What does it mean to have roots in a globalized society? Where do the boundaries of Self (Brathwaitian X/Self) and national identity lie in a trans-national cosmopolitan society where people are constantly travelling, mixing and re-inventing identities by choice (adoption of foreign cultural models), necessity (migration) or obligation (war refugees)?
Global citizens must acquire a global conscience. Post-colonial literatures have been questioning this for decades but even more so nowadays in a state of constant evolution, intellectual vibrancy and redefinition of national identities all over the world (Brexit, Catalunya, USA, North Korea, Israel/Palestine, Iran…). Today’s question of identity and nationalism has exacerbated the perception of boundaries and has evoked a need to discuss our roots and preserve our History. Lasana M. Sekou’s short story collection Brotherhood of the Spurs proves to tackle all these questions and proposes a literary solution, proving that literature trans-generationally crosses all sorts of boundaries and can preserve the historical memory of a people. Theoretically following in the footsteps of other literary columns such as Le Discours Antillais (Glissant, 1981) or In Praise of Creoleness (Bernabé, Chamoiseau, Confiant, 1989), Sekou outputs a communal Caribbean unity rooted in History.
The creolization process in the 37-square-mile Caribbean island of St. Martin has not stopped but its historical evolution has been fathomed by Sekou, who has eviscerated the island’s tormented historical past of Slavery to redefine its identity. Being that the island is partly Dutch, partly French, building a Nation involves creating a set of recognizable national symbolic contours (e.g. a flag, a national anthem, a mythography) and Sekou has contributed to studying St. Martin’s History and to research its ineffable past, which is the past of each Caribbean island, a past of Slavery.
The novella collection Brotherhood of the Spurs traces a journey into a national identitarian search. The four novellas – which could work well on their own – are inextricably linked through a genetic lineage that ties the unnamed girl and the stately dancer on board the slave ship in ‘A Salting’, Hennee, Ademus’s daughter, and her own daughter Pearl in ‘The Wake’, Titeen and Loulouze in ‘Brotherhood of the Spurs’, and Akillah Lakshmih with «her crown twist of dreadlocks» (162) and her Rasta secretary Jennifari in ‘Firespill’. The DNA mark by which we can recognize them is as small as a raise of eyebrows, which is a common trait: in ‘A Salting’, when speaking to Nana Mandisa, the child «raised her eyebrow in that manner» (11); in ‘The Wake’ Hennee «raised a single eyebrow starkly high like her mother’s» (47); in ‘Brotherhood of the Spurs’ Titeen, the market woman/herbalist and her childhood friend Loulouze, «cut up eyes, raised their right eyebrows as they did» (121); in ‘Firespill’, when talking to the scientist, «The president flicked her right eyebrow high» (142), and when speaking with Jennifari «Both women raised their right eyebrow» (150). Alongside the male backbone of the society, these women are at the core of Sekou’s search for genetic roots, they are the power-holders, the retainers of the secret genetic key.
History in the Caribbean has been violent since the first contact with the Europeans. The girl in ‘A Salting’, daughter of a judge, is shown in a coming-of-age, sort of Bildungsroman ‘peek’ moment associated with a tormented travel slashed by European fire. She has been chosen to accompany the village seer, Nana Mandisa (probably inspired to Sekou by the XIV century historian/traveller Ibn Batuta), to midwife a special childbirth for a coastal people, where the elderly woman is known. Her journey will become a rite of passage from childhood to adolescence as it will coincide with her passage into womanhood (first menses), as well as into a transatlantic passage over the «Great Sea» (19) to reach a new life of Slavery in St. Martin. That ocean in which all sorts of fluids mix (sea water, urine, blood, mucus, tears, sweat, milk) becomes a ‘baptistery’ for the title ‘salting’ and a testifier for a passage from innocence into Slavery, maroonage and break of naivety. The unnamed girl thus becomes a symbol of the St. Martiners’ ancestors, who, according to Sekou’s historical research and as it will be pointed out in the novella ‘Firespill’, reached the shores and hills of St. Martin on board the Dutch slave vessel Snellheid Willem II in 1711 (140).
In ‘A Salting’ Sekou mixes ethnicities and languages by sketching and rendering a juxtaposition of skin colours, or physical traits such as Nana Mandisa’s «velvet night» (12) and her young aide’s «inflamed afternoon sky» (12), Flem’s red freckles and Duzant’s «mahogany» hand (96), Titeen’s «cocoa-rouge skin» (101) and Gussyann’s daughter as an «awkward almond-eyed child» (101) and finally Akillah’s «Egyptian-cut of shoulder-long locks» (139). Mixing ethnicities and languages is linked to the need of finding a common, Creole voice.
Sekou’s omniscient narrator, through the unnamed girl’s eyes, experiences the linguistic difficulties and reproduces the «languages broken and borrowed» (32) picked up by the girl during her journey. Almost all the passages in Creole in the four short novellas pertain to dialogues and direct speech, like in « “…Speak yu can, can yu speak no?” […] “If yu speak no, yu die. […] “Whoagoforgiveweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee? » (‘A Salting’, 35), which may be reminiscent of an echo of the Jamaican dub poet Michael Smith in “Mi Cyaan Believe It” (1982). The lack of standard sentence structure, non-standard use of negations, progressive tenses, distortion of the standard received pronunciation of personal pronouns and possessive adjectives is what constitutes Sekou’s rendering of Creole.
The question of language is a Walcottian quest for a primeval linguistic Adamic purity, as all the references allow us to infer, «This story, blood and water, is indeed older than we» (8). Languages from Africa become a language of contact between tribes to communicate in times of peace, and then pidginized to survive the Europeans, closing their trajectory as the new creolized reality which echoes suffering (25) in the process of ‘salting’. At the end, the ship’s «gullet of silence» (37) is back to a silence that literature can break, together with the courage to look at History straight in the ‘oize’ (64; 94), as Sekou would say.
In the second novella ‘The Wake’ the funeral honours of Ademus – like the archetypical Biblical forebear Adam – become the occasion for exploring Caribbean and St. Martin cultural roots. From α to ω, Hennee’s father Adam/Ademus, already dead, speaks from the grave through his family’s recollections and flashbacks. Family ties and building a family identity are the turning keys in this novella. Ademus’s diasporic movements show his Caribbean movable and dynamic cultural roots. Set in the 1960s/1970s, ‘The Wake’ witnesses a moment of change for the Nation, and again Sekou pays attention to the smallest historical details, as when Ademus reaches Cuba and he reads on The Havana Post that «WAR WAS STILL A POSSIBILITY» (42), a snippet of historical truth from an actual newspaper.
A former war soldier, Ademus fought in France during World War I, and he is mythically envisioned as a «sagittarian figure» (40), a «centaur» (41). Half-man, half-horse, «Gran Adey» (55) is also epitomized in the «pelican’s beak» (52), bird symbol of St. Martin, which in nature takes good care of its own species, to the symbolical extent of feeding it by its own blood. A carpenter by trade like Jesus’s father in the gospel, Ademus is Sekou’s ‘pelican heart’, the Christ, the national symbol of St. Martin. Compared to an animal of land and sea, the relationship with the sea for Ademus continues after his diasporic movements. In his family the powerful grand-mother, Sweet Ma, reminds of Nana Mandisa from the first novella, despite the difference in genealogy. Unfortunately, the killing of Nana Mandisa does not allow her genes to make it to the Americas and procreate a progeny. The elderly are associated with story-telling, fables of jumbies (51), Brer Rabbit and Compa Nansi (58) and to religion or spirituality; in this novella, religiosity is related to Christianity and to the Bible, which Ademus neglects by preferring story-telling to the children (58). Several Christian undertones, references to the cross and to «Jeezus Chroist» (72) are spread throughout the text as «Truth is simple as a babe born in a manger on Christmas mahnin’» (63).
But the cradle of Sekou’s Nation is the salt pond, where salt pickers died, in a palette which brushes through recurrent hues of a red of blood and violence (64; 82). In the quest for roots the evocation of Ademus’s past and of the African ancestors boils down to a quest for identitarian roots, as Cyus Augustinus Flanders, a witness of Ademus’s homecoming as a soldier, explains with his reminiscence. Remembering the past, be it communal, be it personal, is an occasion to remark on the importance of memory, which is also acquired and developed through the use of speech and the word and which stems from the storytelling and from sharing.
Set in the mid to late 1960s, the third eponymous novella ‘Brotherhood of the Spurs’ deals with the theme of Nation-building and the search for roots in an inter-island cockfighting competition. The main character Browning the rooster has a shining, black ‘mane’ and ‘his coloured ‘flesh’ arguably resemble that of a Rastaman, and his flaming feathers echo those of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec god of fire. His sharpness, shine and tightness depict him also as a warrior, a maroon (93), who stands ready at the cockfighting pit, where the roosters are held high as commanded by a ‘Caesar’ or by ‘Ashantane’ warriors (121) in a lewoz dance of rebellion (125). The «spurred gladiators […] presented to the arena» (124), could easily pass for Bantu warriors/‘impis’ (107)/maroon fighters.
In this novella several dynamics are at stake, starting from a political change in the Nation itself, when the governors of the two halves of the island agreed to a truce (119), to a community’s interchange of gambling and camaraderie. The cockfighting event is not just an ancient tradition aimed at venting violence, but also a good sportsmanship, by which nations and islands get together. The historical reference is given by the celebration of Schoelcher Day, around the day of the great French parliamentarian’s birthday in July. Victor Schoelcher fought to obtain the abolition of Slavery in 1848, claiming that there was nothing ‘humane’ in Slavery and that it was no good for the future and for world society at all. During a meeting to decide on the champion rooster, Duzant reminds the others about the founding bricks of the Nation «S’maatin is vie mother» and «God and the Black man labor is this nation’s true father» (95).
Women are at the core of Sekou’s collection and, for him, the real fighters. For instance, Titeen in this novella is a feminine figure embodying Caribbeanness and the ancient herbalist knowledge of a market woman and a sort of ‘clairvoyant’ figure (102). After drinking Titeen’s potion (bush tea, 100) brought by Ms. Gussyann’s daughter Cassandra (the name of a Greek mythical seer, who prophesizes the victory of Browning, 105), Ms. Gussyann’s husband Mossy becomes a puppet first and then an embodiment of Christ, «his hands stretched out like a cross» (104).
The main colours attributed to Browning, red, black and white, are the same colours associated to the voodoo loas to whom a chicken is offered by the prospective adept or hounsi-canzo according to the ethnologist Louis Maximilien, namely: «Ogoun poule rouge, / Ghédé poule noire, / Damballah poule blanche» (cf. Le vodou haïtien, 84). All this religiousness fluctuates into mythology as Browning, a «black demon» (102), is a «Pegasus in flight» (127) and transcends into a mythical/Christian chiasm, as Christ is a «bacchanalian heaping, heaving carnevalesque of human host» (127).
The last novella ‘Firespill’ symbolically represents the spill of fire needed to create a nation and the actual genetic line further replicates in the reincarnation of a female St. Martin president. The sci-fi setting foresees the new capital of the 37-sq-mile island nation currently divided between Dutch and French, but at the very critical dawn of its unification in the novella. Soualiga City (the old name of the salt island, Philipsburg now) finally represents the capital of the unified North and South portions by the female president Akillah Lakshmih, whose name also echoes the eponymous Greek epic hero Achilles. The resolution of unifying the two portions of the island was only sketched in the previous novella when the leaders of North and South sit down next to each other to watch the cockfighting competition. Sekou completes the hyperbole of ‘seers’/‘clairvoyants’ Nana Mandisa and the unnamed girl, Hannah, Titeen/Cassandra, with Akillah, another female character whose vision historically concludes St. Martin transgenerational roots.
From a religious/spiritual point of view, this is probably the most pregnant novella, as it epitomizes the different stages or levels of voodoo initiation, which, in Sekou’s collection, follow these steps:
- lave-tête as the first level of voodoo initiation, it involves washing/baptizing/‘salting’ à ‘A Salting’/‘The Wake’
- boulé-zin (or kanzo): as the second level of voodoo initiation, it involves a ritual/trial by fire à’A Salting’/‘Brotherhood of the Spurs’/‘Firespill’
- pris-des-yeux (or prix-des-yeux): as the final level of initiation, it involves the clairvoyance à ‘The Wake’/‘Firespill’.
The four stories hide within themselves a secret route, a path into voodoo rites, and in fact each story might hold that same ritual ceremony: the fire and the zombie-like «walkin’dead with no memory» (35) in ‘A Salting’; the rooster’s blood falling onto the arena and the ‘zépaules’ (or z’épaules), a dance with shaking of shoulders resembling the snake and at the rhythm of drums, in ‘Brotherhood of the Spurs’; Akillah as a horse mounted by the loa of Erzulie in ‘Firespill’. This shows how every novella is subtly intertwined with the others almost through an invisible stitching and a crossover of references, as the voodoo symbolic importance of water, fire and of an acquired clairvoyance or capacity of seeing in the future are structured as shown in the following Table 1.
The Voodoo initiation path in the four novellas.
|A Salting||journey by river;
|burning smell of gun fire (burning the child’s eye);
burning of Nana Mandisa’s flesh from the bullet
|Nana Mandisa & the girl’s dreams|
|The Wake||real drowning of Saysa;
playful drowning of Ademus
|World War I;
Hennee’s scald in the mother’s kitchen;
Ademus feeding the children with oiled/anointed hands
|Brotherhood of the Spurs||Salt Pond;
the spirits of the brotherhood
rooster’s life fluids
|Titeen & Cassandra|
|Firespill||Yvette’s bush tea;
tears washing the steps of the tonnelle, when the monument was opened
|Akillah’s boiling blood;
A pool of neologisms is part of the last experimental futuristic novella, among which «APIT, the Alpine Prison for International Terrorists» (146) reminds of Toussaint Louverture, imprisoned in France during the Haitian Revolution also because of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the «Desa Jacques» in ‘Firespill’ (159). The Dutch loan-word ‘opstandig’ (133) recalls Christianity as resurrection, but also as a (maroon) revolt, insurgence, rebellion. Clairvoyance, thus, becomes the highest state of ‘resurrection’, the ‘opstandig’. Here religion has become creolized, a «Machu Picchu citadel of post-liberation theology» (147), whereas the Eastern cross references to Buddhism and Hinduism are spotted in Akillah’s levitating body among incense, as she «kept the East Indian religion of her mother» (161), veneering a statue of Krishna and a statue of the ‘thousand hands’ (163) Buddhist goddess of mercy or the Hindu Kali (163). Akillah is also compared to a witch, part of «coven leaders» (146), as she is spurred to «Dance with the devil, Akillah. Give them fire and brimstone» (151).
Sekou’s griot-like ability in story-telling combines European – mainly Greek & Roman –, Egyptian and African myths, Aztec deities: «like the ferry-man on the river Styx» (84), «wealth of post-modern pharaohs» (137), «Samson» (80). This fusion of African, European, Eastern and American is the essence of creolization, therefore ‘Firespill’ puts the basis for a unification of St. Martin, rooted in a «partition from the Antilles colony and forged independence for the Republic» (131).
The question of identity is at everyone’s heart in today’s globalized world, both in terms of preserving one’s identity so that it does not get lost or forgotten – as many languages are dying and ethnic groups disappearing – and in terms of finding a new, hybrid, space which welcomes diversity and encompasses ‘differences’.
In Sekou’s collection this old and new topic is tackled in a journey which goes back to Africa to find roots. During Slavery and indentureship St. Martiners had to suffer in the Salt Pond, the ‘cradle of the nation’ which has now (2018) become a dump; the process of unification and freedom has gone through hard work to give ‘innocence’ and ‘pride’ to the country’s future (156).
‘Brotherhood of the Spurs’ dives in historical roots to promote the nation’s future in “an eternal flame to sponsor national integrity in prosperous harmony with globalization” (138). In virtually every work Sekou’s message of peace, albeit appearing as a strong and harsh reminder of the importance not to forget the past, is aimed at building a better future for his Nation. The future, however, cannot stray too far away from the past, as from there its roots develop, both in a cross-cultural awareness of the current state of the world and in a creolized vision of its mosaic pieces composing our present.
Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. Eloge de la Créolité, In Praise of Creoleness. Éd. bilingue. Traduction anglaise M.B. Taleb-Khyar. Paris: Gallimard, 1989; 1993.
Brathwaite, Kamau. X/Self. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours Antillais. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981.
Maximilien, Louis. Le vodou haïtien. Rite Radas-Canzo. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imprimerie H. Deschamps, 1945.
Sekou, Lasana M. Brotherhood of the Spurs. St. Martin: House of Nehesi Publishers, 1007; 2007.
Dr. Sara Florian is an independent Caribbeanist researcher from Italy. She teaches at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Other than academic publications and book reviews, she has also published poems and short stories in the “Sunday Gleaner” and in the “Jamaica Observer”. Luce, la città morente che mi ha fatto rinascere / Light, the dying city which gave me life again is her inaugural bilingual self-translated novel and was published in 2011 (2016). Her book Caribbean Counterpoint on the metaphor of salt in Sekou’s oeuvre is forthcoming (2019).