I will never forget the time I asked Wilkine Brutus what he was going to dress up as for Halloween. “Me, dress up?” he laughed. “I stick out enough!” With his Haitian background and long dreadlocks, Wilkine’s appearance definitely does make him stand out here on Jeju Island. But what most people remember about Wilkine is his big smile, easy laugh, and thought-provoking poetry. A writer, poet, and filmmaker who manages his own Web site —vanguardelement.com — where does he get the inspiration, and the time? Though you’ve probably noticed him on the streets or at an open mic night, what do you really know about Wilkine? Read on to find out more about this unique Jeju resident.
Tell me about your family. You were the first person to graduate from college?
I was born in Miami, Florida and raised in West Palm Beach. I have three brothers and four sisters, if you count my half brothers and sisters, whom I don’t really consider “half-siblings.” They’re my brothers and sisters. So, I’m the oldest of eight. I was the first person to attend and graduate from college, and since then, all of my siblings have either gone or graduated, except for two.
And, you consider yourself a Haitian-American, right?
Correct. My parents are from Haiti. My mom came over as a refugee, on a boat. She’s really been an inspiration to me. She came over with nothing, learned English, got her GED, and became a CNA [certified nursing assistant]. She provided for the family, and I’ve certainly learned to be positive and driven just like her. I owe everything to her. So, it’s like any time I’m having a tough time with a test or anything, she’s like “Really?”
In my family, we all speak Haitian Creole, but English is definitely my stronger language — for me and my siblings. My grandma, though; she only speaks Haitian Creole. My mom is from a town called Jérémie, in Haiti, which is famous for its poets. I didn’t know that until five years ago. I couldn’t believe I never knew that before! Right when I came to Korea was just a few weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, which is definitely when Haiti got the most attention. I was the only Haitian on the island, so the NIIED/Ministry of Education shot a documentary about me. It was ironic, because I had to positively reflect both America and Haiti. I was an ambassador for both.
When did you start writing?
I started writing when I was 12, and I’m 28 now. I just started keeping a journal. More or less free verse. It wasn’t structured at all, no distinct patterns. Then, I went on to writing stories, but for the most part I stuck with poetry. In college, I started to write articles.
What’s your favorite form of writing and favorite thing to write about?
Poetry was always important. The issues of identity and existentialism were all central themes in my poetry. I rarely wrote about love. I’ve always taken a humanistic approach to a lot of things. I’ve always explored the human realm. I think it showed in my writing at a very young age. I still have those thoughts now. I think too much!
Where did you go to college?
I went to Florida Atlantic University, where I majored in Multimedia Studies: Film. We studied cultures through film and focused on all sorts of media platforms. I’ve always had this fascination with working with the film industry. Now as a writer, I’d like to perfect my craft and be able to write a script. I’d love to get into screenwriting, or even have one of my short stories turned into a film. I wish I took screenwriting classes in college — definitely one of my regrets. I can act, but that’s definitely one of my biggest insecurities. Despite hearing the “you should act” from everyone else, I don’t have the guts to go for it and probably won’t.
But, we have all seen you read your poetry at open-mic nights, where you seem so comfortable. Do you have experience performing?
In my first year in college, I hosted an open-mic night, so I got a lot of experience through that. I then went on to host a weekly open mic night. It was a really popular show, and we had tons of people come through... from local and international poets, musicians, comedians to HBO’s Def Jam Poetry poets. I do feel really comfortable on stage; I love it up there. My past experience and the natural urge to be on stage allow me to feel extremely relaxed.
How did you end up in Korea?
After graduating, I worked on a pilot to host a TV show called “The Yard,” but it didn’t get picked up by any of the networks. I worked at LA Fitness and Dish Network for a while. Just a regular job — nothing special. One day, I finally realized that all I really wanted to do was travel and that I had to create my own path instead of waiting for producers or any show to create it for me. So, I looked up on the Internet “best travel jobs” or something like that. There was stewardess, and hotel critic, and some other stuff, but the number one job was English teacher. That’s when I enrolled in a TEFL [Teaching English as a Foreign Language] course and applied to come to Korea.
And what do you think about being an English teacher?
I think that getting a job that deals directly with language and travel was obviously ideal for an aspiring writer. Traveling provides an outer-world experience. It also widens your geo-political thinking.
Do you think Jeju has inspired you?
Jeju has definitely inspired me, and more importantly, it’s given me the time to launch my Web site and really focus on that. As a TaLK [Teach and Learn in Korea] teacher, I have a lot of free time, and I’ve been able to write a lot, which has been great. I was originally accepted as an EPIK [English Program in Korea] teacher, but positions were all taken in Busan. I miraculously ended up on amazing Jeju. It’s been two years of pure fortune, and I’ve been thankful my entire time here.
I know you’ve said that you stick out here on Jeju. Was that a big change coming from Miami?
No, actually. Back when I was growing up in West Palm Beach, I lived in a black neighborhood. But, there were cultural differences. There were African-Americans, who ate soul food and played football, and then there were the Haitian-Americans, who ate Caribbean food and played soccer.
So, I was used to standing out, but South Korea was a different world when I first arrived. It was still a major change. In Jeju, I think I can count the amount of dark-skinned guys on one hand. I felt like I was an ambassador for America, Haiti... for every black person on earth! I’m really social, so it wasn’t that difficult. In many ways, my appearance was an advantage.
If your mother were to visit Jeju, where would you take her?
I would take her to Udo Island. I wrote a poem about Udo, which was published in The Jeju Weekly. Before that, I had never really tried to get my poetry published; I was more focused on writing and maybe someday releasing a collection. So yeah, Udo. She’s from a place known for poets, her son is a poet — so why not take her to the place that her son’s first published poem is about?
Tell me about your Web site, the Vanguard Element. First, where does the name come from? And second, what are you hoping to accomplish with it?
Well, Vanguard means leader, and I really want to explore the different ways that people can think critically and objectively. I think that everyone has the duty to kind of be a leader in some capacity in our world. And element adds a little ambiguity — it illustrates being in the moment, which is why I chose that. It is a Web site where I write about social issues and also blog about current affairs. I also publish some of my poetry and have done artist interviews in the past. I landed interviews with Nikki Giovanni, Taylor Mali, just to name a few. The site was also press accredited by the Busan International Film festival, after I attended and wrote an article.
I want it to be a platform for people to discuss current affairs and think critically about social and cultural topics. For now, I’m the sole writer so everything is written from my perspective. It’s only been a year since the launch, so I still have a long way to go. It can be time consuming, but it’s worth it. I have my own digital avenue to express my thoughts, so I’m proud of that. I do, however, have an even bigger idea that I’m working on. I’ll keep that a secret for now. Hopefully, I can be a speaker on TED about my new endeavor. I’d love that.
You’re moving to Busan in February 2012. Why are you leaving Jeju, and what are you going to miss about it?
I’m really hoping to get into the film industry and to network there and make some contacts. I was initially supposed to teach in Busan, but I ended up in Jeju because there were no more positions available. I really just want to start writing scripts, and I feel like I can make a lot of good contacts there because of the film festival.
I’m definitely going to miss the people on Jeju, and the small town sense of community we have here. Both with the foreigners and with the Koreans. People are really friendly here. And, I love the language. I’ve been learning Korean and really enjoy it. I think that the Jeju dialect is really cool, and I’m kind of addicted to learning it. I think you have to learn the language of a place to really get a feel for it, so I guess I am going to have to start learning the Busan dialect now!
Where’s number one on your list of places to travel?
Brazil, definitely. Did you know that it has the second highest population of black people in the world, behind Nigeria? I think the racial and cultural dynamics of Brazil are fascinating. It’s a writing paradise much like Korea has been. I just feel a pull there and, so, if things don’t work out with the film industry, I’ll probably go there to teach English. There or Abu Dhabi, just because I’m really interested in the Middle Eastern culture, as well. These are just thoughts and plans, though —anything can happen! Oh, and I’m visiting Mongolia in April. That should be exciting.
What’s a fun fact that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I was a finalist to be on the Real World [an American TV reality show] back in 2005. They flew me out to LA and everything. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t get on, because that’s when the show really started to turn from being about culture and diversity to more being about sex and violence. And I am glad that I didn’t go on just to be the token black guy, you know? It was a great experience though.
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