Sekou’s nine stories birthing a St. Martin nation – Discoveries and still more questions by Rochelle Ward
The intention of this review is to briefly explore identity, brotherhood and liberation in two books of short stories by Lasana M. Sekou, poet, storyteller and essayist. His first collection of five short stories, Love Songs Make You Cry (1989), was followed by Brotherhood of the Spurs (1997) with four stories, which the critic Fabian Badejo said work more like four novellas than stories in the classic short narrative format. There is a looming aspect in the backdrop of the stories that does not dominate the texts but is fundamental to understanding a central pain of becoming as it relates to identity of Sekou’s St. Martin people. That aspect is that St. Martin is still divided into two territories and ruled by two colonial “powers.”
The tension between this backdrop element and the identity and identification of characters in the St. Martin-centered plots makes for a comparison of Sekou’s nine fictions with nine months of an uneasy pregnancy: alienation, conflict, coming together, labor pains and push for delivery, of an individual life or a liberated, united and independent country. In his prose nonfiction the tension—which interacts creatively in fiction as background and foreground—is very concrete and up front, as in Nationals Symbols of St. Martin:
The ‘One people’ are the people of the island’s North and South, incorrectly called ‘Frenchside’ and ‘Dutchside’. ‘Frenchside’ and ‘Dutchside’ are colonial codes or designations, which claim St. Martin for the Republic of France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands, instead of for the island’s people.
As a result, the nine stories not only illustrate the writer’s passionate cry for liberation and a clear understanding of the workings of history but show, at deeper levels than might be possible in his essays, how love overcomes a multitude of sins. I also believe that Sekou’s depiction and personification of the history of the Great Salt Pond and the presence of salt in St. Martin’s labor history are essential for understanding these two collections. The author’s national symbol of the Great Salt Pond and salt are more evident in his poetry as being at the essence of the historical unity and personality of the St. Martin people. Because of the concrete root in historical labor pains and the very human dreams and realization of deliverance, Sekou offers the salt compound as key ingredient to season current and future generations into identifying as one St. Martin people. Here is a glimpse of how Sekou personified this salt pond in “Great Salt Pond Speaks”:
I am the mudbag reservoir of your labor.
In me, you came to speak to each other of pain,
of love, of freedom, of union;
from the dreams to build as men and women
to the games of children
floating over my glass calm face on flats.
Through briny ages, I was the pot of water
in which you first saw your sweat-drenched face,
anchored your sweating ebon brow under a crown of thorns.
It was you who sowed humanity in me with the bleeding
roots that would not rot;
it was I who seasoned the brine of ages in your pool of
Salt stings, purifies and preserves, and in these stories, the people of St. Martin are the salt of the land. They face struggles and hardships, which they flavor with love and labor. Eventually their past is reconciled and they claim their very own promised land.
While the stories are written in third person narrative, Sekou uses his characters to tell their own stories. Some characters occasionally grab the story from the narrator. In “New Year’s Eve Born,” from Love Songs Make You Cry, Daniella Jeffry points out in the book’s introduction, that the writer “describes Clement’s murder through Clement’s own consciousness.” Even minor characters are described sufficiently for the reader to visualize them, like Elsa’s grandmother in “The Snoring.” “Her grandmother, an ignorant and arthritic old soul with Victorian morals and four grandchildren to rear all by her lonesome self, slapped, boxed off, thumped and threw Elsa out of her house for being a ‘force-ripe little heifer’.”
While his stories examine themes of displacement, immigration and exploitation, each one is based on human relationships. Nessa, the mother of Nancy, sent her daughter abroad in “Fatty and the Big House” for fear of her marrying Fatty, “who was not fat at all.” A similar action occurred in Brotherhood’s “The Wake,” a post-World War I story with an attempted rape/jumbie story sub-plot that stretches across time and from French Cul-de-Sac to Cole Bay. Widow Edonia’s true love was sent away to sea “bawling till blood come out he mouth, nose, an’ oize” because his mulatto family did not want him to mix with the Blacks. In “New Year’s Eve Born,” Sekou compares and contrasts the fling Clement had with the American Blair in his youth to his devotion and matured love toward Josette, his wife, and St. Martin, his home. As a result of this love, while he is being murdered off a St. Martin coast in a stolen motorboat, his thoughts are that he “would not die as a traitor, he would die as a man, fighting, resisting, to the last breath of his life. His sons would live to know. He was a man to the end”—for he had protected Agenda 2000, which he had sworn to do when he repeated “The Oath of Soualiga”:
I live my allegiance to the Beloved Land of St. Martin/St. Maarten … and to all her People … to fight for Our Independence … to attain and uphold Our Nation’s Victorious Sovereignty … to crush all tyranny with Truth and the Power of the People’s spirit of Democracy… to open wide her gates to Liberty … and set Justice upon her head as a crown … and Love as a sword in her hands…to forge one nation strong … one people united … one Destiny of fraternal building … prospering and free.
There is the issue of identity in these works when solid heroes are established and the roles of women and men clearly defined. Since heroes exist in the texts the characteristics of villains have to be questioned as well. For example, villains like the “France-man” in a white suit who tortures Clement with a razorblade. And those responsible for poisoning Nkrumah’s father for political reasons in the subsequent story “The Rightful Heirs.”
Within the realm of identity, understanding the relationship between self and place is crucial. Initially in Brotherhood’s “A Salting,” the “precious child” crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1711, is confused about what is happening to her body, for she is on the verge of becoming a woman. She is uprooted from her home in Africa and on arriving to St. Martin on board a Dutch slaver smelt the “rush of wind-born salt, budding green and ripeness.” In the title story of Brotherhood of the Spurs, people heading to a championship cockfight, go by “without saluting the salt ponds of their fore-parents’ unreparated labor.” They continue to reflect the young girl’s confusion of a new self that is forcing itself into being in a new place, a place that is not yet fully claimed by the individual or the whole people. The people appear to still not connect deeply with this pond as a rooted symbol of the St. Martin identity, as a central landmark on an island where their ancestors have lived for several generations.
In his essay “Timehri,” first published in 1970, historian and poet Kamau Brathwaite states that rootlessness is caused by a “disillusion” with the fragmentation in our culture that writers have been born and educated into. So, do identifying and claiming historical landmarks, like the salt pond, and cultural traditions diminish rootlessness? Sekou meticulously recorded a range of St. Martin culture elements—like food, music, religion, social codes, family relations —and the workings of traditions in both collections.
In “The Snoring,” Sekou ties the natural, surrounding Elsa’s pregnancy, to the supernatural and obeah. In “Brotherhood of the Spurs” he linked Browning, the rooster, to Shango, an orisha. These stories create more questions. What are the origins of cockfighting and its significance? Is there a connection with the image of the Caribbean man to this sport, which is illegal in some parts of the region? Why is there a weaving of “dread” locks throughout the texts? How does it contribute to identity of the individuals, mostly women, who are wearing them?
Gatherings like funerals in “The Wake,” carnival shows in the title story “Love Songs Make You Cry,” and cockfighting promote community spirit and unity. In “Love Songs Make You Cry,” Sekou documents the attraction between a young man and woman in the Carnival Village. She speaks some English and is from the Dominican Republic. He speaks some Spanish. She asked him, “Are you French or Dutch?” to which he replied, “Do I look like a European? I born here so how could I be French or Dutch. I’m a S’martiner, a Caribbean man that’s what counts.”
It seems that language is presented as not being a barrier to coming together and knowing each other as parts of a nation or region—not much unlike the chilling way Sekou’s unnamed characters used “languages broken and borrowed” in the dark hull of the slave ship while the chained child was menstruating in “A Salting.” The language issues in St. Martin, in the Caribbean, do raise more difficult questions than are answered by Sekou’s strategy for his characters to rise above this communication challenge and other obstacles. But the writer does not shy away from his nation language and includes Patois, Spanish, Dutch, French, Papiamento to communicate his work. He is a surgeon of the Standard English sentence. He transplants a S’maatin word where he sees fit. Such practice is rather common for him and as Badejo and other critics have pointed out, it works very well in his poetry.
Just as the leading St. Martin/Caribbean men in the stories are bound on being men against tough odds, Sekou’s women are essential to identity and nation building. Their wombs, symbolically, are among the historical, cultural and social locations where ideas are born and a liberated mind or consciousness is created. So how does the author use women to propel his message of independence and a unified St. Martin? He began his second storybook of a people in “A Salting” with the beloved young girl, enslaved in the island’s past, and completed the collection with a female president at a pivotal point in St. Martin’s future. In the molding of a self-identity and the making of a nation, his women are accomplices with their men, not antagonistic but they do have their own life, labor and meaning. This still makes for serious conflict. In exploring the meaning of these women made me wonder what the author accomplishes by beginning Brotherhood of the Spurs with the menstruation blood of the young girl on a slave ship dripping down on other chained captives? What does he accomplish by beginning Love Songs Make You Cry with the turbulent pregnancy of an abandoned 15-year-old school girl? Is each child symbolic of the St. Martin nation at a particular historical stage or state of the writer’s consciousness about his nation?
Sekou examines the past, present and future, gathers his people, native and newcomer (especially the children, as we see in that moving image of identity and family on the porch in “The Wake”), and sets off ragtag and boldly for a future where failure to become a nation is not an option. “Firespill,” the last story in Brotherhood, is dated around 2077. In it, the St. Martin people finally realize the full political freedom of their island. Akillah Lakshmih, of African and East Indian ancestry, is elected as the first woman president, and the third head of state since the founding of the St. Martin republic (on one part of the island). She threatens to crush any adversary with “a thousand hands” if harm should come to her country on the eve of a unification that looks like it came about through very questionable means.
Interestingly, in this story, there is a sub-plot about the wounds of slavery, created in “A Salting,” that comes closer to personal and collective healing through forgiveness. Even the new female president thinks of seeking forgiveness—for the manner in which she seized the opportunity to unite the two parts of the island. This is what she is thinking as she looks out from her office to the gigantic ancestral monument where: “… descendents of the enslaved, maroons, and indentured, folks from original homelands, and those seeking reconciliation for the souls of their fathers and mothers who had died with the whip in their hands and evil in their hearts,” make “their pilgrimage in the millions”—clearly also an indication that tourism (but with a powerful, rooted St. Martin identity on display) was still part of the nation’s economy.
“Fatty and the Big House” also concludes with a surprising form of forgiveness. My final question is, can the power of love, which entails forgiveness and sacrifice, for self, family and country, heal and unite a nation?
In Akillah Lakshmih, a larger part of the story of the people climaxes, for she is the direct descendant of the unnamed slave girl in “A Salting.” There are over 350 years between them. In fact, there are subtle generational relationships and other clues in the four stories that link the descendants of the child slave. After over 350 years, there are also shared salted tears of the once colonized and the former colonizers, shed in the same place of atonement, an ancestral monument in Point Blanche—overlooking Great Bay harbor. The island’s Amerindian names, Soualiga, “Land of Salt,” Oualichi, “Land of Brave Women,” all these meanings of St. Martin also echo in the nine stories of Love Songs Make You Cry and Brotherhood of the Spurs.
Love, labor, liberation for St. Martin and the island’s people, and the development of these themes, have maintained their draw for Sekou long since his first fictions were published. In the poetry collection The Salt Reaper (2005) and its audio CD (2009), freedom itself is his “bitch in heat,” daring him to always be a man and drive his tribe though “her” valley to claim the promised land of his Sweet St. Martin. In the poem “Freedom” he concludes: “Freedom/I always take her/and you know what?/I want all of our children to look/just like her.”
And The Great Salt Pond? Well, in “Cradle of the nation,” which opens chapter two of The Salt Reaper, Sekou has written what is perhaps St. Martin’s first coherent “national” mythic poem, it is about the historical body of water that is today under stress. The leading Jamaican literary critic and scholar Professor Carolyn Cooper calls this poem “magisterial.”
Editor’s note: Rochelle Ward is an English lecturer at the University of St. Martin.