In the weeks after riots shook the seemingly tranquil island of Mauritius in 1999, the novelist Carl de Souza began writing a short, dense text that would become a nearly real-time depiction of that unreal moment: Kaya Days. The man at the heart of the uprising, Kaya, was a singer who had fused Bob Marley’s reggae with the island’s deep-rooted séga music to create seggae, a genre that won over Mauritians across the island’s many ethnicities. When Kaya was imprisoned for smoking weed onstage, and then found dead in jail just days later, the country’s simmering tensions boiled over into a chaos that, seen from more than two decades later and the other side of the world, feels eerily familiar. Taking the jam-packed sentences of Carl de Souza’s dreamscape and finding an English to mirror the frenetic energy of the French and Kreol has been both a mind-bending challenge and a delightful opportunity to revitalize English.
—Jeffrey Zuckerman, translator
Jeffrey Zuckerman (JZ): When I first read this book in French, I was blown away by how immediate and real all its characters felt, how alive your prose was to the wealth of personalities we meet within. As a man who saw Mauritius gain independence a few days after you turned nineteen, and having lived there through all the decades since, how did your own background inform this variety?
Carl de Souza (CS): I am quite fortunate that my father’s job as a police officer meant that my family was stationed in fourteen different localities in Mauritius—and even Rodrigues Island—during my childhood. He himself had been born on the remote sugar estate where his father was an accountant, and had grown up in the care of nannies of various ethnicities. At the last school I attended, Royal College Curepipe, and the first one where I taught, Collège du Saint Esprit, I was quite lucky to study under and work with brilliant mathematicians and linguists who helped me make connections between science and literature (as disparate as they can seem in traditional educational systems), town and village life, and the various ethnic traditions that enrich us in Mauritius.
JZ: These sorts of connections between what one might have originally believed distinct are, I think, what give this novel so much energy—both that and the pulsing rhythms of Kaya’s seggae music. From the outset, there are many clues that the girl at the heart of Kaya Days, Santee, is Hindu. Eventually she meets a man who by all appearances is Creole, and there are encounters with people from many other sections of society as well. The marked diversity of Mauritius has been both an asset and a challenge for the country; how did you find yourself exploring this aspect in this story?
CS: Seggae as a musical phenomenon was no big deal: I clearly remember a friend, quite aware of the country’s musical terrain, dismissing seggae as an artistic dead end just days before the 1999 riots. Kaya, however, as a singer, was well known for the poetry of his songs and, quite honestly, his good looks. His death was what really kick-started the musical trend. In our country, where the widespread dismissal of and failure to engage with the Afro-Creole minority can be traced back to the days of slavery, Kaya’s mysterious death in prison triggered riots in Roche-Bois, an Afro-Creole enclave close to Port-Louis, our capital city; those protests spread to other largely Creole villages. This outrage was baffling to a large section of the population of Indian origin (whether they identified as Hindu or Muslim), and even to the Creoles who were better off economically or who simply had paler complexions and therefore enjoyed more privilege within the broader community. The riot was akin to an allergic reaction out of nowhere, which resulted in the destruction of signs of wealth, like fast-food restaurants and supermarkets, as well as attacks on police stations.
“It really felt like our country was plunging into chaos.”
I myself was running a school, and one of my handymen couldn’t help but go up nearby streets and come back to give me breathless accounts of the ongoing “massacre” of community buildings. There were no orders from public authorities to close schools. The school attendant, Pramesh, eventually died in the looting of a store on fire, where he had gone to grab some toys for his two-year-old daughter; he is the Pramesh to whom I’ve dedicated this book. When I decided to send everyone at the school home, I found out that no fewer than forty of my students were heading back to the Roche-Bois enclave! All the while, there was no information coming from the government, and the national broadcaster was only issuing news about the NATO bombing around Kosovo . . .
Once I got back home, near a beach on the west coast, a fisherman of Indian origin was surprised to see me out and about. He yelled at me, asking, “What are you doing here?” I struck up a proper conversation with him, which was punctuated by gunshots from the nearby village, where the police shot two youngsters while a procession was driving Kaya’s coffin from village to village. It really felt like our country was plunging into chaos. Then the pendulum swung back, and silence fell again, like darkness, over this country where so many wanted to forget and return to a hypocritical social peace.
JZ: For me, Kaya Days was a very singular reading experience; I’ve tried to describe it, and I’m always struck by the simple fact that it’s unlike any other book I’ve read. There are aspects of it I can connect to other works of art—the urban journey of Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, or the romantic framework of a Bollywood film. How did it come about in this form?
CS: It was written as an instinctive reaction, a desperate attempt to come to terms with Pramesh’s death. My writing career had come to a standstill because my French publisher had closed down, and I had just finished a novel about migrant workers stuck aboard a ship and kept from disembarking in Mauritius. I had sent the manuscript to a new publisher and was waiting for a response. The editor was coming to Mauritius to run a workshop and asked me for any stray material I might share for it. I reluctantly sent her the first forty pages of this book. We met in person, and she said: “Everybody back home is in awe . . .” She was talking not about the manuscript I’d submitted earlier—which she did promise would be published in due time—but about my forty pages set during the Kaya riots! So I got back to work and finished writing it.
Its style was a spontaneous choice; I might describe it as “breathless”—like myself running down the streets of Rose-Hill, whether away from something or on some mysterious mission, like Santee looking for her brother and then losing track of her purpose. Some of its earliest readers told me they were so transported by its images that they thought of it as a sort of road movie, which leads me to be more and more convinced that any technique in writing must be acquired (and forgotten!) long beforehand, and that style must be spontaneous, as in jazz music, my inspiration.
As literary inspiration goes, I might add that two authors who have strongly influenced me are Nabokov, whose Lolita I consider a gem, and, more recently and also more pertinently, Romain Gary, especially his novel White Dog, which he published in English and in French. Both authors have moved from one culture to another and have had to adapt and determine their personal styles accordingly. And I’ve been struck by how original their individual use of irony and humor was when it came to very serious matters like (in the case of Gary) racism.
JZ: I think that spontaneity and sly humor really come through in Kaya Days, with its torrent of characters talking with and to and over each other. One of my favorite sections to translate was an obscenity-filled rant peppered with Kreol—I ended up putting more Kreol words in so that readers could get a hold on the whole thing. I’m wondering: how have readers, abroad in France and at home in Mauritius, received this welter of different languages? And was it a challenge you wondered about as we had our back-and-forths about my translation?
CS: Weaving one’s way among the various languages we use in Mauritius is no easy feat, especially when characters switch from one to another mid-sentence, as we often do here. But as a writer and an incurable optimist, if not an opportunist, I think this challenge can offer new possibilities for giving readers a grasp of Mauritius’s multiculturality and coexisting identities. If we accept that translation, however honest, amounts to some sort of treason against the original work, then, more positively, such a re-creation can prove quite liberating. And if you offer up a few understandable keywords and trust the reader’s intelligence, the latter can guess his way through.
“French is still sometimes perceived as the oligarch’s colonial medium.”
In the novel I have just completed, Faux carré, which could be translated as “Askew,” even the meaning of the title in French differs between Mauritius, where it refers to a geometrical error while performing construction work, and France, where it describes an asymmetrical haircut! And I faced the same challenge with the novel I wrote directly in English, Artefact, because while English is the official medium of our educational system, it isn’t used in day-to-day life, except when people feel shy about writing in French, which can be complicated, or refuse to do so for ideological reasons—French is still sometimes perceived as the oligarch’s colonial medium even though some of our finest writers, like Ananda Devi, Barlen Pyamootoo, and Nathacha Appanah, express themselves admirably in this language and are published in France. I myself can’t say for sure why I’ve opted to write in English lately; it must be out of some sort of urge to get hold of our multifaceted culture, or to make a breakthrough toward other readers. Coexistence has been growing increasingly difficult in every country; economies and even an exclusive model of civilization have been under threat. I believe that our smaller-scale, unpretentious experience can shed some light on what can be done and on various ways to promote living harmoniously (although every real-world example, ours included, inevitably has room for improvement!).
Talking with you as your translation progressed gave me new insight into the plot of Kaya Days. It demonstrated that the literature of writers with hands-on experience—which you’ve plumbed extensively—can be just as informative and enlightening, if not more so, than direct accounts.
JZ: We often joke that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: the more things change, the more things stay the same. What would you say has changed in the past twenty years, both on the island and in your own perspective as an author?
CS: Our country is facing unprecedented challenges as revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was slowly moving away from an exclusive sugar economy, and then went through a period of intense industrialization mainly based on textiles—with significant social consequences. And now the extensive tourist industry, which, despite being quite profitable and providing many jobs, commandeered many of the public beaches, has been put to a blunt stop by border closings and international lockdowns. Personally, the image of a little paradise in the middle of the Indian Ocean is not quite the one I would privilege as a writer. I may be fond of the nature around us and feel thankful for it, but I am more and more in love with the people, whose true wealth is the deep roots they have in so many different cultures, as the main subjects for my novels.
JZ: The Kaya riots, as refracted through this book, feel otherworldly—but, as a St. Louisan, the similarities I saw to the Ferguson protests were ones I couldn’t shake. Did you find yourself revisiting and reconsidering those days of 1999 in light of the more recent Black Lives Matter protests in our corner of the globe, assuming they were covered on the news in Mauritius?
CS: Protests and riots are not revolutions. They are desperate human reactions, unforeseeable and quite often unexplained and muddled. I have not tried to find any rational explanation for the Kaya riots or to disentangle causes and consequences—and I’ve earned myself quite a few rebukes from fellow Mauritians, both here and scattered abroad, expecting a historical narrative. The journey that I made in writing this book was a wholly personal one, and the events were as otherworldly as the times we are living through these days with the global pandemic.
Carl de Souza is a writer born and living in Mauritius. He graduated in biology and math at the University of London before pursuing a career in education at various levels. He has led an intense sports life, mainly in badminton, which is the background of one of his novels. He has published short stories and six novels in France, of which Kaya Days is his first to be translated into English.