Although author Louis-Philippe Dalembert was born and raised in Haiti, this story takes place in French Guiana, a French territory located on South America’s northern Atlantic coast. Sharing borders with Brazil to the east and south, and with Suriname to the west, the region is also known for the Kourou Space Center, where the European Space Agency conducts satellite and spacecraft launches.
Some of the language used throughout the text reflects diverse historical and geographical influences, drawing from French, Guianese and Caribbean French Creole, Portuguese, and Spanish. Métro is an informal French term to describe someone from metropolitan France. Hexagone refers to mainland France, because of its shape. Carbet, a term used in the French Caribbean, refers to an open shelter where community members may gather. Domien refers to people from the French Overseas Departments. Hideputa is Spanish for “son of a bitch.” Tapouille is a sailboat or schooner. Garimpeiro is a Portuguese term referring to a gold miner. Clandestinos is a Portuguese term referring to illegal immigrants. Jinetero is a male prostitute. Tarlouze is a pejorative term used to refer to a gay man.
I first came across Khal Torabully’s work in Patrick Williamson’s The Parley Tree, a bilingual anthology of poets from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world. I was immediately drawn to Torabully’s lush language and sea imagery, and developed an even greater appreciation of his work when I learned more about the context of these poems—giving voice to the millions of men and women who endured horrific conditions as indentured workers during the years between 1834 and the end of World War I. Sometimes tricked into indenture, these workers, mostly from India and China, were separated from their families and homelands, and were transported to Mauritius in the same ships that had formerly carried slaves. Many were forced to stay and work in Mauritian sugar cane fields, while others were sent to other regions under colonial rule, and subjected to cruel conditions in the cargo hold of ships during transoceanic voyages. Similar to the way Aimé Césaire coined the term “negritude,” Torabully coined the term “coolitude,” imbuing the pejorative word “coolie” with dignity, pride, and a humanity that transcends all geographical, biological, and ethnic divisions.