By David Varno
Last night, Mauritian author Ananda Devi spoke to a packed room in the French Institute's Skyroom in Manhattan, as part of a U.S. tour sponsored by the Délégation générale de l'Alliance Française and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. Her talk was moderated by Thomas Spear, Professor of French at Lehman College, who asked the audience about ten minutes into the program if he and Devi could switch into French.
Only three of us ventured to raise our hands in preference for English, but they agreed to continue with it, despite a few comments from Spear about being accustomed to conversing with Devi in French. English might not have facilitated the truest presentation of her voice as a fiction writer, but she spoke eloquently about her process and the way she conjures her subjects through language.
Mauritius is a tiny island off the coast of Madagascar on the Indian Ocean's pre-Suez trading route between Europe and Asia. Spear began to outline the country's colonial history, from the French to the British, and Devi joked that it is possibly the only part of the world in which English is losing ground to the French.
íEnglish is the language of officialdom,ë Devi said. íBut during French colonialism, there was much more penetration culturally. Mauritius's first newspaper was in French, and it's still in print today. French has more of a daily use.ë Also common is Creole, which was developed ías a way for the slaves and masters to communicate,ë Devi said. íCreole is Mauritius's lingua franca, but I spoke French at school—even though it wasn't taught. It was how my friends and I communicated. Eventually my parents would use French to communicate with me, and gradually I lost hold of my mother tongue, the native language Tubuku. You could say that the language died in me completely when my mother passed away.ë
Devi's relationship to French is complicated, but the language is very much her own. íI learned French long before I had any political awareness,ë she said. íIt was mine before I became aware of the implications. In that sense, it was good that I started writing so young.ë When Devi was fifteen, she won a short-story prize sponsored by the French media. Her family was exposed to her work for the first time when it was read on the radio, and they were shocked at what they heard.
íIt's been the same ever since,ë Devi said. She had a very calm demeanor and a soft physical beauty, which are in contrast to the heavy violent subject matter of her stories and novels. íI've always had a dark outlook, which surprises people. When I write, I'm fearless, but I think that everybody's double—we use this duality to make something creative. Of course, creativity can be an act of violence; you show what's in your inner eye, and tear apart the fabric of what's around you.ë
The most unique aspect of her writing process most certainly has to do with the notion of conjuring memories and lyrical texture through language—she uses French to tap into her own personal growth amidst a deeply complicated cultural identity and colonial history, English for academic writing, and Creole for translations of other writers. She's an insular writer, in the sense that her writing is informed by her connection to a specific place before any influence from other writers or cultures, but she's not a provincial writer. She makes a world for herself. But when asked about writers she admires, she responded enthusiastically with a list that was topped by Toni Morrison and J.M. Coetzee. And her discussion on the process of novel writing had a specifically Western, modern ring.
íThings come in a state of half-lucidity,ë she said. íIn a way, writing a novel is like answering a question you're asking yourself. These questions become ever-present to you. And you know when a novel is alive when it goes in a direction you didn't expect. Of course, sometimes you can't find the end, and then a novel dies.ë
Most of Devi's fiction is not available in English. In the past decade her books have been published by Gallimard, but they have only been translated into Spanish and Hindi. Recently, she has begun what will hopefully be a continued process of translating her own work into English, first with the novel Pagli. Her most recent book is Indian Tango,, and she read an excerpt in French. Part of the text included English dialogue, and the transition was so seamless that I had almost forgotten she'd just been reading in French.
Towards the end, an audience member asked if she has had difficulty writing from a man's point of view (all of her books employ the first-person), and she said that she has, but that once she gets into the voice, she enjoys playing the part of someone else. íIt's fun to change yourself completely,ë she said.
Published Mar 20, 2009 Copyright 2009 David Varno