“The salt metaphor in St. Martin’s literature; history as bane and bountiful reservoir of victories”
Lasana M. Sekou is the author of 13 books of poetry, monologues, and short stories. He is a leading St. Martin writer and is considered as one of the prolific Caribbean poets of his generation. Sekou has presented papers and recited his poetry at cultural and literary conferences and festivals all around the world. Lasana M. Sekou is an advocate for the independence of St. Martin, which is a colony of France and the Netherlands. (The following interview was conducted by Sara Florian for her doctoral research on Caribbean literature, 15 May 2008, Philipsburg, St. Martin.
Interview by Sara Florian
Sara Florian (SF): As far as I have noticed, there is a very peculiar linguistic situation in St. Maarten. Would you like to comment about this as an introductory remark?
Lasana M. Sekou (LMS): Not only do we have all of the languages of the Caribbean spoken in St. Martin* by immigrants native to those languages, but an arguably significant number of St. Martin people, native to the island’s core culture, are also bilingual or multilingual, at least functionally so. I say “functional” because there is the question of fluency. I think that the multilingual aptitude, as a cultural feature of the St. Martin people, being able to speak between two to five languages, is due in part to the post-Emancipation period when many of our people emigrated throughout the region, and to European metropoles and US cities, looking for work and education. A number of our people, between the late 1800s and 1963 regularly returned home bringing the new languages, the fashion, the music from the countries and territories where they had gone to work, live, and in some instances where they were born. Between 1963 and the early 1970s, a number of St. Martiners returned home to retire, especially from Papiamentu-speaking Aruba and they became very much involved in the society. The wave of immigrants arriving from throughout the Caribbean between the 1970s and 1980s looking for work in the newly booming tourism industry in St. Martin, included descendants of St. Martiners (both parts of the island) fluent in Spanish and Papiamentu and at times some more fluent in Dutch and French than some of their compatriots that they were meeting at home for the first time. The language cross-fertilization is reinforced, with English as the mediating or even the median language, because in the work place, living spaces, places of socialization, and during business transactions people are in a normative contact with each other and do communicate, even to the degree that there are of late stress lines relative to that communication, not only between both parts of the island but within each territory that divides the nation. In St. Martin, English as we speak it, has been used island-wide since the 1700s as, what I would call, the “nation tongue.”
Sara Florian (Saltwater Collection/HNP photo)
SF: So is English the official language in St. Maarten?
LMS: English is the popular language, it is the lingua franca historically of the St. Martin people. In the South, which is a colony of the Netherlands, English is now an official language along with Dutch. That is a development within the last five years, though as a language of instruction English has been used in some of the schools since the 1980s. It is the language of instruction at the University of St. Martin (USM), which was founded in 1989 and is to date the island’s only native tertiary institution. In the North, a colony of France, the official language and language of instruction in the schools is French. Nowadays in the North the schools in particular and generally the official system are reinforcing the language issue and pushing the use of French. Increasing numbers of children speak only, or predominantly French to their parents and to each other. With regard to the St. Martin nation as a whole this could be seen as a point of division, because it harbors ultimately severe problems of communication for the whole St. Martin people, between families and family friends, neighbors and associates, natives and visitors. There are at least two important government officials of the Collectivité Territoriale de Saint-Martin that are publically suggesting that the establishment could formally revisit the traditional place of English in the North. The idea is to seek to introduce a curriculum that would make students effectively bilingual, in French and English, throughout the school system. This would not be in the interest of France but in the interest of St. Martin unity.
SF: The reinforcement of the use of French in the Northern part of the island looks like a counter tendency against the evolution of the use of languages throughout the Caribbean and in the world in general…
LMS: It is indeed. And to me it looks like and is experienced as a reinforcement of colonialism. Notwithstanding the Collectivité as a structural change for the French colony in St. Martin in 2007 and the current discussions for more autonomy for the Dutch “island territory,” St. Martin had been for the longest while what you would call a neglected island by its colonizers. It was not a trading, military or colonial sub-management center or post in the Caribbean region for any of the European countries that controlled the territory during the post-Columbian period. For example, in the post-Emancipation period the colonial sub-centers in the Caribbean region to which St. Martin was attached was Willemstad, Curacao, for the Dutch part and Basseterre, Guadeloupe for the French part of the island. “There is nothing there,” was what not only the colonialist rulers might have said, but what was also uttered by some St. Martiners who migrated to and lived in the western and southern Caribbean and beyond during the first half of the 1900s. The island’s population then was not much more than 5,000 people, compared to around 80,000 people in the first decade of the 21st century. About 100 years ago, any number of government officials in The Hague or Paris might not have had any idea as to exactly where St. Martin was on a map. Some may still not be too sure of the location.
SF: So you are saying that the colonial centres were in Curaçao for the Dutch Antilles and Guadeloupe for the French Antilles, but if I’m not mistaken, the Dutch Antilles were important for the production of salt, is it correct?
LMS: Relative to salt production there would have been a certain importance during the slave period for that natural resource found in the Dutch colonies. Salt was produced in the natural salt ponds, divided by slave owners and colonial shareholders into “salt pans” in especially St. Martin and Bonaire. But this activity, overseen regionally from Willemstad, did not make St. Martin a center or a central post of any sort to Dutch colonialism and trade. The Great Salt Pond in St. Martin was a relatively big mine, arguably the largest for the Dutch in the region, from which to exploit by brutal slave labor a raw resource, salt. It was relatively much larger than the Grand Case and Orleans ponds in the “French part” of the island. A number of slave owners that had plantations and salt pans in any one part of St. Martin very likely had property on both parts of the island and plantations and warehouses on the nearby surrounding islands as well. That salt from the great pond was an elemental resource to Dutch long-distance trade, preservation of various foodstuff, and ultimately or arguably, a contributor to considerable wealth that benefitted primarily The Netherlands, absentee slave owners, the trading houses such as the West Indies Company and its departments, the banking, business, political and military classes, churches and temples, even smugglers, and members of the royal family.
SF: I remember you using the salt metaphor in your poetry, in your writing, as in The Salt Reaper. Or rather, let’s think to the critical work of Badejo, Salted Tongues…
LMS: Yes. It should be natural for the salt metaphor to be present in the literature of St. Martin. Salt was the main crop on the island during the unholy slave period. After the 1848 Emancipation there were minor and infrequent salt harvests well until the early 1960s. As metaphor and as material salt has the experience of curing, preserving, healing. There is a connection to life’s sweetness in some cultures. The Yoruba, I am told, have a saying: “May your life be as sweet as salt.” It is also intrinsically connected with the exploitation and human suffering of the enslaved ancestors that toiled away in the salt ponds of St. Martin. St. Martiners created and chanted work songs and topical quimbé songs1 as we labored in the salt pans. Blood, sweat and tears were literary shed in the ponds. News and secrets were shared in the wide salted body of water;petite marronage and other escapes and acts of sabotage were planned. Parents and children sold to different plantations on- and off-island would meet in this gruelling place of labor after long forced separations. Social relationships, in spite of the hard labor, were forged in the Great Salt Pond, sweet social relationships. Because of its size, even while salt was being picked in the other salt ponds, the Great Salt Pond demanded most of the enslaved labor from the island. At times, during peak periods of salt reaping bonded labor from surrounding islands were shipped in. To the extent that the enslaved men, women and children were herded off the plantations from both parts of the island to “pick salt” in the salt pans during the salt reaping season for some 200 years, the Great Salt Pond became the cradle of the St. Martin nation. The Salt Reaper poems “salt reaping I” and “salt reaping II” are about this double and layered relationship of salt in the history and culture of the St. Martin people and as a recurring expression of the psyche, even if latently so, at the core of the nation. Both poems are sorts of aesthetic extractions from a conversation, a “relate,” with a rather beautiful woman from Sucker Garden [district of St. Martin] who worked in the Great Salt Pond as a very young child during the first half of the last century.
SF: Is the use of salt as metaphor a trend in the work of the new generation of St. Martin poets?
LMS: So far in all of the key published poets, Ruby Bute, Changa, Esther Gumbs, Charles Borromeo Hodge who probably played on the flats of the Great Salt Pond as a child, and certainly Drisana Jack. Since the mid-1990s, we are seeing in the works of musicians, for example the outstanding Sweet Salt CD by Neville York. Jack is probably the only serious painter experimenting with salt in multimedia art. The dancer and choreographer Clara Reyes has been making dramatically bold and informed performance pieces relative to this business of salt in our history and culture.
SF: It’s really interesting what you say about polyglot and fluency in the Caribbean and especially in St. Martin, and this seems to be indicative of a post-Emancipation aptitude: the necessity to communicate in different languages, but also the importance to combine languages and musical rhythms. St. Martin became the salt island, the island where the main crop was salt, and that is why you often use ‘salt’ as a major metaphor for curing, healing, preserving and also expressing pain and the fatigue of hard labour. I’m thinking of the other islands, Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Cuba, where they basically had plantations of sugar cane, so this metaphor of the sugar and the salt could be a very interesting one.… And this ambivalent relationship could be, in my opinion, translated also to the language, I mean between standard languages and creoles. I cannot speak as a linguist because I am not a linguist, but I think that some definitions could connect separate languages, and especially in the Caribbean whose poets keep using metaphors and languages: there is a kind of unified conception of the languages used in the different territories. Brathwaite spoke of ‘nation language,’ that’s what poets use to reproduce the language of the people, the language closer to the natural spoken word…
LMS: Indeed, you speak like Brathwaite, he would be proud to hear you…[laugh]
SF: Well, thank you [laugh]…I guess you also employ “nation language” in your poetry.
LMS: I use the term “nation tongue,” but it is the same concept. In addition to the layered identification with or deconstruction of the European languages spoken in the region, there is too a sweet fluency to the languages that we created in the Caribbean from the disparate and Calibanic tongues. For example, when you hear someone speaking Papiamentu or Haitian it is just a sweet sound, the way it rolls off the tongue, fluent, fluid…
SF: Is there such a thing as an English-based Creole of St. Martin?
LMS: You should speak with Rhoda Arrindell, a doctoral candidate at the University of Puerto Rico and head of the language division at USM. Ms. Arrindell is researching this kind of thing, exploring and correlating the linguistic markers which indicate that there is a way in which the St. Martin people speak and the development of our way of speaking from the past. There is the “Brim song,” which, since 1848, accompanied the traditional dance called the Ponum, also pronounced “Panam.” The Brim song is a marker, a time capsule that records not only a critical historical event but also approximates the pronunciation, elements of grammar and so forth of the way our ancestors spoke in 1848. Some of us see the Ponum as a liberation dance since it was danced openly to celebrate the late notification to the enslaved population on the island about the 1848 Emancipation in the French colonies. And of course the Brim song, also called the Ponum song, is rooted in the oral tradition.2 In poetry, in the dialogue of the short stories, I sometimes write words to approximate the way we still pronounce them or construct sentences in the manner of our speech, as expression of the St. Martin nation tongue. The extent to which the way we speak is, has or had roots or elements of a Creole language will probably increase in debate over time.
SF: I was wondering what type of African influences are there in St. Maarten?
LMS: The majority of the Blacks in the Americas and the Caribbean, including St. Martin, would have ancestral origins particularly in West Africa. The syntax of our speech, the creole languages, foods that we still eat, elements in the traditional and modern music, song and dance forms, definitely the folk dances such as the Ponum in St. Martin, traditional instruments, and folk tales, some of the hair grooming such as braids, or dread locks for that matter, board games and martial arts forms such as stick fighting, traditional medicines and some of the belief systems, all reflect African origins, survivals and influences. At times these influences are embattled and not too infrequently wrought with the self-denial of the African or Black “Self” and other inferiority complexes by some of African descent. Some features like stick fighting are not practiced any more or the jumbie stories, which are not as popular as they were until the mid-1960s, but because they are known as a matter of fact to have been active features of the Traditional St. Martin culture they are indicative of our African origins, influences and survivals. The African influences, however transformed or transforming, are imprinted in what the scholar Rex Nettleford identifies as “cross-fertilization” processes with European, Asian, and Amerindian features and influences in the development of the Caribbean nations. An example in St. Martin of an African “survival” would be the sparse number of families with remnants of Oral Tradition stories about an Ashanti ancestor, or a great great grandmother from the Guinea area; or just having the specific knowledge that a great great grand father who is buried on succession land in French Quarter, came “from Africa” – but not knowing what specific part or people of Africa. I like to say that we lost our old African nation but gained a continent through historical, cultural and political interpretations of, for example, the ideas and solidarity practices of pan-Africanism.
SF: I would like to slightly shift back to the subject of your own poetry. You use the subject and metaphor of salt in your work, and political issues …
LMS: Indeed. The subjects of politics, history and race are consistently and variedly discussed in all of the literatures of the Caribbean. Salt is linked to culture and history in St. Martin in a unique or specific way as we discussed previously. … History is both our bane and the bountiful reservoir of our victories. The political issues I tend to prefer to work with or work out in the poetry tend toward liberation politics, national and human liberation processes in the Caribbean: from slavery, racism, colonialism, neocolonialism and as continuing processes in the region’s countries to realize full sovereignty and in the still colonized territories like St. Martin to become independent. … When I use political terms and discuss certain political ideas in poetry it is not always related to colonialism. The issue of corruption by new national elites is also a form of terrorism and theft that is insidious and criminal and must be railed against. But the discussion of and organization for political independence for St. Martin is a legitimate and genuine development emerging out of a political reality, of a historical experience, of a cultural imperative that drives us to claim our own space, our nation, because it is ours by our blood, sweat and tears, by our love and labor over the centuries. Our nation is one of the last remaining colonies in the region, a physical remnant of a history of horror. Our island of 37 square miles is held captive by Dutch and French colonialism through structures and processes based in part on what Edward Said calls “structures of attitude and reference” and what George Lamming terms a “terror of the mind.” Such a terror it is that there are many among us who believe that St. Martin is not a colony but in the South, an “equal partner in the Dutch kingdom,” and in the North “est la France.” For a colonized people, once enslaved by their colonizers, this is delusional thinking on a grand scale. … The people in the North and in the South who believe in or are active in the seminal movement for independence are called Independentistas [laugh].
SF: A Spanish term?
LMS: Yes. The Cuban Revolution, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the commonalities of revolutions and labor movements in South America and the Caribbean – including the Haitian Revolution, the region’s and Latin American intellectual traditions, revolutionary leaders, and St. Martin’s multilingual aptitude might have influenced the use of that term as a purposeful name and symbol of political identification and determination.
SF: Does political terminology has much importance in your poetic production? How do you cope with all these different languages?
LMS: The historical and contemporary political realities in the Caribbean are very important to the poetic language that I work with; … words and terms are drawn freely from the region’s languages as symbolic of ideals, practices, and manifestation of Caribbean unity – and also as literary devices and elements of exploration of a St. Martin aesthetics. Politics, language, history, religion, the geographic landscape are just a few of the elements I work with to construct a poetry that would hopefully have meaning in the lives of people. The poetic license with language or the use of language with license probably has to do with this, that in St. Martin we do not cope with languages, we live languages as a popular reality. In a five-minute communication event, two people in St. Martin can go through up to five languages, seamlessly. As previously noted, this is more of a functional reality than a matter of fluency, but it is certainly a feature of sophistication of the St. Martin people’s culture. However, relative the stress signs alluded to earlier, this language culture is not yet an official reality, our politicians and educators are not great advocates of the language culture as it is felt, as it should be owned, even as a natural resource. Arguably the polyglot pride of St. Martin is embattled, there are public, vocal stress signs like never before since the beginning of Modern St. Martin. The nation tongue is historically English for both parts of the island, and it has been serving as the median language of unity, communication and business for the people of St. Martin for most of the Survivalist Period (1648-1848), for the Traditional Period (1848-1963) and in the Modern Period (1963- ). Mind you, this is not to advocate or favor one European or colonial language over another, but the claim of an English derived from the historical and cultural experiences at the very core of the St. Martin identity. This nation tongue or nation language has been historically imparted to folks who have immigrated and contributed to and become part of the St. Martin nation, even as it is evolving. While the language allegiances of the territorial governments are to Dutch in the South and French in the North, most of the island’s media and commerce are conducted in English. The nation’s seminal literature is in English but the colonial languages are the languages of instruction in most of the island’s schools. The schools in the South with English as the language of instruction have increased significantly since the 1980s, with telling successes. The French educational system has been over a corresponding period, reinforcing French and all things of France in the schools in the North. There was in the 1990s a troubling attrition rate in the North relative to students beyond the high school level in the French system. I don’t know how that situation stands today. It should be noted too that as of the late 1980s, boosted by défiscalisation, there started what has become a significant settlement of French metropolitans in the North. With that development have also come related charges about racism, language complexes about who is really speaking French, identity issues about who belong in the French territory, economic disparities and displacement between Black St. Martiners and the white metropolitan French, and of late what is for St. Martin an unprecedented tension between gendarmes and the youth. All of these, let’s call them elements, have been working their way into the poetic production and projection, from Born Here (1986) to 37 Poems(2005).
SF: What kind of literary, poetic, influences do you recognise in your work?
LMS: The Black American poets from the 1960s, their reading styles in particular, had an influence on my earliest attempts to write poetry in my early teens while living in New York. In the early 1970s, between the ages of 11 and 12, I was taken from St. Martin by my mother to New York City to attend elementary school. I lived with my mother and two sisters for about seven or eight years before heading off to university. But about a year after arriving in the US, The Last Poets, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni would come to make some specific impressions in this regard of reading styles. They served faithfully as an oral and textual balance to the text of other American writers and British authors that I would be introduced to in high school. It is during the last two years of high school when I would also start reciting poetry in plays and in community centers through after-school activities. Later on, in the early 1980s, I was taught literature by Amiri Baraka at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, “Great books of the Black Experience,” was the name of one of the courses. From the beginning of the writing exercises, between age 12 and 13, there was this wakening consciousness of always working with Caribbean rhythms and sounds, images of our geography, the sun, something about the sea, St. Martin culture, the body shape and facial features of our women, the accents, the music. Coming from St. Martin the use of words from different languages came very easy, as a normal thing to do in poetry, a form which I might not have really understood then but certainly felt, that it had a oral expression, a street performance element, a spoken word imperative. The St. Martin/Caribbean background, having lived with my extended families in St. Martin that encouraged all sorts of reading and fostered a healthy curiosity, even admiration for Africa and things African or of Black people, I connected easily to the Black American experience, especially the recent civil rights struggles and gains. There were the news and feature magazines that my father, a political man, received from the US while I lived with him in St. Martin. These magazines – I can remember the photo in Ebony of the police dog attacking freedom marchers – were stored in the garage of my father’s Middle Region home and between playing marbles, football and such games as boys would play, I read them voraciously. The influences have been wide and varied.
SF: Dylan Thomas? e.e. cummings?
LMS: This is interesting [laugh]. I am really impressed by the reviewers who since The Salt Reaper – poems from the flats (2004) make a comparison to such great artists. All great artists who touch the soul of their people, their milieu, our humanity, impress me profoundly. There are a host of poets whose work I like very much, from Kofi Awoonor to T.S. Elliot to Mikey Smith … But I must admit that the text and the foundation from which the analyses are drawn and that continue to influence my poetry and fictions, even the essays, … are influenced far more by historians, political writers and activists, DuBois and Marcus Garvey, J.A. Rogers, Frederick Douglas, Martí, Dr. ben Jochannan, Malcolm X, Che, CLR James; the social and political activism of José Lake, Sr. and Thomas Duruo from St. Martin. All brilliantly reinforced later on by the works of people like Paulo Freire, Walter Rodney, Samir Amin, Howard Zinn, Edward Said. Even the novelists have influenced the content of my work more than specifically the poets, James Joyce, Kafka, Chinua Achebe, Alejo Carpentier, Bernard Shaw, definitely Ngugi wa Thiongo. I love Nietzsche, whose work I first read at age 16, there is an appealing madness to his work. My sister must have brought one of his books home from the library one Summer to start that relationship. The Bible and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which inform the religious symbology that Badejo is intent on analyzing in a critical study [laugh]. There is an early influence, during the teen years, from the writings of St. Augustine, The Mahatma, Kahlil Gibran, the Koran through the Black muslims, John Mbiti, and much later, in my early 20s, traceable impressions by Machiavelli’s The Prince and by the works of Kiergekaard and Chinese and African philosophy in a general sense. The liberation movements all over the Third World, labor movements everywhere, and the revolutions of Haiti, Cuba and Grenada have made lasting impacts on my consciousness and inform not so much what is written but its “reasoning” – to use that word as the RasTa would. The political and cultural implication, more so than the religious features of RasTafari helped significantly to shape aspects of the very deconstruction and re-construction of the poetic language that I am still working at, trying to make it better and more useful to people. All of these are among major influences.
LMS: A very late influence, though like Dylan I had heard of Kamau Brathwaite as a great artist, of his sojourn in Africa but had not read to any extent his actual work. So you can imagine the utterly humbling experience when a scholar like Joe Pereira from UWI-Jamaica, after hearing a recital at the Caribbean Writers Conference in St. Thomas in 1985, compared my poetry, the poems that he had heard to “Eddie [Brathwaite], Cardenal and Guillén.” I remember the exact order of the names he mentioned [laugh]. These are gods of our poetry and revolutionary traditions and I was still a child in this way of the world. I had already read Guillén in New York, and Cardenal at Howard University, where I also discovered more in depth the political writings of George Lamming. In Washington DC I also delved deeper into Neruda, Lorca, Rocque Dalton – almost as what I would think of now as a third layer of fascinating poets. The European and African poets would have been the second layer. I came to Brathwaite’s work in 1986, after having returned to St. Martin in 1984 to work as a journalist with the Newsday newspaper. Brathwaite’s poetry provided the final formula, a sort of cosmological freedom, to complete the long poem Nativity [after it was rejected by the publisher].
SF: Can you recognize any influence of folk traditions and music?
LMS: Well, the influence of the folk tradition is ever present, the Brer Rabbit tales told to my sisters and I by our grandfather Martinus when we were children. The folk elements from the Oral Tradition are drawn on heavily in Mothernation (1991) and Quimbé – poetics of sound (1999), though both collections are packed with poems of an island, regional and international political nature. The stories of daily folklife recounted by my mother, Thomassillienne; material from interviews while working as a journalist on cultural articles, hearing worksongs, folksongs, all informed the work. The quimbé song of Traditional St. Martin. The folk content of certain music forms, the very instruments from Santo Domingo, Curaçao, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, the drum, the steel pan, the roundness and movement and beauty of the woman [laugh], exert a recognizable and informed influence on the work, its language, its rhythms, its nuances and so on. The folk elements are essential ingredients in claiming, deconstructing, constructing reality, the culture of the St. Martin folk in particular, Caribbean people in general, Black peoples universally, and in solidarity with humanity always. There are folk elements that allow the poet to enter into intimate spaces of people, places and things that are either known to the folk or make the people known to the themselves. The Afro-Amerindian-Indo-Judeo-Christian syncretism in Caribbean religions and belief systems. The oh so very impressive cultural hinterland of the Haitian novel. The Bad John or Feroze in the works of Earl Lovelace. Where and when to pick the bush to make the tea to use for this or that. We know these beliefs, we know these people, we live in these places. Sometimes, some of us feign ignorance of the totality or pieces of the folkways until the code is inserted and the floodgates open [smile]. I am glad that you brought up the question of music. There are singers and musicians that introduced or kept me tuned to particular music and song forms for both the joy of it and for this thing we call “Art for life sake,” art as sustenance or as the RasTa would say, for the livity of the people. These singers, music makers who had a profound impact on me by the age of 19, Sparrow and other calypsonians like the Mighty Duke and Chalkdust, Bob Marley, James Brown, Fela Kuti and the jazz of Coltrane … Did I mention Gil Scott-Heron? His influence as a poet using music that in turn made the Spoken Word sing, would come at the start of my undergraduate studies. The dub poetry of LKJ of course, informed militancy, revolutionary reasoning. I am certainly concerned most of all with a poetry that informs, artfully, the intelligences and decision-making of people. Now there is Bachata. This lyrical poetry/blues music from the Dominican Republic. Oh! Bachata is superior music. It influences as a latter-day muse. There is this documentary in which an old Bachatera called Bachata, “Una cadena de amarga.” Ay ya yai!
SF: Are these kind of things, the folk traditions, institutionalised or recognised?
LMS: Not fully at all. This is still part of the struggle for the true independence of Caribbean peoples and their countries and in the territories where they are still subject to colonialism. It is Lamming still leading the charge for the very “sovereignty of the imagination.” Maybe less so in this new century than say fifty years ago but some of these folk traditions essential for the revolutionizing of our very manhood and womanhood, of our societies, are still marginalized, denied, even disdained in certain quarters of Caribbean society, particularly by those with or in power. You know, many of today’s celebrated Caribbean features, a number of the music forms, festivals like carnival, RasTafari, martial arts, languages, foods, medicine and so on were once banned, vilified and had to be fought for by the people until concessions were forced from the powers that be—regardless of the complexion of who made up the ruling or governing elite at the time when the particular cultural victory was realized. The greatest symbol of our labor and birth as a St. Martin nation continues to suffer from neglect, disrespect and landfilling by the very government in Philipsburg. In fact, the territory’s only garbage dump is near the center of the great pond. Throughout the region some aspects of Caribbean cosmology are still related, relegated more to the negative.
SF: Do you mean like Legba?
LMS: Indeed. Legba is seen in the Voodoo cosmology as the mediator with the other gods or Orishas. We know this kind of go-between persona, maybe by different names or for different reasons: religious, familial, social, political. But it is an abiding feature of Caribbean culture.
SF: Yes, I remember you using it in Salt Reaper and Nativity…
LMS: In Nativity Legba closes the long poem with the command, “Functionnaire … open the gate …,” to engage a movement between worlds, between time passing and time coming forth, between conditions, between oppression and transformation. In Nativity he is a supra-central or linking figure that is invited to be the code initiator or code switcher. In Vodun, he may be the fatherly gate-keeper, the impish trickster or the linguist among the Orishas. The meditative gate-keeper is the persona I tend to employ most: Papa Legba opens the ceremony that awakens the path that the mediums and divine horsemen must trod in communion between the living and the spiritual worlds. This is powerful cultural and spiritual hinterland stuff, with awesome social, political and aesthetic implications and symbolism.
SF: With all of these stories that you are telling me, you remind me of a griot…[laugh]
LMS: Well, the griot is a storyteller [smile]… today he tells the stories of the people to the people. In the ancient nations and kingdoms of West Africa, the griot recounted the royal family lineage and the political history of the rulers.
© 2008, 2009 by Sara Florian/Lasana M. Sekou
1 Topical St. Martin song, sung in a fast-paced singsong without musical accompaniment (sung up to mid-20th c.).
2 Cf. Badejo, Fabian Adekunle. Salted Tongues – Modern Literature in St.Martin. St. Martin: House of Nehesi Publishers, 2003. 25.
*Lasana M. Sekou uses the traditional or what he calls the nationalist spelling of St. Martin to refer to the entire island – instead of the Dutch spelling of St. Maarten for the Dutch part in the South and the French spelling of Saint-Martin for the French part in the North.
Dr. Sara Florian achieved her Ph.D. at Cà Foscari University of Venice, Italy, in 2010. Her thesis is entitled “Contemporary West Indian Poetry: a ‘Creole’ Aesthetics.” She studied at Université La Sorbonne-Paris IV and École Normale Supérieure in Paris, including a Summer School in collaboration between Cà Foscari and Harvard University, and conducted her doctoral research worldwide; of particular notice is her research at the University of the West Indies.