Ananda Devi Is Making Sure Mauritius Gets Its Due
Her work, like the newly-translated "The Living Days," defies the condescension that African writers are often subjected to
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Mauritians have thorough introductions at the ready when asked where we’re from. We pull out our phones, swipe to show pictures of our obscenely pretty island as well as “normal” life—our food, typical houses, vibrant towns and cities. The photos help to quell some of the questions I know will come my way: “is there just like, sand everywhere?” “do you have internet?”—never mind that we have one of the most competitive economies in Africa and a particularly fecund artistic heritage.
Glib condescension usually tails writers from Africa, from islands, from the “Global South”: there’s the notion that our literature is embryonic, of anthropological interest, since—in the case of Mauritius, say—our literary tradition, as it were, only really emerged in the last century or so. Thank the ancestors, then, for Ananda Devi, whose work will not be denied.
Devi’s talent, radical vision and prodigious work ethic has earned her a plethora of awards and cemented her place in Francophone literature. She was born in 1957, into a small but effervescent literary scene; at 15, she won a short story competition organized by Radio France Internationale, inscribing herself in a world where Mauritian literature was dominated by the name of Nobel prize-winner J.M.G. Le Clézio. Her novels, with their supra-beautiful prose and sometimes supremely violent depictions of local life (poverty, misogyny and toxic masculinity in particular), paved the way for other Mauritian writers to find homes for their work, and win serious accolades in the process; without her trailblazing efforts, English-language readers might never have heard of Nathacha Appanah, another multi-award-winning author (The Last Brother and Waiting for Tomorrow were translated into English by Geoffrey Strachan). Many Anglophones still haven’t heard of Barlen Pyamootoo, Shenaz Patel, or Carl de Souza, but they should all be names on your radar soon: Devi’s a harbinger of translated Mauritian literature, too.
Devi’s Eve Out of her Ruins, her laurel-garnered work originally published in French in 2006, was translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published on both sides of the Atlantic in 2016; this November sees the release of The Living Days, her latest title to be translated into English (also by Zuckerman), set in a city in turmoil: London.
Ariel Saramandi: I think you’re an extraordinary writer of cities. You’ve written of the beautiful, shattered fracas of Port Louis (Eve Out of Her Ruins, Rue La Poudriere), and in The Living Days you show the insidious way gentrification operates in London, glazing land with the power of money and pretty glass buildings, strangling life.
The Living Days is a novel of austerity, and I’m very interested in the way the decaying city and the body become one in your work. I’m thinking about this particular quote, here:
All that would remain of her would be the short, trampled grass she had always been. An entire city had gone over her body. An entire city had entered her body. Its weight, its matter, its texture, its place beneath a blue or gray or black sky.
Was this melding of city and body something you were conscious of, while writing the novel?
Ananda Devi: What a beautiful, poetic comment! Yes, absolutely, cities have a deep resonance for me, it’s as if they are bodies from which my stories and characters can grow and expand and feed to become part of an organic, volcanic whole. It’s perhaps not so strange, given that I was born in a tiny rural village and grew up in a quiet and rainy little town, that the turbulence, harsh sensuality and raw energy of a city like Port-Louis would fascinate me from a very young age onwards. I remember, as an adolescent, going with my father to Port-Louis and sitting in the car for hours on end, watching everything that was happening around me, taking notes, writing stories in my head and absorbing the otherness of this turmoil and glimpses of these different lives. All my senses were assailed. Several of the short-stories in Solstices, my first book, published when I was 19 years old, were directly inspired by these observations. And of course, Rue la Poudrière emerged from the city, this toxic, menacing and magnetic playground.
I did not realize at the time how much the sense of place would come to be an essential part of my writing. It just seemed to happen naturally. But by the time I wrote Indian Tango, set in New Delhi, I was more conscious of it.
As for The Living Days, I had this novel in mind since I was a student in London towards the end of the 1970s, and I knew I would write it one day. But the time had to be right. I had to be able to bring together these disparate sensations and experiences: the heady freedom of student life in London, the terror of fascism, the loneliness of the old, the dance on the cusp of death… and, by the time I did write it, the sensation of a world ending. That’s what brought this novel into being, after all these years: the realization that we were standing on a brink, on the verge of toppling over, and in London, the myriad lights of consumerism were starting to shatter and disintegrate, leaving people more naked than ever. I wrote this novel in 2012, before Brexit and its madness and chaos, but this end-of-the-world feeling seems to me even more urgent now. Where in the rural setting of Pagli or Soupir, I had to delve below the surface to find the fault lines, the incipient earthquakes, the tragedy of loss, in the cities, whether Port-Louis, New Delhi, or London, I felt freer to roam, to wander, to allow my characters to be tossed by this powerful force and to shatter or to emerge stronger. There is a magic to cities, that’s for sure. I too am crazy about them…
AS: You were a student in London in the 1970s; you set this story in 2005; the novel was published in 2013. I’m interested in knowing your thoughts on The Living Days and of London today, six years after it was published, 40 years after you lived in the city, as England implodes after the Brexit vote, and—if the economists are correct—as another global recession is on its way.
AD: As I said earlier, this novel had a very long gestation period. But somehow, it seems we have come full circle, from the 1970s, when racism, the rise of far right extremism, the divide between rich and poor, and the rejection of immigrants poisoned this society, to the present time, when these same poisons are rampant. I must say that when I wrote the novel, in 2012, setting it in 2005, I had absolutely no idea that Brexit would happen! I had no idea that Trump would happen either. I was flabbergasted when both events took place.
Even as recently as that, I believed that the democratic process, and simple common sense and judgment would prevent this populist drivel from gaining ground. How wrong I was! In fact, the opposite has happened. And I believe that the rise of social media has contributed significantly to this. Although we thought that the internet had abolished frontiers and brought the world together, in actual fact the mechanism of social media has narrowed both confines and minds. You can now live virtually in a bubble where you only read and hear what you want to read and hear. There is no balance, no differing ideas, nothing to offset people’s often uninformed opinion. It’s a world of make-believe, of self-delusion and narcissism, while in other places, the machine of war and disintegration is taking its toll on entire populations.
What feeds these wars, these conflicts, this disintegration? What is the economic purpose of war, if not to enrich those who manufacture all the military machinery, to give power to a few while subjugating the many? It’s a horrific vicious circle that’s throwing destitute people literally into the sea to try to swim to safety, while those who could offer them this safety, and whose governments are directly and indirectly responsible for the chaos, prefer to hide behind their prejudices and the illusion of material comfort. Looking at all of this from a historical perspective, I feel we are living in a terrifying time where past horrors are being revived.
The Brexit chaos is like watching the crew of a ship squabbling on a sinking boat without any of the other passengers being able to do anything about it. It is like an absurdist play by Ionesco and would be grotesque if it were not so tragic.
I do not believe the bubble will last long. When the illusion is dispelled, it will be too late to take action, whether it is about the climate or peace. The feeling of urgency is now far greater than when I was writing the novel, and yet, it also suffuses the novel, which gives it a more topical feel than it might have had a few years ago.
AS: Abandoned children, children left to fend for themselves, poor children who have terrible—sometimes monstrous—parents are often found in your novels. In some of your most powerful work, these children are Mauritian Créole, or of African descent more generally (I think of Eve in Eve Out of Her Ruins, Jeremiah in The Living Days). As a Mauritian writer of Indian descent, raised well away from the slums of Port Louis, what propelled you to write these stories? Was there the belief that they wouldn’t get told, otherwise?
AD: I do not like being called “the voice of the voiceless”—it sounds overly pretentious. However, I did quote Aimé Césaire’s powerful words once: “Ma bouche sera la bouche des malheurs qui n’ont point de bouche” (“my mouth will be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth”). It is true that when I wrote Rue la Poudrière, I did feel that my protagonist had no say and no voice, and was being irrevocably crushed by the gigantic hand of fate in the form of her parents, her pimp, society and the city itself (and the bulldozers looming over her at the end of the novel, that will crush the entire neighborhood). The silence of Mauritian society concerning the descendants of slaves was deafening. Their own memories were long repressed, until they began to reclaim their ancestry. But it isn’t only their silence that runs through my books. It’s that of everyone who is denied a say, or whose story will never be told.
I realized after having written many books that my characters often had an impediment that prevented them from speaking out or being listened to: Gungi becomes mute, Mouna has a harelip, Pagli and Josephin are thought to be crazy and thus not worth listening to, and so on. Even in my last novel, Manger l’autre, the protagonist is aware that her obesity prevents people from hearing her, because they only see her external appearance and thus ignore her intelligence. Deep down I think all this comes from my own silence, my shyness as a child, my reluctance to speak out in front of others (even though I have conquered this over the years and am no longer stricken with stage fright!), and the feeling that few people are really listening. It’s no coincidence that I entitled my autobiographical book Les hommes qui me parlent (the men who speak to me).
AS: Othering is central to the novel: I think it’s particularly brilliant the way you show how Jeremiah believes himself to be mature, wise, sexy—cognizant of his looks, and of what the exoticization of his own body could bring him: “They’ll be kneeling before me. They’ll be my way out of Brixton” he thinks. But of course he’s a child; he has no idea of what those thoughts would entail if acted out, he’s 13 years old, for him it’s all play. His thoughts are only revealed to us after he’s met Mary, and we’ve seen the way Mary sees him: as a vulnerable child.
AD: If there is a characteristic that unites all my protagonists, it is their ambiguity. They are never entirely good or bad. They are complex, strange, and ultimately human. But it’s a facet of humanity that goes beyond the mundane, the routine, the mediocre, everything that drags us down and makes us less than we can be. And so, Jeremiah is a kid, but a kid who has become an adult because of the environment in which he lives and because he feels responsible for his mum and sisters. This Otherness is thus the complexity we see in him as he transitions from child to something more, not quite adult but almost, the fluctuating tides of growing up that brought him to Mary and that will make him stay. Which means that what we see is something closer to ourselves than we think, but we just don’t recognize it. It’s a similar kind of ambiguity that we see in Eve, in Eve de ses décombres. Admittedly, she is older, she is seventeen and for a girl, closer to an adult than Cub is, but she is also both a child who never grew up and a woman able to face danger and confront it headlong, able to fight even if she knows there is no way of winning. This is why, in these environments, children have a deeper knowledge of life than in other societies, and have this cold, almost cynical view of the world that makes them see people for what they are. Their gaze is truly unflinching.
AS: There’s also this wonderful section where Mary, for perhaps the first time in her life, is “the Other.” The white body becomes foreign, unwelcome:
She discovered pockets, open spaces that each group had appropriated and where she felt like an intruder. The pointed glares and closed-off expressions were a stern warning that she ignored anyway with a courage that astonished her. Even the aromas changed: guavas, paprika, smoked meat, dried fish […] bits and pieces of civilisation thrown in a bag and mixed together energetically without actually combining them, violence clashing against violence, these momentary alliances engendering dizziness—the foreigner she was entered as her risk and at her peril.
There’s an extraordinary act of mimicry later on, too:
In spite of the fear that seized her as she got on the 159 bus, she kept going. She followed a group of women to the local market, watched what they were buying and picked up the same things […] copied their way of weighing the vegetables.
What was going on in your mind as you wrote this scene?
AD: It came from this idea that, even if they were all living in the same city, they inhabited different worlds, almost different planets that never collided. Although Mary has not had an easy or overly protected life, she has never had the opportunity to see how this other world lives. She has become almost mummified, frozen in her narrow house, in her memories, in a past that never bore its promised fruits. And so, when she steps over the line, over the frontier that separates her from Cub’s world, she is swept into a tidal wave of sensations, colours, perfumes, images that she has never experienced before. Because she is so fascinated with Cub, she wants to know his life, to know his tastes, his likes and dislikes, and thus becomes a pale ghost following these women and trying to understand how they live. She will even try to cook Caribbean dishes, although, ironically, Cub’s mother herself didn’t cook them and Cub never ate them. It’s as if her foray into his world is fated to fail, because it is so little, and far too late, but at the same time it expresses her deep love, her tenderness, her willingness to follow this path away from herself and towards him. They, however, see her presence in their world as an invasion, because this is how it has always been. There is no true common ground, in the end.
AS: “They weren’t human. Nor were they animals. They were relics.“
They climbed onward like giants, as if they owned the earth, and that was how they saw things, free for the taking, as was their right, and each step they took as they ran was a claim on a bit more land, they swallowed up kilometers of pavement, swelling their unrelenting desire like wildfire.
These are highly evocative descriptions of white supremacy and its mechanisms in The Living Days.
I’m particularly struck by the idea of ever-returning “relics,” and the way you deftly use time in the novel. Mary’s dementia is fascinating in this respect: it makes time in the novel a much more convoluted thing, one randomly coalescent in places, and defies the idea of strict, linear, epochal time. Wars, austerity, nationalism, racism come like tides, and in her mind these aren’t separate events; they aren’t “relics” to be safely stored away in history books, and forgotten about.
AD: This scene was there in my mind from the beginning, I knew it would happen, but it also scared me, I tried to delay it while knowing that I was heading towards it inexorably. I had this experience as a student, when a fellow student took me to a footbridge over St. Pancras station, and told me that this was where most suicides happened in London. Later on, as I was going home, the tube car was invaded by a raucous group of completely drunk football fans who started teasing the women and verbally aggressing the men. One sat down on a woman’s lap and another pinched a young girl’s breasts. I was terrified of what was going to happen. I got out of the tube at the next stop. Nothing happened to me, but the terror in the eyes of these women, who were unable to do anything, and of the men who couldn’t do anything either, has stayed with me ever since. So this male supremacy, and white supremacy, and their feeling of complete immunity and of “owning” the world, yes, it’s impossible to measure it, it’s as if you are suddenly made to realize how little of that power is in your own hands, how terrifyingly weak you are. These two scenes from the book are directly related to these two experiences from my student days, but also to my observation of society since then, the realization that some people have this sense of power ingrained in them, and it is a primal power, a kind of remnant of biological urges to dominate, it is not something that is reasoned or that can be reasoned with, it does not belong to human rationality but to biological instincts. This is why I call it a relic, a relic of these primeval urges, of our base biology, but consolidated by a society that has done nothing to curb them, to change them, to “socialize” them.
As for your interesting comment about time, yes, there is no linear time in this novel, and this is what allows Mary to “revive” Howard from real and figurative death, it is what makes London exist simultaneously in all these different periods, and it will also allow her to prolong Cub’s life beyond the realm of possibility—because that’s her power. Mary is London, in a way, both ancient and new, wizened and beautiful, joyous and tragic, and completely immortal and intemporal.