The first problem one runs up against when organizing a group of poets by nationality is, of course, the problem of nationality. This is especially poignant in Côte d’Ivoire given the decade of war, which was largely over who is “Ivorian,” which ethnic groups are included in the Ivorian cultural imaginary, and, of course, how resources are allocated. The 2002–07 and 2010–11 civil wars resulted in thousands of deaths, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Ivorians, and the removed president’s extradition by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes. Many Ivorians expected and awaited similar charges against the militant allies of the current president, who achieved the presidency following the violently disputed 2010 election and retained the office nearly uncontested in the 2015 election. Though the Ivorian constitution limits presidents to two five-year terms, he was elected to a third in a 2020 election that saw political violence flash again. The former president was held by the ICC from November 2011 until he was acquitted and released in February 2019. However, just prior to his acquittal he was tried and convicted in absentia in Côte d’Ivoire for embezzlement. The twenty-year sentence effectively bars his return.
Squeezed by economic pressure over the last four decades, Ivorians, particularly those whose traditional homeland in the fertile south has absorbed laborers for both industrial- and small-scale agriculture, began to ask who belongs and who does not — or, more to the point, who deserves what land or space and what resources. The term “Ivoirité” came to be at the heart of the political crisis. The term meant to suggest the essential qualities of being Ivorian, one’s “Ivorian-ness.” It denoted a certain cultural citizenship and prioritized the heritage of southern ethnicities. It is now a provocative term that is best avoided, even if the root problems, which are a tangle of (neo)colonial economic policies, persist.
Identity has to be reckoned with in relation to specific social, historical, cultural, and linguistic legacies and practices. Ivorian-ness must be centered within a plethora of identities that are: ethnic, ethno-racial, religious, regional, national, trans-African, global, gendered, rural, urban, “traditional,” “modern” — the plurality is unavoidable. It is perplexing and invigorating. This is a conundrum that is continually foregrounded in contemporary African literature. Alain Mabanckou, in “Immigration, Littérature-Monde, and Universality: The Strange Fate of the African Writer,” considers how portrayals of Africa are constructed by African authors — and for whom. “Africa exists, of course. But the question is, ‘Which Africa?’”
This gathering of Ivorian poets has been organized around the theme of chemin. Most literally, chemin is the French word for “path.” Its sense changes across these poems. The idea of traversing borders, of transnational paths, is implied by several contributions, such as Sojourner Ahébée’s poem “NO MORE WATER, PARIS,” which she contributed in English and from the US. There is, of course, the colonial legacy of nation-state lines that divide ethnicities and social collectives. This troubles all of West Africa, and these borders are unofficially cut through daily by people on all sides of the borders — Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana all border the Ivory Coast — to go to markets, to see family. This sense of coming-and-going takes on an allegorical resonance in Véronique Tadjo’s “Half-way.” With slam poet Bee Joe’s poem, “The Footbridge,” chemin implies making one’s way, improving one’s lot in generational increments. And in griot/chanteur-poète Mamadou Sorho Peter’s “The Corn and the Tchonran Sauce,” translated from Senofou to French to English, there is the lack of any way forward, the only path being the path that leads to the field and subsistence farming. The path here might also be around the colonizer’s language itself: the French. You’ll find a recording of the song-poem in Senofou.
Chemin also gathers the sense of becoming a shortcut to wealth for G8 nations, which often enforce the (neo)colonial economic policies. Poems reflect on the feeling of being cut over or tread upon. In Cedric Marshall Kissy’s poem, “Memories,” memory itself is a path, a tool for navigating the arrival of the present out of such historical conditions. And here, too, is Michel Gbagbo, the son of Laurent Gbagbo, the former president extradited by the ICC, reflecting on the ephemerality of the routes offered by history.
So, which Côte d’Ivoire? Yet, even that designation is not so stable — leftist nationalists of the recent wars often proclaim, not Côte d’Ivoire, but the state of Éburnie; Éburnie is proposed as a change to the country name, a change that would help move the country further from the status of residual French colony or international resource extraction zone. And as the country split during the civil wars, rebels in the north referred to a Republic of the North. So, who is an Ivorian poet? We have the excerpt of a long poem by Azo Vauguy that immerses the reader in the Bété ethnicity’s mythological world. He has translated the myth from the oral tradition into written French, but the poem is full of Bété language and references. Tanella Boni would be considered an Ivorian writer by any standard, though she self-exiled to France when her 2004 novel Matins de couvre-feu (Mornings after curfew) drew veiled threats from authorities. Even after returning, she now spends stretches abroad. Véronique Tadjo taught at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa for fourteen years. Henri-Michel Yéré lives and works in Switzerland.
All of the poets in this issue are living poets with the exception of Nöel X. Ebony and Azo Vauguy. Ebony was a contemporary of Tanella Boni and Véronique Tadjo, among others. The poem included here comes from a poetic sequence that he titled Portrait des siècles meurtris. The title was honorifically used for a major anthology of Ivorian poetry assembled by the Ivorian Writers Association after his death in 1986. At thirty-three, Ebony was already admired as a poet and a journalist, and was creating some of the most innovative poetry in Africa, when he died under mysterious conditions as a political exile in Senegal. His presence is still felt in the African and Afro-francophone literary world and in the Ivorian journalist community. He obviously wasn’t responding to the chemin prompt, but we might consider the poem here and his work more broadly as a path toward an artistic horizon that, sadly, was not able to come into full view for his readers. Azo Vauguy died on April 23, 2020, as this project was being finished.
Along with the poems you will find a photo-art folio by Joana Choumali. As Maria Anney Cassaignan explains in her introduction to the work, Choumali “explores with this series the complex, contradictory notion of femininity. She reveals, also, the path between tradition and modernity.”
Thank you to all of the poets, translators, and artists who participated in this microanthology.
NO MORE WATER, PARIS
Lament of a Soldier’s Wife
Marie-Danielle Aka, trans. Marci Vogel
from ‘The Future Has an Appointment with the Dawn’
Tanella Boni, trans. Todd Fredson
from ‘I. Portrait of Wounded Centuries’
Noël X. Ebony, trans. John Keene
A TIME THAT THINKS
Michel Gbagbo, trans. Todd Fredson
from ‘The Song of Babo Naki’
Josué Guébo, trans. Janis A. Mayes
Bee Joe, trans. Zack Anderson
Cédric Marshall Kissy, trans. Virginia Konchan
Wild Words Wildfire
Henri N’Koumo, trans. Kazim Ali
The Corn and the Tchonran Sauce
Mamadou Sorho Peter, trans. Todd Fredson
Road of Destiny
Sap-Héro, trans. Zack Anderson
Véronique Tadjo, trans. Devon Hase
Emmanuel Toh Bi Tié, trans. Kazim Ali
Azo Vauguy, trans. Todd Fredson
‘To anyone and everyone’
Henri-Michel Yeré, trans. Marco Wilkinson
Joana Choumali, intro by Maria Anney Cassaignan