By Rochelle Ward
PHILIPSBURG - Unadulterated love and dizzying passion are the puppet masters that wind their fingers around the heartstrings of the characters that people the five stories in Lasana Sekou’s newly published Love Songs Make You Cry – Second Edition. This love and passion drive the characters to what Blair’s father (one of the characters) describes as “grave and unmentionable consequences” – that cost them their trust, family or even their lives. But sometimes, like the floating sunbeams beneath the canopy of a dense forest, these same characters bask in the faint rays of redemption.
Who has not been touched by the baby’s breath of first love, the threat of another lover or the reeling pain of a broken heart? Love is as unexpected as a butterfly coming to rest on your shoulder. It is as fragile as an old, caring couple. It is the icepack of forgiveness on an inflamed wound. Sometimes, it lets go abruptly while other times, it is released with a hope that it returns, lasting and restored, unlike Blair’s, hollowed, ghost-like and filled with the shadows of a former infatuation, which she fed on for ten years. Most of all love, like independence, has many enemies.
In “The Snoring” Elsa, a teenager thrown out the house by her sole guardian, her grandmother, ends up forging a relationship with Dolores, a Dominicana who worked two jobs to support her family back home and avoided immigration raids. Both are baffled by the illness that is causing Elsa to rapidly lose weight and to have faithful nightmarish dreams.
It is clear that Fatty, in “Fatty and the Big House,” is not over Nancy, who was shipped off to Holland by her parents before Fatty and Nancy could be together for good. Fatty, who nurses his wounds by hooking up with Annie, going to work in Aruba and then back in St. Martin building “a house so big it would block out the sun from shining” on Nancy’s parents’ house, is in for a bigger surprise.
Clement and Blair are the main characters of “New Year’s Eve Born.” This story may be a St. Martin version of Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy often retold but never like this.
Nkrumah, the love struck twelve-year-old in “The Rightful Heirs,” is entrusted with a heavy secret that terrifies him and has Winston, his late father’s friend, nervous.
And of course, the simple rollercoaster ride between the young man and woman in “Love Songs Make You Cry,” which develops, teasing and, slow, comes to a tearful halt a few months later.
It is hard to ignore the strong currents of nationhood, independence, and identity in this collection that is also centered on the love one has for his or her country and people despite political manipulation.
And, even though the characters leave the island, like Fatty or his woman, Annie, by force or escape, Sekou anchors the stories in St. Martin, often times appearing in the book as “S’maatin,” which is divided into a Dutch and a French territory. His characters reside in or roam freely throughout districts like Middle Region, Great Bay, Dutch Quarter, Sucker Garden, St. James, Colombier, and Grand Case as though one. The young man in the title story affirms:
"An’ befo’ these leaders here talk of real independence and unity dey wahn make this island a showcase of something French or Dutch or some other whitewashed form of dependency and false identity. … Do I look like a European? I was born here, so how could I be French or Dutch[…] I’m a S’maatiner, a Caribbean man, and that’s what counts?"
In addition, the other Caribbean women, “so-called illegal aliens” from the Dominican Republic, bookend Sekou’s work, one is determined to stay, the other willing to leave. It is unfortunate that the St. Martin woman does not have a strong presence; she is hardly in the spotlight and if the light shines on parts of her, she is a periphery, working, struggling, or observing those around her.
The collection begins with the St. Martin woman after whom she slowly fades and loses or shares her St. Martin man with another woman, an American tourist or undocumented women from a Spanish-speaking Caribbean country. If this inability to maintain a loving relationship with a St. Martin woman like the character Mr. Gassy has was intentionally juxtaposed with the men’s failure to provide complete independence for both their families and the “S’maatin” homeland, then the fading spotlight on the St. Martin woman works.
These home-grown stories were first published twenty-five years ago, but with Sekou’s modernist “cutting everything that might slow down the narrative” – as Michela Calderaro writes in her introduction to the book – they are relevant still today. The booming tourist industry touched the lives of the characters one way or another, and independence from it, along with colonialism, is often like a mirage seemingly within reach but snatched away.
The updated glossary in Love Songs Make You Cry is a very helpful reference as it translates the island’s true self-expressions, including Spanish, Papiamentu, and Dutch words, used in character dialogue to its standard language cousin and dutifully comments on aspects of St. Martin culture.
In the end, St. Martin is the story, waiting for its characters to return to it, to defend it, and to free it because they love it. (Editor’s Note: Rochelle Ward (Faizah Tabasamu) is a poet, literature teacher, and blogger.)