Til Death Do Us Part: Approaching Josué Guébo’s My country, tonight
It is important, first, to realize that the country Josué Guébo refers to in the title, My country, tonight, is the Ivory Coast. Guébo’s poems respond to the civil wars that have been at the center of life in Côte d’Ivoire since the new millennium. The first civil war, following coups and a contested election, spanned from 2002 to 2007. The ongoing conflict continued to divide north/south. Ethnic groups in the north are often perceived as influenced by the Islamic Kingdoms that have come and gone in the Sahara for over a thousand years. The south, like the north, is composed of many ethnic groups, but has identified, historically, primarily as animist—though Christianity has certainly wedged itself in. An ecological border once existed, a coastal rainforest, but that jungle is now lost to plantation- and small-scale monoculture. Reconcilation efforts in 2008 and 2009 led to the first presidential election in nearly a decade. But the 2010 election gave way to the second civil war, a period of violence that reached its peak in April 2011 and concluded with French and UN military intervention. My country, tonight was published later that year. The title’s claim, my country, speaks to the source of the conflict: national identity. Who has rights to citizenship? Who belongs in the Ivory Coast? Who has the rights to what territory? What territory, in fact, composes the Ivory Coast? Its brief split rendered a Republic of the North. Guebo’s position, however—and he asserts his ideological position consistently—regards the conflict as part of larger geopolitical concerns. For him, the ethnic conflict is a consequence of neocolonial policies imposed by international agencies such as the IMF or World Bank on behalf of G-8 nations. Those policies preserve the structures of colonial governance, most basically the exploitation of labor and resources, creating conditions of scarcity. This is the case with many former colonies. Guébo sees Françafrique, the French-African alliance once regarded as a positive postcolonial relationship, as profoundly ruptured in the Ivory Coast—it was, after all, French and UN forces that bombed parts of the de facto capital, Abidjan, in an immediate response to the 2011 election dispute. The poems in My country, tonight connect Ivorian cities to other African sites of colonial violence—Bouaké to Kinshasa, Abidjan to Gorée. Guébo reanimates the littérature engagée championed by writers of the Panafricanist movement who contributed to the creation of national liberation states in the 1960s. Unlike many of his Panafrican forebearers, Guébo does not try to face this work West. My country, tonight is not interested, anyway, in conciliatory gestures. Guébo is defining his country, his Africa, in fact. Consequently, I have had to add footnotes in order to clarify allusions that would be familiar to West African readers, and probably to many French readers, but less so to Americans.
This excerpt begins from page nine of the book and covers much of the book’s first third.
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, the most recent of which, Think of Lampedusa, won the 2014 Tchicaya U Tam’si Prize for African Poetry.
Todd Fredson is the author of the poetry collection, The Crucifix-Blocks, which won the 2011 Patricia Bibby First Book Award. My country, tonight, his translation of Ivorian poet Josué Guébo’s collection, Mon pays, ce soir, will be out from Action Books in Spring 2016. Fredson’s poems, essays, translations, and nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, In Review at The Volta, Warscapes, and other journals and anthologies. He is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California and a 2015-16 Fulbright Scholar in the Ivory Coast.