The celebration of the late Martinican poet, writer, and cultural commentator began as moderator Christopher Winks set the room in a trance by reading some of Édouard Glissant’s poetry in its original French. Winks admitted that there is no panel that can sufficiently excavate the life and work of Glissant. However, the goal of this one was to illuminate and debate some of the key aspects present in Glissant’s work. Panelists included Kaiama L. Glover, Achille Mbembe, and Véronique Tadjo.
Before diving into philosophical debate, Winks provided the audience with some background information, reminding us that at the forefront of Glissant’s work is the idea of relation—not only how we as individuals relate to one another, and how countries relate to one another, but also how the individual relates to and understands his own identity.
Winks then asked the panelists what the most relevant aspect of Glissant’s work was that personally reflected their own work.
Tadjo discussed meeting Glissant in person, and the power of his voice. It was his work on slavery, his idea of slavery as the ultimate betrayal, that struck her the most. For Mbembe it was the vast heritage of concepts Glissant left us, in particular the idea of “Tout-Monde,” which Winks translated as “All World.” Glover delved into the idea of Glissant as a pedagogical foundation in his relation to language. Glover told us that for many of her students, Glissant is their first encounter with a non-European French writer.
As the discussion progressed toward Glissant’s relation to language, Mbembe acknowledged that Glissant did not believe in the purity of language. It was Glissant’s project to “soil the language,” or have a language that speaks to the human experience that remained unacknowledged in history, one that has been turned away. Mbembe said that having language is not enough—it is what we do with it that matters.
Winks then asked the panelist their opinion of Glissant’s epitaph, “Nothing is true, everything is living.”
Tadjo took this to mean that everything is evolving and there is no certainty present in reality. It is in movement that one enriches one’s own identity. Mbembe understood the epitaph to be an exaggeration, an extension of Glissant’s poetic license. Mbembe said that as an African and a black man, to believe this statement literally has colossal consequences, relating it to the tragedies in Ferguson and Baltimore.
Glover then pointed out that there is an immediate disconnect in language as truth because one’s own truth changes depending on one’s environment. Therefore, truth is very much alive.
Winks’s final question for the panelists involved Glissant’s idea of the word “immigration” as a life-giving breath. Tadjo stated that while Glissant viewed immigration as a breath of fresh air, that is not a present reality. She commented on how people are closing in on themselves—in the United States, Africa, and Europe. Mbembe continued the discussion by reminding us that since the Berlin Wall fell we have created more wars, including the mass incarceration of one’s own citizens, particularly in the United States. Glover stated that immigration has historically been a life-giving breath to the nation, but not necessarily to the immigrant.
While the discussion digressed to include other figures such as Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, the panelists asserted the importance of Glissant. Mbembe reminded us that Glissant’s work is helping us to start asking different questions. He remarked, “We owe him so much.”
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