RACE, POWER AND STORYTELLING: AN INTERVIEW WITH SHENAZ PATEL
Shenaz Patel is an award-winning writer from the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. She has published three novels in French, numerous short stories, two plays, two graphic novels, and four children's books in French and in Mauritian Creole. She has also translated two Tintin comic books and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot from French into Creole. She has won several literary awards for her work, notably for her 2005 novel, Le Silence des Chagos (or The Silence of Chagos). This novel recounts the forced expulsion of Chagossians from their island-homes and their difficult life as refugees in Mauritius while the United States built one of its biggest military bases in the Indian Ocean. As a journalist, Patel has been a Reuter Fellow and worked as Editor-in-Chief of a political newspaper, before setting up the arts, culture and society section of Mauritius' biggest weekly, for which she still serves as a columnist. She is currently Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow at Harvard University and at work on a new book.
Namrata Poddar writes fiction, nonfiction and serves as Interviews Editor for Kweli. For about a decade, her work has explored the intersection of storytelling and social justice via race, class, gender, place and migration, and has appeared in Transition, The Margins, The Progressive, CounterPunch, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, The Feminist Wire, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. As a literary critic, her work on postcolonial islands has appeared in English and in French in various anthologies on the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars and Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. She lives in Huntington Beach, California.
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NP: Who doesn’t remember Mark Twain’s famous quote: “Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” And yet, your fiction repeatedly explores a dark side to this postcard-perfect myth. Your best known novel, The Silence of Chagos, narrated from the perspective of Chagossian refugees who are forced into Mauritian ghettoes to make room for America’s biggest military base speaks loudest to show Mauritius as a dystopian, suffocating space. Do you see your work writing deliberately against the myth of a paradise-island? Or would you say this kind of resistance unites most fiction from tropical islands with a heavy presence of tourism?
SP: It's funny, and in a way very telling, to note that Mauritians quote Mark Twain as saying that God made paradise after Mauritius. What Mark Twain actually said was that if you meet a Mauritian, he'll readily tell you that God made Mauritius, then created paradise to its image. His remark was, in fact, highly ironical!
When I write, it's not as if I look at the postcard and tell myself I'm going to turn it around and write against it. I don't write to go against an image. In a way, I don't care about the image. I write what I feel, what I sense deeply. And it happens that what I sense deeply doesn't fit the official image. That's not my problem. I'm concerned with the official image only in seeing how it is constructed, particularly with regard to language.
When the newspapers in Mauritius announced that my second novel, Sensitive, was about to be published in France, people used to come up to me and say, "Wow, that's great, we're proud." I didn't quite understand why but I gathered that the publication in France was considered an achievement. Then, when the novel came out, and people started reading it, the reaction changed. Seems like Mauritians weren't too happy to read about that little girl who depicts the violent society in which she lives. One day, a woman even asked me, quite aggressively, why I’d to go tell "these stories about us in France." I told her that a touristic promotion of Mauritius isn’t my job. My job is to be a writer. And I don't consider myself accountable for the image of Mauritius. Literature is my space of freedom.
But I know that stemming from our colonial past and our touristic present, we, in Mauritius, live in what I call a "society of representation." We’re very attached to the image we have in people's eyes. It's not only a question of economic survival; it has become second nature. We like being praised for our beauty, our greatness, our hospitality, our friendliness. We like being told that we are number one. Even if we know that things are not so rosy on the inside, that is to be kept within us, not exposed. That's why, I think, Mauritians have a "problem" with contemporary Mauritian writers. Because we don't write in conformity with the island’s lustrous image.
NP: Your stories are crowded with references to your mixed cultural heritage (Creole folklore, local songs, Arab-Asian art of henna painting, among others) as well as European or colonial literary references (Baudelaire, Beckett, Daniel Defoe, among others). Who do you see as your biggest literary influences? And your literary brothers or sisters?
SP: I made a DNA test in the United States in 2016 and it says that my ancestry is constituted at 69% from South Asia, 9% from Africa (including 6% of Bantous from Southeast Africa), 6% from East Asia, 3% from Central Asia, 3% from Scandinavia, 3% from Ireland/Scotland/Wales, with traces from the Pacific and from Amerindians. When I made these results public in Mauritius, it created quite a stir. A lot of people contacted me saying they'd like to do the same.
One of the great things about being born and living in Mauritius is our cross-cultural potential. I say potential because it's very often not taken advantage of. Mauritius was officially "discovered" near the end of the 16th century by Arabs, then the Portuguese, then “settled” by the Dutch who brought in slaves from Africa, then colonized by the French who brought in more slaves from Africa, then taken over in 1810 by the British who brought in indentured laborers from India, not to mention a long presence on our island of merchants from different parts of South and East Asia. The result is a population descending from people coming from at least three continents. And yet, our identities and political representation are based on a very narrow conception of ethnicity, one that is rooted in Mauritius’s complex socio-political history. We put forward the image of a rainbow-nation where colors are juxtaposed but don't mix.
Literature says other things. Literature talks about the complexities, the frictions, the adjustments, the not-so-smooth inner life stirring beneath the perfect image. I’m thinking here of Mauritian writer Carl de Souza's novel, La maison qui marchait vers le large (“The House Walking Towards the Sea”), where he borrows from a reality of the island's capital, threatened by a landslide, to talk about the slippery relationships between different ethnic groups living there. Mauritian authors (I think here of my peers: Ananda Devi, Nathacha Appanah, Barlen Pyamootoo, Alain Gordon-Gentil, Sedley Assonne, among others) are read and studied outside Mauritius. But as I said earlier, locals seem to have a problem with contemporary Mauritian literature because it's not in conformity with the island’s postcard image.
As for me, that's what literature is supposed to be, and to do. I always come back to what Kafka wrote in a letter to his friend, Oskar Pollack: "It seems to me that we should only read books that bite and stab us. A book should be the axe breaking the frozen sea within us." In a way, it also comes back to what Cocteau wrote: "A book isn't here to bring us answers. A book should have our heads bristling with question marks." That's what I look for in books—that they simultaneously unsettle me and make me wonder. And that's why I like Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Alessandro Baricco, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Véronique Ovaldé, Jonathan Safran Foer, Arundhati Roy, among others. They know how to dig deeply into what being human is, with a profound sense of the distress it involves, coupled with an extraordinary sense of the fanciful and the wondrous.
NP: In addition to French, you’ve written across genres in Mauritian Creole. You’ve collaborated with Reunionese and Rodriguan artists in your plays and comic books for young adults too. During your recent U.S. tour, you performed your work in English with artists working across media, including jazz musicians. Since every language carries its own music and cultural assumptions within it, how do you pick a language for your story? And does the choice of a specific language (French, Creole, or English) change your approach toward storytelling?
SP: I’m not sure I can explain this. I always say that I’ve two mother tongues—Creole and French. At home, we kept switching from one to the other and I realized recently that we would use Creole more often when we talked about politics or when we were fighting over something! But in school I was educated in French and I didn't have any Creole books to read. So, in a way, my imagination was shaped and infused by French. English remained an acquired language.
Quite obviously, the first short stories I started writing were in French. But then, some stories started coming to me in Creole, probably linked to those I’d been told when I was a kid. I've never tried to go against that. The stories that come to me in French, I write in French; those that come in Creole I write in Creole.
But Creole has also, at one point, become a fight. Even if it's the mother tongue of more than 90% of Mauritians, Creole has always been looked down upon, not considered as a proper language. At school, Mauritian children are taught everything in English which remained the official language after independence, but which to them is a totally foreign language. The result is that more than 50% of our children were thrown out of the education system at the end of the primary cycle, a terrible injustice. Since then, there’s been a long fight led by educators, linguists, etc to try to enhance Creole’s status. And we writers had our role to play in that fight. We had to contribute in creating a text corpus, works that would go towards showing that Creole is a language as much as French or English. Translation was one of the first steps. For example, the enormous work of linguist and writer, Dev Virahsawmy, who translated most of Shakespeare's plays in Creole. I personally translated two episodes of Tintin in Creole and Beckett's Waiting for Godot—it had me nearly pulling out my hair when I realized the difficulty of what I’d agreed to, but it was fascinating to try to translate the complexity of Beckett's work into a language that people usually consider as being only the language of everyday life. All this comes back to say how important it is to me to write in French and in Creole.
Having said that, it might be paradoxical to add that I'm at the moment considering writing in English. It all started when the title of a short story came to me in English as "Home is a singular thing." As hard as I tried, I couldn't find a suitable translation for "home" in French. So I ended up writing that short story in English. And I found out that writing in English put me out of my bounds, which is what literature is all about for me. Not having the same familiarity and ease with that language as with French and Creole asks for more work at the same time as it grants me a different freedom. It made me think of Jhumpa Lahiri and her 2016 book, In Other Words, where she explores her relationship to Italian and her growing fluency, spoken and written, in that language. About her latest novel, The Boundary, she says that she has written it in Italian and then translated it into English. That's fascinating.
A language is not only a communication tool. It's also a way of creating the world. In Mauritian Creole, for example, we don't just say "my cousin," as in French or in English. We say "my mother, her elder brother, his first son." It's a very precise, almost graphic way of establishing the relationship, as in a genealogical tree. Writing in another language confronts you to all of that. It asks you to deconstruct and reconstruct things. And I like to think, as painter Paul Klee said about art, that the object of literature is not to reproduce what's visible, but to make visible.
NP: Creative writing workshops and the growing number of MFA programs seem to me more of an Anglo-America phenomenon than a norm in non-Western countries like those of Asia and Africa. Do you see a difference in how storytelling–literary fiction or non-fiction–is understood and taught in an anglophone vs. a francophone world?
SP: I don't know a lot about teaching. I can only say that I'm always wondering how you teach writing apart from some general techniques. It seems to me that a writer, first and foremost, is someone who has a way of looking at the world, of relating to it and experiencing it, which is unique, and who, stemming from that, has a story to tell. A writer is firstly "un regard," as we say in French. Then, a voice that comes through the writing. And each person has to find his/her voice. Upon hearing some MFA students read excerpts from their work recently, I was struck by how much I felt I was hearing the same voice over and over again. Then again, I don't know enough about the American MFA to make generalizations about it.
It's interesting to be able to share different experiences of writing. Sometimes it can open windows that you hadn't seen, or at least bring you to question the way you're doing things, which is always good. I'm only wary of categorizations. It seems to me that in an Anglo-American world, you’ve set categories, like "creative non-fiction" for instance, a genre that doesn't exist in francophone publishing. Recently, I was asked if my current work belonged to the category of "biographical novel," "fictional biography" or "nonfiction novel." That can be so confusing!
I was equally surprised to learn about the word count used to differentiate between a short story, a novelette, a novella, a novel, etc in American publishing. Novels are generally accounted at 90,000 to 100,000 words. I wonder what would become today of The Great Gatsby which sits at 47,094 words. Not to mention Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy which goes up to 591,554 words.
Coming from a multicultural island, I feel there are so many ways of telling a story that could be stifled by too much categorization. I once wrote the beginning of a novel that I showed to a publisher and he told me that as interesting as it was, it would be difficult to "sell," because it didn't fit into a category. There was a bit of prose, some poetry, a portion of a tale. For me, it fit into the multidimensional storytelling that is quite common in our islands. So, this also means that we should perhaps work towards establishing more dynamic publishing houses in our regions. But that's a vast subject!
NP: Like many Indian Ocean islands, America is a country almost entirely made of immigrants, except Native Americans, of course. How do you see the practice or performance of American multiculturalism when compared with that of Mauritius? Do you see a difference in the way Northern continental writers (American or French) vs. those in Creole islands engage with cross-cultural dynamics in their work?
SP: I’m struck by how the question of race here is ever-present. In the francophone world nowadays, it's like you're not even allowed to say the word "race." There are no races, only the human race: that seems to be the imposed motto.
Last week, I was reading The Fateful Triangle, a collection of lectures delivered by Stuart Hall at Harvard University in 1994, where he reflects on the categories of race, ethnicity and nationhood. Even twenty years later, his work seems topical when you think about our contemporary politics of identification. He highlights the fact that the concept of race insisted on distinctions of color as something fixed and unchangeable. But Hall proposes that redefinitions of blackness in the 20th century show how identities, classifications and attitudes can be transformed through the medium of language. And that’s very interesting when you work with language. I have in mind Patrick Chamoiseau's work, starting with Texaco, that won the Prix Goncourt in 1992, where he totally reworks French using Creole syntax and vocabulary, as if he was "colonizing" the language in order to free it. Arundhati Roy also did that in an incredible manner in The God of Small Things, deconstructing and reconstructing a world between Indian languages and English. These authors dynamise language and the world they construct from the inside. And I think that's what creolization—a phenomenon very common to multicultural islands—, can bring not only to literature but also to the world, in a time where the focus on exclusive identities is used to fuel extremisms or fanaticism.
NP: Unlike many contemporary francophone writers from Africa, your current book-in-progress deals with America and not France as a space of interracial relations in the West. What draws you to write about the American Civil Rights movement?
SP: I'm working on a collection of short stories focusing on the lives of people who could have been heroes or icons, but who, for one reason or another, largely social and political, are relegated to the margins of history. These are stories I’ve encountered here and there, through a conversation, a chance meeting, an echo. And two of these stories are centered on Americans and the Civil Rights movement.
The way a story comes to us is always a mysterious thing. And I still can't tell why some stories keep walking around in your head, on and on, until you feel there's no way out other than writing them down. Over and above the particular context, these stories are also interesting to me in what they tell about how narratives are chosen, crafted, transmitted. How a myth is constructed. Or not.