Insularity, Mobility, and Imagination: Writing from the Indian Ocean

In early March 2011, two news items about Mauritius landed in my inbox almost simultaneously: one, a glowing article in the U. S. news magazine Slate, titled “The Greatest Country on Earth,” and the other, a denunciation of greed and environmental damage on the coast of the island, published in the Mauritian daily L’Express.

In the first article, Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate in economics and professor at Columbia University in New York, rightfully sings the praises of the “Mauritius miracle” which he offers as model. He praises the postcolonial nation, lauding this “small country” for its strong democratic institutions and for providing its citizens with free university education, free health care, and broad access to home ownership.

The second item was first circulated on an expatriate Mauritian listserve, to which I subscribe, with the subject line “Razzia sur les plages” [Carnage on the Beach] and the text of the Express article. In it, the journalist Bertrand Hérisson reports on the reckless felling of a row of beautiful, historic, and supposedly protected hundred-year-old flame trees. Despite strong opposition by neighborhood groups, the privatization of public lands continues apace, in order to make room for the expansion of a combined hotel and real estate development project near the coast in Mon Choisi.

The marked contrast between these two articles, published within two days of each other, and the human and ecological issues they both raise, exemplifies the complexities of daily life in Mauritius as well as in other Mascarene islands, a complexity that writers and artists in many media try to communicate with poetic originality as well as an underlying sense of urgency and crisis. In various ways, their insightful vision dovetails with the major social and economic concerns that affect our planet today.

An exhibition of public art, the brainchild of Nikhil Treeboohun and Nirveda Alleck, titled “Les dodos débarquent” [The Dodos Have Landed], was put on display in April 2012 in Mauritius.[1] The collaboration of twenty-six local artists, this exhibition recognizes the mythical role the extinct dodo has played in the local imagination. The extinction around the 1680s of this species unique to the Mascarene region marked the beginning of the end of global biodiversity; today, more than ever, the islands of the Indian Ocean region can play a crucial role in keeping environmental, social, political, and aesthetic issues in the forefront of global consciousness.

The poems, short stories, and excerpts from longer projects that are assembled here are a revealing window onto the creative reach of a multifaceted group of Francophones: eleven writers and one scholar, from the islands of Mauritius (Devi, Ducasse, Gordon-Gentil, Pyamootoo, Timol); Reunion (Cally, Gamaleya, Marimoutou, and Vergès); Madagascar (Nirina, Raharimanana;) and Mayotte (Djailani). They are of diverse backgrounds and experiment with different forms. Some write both prose and poetry, some have other careers as journalists, translators, filmmakers, academics, or librarians. All are imaginatively engaged with the public and private realms of life in these historical and strategic insular sites of migration that have brought together the peoples of many continents, near and far.

Francophone writing in the Mascarene region dates back to the eighteenth century, and it coexists with several other languages (Creole, Malagasy, Arabic, Hindi) that inflect the thematic, stylistic, and syntactic choices of the writers, as well as the complex colonial history that has brought many cultures into intimate contact. Mauritius and Madagascar are independent republics. In 2012, Mauritius celebrated the forty-fourth anniversary of its independence from Britain. Madagascar was a French colony until 1960. By contrast, Reunion and Mayotte (one island of the larger Comoros archipelago) are overseas departments of France, or “DOM.” As distant fragments of a continental national territory, the latter two have greater tolerance for diversity than can often be the case in the French mainland itself.

An excerpt from Carpanin Marimoutou’s and Françoise Vergès’s Moorings, an intellectual and cultural manifesto for the creolized history of Reunion, is echoed by Alain Gordon-Gentil’s “Traces of our Fathers,” his memoir of filming a documentary on the migrating ancestors of many Mauritians. Nassuf Djailani’s “Journey toward Hope” vividly evokes the boat people who risk their lives to escape military coups in the Comoros, whereas Boris Gamaleya’s cryptic “Sea Horses’ Ball” speaks of sea and sky, crashing planes and forgotten loves, mountain ranges and creatures of the deep.

For William Cally, ancient legends are the source of fantastic tales such as this “Iron Caterpillar,” based on a historic little train, taken out of service after the opening of a shiny new freeway in Reunion, and now intent on exacting revenge on unsuspecting or curious citizens. Michel Ducasse’s “Isle Say Blood” and Raharimanana’s “Kratos” and "Famine" are powerful poetic engagements with the history of slavery and ethnic conflicts in Mauritius and Madagascar, respectively, where a never-ending confrontation with the past leaves its bloody traces on land and sea. By contrast, Esther Nirina’s subtle and enigmatic language evokes the Malagasy poetic tradition of the Hain-Teny, or short verse, with its arresting condensation of images, which she interweaves with a feminine sensibility all her own.

Barlen Pyamootoo’s personal memoir of his Mauritian village, “Centre de Flacq,” is an elegant vignette full of humor and affection for the peoples and places of his youth. Umar Timol gives us an excerpt from his just-published first novel, Journal d’une vieille folle, in which he adopts the subjective perspective of an engaging and wickedly funny “mad woman.”

Ananda Devi is among the best known contemporary novelists of Mauritius. Devi’s “Weaving Dreams” has some of the same oneiric and fantastic qualities of earlier novels such as L’arbre fouet and Moi, l’interdite.  The intimiste qualities of this text, its refusal to be moored, testifies to the artistic freedom of writers who may hail from the Indian Ocean but whose imagination crosses all borders of gender, genre, and geography, as the present collection amply demonstrates.

 

 



[1] Probably inspired by similar projects in Zurich and, especially, Chicago, where the 1999 Cows on Parade was a big success.