Knowing the Unknowable: Writing from Madagascar

Welcome to the Madagascar issue. The description is a little general; please do excuse us. It’s just that any adjective would be superfluous when you’re essentially introducing a country’s literature in English translation. Not a single novel from Madagascar, whether written in French or Malagasy, has ever appeared in English. There are a wealth of novels (and all other forms of literature) to choose from, though, written by dozens of critically acclaimed and prize-winning authors from this culturally rich island nation. Madagascar is the product of a rather incredible number of different heritages: its location along the early Indian Ocean trade routes drew settlers as early as the eighth century CE from Malaysia, India, China, Indonesia, aboriginal Australia, and the Arab world. Once people arrived from the African continent, the Malagasy ethnicity developed, which is today subdivided into a full eighteen groups. The country is a very old melting pot.

A quick bit of more recent history: the island was mostly unified by the eighteenth century under Merina kings from the central highlands. European missionaries and trading posts led to a short-lived tussle between the British and French governments, after which Madagascar became a French colony in 1895. A huge post–World War II uprising was crushed in 1947, and Madagascar finally regained its independence on June 26, 1960. Economically, however, the country has remained beholden to France, and political conflicts and corruption are commonplace. Madagascar is consistently ranked among the ten poorest countries in the world (according to data from the International Monetary Fund). Economically, the country is struggling (Hanta Ramakavelo explains more in an interview on our blog later this month). Malagasies have survived and thrived through it all, and despite their deprivation are widely known to be the most warm and hospitable people around. It’s all based on their concept of fihavanana, or a common brotherhood of all humankind (as mentioned in Iharilanto Patrick Andiamangatiana’s story in this issue).

Now, for a brief history of literature in Madagascar: writing in the Malagasy language predates the codification of the language in the Latin alphabet as it exists today. As early as the fifteenth century, manuscripts were produced by a small number of scribes in various Malagasy dialects written in Arabic script. That writing was known as sorabe, or “big writing,” and includes both royal reports and literary creations (more information can be found in Madagascar: A Short History, by Solofo Randrianja and Stephen Ellis). Then came hainteny poetry, a grand oral tradition on the scale of French troubadours, recorded in written form under many of the nineteenth-century monarchs. Hainteny take the form of a conversation between a male and female, generally lovers. Leonard Fox, who published English translations of much of the existing corpus in his Hainteny: The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar, wrote that “hainteny give us an incomparable insight into a society characterized by exceptional refinement and subtlety, deep appreciation of beauty, delight in sensual enjoyment, and profound respect for the spiritual realities of life.” Not too shabby! During and after all of this, Malagasy writers’ work became internationally recognized, well before the Négritude movement elsewhere: early French administrators and intellectuals started up literary magazines for their colony, including Du côté de chez Rakoto in the late 1800s. Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, widely acknowledged as Madagascar’s greatest poet and a literary brother of Baudelaire, was active until his untimely death in 1937, maintaining steady correspondence with such notable French authors as André Gide and Paul Valéry. From Rabearivelo to the Malagasy-language novelist Andry Andraina (excerpted in this issue), writers in Madagascar proved to possess an almost miraculous ability to adapt their styles by absorbing literary structures from their colonizers and continue to produce stunning works of genius. As the colonial period reached its end in the 1950s and early 1960s, authors continued to produce novels and poems, but the classical era of literature drew to a close around the same time as the colony.

Then, a new wave of almost urgent production began anew in the 1980s, after a “decade of silence [during which] the problems inherent to the Third World—if not to ‘modern times’—escalated,” renowned Malagasy literature professor Liliane Ramarosoa writes in the introduction to her Anthologie de la littérature malgache d’expression française des années 80. She highlights the “diverse production [that] illuminates the ‘emergencies’ that this generation of French-language Malagasy writers is responding to: for this generation, French-language creation is a ‘miraculous weapon’ that is supposed to bring about the conquest of an identity; French-language production accepts particular ‘certainties.’ Through their writing, this generation is trying to situate themselves in the chaos of the Third World, the modern world, and life itself.” Writing in French benefited these authors hugely, as it continues to do today, as exponentially more people worldwide read in French than Malagasy. Some contemporary writers also pen works in the Malagasy language, but such production is a politically charged act of recovering heritage and memory. Such work is also part of attempts to build a literacy and cultural awareness campaign. (The literacy rate in Madagascar is a disputed number: according to the CIA World Factbook, the national average appears to hover around 65%, although SOS Children’s Villages reports that the number drops in rural areas to below 30%; however, there is little data on literacy in French vs. Malagasy, and French literacy may be closer to 25% in many areas.)

The writers who began their craft in the eighties sparked a literary renaissance in Madagascar that has continued evolving to this day. Still, today as ever, writing is not a profession. In the 1980s, an author’s options were essentially either to shell out money to get a book bound or to print out copies from a typewriter or computer and pass them around to friends. Within the last several years, a few publishing houses have been founded and become quite active in Madagascar. Still, one is run by an author who holds a day job as a law clerk. A select number of authors from Madagascar have managed to support themselves solely via their writing (e.g. Michèle Rakotoson and Jean-Luc Raharimanana, whose novel Za was excerpted in translation by Sophie Lewis in this magazine), but that’s only after publishing a huge body of work in France and gaining a following with a French-speaking audience. They’re not the only ones to be internationally recognized for their work, though: dozens of Malagasy authors have won a variety of prestigious French literature prizes, from the Prix de la nouvelle RFI bestowed upon David Jaomanoro, Naivo, and Raharimanana, and the Grand Prix de l’Océan Indien won by Johary Ravaloson, to the Académie française’s Grande médaille de la Francophonie presented to Rakotoson for her body of work. Another Malagasy author, Esther Nirina, was even knighted a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2004.

With such prolific authors, writing in either their native land or some strange adopted home, it’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations of their collective oeuvre. We are talking about an entire country, after all. Still, certain themes appear over and over again, especially in contemporary Malagasy writing from the last thirty years. There are classic coming-of-age stories: some mirror standard French novels by focusing on an individual, while others have a grander scope and consider the entire country’s cultural evolution. There are expats trying to find their place in a strange land, and others returning home and trying to help Madagascar find its place in the world. Many works are trying to strike a balance between old ancestral beliefs and new ideas, in both a religious and commercial sense. There are, as in all literature, struggles, whether due to poverty, family, or romance. In particular, authors explore the raw clashes of lower class feelings of worthlessness versus the personal value intrinsic to wealth, trying to disprove the assumption that Madagascar automatically falls into the former category.

Many important facets of this culture are mirrored in its literature. Oral storytelling traditions, from early myths and legends to the hainteny poems, have been brought into contemporary literature by some authors, including the acclaimed David Jaomanoro, who we lost just last year. His short story "Nenitou," which appears here, includes the traditional opening—the Malagasy version of “Once upon a time”—and closing, in which the storyteller washes his hands of responsibility for the truth of the story, explaining that any lies have been passed down to him by the ancestors who once told the same tale. (We’re also extremely pleased to present Margaret Besser’s translation of the opening of Jaomanoro’s final published novel before his passing, which won And Other Stories’ most recent translation sample competition for French, run in partnership with the Translate in the City summer school.) In addition, since narratives have always held a place of importance in Malagasy culture, some authors use them in literature to create a true record of things, pushing back against official doctrines or histories hidden by those in power. Andry Andraina helped pave the way with his novel The Lamenting Land (chapter two appears here in co-translation with Mialy Andriamananjara), written to help bridge the gap between Malagasy oral history traditions and French novel structures, as well as explaining to Malagasies what was actually happening in their own country directly following World War II. That memoir provided an example for others, making room for the more fictionalized literature of authors such as Cyprienne Toazara, who expands upon Andraina’s history by exploring how rural Malagasies dealt with the new strain of invasion of French culture: one brought back by their own village sons who had been drafted to fight in the French army in World War II. Other common topics of literary exploration include the importance of ancestors and family, as well as the Malagasy concept of taboos known as fady. Andiamangatiana’s "Auntie’s Eggs" deals with all of these, hinging on the importance of not breaking fady, lest your bad actions come back around to you. In all instances, though, the story is always paramount, infused with a yearning—an almost fatalistic desire—to be heard, whether the authors are speaking for themselves or trying to give voice to the voiceless on the island.

But all good literature moves beyond mere cultural clues, using themes as building blocks to create something more transcendental. One such way is through pure, raw emotion that comes from having such a horribly important story to tell: Magali Nirina Marson’s masterpiece here is the most gut-wrenching tailspin I’ve ever had the pleasure (and emotional misfortune) of translating. Another is to take existing themes, such as poverty and power, and to find new ways of commenting on the existing dynamic. Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato’s "Omeo Zanako" denounces it through an honest exploration of contemporary society that provokes outrage and fury, while Naivo, whose debut novel is receiving support in translation by the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, experiments with new genres using satire to denounce the bureaucracy and conspiracy of the official city organizations. Darker turns of fables are also used, particularly by Bao Ralambo, who uses her literature to try to reveal how society is actually structured now that we’re supposed to be living in a postracial world. Madagascar had slaves once, and the dual division of social orders was once called “fotsy” (whites) and “mainty” (blacks), which assigned a social ranking system not dissimilar from a caste system. Although Malagasies, like the rest of the world, like to pretend that such divisions no longer exist, Ralambo’s "Blastomycosis" paints a different picture: a grim and exceedingly realistic portrait of life in the city slums of Madagascar.

Taken as a whole, this issue—our attempt to fully represent contemporary Malagasy fiction—is part of the effort to introduce Anglophone readers to an entire country that has heretofore been strange, foreign, and almost unknowable. Until now, the only existing translations of short stories, poems, and novel excerpts from Madagascar (besides what has previously appeared in this magazine) have been published in scholarly journals and the groundbreaking but now essentially out-of-print bilingual anthology from the University of Ohio Press, Voices from Madagascar/Voix de Madagascar. Besides the obvious gains of making this island’s literature accessible to a wider readership, bringing Madagascar onto the global literary scene is part of a larger push to avoid the ignorance of lumping the entire continent into one category of “African literature.” One way to combat this is to simply raise the awareness of the international literary community. If, as authors and translators, we make enough examples of each country’s literature available in the Western world, perhaps we can start transforming the labels we’ve assigned to more accurately reflect the literary cultures of individual nations. Our hope is that this issue will contribute to a more informed understanding of Madagascar’s fiction, and in conjunction with that, a more nuanced view of literature from both the Indian Ocean region and Africa itself.