Lasana M. Sekou - Paths of Love, Labour, Liberation
Lasana M. Sekou, who, in 2018 celebrated 40 years as an author, is revered in St Martin as the national poet. In his long and illustrious career, he has published 20 books, across genres, including, but not exclusive to poetry, fiction, biographies, and drama.
Sekou writes mostly in English, and the regular use of Spanish, French, and Papiamentu are found in his work.
A James Michener Fellow, his poems have been translated into Spanish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Turkish, and Chinese. Sekou's House of Nehesi Publishers (HNP) has produced works from regional and international figures such as Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming and the African-American writer Amiri Baraka.
Book of the Dead is Sekou's most recent book of poems. In an interview with Ann-Margaret Lim, which will be published in two parts, he gives some insight into what the book delves into.
AML: From Caribbean freedom fighters and even Caribbean genocide, to British and Caribbean activists, the slain in Gaza and other war-torn parts of the world, 'Book of the Dead' pays respect to these lost lives through the poems and tributes written by you. Are you satisfied with the book? Did it accomplish what you wanted it to? When did you know this book had to be written, and what was the process? Did the poems come individually, and were they already there, then upon compilation, you realised the connecting thread, or were the poems written after having a direction for the book?
LMS: Thank you, Ann-Margaret Lim, for such an opportunity to touch base with folks through this reaching platform, The Gleaner of Jamaica. The poems that populate Book of the Dead were written between 2004 and 2016. Some of the pieces were sketched or scribbled following news of the happening that is the subject of the poem and developed later and some during travels in the Caribbean and South America. A few pieces appeared in newspapers and social media well before the book was published. The name for the collection came after most of the poems were pulled from disparate locations for the manuscript in early 2016.
A number of newer poems were inserted after the manuscript was accepted by House of Nehesi Publishers and was being reviewed by its editors. It dawned on me then that most of the poems compiled, dealt with murderous crime and stark death. Up to that time, the manuscript was called "Labrish." The early title poem was written in Medellin, Colombia, following a recital there at a prison and while passing through a working-class neighbourhood on the bus back to the hotel in 2004. The poem was later dedicated to Aime Cesaire. So initially, there might have been an idea to relate the collection to language, how we speak our realities, and as "Labrish" indicates, "how the disparate elements" of our region, of nuestra America," stand each other against the imperial cast.
The idea of satisfaction does not come to mind so much as knowing that Book of the Dead was put out there for livity; for the use of and by people who may come in contact with it who could find a little time to journey through its few pages. Book reviews and translations of poems from the collection by scholars and literary critics such as Dr Michela Calderaro, Professor Dannabang Kuwabong, Dr Sara Florian, Dr Richard Drayton, Xu Xi, and Jacqueline Bishop keep coming and are encouraging.
I would want this book to work as a tool, an instrument, a weapon of some sort, a hymnal even, on various paths of love, labour, liberation. I have no way to measure if such is happening. But this Book of the Dead is out there, perhaps in a way that we send or let loose our children into the world, hoping that they walk good.
AML: Is the title meant to also make us think of KMT's (or Egypt as Westerners call it) Book of the Dead? (Placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased in ancient KMT, 'The Book of Coming Forth by Day', is commonly referred to as The Book of the Dead.)
LMS: To the extent that The Book of Coming Forth by Day of KMT is supremely and ideally about the resurrection and reward that follow life's trials and tribulations, there may be barely a kernel of an afterthought that such a layer of meaning might be drawn from the name of a Book of the Dead, stumbling out of St Martin. If there could be one interpretation, however feeble, to relate this Caribbean attempt at poetry to what is ancient, I would hope for it to suggest this: that there are dynamic links to the records and expressions of the various struggles and challenges of the human being, state, and spirit; links in the pursuit of victories at the rendezvous with our better selves, communities, humanity. Perhaps these links also form a continuum of orature, of visual and scribal texts from the cradles of our old continent (Africa) and found in other "books of the dead," sacred and profane, of peoples down the ages. Along the way we explore, discover, create, and attempt to create new and renewed "meaning".
AML: Talk to us about "forensics". How long did this poem take to feel complete? Do you hear or feel the ancestors talking to you?
LMS: In a way, "Forensics" is the theme poem in a collection dominated by crime and death. The poem images the floor of the Middle Passage ocean, encompassing the Caribbean Sea. In "forensics", the crimes that the Zong, Henrietta Marie, and The Good Ship Jesus are soaked in, are not permitted to be treated as cold cases of slavery. This poem is one of those that emerged out of some memory and delivered in text after the manuscript was already at the publisher. Elements of "Forenics" can be found in my previous poetry books, such as Nativity, The Salt Reaper, and the second collection of fictions Brotherhood of the Spurs. The "forensics" tweaking, as part of the process or discipline of writing, took much longer than writing the first draft (laughs). If in 'Forensics' one might also hear or sight elements of Kamau Brathwaite's submarine tidalectics that bind us in this archipelago, or Mutain the judge's seat railing against Columbus, I would be thankful:
Forensics (an excerpt)
Seething empire, the pale hand
slips loose the leash and the lash.
the coughing coffle
coughed us out to sea (see
a salary of eye balls, a deep toll, drown down
and drawn open to sleepless witness
sunken bodies buried, below in wait of the wake
to come, there's a forest of heads up,
stretched back back above the shifting sands ...
AML: When I read 'Forensics', I think about the people in dependencies like your St Martin. Do you feel that independence represents a more final break from the pirate relationship between the colonisers and colonised? What do you say to those who believe that independence in hindsight is more a liability, with dependence (on the colonisers) being the more practical and economically sound option?
LMS: Political independence remains the time-tested, unavoidable, and necessary first step to the true and widest possible social and material development for the individual and democracy and prosperity for the nation. What can I say to those who believe that independence in hindsight is more of a liability, with dependence on the colonisers - generators of the barbaric slavery that we have known and its evil effects that we are yet fighting to overcome - as being more practical and economically sound? What business has colonialism among free nations, among freedom-loving people?
AML: Something about 'Days of The Return' creates the feeling of wholeness mentioned at the end of the poem, as if as we read the poem, you take us through a return ritual, and at the end we are lighter and more whole, having returned. Tell us something about how you received this spiritual poem. Was there a moment that signalled poem here? Bear with me as we also seek to examine the poet's process.
LMS: The renewing and increasing calls, appearing in various media around the world, for the return, and in some cases the actual handover of human remains, cultural legacies, sacred and artistic works to the colonised or once-colonised peoples by their colonisers or former colonisers might have pushed the manhandling (laughs) of the clay of ideas to fashion this poem on paper, to deliver it, like cargo - from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
But you are correct about an essential spiritual aspect to it. The human remains and material legacies were stolen not just from "tribes"and invaded and trampled civilisations, but from families. As family, we must bury our dead with dignity. We must demand the return of the remains of ancient loved ones and legacies, receive them with ceremony, return them to our actual, reconstituted, or imagined altars and thrones. The 'Days of The Return' is also about healing, about how human beings are compelled to "bring to home ... a wholeness."
Days of The Return
A mummy from Spain
remains from France
a king's head from the nether lands
these are no end times,
every day is a good day to return the stolen:
le Baartman Sarah
any time that ends a haaaad long day from home
is as good a day as any to return
a head to Ashanti a skull to Maori
on the sea with jaja of opobo
from Kanak to Kongo
perhaps one day we'll find otabeng's filed teeth
scalped & fetal bones from Indian boarding schools
any old day is anew and newly made
when the days of the return
bring to home ... a wholeness.
In the second part of the interview with Lasana M. Sekou, which continues next week, we further explore the contents of Book of the Dead, which tackles the genocide our ancestors experienced and its resurgence in the recent times in our own region, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. We'll also explore more the writer's process and influences.