Natives of an island that is often forgotten on maps of the world, often confused with other French overseas territories, we seek to affirm a problematic based on this very forgetfulness, on this confusion. For being forgotten, not counting, is the lot of so many peoples, so many groups—and shouldn't we wonder by whom we are forgotten and why, and for whom we do count and why? When Europe thought itself the center of the world and organized the world around this center, we were somewhere out there, at the end of the world. We were then moored to France, it was an imposed mooring, and sometimes the ties would strangle us.
Today, when Europe has become one of the provinces of the world, we are rethinking our moorings. To move our eyes away from the center, to redesign the map of the world, of the Indian Ocean, where France, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Muslim world meet—this is the nature of our project. We want to inscribe our island in these networks of exchanges and encounters, at the crossroad of the African, European, Asian, and island worlds. At the periphery, no doubt, but a periphery that has been thought through, worked on, turned into an asset, an advantage. We are not at the center of the world and we never will be. We will always be slightly on the margin—marginal, and so what? We propose to reinscribe ourselves into diversity, and think of globalization in terms of encounters, exchanges. Moorings, so we can anchor in the Ocean, cast off, and engage with others.
Why this text? Perhaps we will be told that everything has already been said, and all we can do is repeat—and less well—what has already been written about the Island of Reunion, métissage, and intercultural cross-fertilization. There would be nothing to add, or very little. Besides, do we have the capacity to renew all that, or should we wait for the “next generations,” who are naturally identified as new? We felt the need to write this text in response to a number of things: the growing number of artists and the increased presence of culture in the Reunion landscape and the questions raised by that presence; the renewal of interest that Paris has shown in the emergence of the arts in Reunion Island; the lack of reflection about that emergence; the weakness of public discourse; the aggressively masculine nature of artistic, cultural, political and social discourse in the Island of Reunion; the questions and new practices created by the profound mutations of the last thirty years; and the necessity of participating in the great post-colonial debate. [. . .]
The authors of this text live in the Island of Reunion—a woman and a man who grew up here and feel native here; they have participated and are participating in the cultural and political debate. Native, for us, does not simply mean that we were born on the island, but that we care about it: about its inscription in the Indian Ocean, about revalorizing its own expressions and practices, and about reappropriating its territory. For us, being from here necessarily signifies being bilingual and pluricultural without really having a choice in the matter. Europe always favored monolinguism and monoculturalism; Europeans did not need the language and cultures of the Other, since in their eyes European culture and languages were universal. In the colonies, plurilinguism and pluriculturalism were facts which imperialism presented as signs of backwardness; today they are the indispensable condition for confronting that Eurocentric conviction. The language of the Other has become ours—with neither pride nor shame—and without losing our native tongue. It is also without pride or shame that we appropriate these conceptual tools and techniques which are useful to us, that we love the literature and arts of the West. We take for our own the maxim of the great African-American poet Audre Lorde: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. And yet we are not caught in a binary confrontation. Europe is one of the worlds of our world: Africa, Asia, the Muslim world, the island worlds were also the womb of ours. We are simply beginning to make a critical inventory of our world. Binary oppositions are over and done with: all cultures interpenetrate each other and feed off each other, none is solitary and pure. This is a text to set forth something for discussion, a text with a definite bias that does not mean to be neutral or exhaustive.
In the course of writing this text, we were confronted by the polysemic nature of “we”: the we that refers to the authors; the we that poses itself in opposition, in confrontation with them (internal or external to the island); and the we that includes the inhabitants of the island. We are well aware of the effects of exclusion that we carries with it, but we know that no group has ever been constituted without an exclusionary strategy. No process of identification can be made without setting up a border. No one can ask a group or a people to do without one. But in no way does this mean that the borders cannot be crossed, or that the Other is not constitutive of oneself, that identifications are not subject to endlessly negotiable transformations. The common we of this text is in the process of being formed. There are two dangers to avoid: on the one hand the nationalist and/or communalist we, and on the other, the we diluted into an abstract, ahistorical universal, the famous “global village.” […]
We propose to start out from what made us, from the land where we have grown up—a volcanic summit, a land uninhabited, isolated in the Indian Ocean, known to the Arabs, avoided by the Portuguese, colonized by the French—by retracing the exchange routes between the worlds that made this land what it is. The first inhabitants were French colonists and their Malagasy and Indian slaves. It was an island of masters and slaves, before becoming an island of masters and indentured laborers. It is an island where History has thrown Malagasies, Africans, Comorians, Indians, Chinese, Indochinese, Malays, Europeans, and French people, atheists, Catholics and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, animists and polytheists. But it won’t simply be an affair of juxtaposition. The island is such that one can be Christian and Hindu, Christian and animist, Hindu and animist at the same time. It is an island of the Creole world, set between Africa and Asia, a sub-France island, an archipelago island. It is an island of the Indo-oceanic world, an island of Indo-oceanic creolization.
[. . .]
Apprehending our land means integrating the ocean. The notion of seascape lends itself to our purposes: the ocean is a mental landscape, immense and empty, a space of the slave trade, of indentured labor, of deportation and bondage. A place of crime, of separation, but also the place of a first transformation, of a first creolization that brought diversities together.
Well before the arrival of the Europeans, the Indian Ocean was a space of exchanges, of encounters, of commerce, of new languages and cultures. Cosmopolitan cities—veritable global cities where Jews, Armenians, Arabs, Hindus, Chinese, Malagasies etc. lived side by side—prefigured contemporary global cities. While the arrival of the Europeans affected the Indo-oceanic world profoundly, it did not destroy it completely. The period of decolonization and then the construction of nation-states reinforced the nationalization of this space. For the last few years, transnational and transcontinental exchanges have been going through a revival. New routes, new itineraries, have been revealed. The emergence of new global cities (Dubai, Johannesburg, Singapore . . .) lays out a new cartography. The study of these spaces presupposes the study of the “production” of space, which is a social and cultural production. The Indian Ocean is a space with no precise supranationality or territorialization. It is a cultural space, with several overlapping space-times, where temporalities and territories are constructed and deconstructed. An Ocean that ties continents and islands together. An Afro-Asiatic, Muslim, Christian, animist, Buddhist, Hindu space, a space for creolizations. An Ocean of trade winds and monsoons, of cyclones and winds.
We crisscross the Indian Ocean in quest of the most marvelous clouds, the most enchanting breezes, the most iridescent pools, the rarest songs and unique colors; blue is our passion and we know how to make the waves break on the sand and reefs.
[. . .]
We propose an Indo-oceanity that can be both anchoring and mooring. We like the metaphor of anchoring for it enables us to apprehend the notion of exile and displacement, movement and flux, but without ignoring the territory from which we left. An identity both anchored and on a journey, to trace or reconnoiter routes, itineraries or exchanges, and the encounters that may occur along the way. The reappropriation of the territory frees the imagination, enables us to leave without anxiety, without fear—and to travel. It is an island that remembers the continents. We can see in it a pendulum motion, a back-and-forth movement between the continents and the island, between the island of Reunion and the island world. The presence of the horizon makes it impossible to forget what is out there, beyond it. The horizon is what is not yet known, what can happen—the unpredictable, the unexpected, in other words, history. This geographic line is the metaphor of our political horizon: always reworked, always subject to new contradictions, new conflicts, new challenges. The horizon which traces a curved line—not a straight one as in the North—is the metaphor for our position: the horizon distances you, the curve brings you nearer. Indo-oceanity is not merely cultural; rather, it recognizes the cultural sphere as an element of geopolitics and economics.
© Françoise Vergès and Carpanin Marimoutou. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2012 by David Ball and Nicole Ball. All rights reserved.