What We Do to Define Ourselves: A Conversation with Zaka Toto

November 22, 2021   •   By Grégory Pierrot

ZAKA TOTO is a writer, editor of the Martinican journal ZIST, and co-founder of La Fabrique Décoloniale, a collective of scholars, educators, and artists aiming to foster conversations and projects around matters of cultural decolonization in Martinique. 

Zaka and I met online for this interview as he sat in his home in La Trinité, on the Northeastern coast of Martinique, the northernmost of the Windward Islands in the Caribbean. Though COVID-19 came later, it has not spared Martinique, which has seen the virus rampage through a mostly unvaccinated population. A small but overly active anti-vaccination movement has made headlines with violent actions that mixed hostility against vaccination policies with long-held resentment against the centralized French government. This is but the latest in a series of activist outbursts that have highlighted Martinique’s colonial malaise: the island remains a French colony and a French anomaly. What does decolonialism mean when the colonizer never left? Zaka and I discussed Martinique’s history, its present, and its future.

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GRÉGORY PIERROT: The sense I get living in the US, but also in continental France for that matter, is that people might know some of the big names (the Nardal sisters, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, etc.), but Martinique as a place tends to be largely an abstraction to them.

ZAKA TOTO: They were not thinking at the expense of Martinique or against their own island. When you read Fanon, you can have the sense that he feels betrayed by the place he came from, that he could only achieve his revolutionary destiny elsewhere, in Algeria, the fight of the time. But actually, many in the independence movement both in Martinique and Guadeloupe were also with Fanon in Algeria and elsewhere before and after that.

Glissant was prevented from returning to Martinique for five years because De Gaulle, who was president at the time, felt that he was the main threat for possible independence. At the time, the first figure of the independence struggle was Césaire, and when he decided this was not his strategy, the second was closely Fanon, at least as a figurehead of the intellectual and political. Césaire never left. He was in power for 50 years and everybody felt he was a traitor because he never achieved independence. When you read his poetry, everything is hidden. There is a very strong understanding that Césaire’s literary work is political — not just his pieces about Haiti or the Congo, or the Discourse on Colonialism. When held against what was happening at the time in Martinican politics, his poetry reads like hidden diss raps!

For those generations, when you tried to talk about Martinique, you couldn’t say everything out loud. The generation of creolization (Raphaël Confiant, Patrick Chamoiseau), when they read Césaire, they know all the small things, the hidden references — they had this thing about opacity: if something was written, published, seen, read, then the colonizers would read it too. So, you had to hide behind words.

For example, a famous agricultural strike occurred in 1974 in the banana plantation of Chalvet. The military, police, and planters sent hired commandos from South America against the strikers. Officially, two people were killed, a few dozens wounded. The first record of this event, before even the newspapers, is in Malemort, one of Glissant’s novels, published the following year by Seuil, a major French publishing house. Except you would never know it’s about this strike. It’s two pages where all the words are stuck together. When Glissant started experimenting with typography, he’d write like you were entering a forest. He made it hard to walk through, hard for the white gaze, but also for us. That’s the difficulty of opacity. The people of your time will understand you, but they have to pass on that knowledge. If you read it without references, you cannot see it.

Opacity can be useful when you try to further guerilla fighting, but what if you somehow manage to gain political power — at the ballot box, through unions — and you gain leverage? Boomers achieved social and political empowerment, and they don’t want to let go. And they maintain this by keeping things between themselves.

Opacity becomes a thing in itself; not for a greater purpose, but to maintain those who achieved political power and cultural empowerment. A lot of those things were not transmitted to my generation, and even less to those afterward.

What I meant to say is that the ideas of Fanon and Glissant have traveled far and wide, almost despite Martinique. But it is such an idiosyncratic place. Caribbean history is unique, and can be so different from one island to the other. Martinicans may have fueled decolonial thought, but Martinique remains colonized. It raises the question of what a decolonial movement might look like in Martinique today.

For me, the principal decolonial struggle facing Martinique now is chlordecone.

My dad, Karl, is a farmer. After doing his military service and working in France in the 1970s, he came back in 1974 wanting to build independence through a farmers’ movement, to feed the people, and to prove that we could live on our own without anybody’s help. Everybody who was in the movement knows him, but you won’t find him in history books: opacity, again. He’s not much of a talker, or a meeting-goer: he does. He farms, he occupies land, etc. My dad was famous because he tried to plant yams, to make people understand that yams are actually a crop on which you can base an economy. You can export it and feed yourself. He was planting yams in the south of Martinique on the Atlantic coast, on a piece of land that he, his brother, and other young farmers fought to divest from export production (i.e., bananas) and move toward sustenance, food for locals to eat: lettuce, yams, dasheen, etc. — a bit of everything.

I was born in a utopia, basically, in 1984. When I was seven years old, the project floundered. Their experiment in trying to change the agricultural model in Martinique was a failure.

Before my father and his friends took over, the land had been used to grow bananas, and so it was poisoned with chlordecone. I was basically born in the heart of Chernobyl. The little city I grew up in is a very rural town, Saint-Esprit, we have the highest rate of chlordecone contamination and prostate cancer on the island.

My dad was very much involved in the fight for ecology in Martinique, so he was among the first to alert people to the danger of pesticides, because he himself had to use them when he was working on banana plantations. When he first started working as an agricultural worker on a lettuce farm on the western coast, the owner was using so much pesticides that when he was carrying heads of lettuce, the stuff was dripping all over him.

Some time in the early 1980s, they used the stuff on a plot of land and the next day it was littered with dead animals. Around then, one of the founders of the only ecological association at the time received information about the Hopewell disaster in the US, and pictures of what was happening in South America, so they knew something was wrong with chlordecone. But because the people carrying this fight were also political, and because Martinique was a rural economy, chlordecone meant jobs, companies. We had fairly progressive people in power at the time, but they didn’t want to rock the boat.

You couldn’t talk about it to anyone. It was a myth; if you were in the know, you knew, and often if you were in the know, you didn’t want to talk about it anyway. Officially, there was no issue with chlordecone.

And these were also local elites, doing this. I was talking about opacity: I think chlordecone is a striking instance of opacity becoming a bad thing.

Activism around chlordecone has picked up in the past few years, along with social activism in general. The social movement in the Caribbean at the turn of the 2010s was sort of an early version of the Yellow Jackets movement.

Life in overseas regions is very expensive. At the end of 2008, a movement to protest the cost of living started in French Guiana, and spread first to Guadeloupe and then Martinique. It was biggest in Guadeloupe. There had been a very strong nationalist movement there, but it disappeared in the mid-’80s. They refused to participate in French elections, so what was left of that movement were the unions. They are very strong and politically driven, and they seized this occasion for a massive strike. The main figure is Élie Domota: had he run for elections the following year, he would have won in a landslide. But he refused, and what was left was a void. So, this massive movement didn’t translate into political or social change — a few tweaks here and there, agreements with the French republic, but no massive transformation.

Césaire died in 2008; the strike happened in 2009. In 2011, Glissant died. Figures from those social movements did not participate in elections. So, what was left was a void, the rupture of the transmission of knowledge, and it had consequences.

Political figures who rose almost from the ground up, from the grassroots, refused to stand in front of the people and take their responsibilities. What we heard instead was strict identitarian discourse: “Let’s be proud to be Black.” That is obviously not a bad thing. But this had never been a political program as such in Martinique or Guadeloupe. We built our own institutions of representation and empowerment in the last 70 years, managed to gain leverage, seats, produce results, economic and cultural empowerment. Most of the population was out of poverty. Not one white planter is a mayor, here, etc. Those are massive changes.

But in 2009 and afterward, a spirit developed that seemed to say, “Maybe the state of things is okay.” Because there was no renewal of ideas and personnel, what was produced instead was, on the one hand, identity politics and, on the other, a political class that was very happy with this situation, because the focus on identity was not a focus on economics or other things and it didn’t require them to do more to challenge the status quo. People unaccustomed to their own political traditions, or even their own recent political history, became obsessed with a politics bordering on hotepism — you know: “Our ancestors were pharaohs and queens” — and people saying this come from very mixed backgrounds, in creole societies where people come from very diverse heritage: ancestors from Africa, India, China, Europe.

This new, cultural-nationalist movement made waves in international media in the wake of the assassination of George Floyd, as movements around the world toppled statues celebrating the colonial past. Can you tell us more?

Here’s the thing about decolonizing public spaces: in Martinique, it happened 40 to 50 years ago. It was everywhere, in history books; there are streets, squares named after those heroes. Through the years, we gained a modicum of political power and some form of empowerment through militant action. But in the ’80s, bombs were exploding everywhere; all things representing French colonial power were attacked. For example, the statue of Josephine de Beauharnais [Napoleon’s wife, born in Martinique] was beheaded 30 years ago, in 1991, when I was a child.

We also gained through electoral politics. Césaire became mayor of Fort-de-France, and all across the island things were renamed to echo a global, decolonial Third Worldist revolutionary heritage: Gandhi, Maurice Bishop, Ho Chi Minh … The square where the French chief of police resides in Martinique’s capital city celebrates the victory of Vietnam independence fighters over France and the United States! If you drive around Martinique, almost every roundabout has a statue of the enslaved breaking their chains, etc. We have more monuments to the enslaved gaining their freedom than all of the independent islands in the Caribbean combined. So, this part, decolonizing the space, was already done.

This militant movement in 2019 was not the same kind of massive mobilization you saw in other places around the world. It started with the demolition of statues of Victor Schoelcher, an abolitionist well respected by the likes of Césaire, for what it’s worth. But as a figure of white French politics, he was problematic. Schoelcher was a white guy, and the movement focused solely on racial identity. After Schoelcher, they moved on to actual colonial statues, like the statue of Martinique’s Columbus, Belain d’Esnambuc. And there was a statue of Empress Josephine.

A lot of people here, even if they didn’t participate, felt kinship with what was happening. In a place where nothing is changing anymore, something that looks like movement always looks good.

Precisely. There was something about this movement that made it look like much more than what it was. It was very well organized as a media event, but as a political gesture it seemed odd.

At any point in time this could have turned into something great. That’s why people were looking and waiting to see what would come after. You don’t have to be perfect as a militant. The action doesn’t have to get everything right, and people were ready to accept that: Okay, Schoelcher, we can get where you’re going with this. The problem is what came after. Their only demand was to rename places, so elected officials said: “Okay. Let’s invite historians, activists, we’re all Martinicans, let’s discuss.” But they didn’t come.

The second wave was the destruction of Josephine and D’Esnambuc’s statues. But when this came, the mayor of Fort-de-France had already decided that they should be removed. The activists said, “You want to do it next week? Fine: We’ll do it two days earlier.” And at that moment, it becomes something else. The statue of Josephine had been standing beheaded, red paint running down her neck, for 30 years! Once the statue is beheaded and left there, about 100 feet away from the palace of the French governor, what’s its power? What does it signify? Not the power of French colonialism in Martinique, surely. Symbolic decolonization had already been done. The gesture is no longer directed only against colonial power but also against your own form of representation, political history, etc. They called Black elected officials overseers of the white man’s plantation over this.

This culminated in a protest in front of the police station that ended with a young drummer getting beaten up by the police. They marched to the mayor’s office and demanded that the man be liberated. And the mayor actually left his office and came down to sit and talk with the crowd outside. As he was talking to them, suddenly they stopped speaking to him, and as he tried to leave, they put chains on him, and tried to carry him to the police station while spitting on him and calling him overseer. This is a Black mayor, in a Black city.

So, that’s where it got weird and people stopped following the movement. This looked like BLM and movements happening elsewhere, but it was new and different, and not in a good way. There was a deep disconnect between them and the population. Ideologically what transpired was this complete rejection of the political and social experience on the island and the Caribbean in general.

Everything that was not African — in a very clichéd, mythical vision of Pan-Africanism, of what is African — was rejected. And their action with the mayor symbolized this.

Though it has poisoned the land, chlordecone was banned back in the 1990s. What are the stakes of the struggle now?

In the last decade, there’s been a consensus across the political spectrum. Everybody’s against chlordecone. But it hasn’t moved the needle much. A massive investigation commission was organized in the French National Assembly started by Martinique representative Serge Letchimy, which led to some initiatives about the traceability of agricultural products, etc. But to fix the chlordecone problem we need more than half-measures; we need an upheaval of the way our entire rural world works. The issue with this recent movement is that they don’t have a seat at the table, and they do not demand that elected officials be vocal about this. No one wants to take their place and get in the political struggle, pull levers, do this judo with France. They just say no, we don’t want to talk to the government, local authorities, or the local population. So, in the end nothing moves.

We need to put an end to bananas as the main export crop. That’s the only way, actually. To decompose the chlordecone molecule, you need to clean the land for a couple of years — not a hundred, just a couple. You can do this in one of two ways: have a massive revolution, take the land from the landowners, chop off some heads, make it happen, or you can try to figure out a political solution, think of the future of these people, and propose a bargain.

But we also need to change the way people work on a massive amount of land; it’s long term, and it would happen over 10, 20, 30 years. It requires a lot of thinking, power, knowledge. Working the land demands very specific skills. You have to love it. It is backbreaking, daily work. But Martinique, like Guadeloupe, is losing its youth: for the past decade we’ve been losing one percent of the population every year. So, you need people with energy on the island, people who are forward-thinking, who can project themselves 15 years ahead, and these people are not here. They’re elsewhere, helping somebody else’s country. So, I think that we have to somehow fundamentally reverse the dynamic. Something is missing; where are the new ideas, the new generations?

You spoke about your youth: what was your journey like, in adulthood?

I was born and raised here. I left for France when I was 20, and at 25 I went to Asia — China and Taiwan, where I stayed from 2009 to 2017. Coming back to Martinique was always the plan. When I came back, I had literary ambitions, but I understood that it would be difficult to come out of nowhere at 32 and be read, and at the time the atmosphere was very anti-intellectual. It was bad to think critically, historically … To be intellectual was a swear word in political circles, among the youth, among educated people, so I thought, “If it’s bad I’m going to do it.”

I started with a blog with a group of friends — I felt we should have fun talking about the Caribbean, being political-minded but not political, bringing ideas, without necessarily trying to be philosophical, etc. And people started reading; there was interest. The blog was read in 65 different countries. In 2017, after the blog shut down, I started to work on a literary review, ZIST.

There had been no literary review in Martinique or Guadeloupe for a long time, so I figured, let’s do that: let’s be the Tropiques or Carbet of our time! If you see something missing that existed in previous generations, the first thing you can do is some iteration of it. So, that was the idea: get writers, poets, slammers, in French, in Creole, let’s mix it up, put something together. I had this knowledge of things done before me, and this was a way to also try to pass on some of that knowledge through literary creation, historical essays, etc.

ZIST was an online venture from the get-go. Half of our population is diasporic; with the web, you can put diasporas in touch, different places and thinkers. For me it was liberating, because at the time, people would say, “You won’t make any money, and no one will read you.” By the end of the year, we were read, quoted, and three years later, I’m quoted in international newspapers even before local newspapers do. The one print issue we did, issue number 18, was about chlordecone and how to talk about it, how to express the feelings of my generation about it. At the time, locally, it was in the news for maybe a week. On the web, it circulated far and wide. Maybe a year and a half after it first came out, people were contacting me, telling me about the fake ads in it, asking, “Who did that?” And for over a year, I had no idea of its impact, how many people had read it. The internet was liberating in this way, in terms of impact and visibility.

Recently you’ve also started getting involved in activism, notably with La Fabrique Décoloniale. Tell us more.

I tried to reconnect with previous generations but didn’t find much support. I found a lack of collective involvement on the part of the people who should have been passing the torch. My generation was not so political, but we had some knowledge of previous years, yet there’s something completely different and disconnected from our political history in this new generation. Something got lost with time in terms of politicization and connection with political history.

So, by 2020, ZIST started getting traction and visibility. I wrote about the problem I thought we had with the new nationalist movement. I have friends among historical independentists; some raised me, so this was personal for me. And five months later, the statue moment happened. On the day they destroyed the Josephine and D’Esnambuc statues, something happened. I was in Fort-de-France with a friend who’s a marine conservationist, cleaning a beach. The organizers were just trying to catch the attention of officials, but people came, motivated, and ended up doing much more than was planned. We pulled a whole car out of the mangrove! This was so empowering: kids, adults, grandparents, people wanting to do something positive, transform their own reality. Right as we were finishing, I got a phone call telling me that militants were trying to destroy the Tricentennial Gate — a colonial monument that was also decolonized a long time ago: it was renamed, used for something entirely different, transformed into a place of cultural empowerment. Césaire asked a local artist involved in the nationalist movement to paint a fresco depicting the indigenous population revolting against the French — that’s the gate now, not exactly a celebration of the French empire. In any case, they were going to attack it because they had no idea what the gate symbolizes, and we managed to talk them down.

So, knowledge stopped that action, which told me that there was a role to play. Toppling statues, renaming streets is great, but then what? Does it change anything? Does changing the name of a place, toppling statues, etc., change the material conditions of living? Of course not. Symbols are important, but they do not emancipate.

A couple of people were involved, and we thought, “We’re not going to wait for more famous people to join; we’re going to do it ourselves.” We talked about it and decided we need to do more, to get involved in society and cast a wide net across disciplines, forms of expertise. In a colonized space, the job of the person in the know is not just to produce books that will get read in Paris, London, New York, or Los Angeles. You have a double burden. I feel that at some point people in the know became more Western, our elites became less involved.

Painters, photographers, teachers, and professors: We got together and wrote a text. When things calmed down, it was still clear that, while we need decolonization, we need doing, not just undoing.

We chose to call ourselves fabrique because we mean to make stuff. Not commodities, but we can try to build bridges between the different sectors of society we come from: art, education, politics, workers, etc. What’s missing is people. Our island is losing inhabitants. So maybe we can try to build a different dynamic between people outside and inside Martinique.

Then COVID happened. You can’t be with people on Zoom; access to computers and the internet is discriminatory. Even though we use social networks, those are elite practices. You have to do physical stuff to connect with people; you need to, in order to undo the past 40 years.

Now there are more than 30 of us in the group. We’re planning a big event on reparations from slavery that will also address reparations for chlordecone. How do you build that? We invited Sir Hilary Beckles, the head of the reparations committee at CARICOM and professor at the University of the West Indies. He’s already agreed, but we still have to figure out vaccination issues, etc. Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian political philosopher, is also supposed to come at the end of the year.

I’m trying to make people understand that contemporary history is as important as the history of slavery. Many things happened between 1848 and now that should be of interest to us. The history of rebellions is of course important, but so is more recent history. We have to think of ourselves as a society that produces knowledge. Our intellectual tradition has proven this. One hundred years ago, a bunch of students in Paris were like, “Hey! Négritude!” Our experience as Black people, in the middle of the Caribbean, is specific and important knowledge. We will write about it and create knowledge about it, and it will be as important as whatever white people produce. So, we need to recenter ourselves and say what’s next for us and what is the knowledge we’re producing right now.

You mentioned Beckles, and the wider, non-Francophone Caribbean. In the aftermath of the volcanic eruption in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) earlier this year, you were involved in organizing help. Tell us a bit about it, and about how you see the work you want to do in Martinique in relation to the greater Caribbean.

The Caribbean is not a view of the mind, it’s an actual place. I was lucky to be able to travel across the islands and down to Brazil, to New Orleans, which I think is also part of the Caribbean. When I went there, I thought, “Oh! I’m home.” We have this real relationship with each other. We’re all mirrors, sometimes distorted, bigger, etc. but we’re all mirrors of each other. The space is fragmented, certainly. I was in Taiwan, along with many other students from all over the Caribbean, during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Living the aftermath of the earthquake with Haitians in Taiwan was a shock. It revealed many layers of the Caribbean in the world. We were trying to think of what we could do, so we did fundraising. I realized a few things in the process: the Haitian ambassador to Taiwan is a minister of state, for example. Haiti is independent and much bigger than Martinique, but it made me think, “So, we have to think this far out, and think of the layers to this.” There’s the devil we know — former colonial powers — and the rest of the world, who want you to change allegiances, etc. I was also struck by how the whole network of NGOs was also predatory. Your country might be independent, but it depends on networks that are much broader, and if you’re weak, everybody will want a piece of you. They will come, they will get you, and they will not miss. Principles may prevent this; but in their absence, you will get eaten.

So, I came back here. In the years between, major hurricanes hit Guadeloupe, Dominica, then went and hit Haiti, Puerto Rico. It made me wonder, “What kind of NGO do we have here to raise funds?” The Red Cross, that’s it. At that time, organically with young people of Martinique and Guadeloupe, we built a small network of people with skills related to risk prevention. Some of those guys are geniuses — civic hackers, people who build warning systems for coming earthquakes, etc. When the eruption happened in SVG, the French islands took a long time to get involved, not just during the earthquake. Six months prior, there had been a meeting of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to plan for an earthquake, prepare to welcome refugees, etc. It was all set, except for Guadeloupe and Martinique, even though we’re members. Martinique is a 45-minute flight from SVG. It didn’t make any sense.

Earlier this year, in May, for the month of commemoration of the abolition of slavery, we wanted to organize a cultural event about the maroons of the sea. The unionist and historian George B. Mauvois wrote a book about the kind of marine underground railroad the enslaved built around the Caribbean; he calls them “maroons of the sea.” Our idea was to rebuild a 21st-century version of this network, with 21st-century issues in mind, and to think of ways we can solve them by bypassing remnants of colonial separations that make no sense in this space. All our islands are creole. We share the same language. We’re intertwined, but we are divided politically, so how do we go above or under that as maroons of the sea? That was the plan before COVID. When the eruption happened, we decided to do something like it anyway.

What did you do in SVG?

We raised money, tried to make people understand that we need to think differently in relation to our neighbors and that we need to act. We don’t need to wait for some grand declaration of independence, or a decision by France: we can build by ourselves. We worked with Rasta and Native American communities in the north of the island. We went straight there, brought cultural crops ready to grow — yams, tomatoes, etc.

And importantly, people responded. When we called for help for Saint Vincent, we had hundreds of volunteers willing to host refugees in their house, who gave stuff, who were willing to load boats and go there. Decolonizing in 2021 may also require thinking about what it is that we do to define ourselves. The way I see people act when we do something for ourselves, not against something — it’s always short in time, but you see a lot of energy, people getting mobilized. People react to things. As colonized people in the Third World, we have many reasons to be resentful. It is 100 percent justified. You cannot go to people and say: “Let’s just forget about the past.” But you have to do things to get out of the past. Do things for — for the future, for the betterment of yourself — rather than just in reaction against the system that oppresses you.

What would you Decolonize?

Who: The Taiwanese indigenous peoples.

What would you Defund?

Bananas.

What would you Abolish?

Frontiers between Caribbean islands.

What must be free for all?

Education and culture.

What three songs form the soundtrack to your struggle?

1. Kassav’, “An ba chen’n la.”

2. Eugène Mona, “Bwa brilé.” 

3. Kendrick Lamar, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”

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Grégory Pierrot is a writer, translator, and professor of English.