Born in Aruba, raised in St Martin and educated in the United States, the story of Lasana Mwanza Sekou fittingly maps the journey of a large proportion of Caribbean citizens from the later half of the XX century. Originally called Harold Hermano Lake, one must hesitate before describing this as his “real” name, because self-fashioning and reinvention are the names of the game in Lasana’s world. Graduated from Political Science (BA) and Mass Communication (MA), Sekou is a vocal activist and an entrepreneur, a prolific poet, a Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau and an outspoken advocate of unity both at a national level in St Martin, and at a wider one in the Caribbean.
If his work had to be described in one sentence, it would be fair to say that in S’maaten (as he likes to refer to his island) he found not only his home but also his passion. His name, however, (the African one, not the European) he found in New York, where he found, too, the inspiration to create an organization called House of Nehesi, through which he published his collection of poems For the Mighty Gods…: An Offering all the way back in 1982, and which today has grown to become one of the very few indigenous publisher in the Caribbean printing local fiction (the only other example that comes to mind being Ian Randle Publishers in Jamaica).
Sekou is most famous for the powerful rhythm of his verse and his uncompromising stance when it comes to the independence and unification of St Martin. However, his two collections of short stories contain remarkable elements which are often overlooked by his critics. Separated by almost ten years, Love Songs Make You Cry (1989) and Brotherhood of the Spurs (1997) evidently correspond to different stages in his development as a writer. Nevertheless, common traits can be found in both books, which accurately reflect not only Sekou’s prose style, but, in fact, his entire artistic proposal.
Plain to see is his infatuation with the oral form, which dominates the narrative structure of Love Songs Make You Cry, to the point where the informal nature of each of the stories almost becomes uncomfortable. At first sight, this looks like an effort to infuse the anecdotal aspect of the tales with utmost verisimilitude. However, upon closer scrutiny, it becomes obvious that there is a deeper concern for the oral tradition in Sekou’s work – a concern that is closely linked to the personal identity of his characters, who often stem from different islands and who consequently express themselves in different fashions. Evidence of this self-conscious interest to disseminate the variants of the local dictions is the inclusion of glossaries at the end of each of the collections of short stories, which contain a list of phonetic spellings of words commonly used in St Martin and the wider Caribbean.
But perhaps the moment that most explicitly highlights the merit of the spoken word comes in “The Wake”, the second item in Brotherhood of the Spurs, where a large crowd spends the first night of the wake of a certain Ademus exchanging anecdotes and stories about their dead friend. At some point one of the interlocutors announces that “truth goin’ give birth tonight” and to the reader it feels almost as if truth can only exist within the context of the oral tradition of story-telling – which, of course, is surprising, considering the reader is –well: reading. And yet, if we bear in mind that Sekou’s poetry has been described as “aural” by critic Lisa Allen-Agostini, a term she used to describe poems that are good to read, but which “rise to another plane when heard,” then the message imbedded in “The Wake” becomes more consistent with the rest of Sekou’s production, as well as less startling.
Another recurrent theme in Lasana’s work is that of love as a force both indomitable and spontaneous, which often leads his characters to act in unexpected and seemingly unwanted ways. Confronted by the power of love the mere mortals that populate the stories of Love Songs Make You Cry in particular become impotent passengers on a journey that has already been chosen for them. This, of course, opens the door for Lasana-the-poet to take control of the situation. The result is mixed, with instances where the intensity of the feeling evoked truly comes to life through the beauty of the prose used to describe it, and occasions where the usage of excessively ethereal metaphors makes the passages meaningless and taints them with a suspect purple hue.
Naturally, the fact remains that whatever medium Lasana Sekou might use it is never possible to dissociate completely the political activist from the aesthete from the writer. Thus, Love Songs Make You Cry, and especially Brotherhood of the Spurs are both loaded with a substantial political message that highlights the diversity of the reality of St Martin as a whole and that places the island at the centre of a Caribbean culture that stretches its tentacles as far out as Aruba and Curacao, Guadeloupe and the Dominican Republic. Obliquely, Sekou points at the more mundane aspects of society, such as the games played throughout the region, to find the amalgam that makes of the many islands and cultures a shared background. Similarly, when it comes to “S’maaten Lan”, Sekou keenly observes, criticizes and yet embraces the good and bad aspects of the island’s life, from its violence and drug-addicts, to the specific accent of its creole English, to the obeah of the Middle Regions, the excitement of Carnival in the Village and the chilled attitude of its Rastafarians.
And yet, while Lasana’s political views are evident in his work of fiction, they do not, for the most part, take a central role in his narratives. Thus, far from being a conduit for the dissemination of his thoughts, his short stories are carefully crafted works of art which consciously manipulate, with variable degrees of success, a wide spectrum of literary artifices. Discovering these constitutes part of the reward entailed by any reading experience, but when they come framed within the familiar context of your own island, then the process becomes not only twice as rewarding but also twice the fun. Enjoy!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON NOVEMBER 29, 2009.