“The Polyglot Pride of St. Martin”: An Interview with Lasana M. Sekou

• October 2010

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.


 

Sara Florian: 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: 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.”

SF: So is English the official language in St. Martin? 

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 harbours ultimately severe problems of communication for the whole St. Martin people, between families and family friends, neighbours 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.1

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 centre 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-centres 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.

SF: It’s really interesting what you say about polyglossia 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. [But, something was “there.” ] 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...

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 songs  as we laboured in the salt pans.2  Blood, sweat and tears were literally 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 labour after long forced separations. Social relationships, in spite of the hard labour, 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 labour from the island. At times, during peak periods of salt reaping bonded labour 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: 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 interweave 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: I would like to slightly shift back to the subject of your own poetry. Apart from the subject and metaphor of salt in your work, you also speak of 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. 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.

SF: Does political terminology have 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. 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 favour 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. 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).

*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.

 

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. She is currently engaged in a Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the Singapore Management University.

 

A version of this interview was previously published as: Sekou, Lasana M. “The salt metaphor in St. Martin’s literature; history as bane and bountiful reservoir of victories.” Interview. Ed. Sara Florian. 15 May 2008. Philipsburg, St. Maarten. Houseofnehesipublish.com. 12 Dec. 2009 <http://www.houseofnehesipublish.com&gt;.

© 2008, 2009 by Sara Florian/Lasana M. Sekou

 


1 The Collectivity of St. Martin came into being on 15th July 2007 and encompasses the northern part of the island, which is a French Overseas Collectivity, Collectivité d’Outre-Mer.

2 Topical st. martin song, sung in a fast-paced singsong without musical accompaniment (sung up to mid-20th c.).