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Ananda Devi – a Writer at the Crossroads of Cultures. Interview with Prof. Krzysztof Jarosz, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities

05.03.2020 - 08:30 update 05.03.2020 - 08:30
Editors: MK

In 2019 Ananda Devi, the greatest contemporary Mauritian writer, was a guest at the University of Silesia in Katowice. We asked the translator of her works, Prof. Krzysztof Jarosz, a Romance Studies scholar, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Silesia in Katowice, to talk about the life and works of this author.

|Maria Sztuka|

Ananda Devi has been releasing her books in the greatest publishing houses of Paris for over 30 years. Her first work in Polish translation was published in October 2018. It was the novel The Green Sari, awarded with Prix Louis-Guilloux prize in 2010. The second book, Eve Out of Her Ruins, awarded with the Prize of the Five Continents of Francophonie, appeared in the bookshops at the end of 2019. Both novels are very touching, however, to be able to read all codes hidden within them, it is necessary to be familiar with the specific ethnic and cultural nature of Mauritius, where the writer was born and grew up.

Ananda Devi is a literary pseudonym made up of two names of the writer, whose family name is Nirsimloo and married name is Anenden. The writer was born in 1957 in Mauritius, in a small town of Trois Boutiques, in an Indian-Mauritian family (her ancestors came from India). She completed her studies and obtained a doctoral degree in social anthropology at a university in London. Although she has lived in Ferney-Voltaire in France for 30 years, her Mauritian roots are clearly visible in almost all her writings, which is why the history of this paradise island is a certain key to understand her works. When the island was discovered by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 16th century, it was a desert paradise ruled by dodo. Unfortunately, nowadays this 25-kilogram cousin of pigeon can only be seen on drawings. In the 17th century, the island was taken over by the Dutch who named it after Maurice, the Prince of Orange. Rich natural resources, such as precious swietenia and ebony trees, contributed to devastation of the island. Not only did the Dutch cut down the most valuable specimen, but also forests, to pave the way for transport. They also brought pigs and rats to the island, which caused the ultimate destruction. Chased out by the destructive cyclones, they left the island, and it was not until 1721 that the French came here on their way to conquer India. Mauritius and the two neighbouring islands became a storage place for the armies sailing to or from Europe. They also changed the island name to Île de France. After 90 years, in 1810, the island was taken over by the English, who restored the initial name and ruled Mauritius until 1968.

Once a desert island, nowadays it’s in the world’s top most densely populated places.

This is a natural effect of colonisation. First there were slaves brought to the island, mainly from Africa and India, and when the Great Britain abolished slavery in 1835, the deficiency of labour force was supplemented with coolies, agricultural workers transferred there from India. Mauritius is small, its surface is only 2,000 km2. It has 65 km at the widest point along the north-south axis and 45 km in the east-west axis. It is inhabited by approximately one million three hundred thousand people. Almost 60 per cent of them are Indian-Mauritians from which the current governing elites originate, one out of four inhabitants is a Creole (a descendant of African or Malayan slaves and their white owners), and around a dozen per cent of people are Muslims – descendants of Indian or Pakistani agricultural workers. There are also small communities of Chinese origin and white descendants of French colonists (each of them has only a few per cent share in the population).

Is it possible to maintain a separate ethnic identity in such a small society?

This is the specific essence of Mauritius. White people live in their enclaves and rather avoid mixing with other inhabitants of the island. The Indians, transported by the British in huge numbers, required their employers to bring them women from the regions that they originated from, thanks to which Indian-Mauritians and Muslims quickly restored on a microscale the ethnic, religious and caste circles that their ancestors had originated from. They also had no problems with restoring the caste and nationality system of India. Creoles, on the other hand, are a melting pot of races. Some of them also have Indian blood, in addition to African, Malagasy and European blood.

What language do inhabitants of Mauritius speak?

English is the official language in the parliament and at school, but Mauritians do not oppose it, because this language opens up the world for them. The home language is Creole, based on French. The second language that they learn at school is French, traditionally very prestigious and regarded as the language of culture. Obviously, in the families originating from the Indian diaspora, the language of community from which the ancestors came is used, and because they came from different parts of the world, there are at least fifteen such languages. For Ananda Devi, it was telugu.

Is the position of Indians on the island privileged?

Mauritius became independent thanks to the Indians who were susceptible to the idea of peaceful union of India pronounced by Mahatma Gandhi. Therefore, the independence day is 12 March, which commemorates both Mauritius gaining independence in 1968 and the beginning of Salt March led by Gandhi in 1930. Indians carefully foster their attachment to culture and traditions within their diasporas: they established their own schools, they teach Indian mythology, read Ramayana and Mahabharata at home in the evening and take great care of their children’s education. The best example is Ananda Devi’s parents, who originated from Indian coolies. They were self-taught, but they read a lot. They made a lot of sacrifices to provide their daughters with education. For this purpose, they moved from the middle of nowhere in the south of Mauritius to Port-Louis, where all their three daughters finished good catholic schools and each of them achieved professional success, though to a different extent.

The paradise-like appearance of Mauritius has fascinated many authors.

The island was already made famous in the 18th century by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Charmed by the paradise-like landscape, in 1788 he wrote a sentimental novel about the tragic fate of two lovers Paul and Virginia, whose love blossomed on the heavenly island of Île de France, far from civilisation. That was the first time when Mauritius appeared in the European literature. Another eulogist of the exotic landscape was Charles Pierre Baudelaire, who came here in 1842 on his way to India, where, according to his stepfather’s wish, he was to learn a serious craft, but due to a storm, he had to end his cruise on Mauritius. He immortalised his fascination with the beauty of Creole women and unearthly landscapes in his most beautiful poems. In 1888 the vessel Otago captained by Konrad Korzeniowski called at Port-Louis. Several years later, the commercial adventure that the young captain had in Mauritius was described by Joseph Conrad in his short tale entitled A Smile of Fortune.

Literary critics called Ananda Devi the greatest modern Mauritian writer. It means that there is a rich literary community in this small society.

This is another specific feature, or even phenomenon of this little island, which gave birth to a disproportionately high number of writers. Indisputably, Ananda Devi is the most prominent and famous of them. Her works are published by Gallimard in the prestigious series „Collection blanche”, but the novels by another Mauritian writer Nathacha Appanah are released in this series as well. Another Mauritius-born writer, Amal Sewtohul, also publishes his novels in Gallimard. There are many more writers there. The anthology of contemporary Mauritian poetry written in French was published in 2014. Many good writers, especially poets, publish their works in local publishing houses, which obviously significantly limits the circle of their readers. There are also some enthusiasts who write in Creole, although a majority of literature is created in French, and the writer’s status is proven by the prestige of their publisher. Ananda Devi is a real authority for many of her fellow Mauritian writers. She writes forewords and afterwords to many works by her fellow countrymen.

What distinguishes the writings of Ananda Devi? How did she win the favour of publishers and literary critics?

She is the author of several dozen of novels, short stories, collections of poems and autobiography written in French. Her attention is mostly focused on women entangled in a complex structure of reality and human relationships. Her heroines either liberate themselves and break social, religious and caste codes, or escape into the world of fantasy, but the vision of the world is always a combination of tragedy, humour and strong images. Regardless of whether the texts by Ananda Devi are strictly realistic (or even naturalistic) or contain elements of fantasy (the writer very often uses this measure), they nearly always tell about violence inscribed in the theme of traditional customs and religions. However, what makes Ananda Devi stand out among other writers, particularly female, who take up the subject of sick domination of men over women, is the extreme naturalism. The writer does not shy away from describing any, even most drastic situations, such as rape, violence act or masturbation. We can find some examples in almost each of her works, including The Green Sari and Eve Out of Her Ruins. However, this naturalism is expressed by means of original poetic means. Taking the side of women, of victims, of the excluded, or various monsters, she is not afraid off any subjects and knows no taboo, but she describes it in a highly sophisticated poetic language. One of the characters in Eve is a budding poet from the housing estate Troumaron. Fascinated by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, in whose poems he discovers a soulmate, he dreams of imitating the French poet. This character contains the essence of aesthetics typical for Ananda Devi: fusion of poetified vision of the world with its extremely realistic and detabooed description. On the one hand – an insane unrequited love, on the other hand – masturbation, so realistic physiology, and all of this expressed using an aesthetic, poetic language. 

Her works frequently include the theme of transgression: abandonment of faith, rebellion against the existing terror, against the power of evil, but it means giving up the cruel standards that are in force rather than rejection of morally positive systems. She does it in the name of longing for the normality, dream of love, freedom and right of choice. The value of her works written in French, which is one of the greatest literary and cultural languages in the world, consists in the fact that she actually uses it to describe the phenomena in our reality which are most significant, but at the same time extremely sensitive. Ananda Devi, as emphasized by the literary critics and scholars, does not write in French, but uses French, stretches it to her own language habits acquired from telugu, sometimes to the Creole syntax, but she provides the language with a unique poetic originality rather than abuses it.

Do works by Ananda Devi increase our knowledge about Mauritius?

We frequently regard her as an Indian woman from Mauritius, whereas both the exotic tone and her origin are of secondary importance. Ananda Devi received western world education, went to a catholic school, studied in London and lives in France, which opens up her view of the world from a significantly wider perspective than just a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. By naming her heroin Eve, the writer consciously targeted a European reader. The fact that the sets her works in Mauritius is caused by the will to emphasize her background. The situations described by her, even though take place in a social and cultural environment which is remote from us, are neither exotic, nor distant. They may happen in every community, also a European. Everyone can say: it’s the same as in our place. This is why she is a writer at the crossroads of cultures. Opposing the quote from Mark Twain included in nearly all tourist guidebooks: Mauritius was made first, and then heaven, Ananda Devi comes up with the image of a stinking housing estate Troumaron, where poverty and exclusion lead to an eruption of a volcano of anger. The tourists visiting the paradise island will not see it.

Will we have further translations?

The Green Sari was the first novel by Ananda Devi which I brought to Poland. It was also the first one, and I have read many works by Mauritian writers, which shocked me so much. When translating it, I was feeling almost as if I was drugged. Ten it was the writer who decided about the translation of Eve, when she revealed during a meeting at the Warsaw Book Fair last year that this is the book she would like to see on Polish shelves. So I fulfilled her wish. A set of short stories by Ananda Devi called The Sad Ambassador will be published in March, and several other translations are already finished: Indian Tango, Life of Crazy Josephine and Exclusion.

Is it going to be another shock for us?

Rather a great deal of empathy.

Thank you very much for the interview.

The article entitled „Ananda Devi – a Writer at the Crossroads of Cultures” was published in „Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ” 2020, no. 4 (274).

Zdjęcie portretowe prof. Krzysztofa Jarosza
Prof. Krzysztof Jarosz | photo by Dr. Agnieszka Nęcka, Prof. of the University of Silesia

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