Miraculous constructions: Todd Fredson on Ivorian oral traditions

Building in the Côte d'Ivoire. Photo by Todd Fredson
Building in the Côte d'Ivoire. Photo by Todd Fredson

Todd Fredson's award-winning poetry collection, The Crucifix-Blocks, offers an epigraph by Cecília Meireles: "And Babel's workmen, dead by suicide." It's a line from Meireles' poem: "Speech," and it's been much in mind not only because of Todd's gorgeous and generous dispatch, but because I was recently in an airplane, peering out a small oval window into high-altitude blue over clouds, imagining what that fabled city might have looked like completed.

Would a person be able to spot its heavenward tower from a window seat at 500 miles per hour? Would its collaborative architecture be recognizable — spiral, terraced, trapezoidal? Would the clang of weights and pulleys ring from its walls?

Maybe such a structure can be perceived only by listening for a shared language buried inside a collective rubble of memory.

Before Todd and his family left for an extended stay in the Ivory Coast last autumn, I had driven over to the California home he shares with poet Sarah Vap and their three young sons. We'd filled large sheets of paper with the colors of a million crayons. We'd investigated questions of mathematical proportions. We'd eaten tuna sandwiches on thick slices of bread. Cloudlike.

Toward the last days of winter, I opened my computer with an inexplicable longing to connect with Sarah. She replied in an instant, from 7,000 miles away. Our exchange felt like messages across vast oceans. Tucked into glass bottles, or carried by birds.

Only weeks later, more modern technologies brought news of attacks on the beaches of Grand-Bassam. I was driving around Los Angeles, crossing off errands in preparation for that window-seat flight when the car radio announced ocean-front violence in the Ivory Coast. If I could tune my ears to a particular frequency, might the radio relay news of a particular family?

And of all the families unknown? Might noise-canceling headphones be plugged into some secret channel, transmitting echoes of ancient crumbling?

Back at my kitchen table, I scoured the internet: Six figures in black appeared on the beach. They wore balaclavas. They carried guns. They opened fire.

The final tally: 22 dead, including the six gunmen, two soldiers and 14 civilians.

Among the living: two poets and their three young children.

Among countless: enormous sadness. Shock. Resignation. Anger. Confusion. Babel falling through the sky.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison tells a story about language to an audience of probable builders:

"The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower's failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life."

Here on earth, I once boarded a plane to the Brussels airport. A new friend met me upon arrival, an old friend saw me off. None of us were fluent in the other's language of birth. We spoke into newness, embraced, kissed. Tears at the departing gate.

Waiting in a long line for the 747 home, I stood next to a couple returning to California. Our talk turned to poetry, and one recited a poem from memory, Lia Purpura's "Probability." Most coincidences are not / miraculous, it begins. And ends: Astonishment's nothing / without your consent.

To travel a long distance inside the slender hull of an aircraft cabin is to become familiar with strangers, a coincident event that can feel both astonishing and miraculous. Even if one simply nods a polite hello and opens a book for the next twelve hours, what sweet relief to recognize fellow passengers at the baggage carousel, as if being reunited with long-lost comrades, as if to confirm chance placement in the correct spot.

As it happens, Sarah had already returned to Los Angeles that late-winter morning when the pull of friendship prompted us to open our computers and exchange almost simultaneous messages. Proximity induced closeness. Most coincidences are not / miraculous. Later, I learned Todd had been at Grand-Bassam only a week before the fatal attacks. The probability of miracles, of cities reaching the sky.

The stunning astonishment of loss.

To sit near the wing of an airplane is almost unbearable loudness. Gazing through an airborne plexiglass window, I've always imagined silence. This is not something I know as fact, though it might be easily researched. I might tap out a question on a keyboard, and receive in return a laureate's message, tucked inside a glass bottle, or carried by birds:

"Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction."

That last flight, buckled in my window-seat, headphones over ears, I imagined I heard language beyond words — myth, story-telling, chant, song — a tower of voices reaching far beyond a layer of clouds.

Skips a Beat: Ivorian Oral Traditions and the Page

by Todd Fredson

I am living in Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa and I’m immersed in Ivorian poetry, West African Francophone poetry, West African poetry, African poetry. I live in the city of Abidjan, which has long been a hub for West African music, which is legendary, and also for West African poetry. The two are very connected, of course. Add theater and dance, too, and don’t forget the slam scene—especially here in the Ivory Coast, all are informed by griot and oral storyteller traditions.

The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theater identifies the griot’s art by its specific language, “a plural voice where parable and gesture are imbued with rhythm and accompanied by music. …The griot’s art includes spoken word, chant, and song. Depending on the occasion, the griot can be a historian, a teacher, a mediator or even a healer, all of these roles being rooted in language.”

When I say ‘griot and oral storyteller traditions’, please don’t interpret the word ‘tradition’ in a way that sets the griot’s and storyteller’s art and practice outside of the present or exclusively in the past. Here, for example, is a recording I made in December 2015 of a chanteur-poète from the northern part of the country, Mamadou Sorho Peter, aka Peter of Korhogo. I say singer-poet, or I say griot. He calls his work folk-reggae also. The instrument you’ll hear him playing is a balafon. Here, you'll find the lyrics translated from French into English, with notes where there is Senoufo, a language widely spoken in the north.

I am here in Côte d’Ivoire translating collections from contemporary poets Josué Guebo, Tanella Boni, and Azo Vauguy. They are all page-minded poets, though they certainly include elements from the griotic tradition. Guebo and Boni both employ a language style that is not shy about abstractions. Bold personification, for instance, helps them set up allegorical scenes, if not the instructive fullness of parables.

Though, also, I wonder if abstractions like “liberty” or “love” are imbued with heightened significance in the current Ivorian context, as these writers write out of a decade of ethnic violence and civil war. Maybe this idea-register of language is also acutely felt, not dulled into rhetoric as can happen when the future feels like a safe inevitability.

I asked Boni about her facility with abstraction. She laughed. She tells me she cannot talk about her own work, that I should go talk to Marie-Clémence Adom, then adds, “though I share with many other African writers the inheritance of stories rich with symbolic values, stories intended to remain instructive as they’re adapted to new circumstances.”

Of the three poets, Azo Vauguy most directly comes out of the storyteller or conteur tradition. He has taken a myth from his ethnic group, the Bété, an orally kept myth—Zakwato—and translated it into a long poem written in French. Writing in the Ivorian paper Notre Voie, Abdoulaye Villard Sanogo suggests that in our “reading of this tragedy, we think of a scene that combines song, dance, story, tale and myth.” Poet Henri N’Koumo refers to Vauguy as a neo-oralist.

Vauguy’s version of the myth extends a theater form developed by Zadi Zaourou. I was advised by writer Véronique Tadjo that I cannot talk about contemporary Ivorian poetics without discussing Zadi Zaourou. “One cannot overestimate Zadi’s influence on Ivorian poets, with his evolution of the oral tradition.” The theater form that Zaourou developed is called didiga—which gets translated as ‘the art of the unthinkable’. In this form, the daily encounters that which is beyond logic, irrational. Didiga includes specific musical instruments as well as symbolic colors. The intent is to shock the audience into a state of heightened wakefulness.

In terms of content—that is, without the theater elements, the explicit instrumentation and symbolic colors—Vauguy’s long poem, Zakwato, is a good example of what dailiness encountering the irrational might look like. Zakwato tells the story of a man trusted by his village to watch for an enemy. But the man falls asleep and his village is ambushed. Upon waking, he is faced with the massacre. Bereft, he begins his journey toward a distant smith who will remove his eyelids so that Zakwato’s vigilance never again softens. The physical landscape converges with an immaterial, a psychic, a spiritual realm, as he travels.

Zadi Zaourou adapted and formalized belief systems and performance values that are traditional for many ethnic groups in West Africa, integrating them with European theater conventions (conventions that he was likewise undoing). Though, again, as a rejoinder to thinking of ‘traditional’ in contrast to modern, I leave you with a video of the Zahouli mask being danced in Trafesso, a village in the central part of Côte d’Ivoire that I visited in November 2015. Here is an example of a local theater, a living stage that only exists because of, and is completed by, its audience, a stage that is decorated by rooted trees and by dust that will stay on village roofs until the April rains come.

“The False Word” is a song of longing in a time of civil war—a time of ethnic, religious, and political violence—in the Ivory Coast. It is composed for Victoria, a name nearly homonym to victoire, ‘victory’ in French. And it is as if by convincing (convaincre: to convince, to persuade; softer than vaincre: to conquer) his desired, Victoria, to share in a transparent speech, such honesty will stop the violence around them, will make them both victorious. Wole and samura are Senoufo terms of endearment like ‘sweetheart’ or ‘baby.’

“The False Word”


The word, wole, is no good


There it is, wole, I don’t want it


Sweetheart, me, I don’t want it


And baby, wole, me, I cannot



The talk that starts conflict, I don’t want it


I love you—blaspheme, I cannot


And there it is, wole, I don’t want


The word that starts fights, it’s no good


I love you—scorn, it’s no good


That word, samura, it’s no good, Victoria



Wole, it’s not good


There it is, wole, it’s no good


The speech that starts war, it’s no good


I love you—blaspheme, it’s no good


I love you—the quarrel is no good, Victoria


And the false word, it’s no good


There it is, wole, it’s no good



And, wole, I cannot


And, wole, it’s no good


The false word, it’s no good, Victoria



The false word, it’s no good


I love you—blaspheme, it’s no good


The word, wole, it’s not good


That speech, wole, it’s not good


Talk that starts war, it’s not good, Victoria


Azo Vauguy is a journalist and poet. He was a longtime writer at the Ivorian periodical Notre Voie. Vauguy is the author of the poetry collection Zakwato and has recently published Peril Loglèdou: Voyage au pays des yeux perdus. This collection continues the Zakwato myth as Zakwato journeys into the land of the dead.

Josué Guébo is a professor at the University of Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Cocody in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and president of the Ivorian Writer’s Association. He is the author of five collections of poetry, including, most recently, Mon pays, ce soir and Songe à Lampedusa, which won the 2014 Tchicaya U Tam'si Prize for African Poetry.

Tanella Boni is a poet, novelist, essayist, and philosopher. She served as President of the Writers' Association of Côte d'Ivoire from 1991 to 1997 and has been a professor of philosophy at various universities. She is the author of eight poetry collections and four novels. Her novel Matins de couvre-feu received the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize in 2005.

Todd Fredson is the author of the poetry collection, The Crucifix-Blocks (Tebot Bach, 2012). My country, tonight, his translation of Ivorian poet Josué Guébo’s collection, Mon pays, ce soir, will be out from Action Books in 2016, and Think of Lampedusa, his translation of Guébo’s collection, Songe á Lampedusa, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Fredson is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California and a 2015-16 Fulbright Fellow to the Ivory Coast.



Diana Arterian on Sarah Vap's Viability, "Where There Is No Love," Los Angeles Review of Books, April 3, 2016.


Cecília Meireles, "Speech," The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, eds. Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman (Oxford University Press, 2009), 212.


Michael Miller, "Horror at the Beach: 22 dead in terrorist attack on Ivory Cost resorts," Washington Post (online), March 14, 2016.


Toni Morrison, "Nobel Lecture," December 7, 1993.


Lia Purpura, "Probability," It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful (New York: Penguin Poets, 2015) 65.