelry, and so on. They help evoke the relevant archetypes.
I lived in the States for quite a while and have never forgotten New Orleans (I made a visit about four years ago). I felt deeply, unexpectedly, and electrically that it was one of my spiritual homes. So I feel compelled to ask you about your own New Orleans experiences.
I have a big rapport with New Orleans – not simply because of her history, fabulous architecture, and culture, but through family history. "La Trobe Park" in the French Quarter is named after an ancestor, Benjamin La Trobe (my real surname is La Trobe-Bateman), who amongst other things, designed the towers on St. Charles Cathedral and engineered the Louisiana waterworks. He wrote journals of his time in New Orleans from 1819-1820, which give a fascinating insight into the social, political, and cultural history of the city. They are published by Yale, but currently out of print.
He gives vivid accounts of the markets, the local color, the ballrooms, and the ever-prevalent "muskitoes", which were the bane of his life in the swampy city. I found his observations on the way in which slaves were treated particularly interesting. He relates with horror some of the abuse he witnessed (mainly issuing from Creole women, the cruellest of whom he refers to as "hellcats") and calls for the abolition of slavery. He found it impossible to understand how women so beautiful could be so inhumane. He also describes the native Choctaw Indians, his shock at their nudity and drunkenness.
Aside from its rich history, New Orleans is still a culturally and spiritually vibrant city, even post-Katrina. Writers such as Poppy Z. Brite (who I admire immensely) illustrate the more recent aspects of the city, one of her major themes being the food industry and restaurant trade. As a vegetarian, my appreciation of New Orleans' cuisine is necessarily restricted, but I still enjoy reading about it.
The city's cemeteries are amongst the most impressive I've ever visited – vast Catholic mausoleums and colorful, characterful modern graves. What with this, the music, the pressing ghosts and the chilled-out vibe of the Big Easy – plus the amazing vegetation, architecture, and culture both modern and historical – New Orleans is still somewhere I would love to live in. Perhaps one day...
What other current projects would you like to mention?
As I mentioned earlier, I'm working mainly on fiction right now. The next novel, Spiritus, ought to be out over the next year or so, touch wood.
For more information, visit http://www.kalatrobe.com.