Do novelists lie? Which song inspired Eve out of Her Ruins? Is it difficult to translate your own work to another language? How to find the right voice for your character? Mauritian writer Ananda Devi answered these and other questions hours before receiving the honorary doctorate degree of the University of Silesia in Katowice. Enjoy the interview.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: In Indian Tango the narrator is visiting a rundown old district of Delhi, where she isn’t feeling safe, and the air is so polluted that she has to cover her nose. If you were writing a novel or a short story set in Katowice, would you also be looking for such places?
Ananda Devi: Cities are fascinating for me, like Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius, which has inspired a lot of my novels. I always look for the heart of a place, something both deepfelt and at the same time a little bit unreal. If I were writing about Katowice, I would probably like to go down a coal mine, as it’s an important part of the history of this region, of people’s consciousness, their past and present.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: In your novels women are trying to liberate themselves against male oppression, finding their identity and sexuality. Do you consider yourself as a feminist writer?
Ananda Devi: When I was younger, I had 5-6 labels attached to my name – feminist, Mauritian, Indo-Mauritian, Francophone, postcolonial… Also, feminism had a bad press in the 1980s, but it has come a long way since then. I slowly began to realize that it’s a kind of fight that goes on and on. Even if in some places we feel that women are more liberated, in others they aren’t at all, so I do accept it now that I am a feminist writer. A humanist writer, first of all, because it’s also about oppression of men not just women, but unfortunately, throughout history women are really at the forefront of oppression.
There are many ways in which the oppression works. In the western world we see how much the female body is subject to oppression: it has to conform to certain norms and social media trends. Young girls are more and more under the pressure of appearance. I think it will create a very disturbed generation of women.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: In Eve out of Her Ruins, we can find something to sympathise with each of the four protagonists, including a thug, a gangster, and a prostitute. Does the main character in The Green Sari, the old doctor who turned the lives of women in his family into hell, also deserve our sympathy?
Ananda Devi: There are moments when the doctor’s a bit funny. There’s also the scene with the cow where he shows a bit of humanity towards an animal. The Green Sari is based on a real story from my family that my mother told me when I was a child, about a young woman whose husband got so angry because she overcooked the rice that he threw it on her. It remained in my mind ever since, and I had to write this novel. In fact, I tried to do it three times: first from the point of view of the granddaughter, which didn’t work at all. In fact, I wrote it three times, first from the point of view of the granddaughter, which didn’t work at all. One day I was just thinking about how I can tell the story and then, it was as if the male character told me, ‘Would you dare to try my voice instead?’ It was like an inner challenge. By that time I was already in my 50s, so I think I had to get to that age, to be able to think that maybe I can write from the male perspective, and also from the point of view of somebody who was violent, but who has to interact with the reader in a way. And once I had this voice in my head, I could write it very easily.
I think that the key to this book is to read it in two ways: you’re reading the doctor’s narrative on how violence is fine, it’s a grace and love, and at the same time the reader has to have their own narration, read what he’s saying underneath and what the women in his are going through. It’s a very complex novel. It wasn’t difficult to write once I got his voice, but I had to get into his head, become myself like him, even though I’m a complete anti-thesis of him.
The readers of The Green Sari tell me that they feel as if they’ve been taken into the mind of this man. He asks them questions like, ‘Maybe you think like that sometimes, too? Maybe we all have these prejudices, whether against women or against men?’. He is cruel, and at the same time he’s attracting us into his own way of thinking.
His attitude helps reflect on ourselves. People always saw me as a nice person, I get on with lots of people easily, but then the Doctor says, ‘Okay, you’re nice, fine, but what are you doing to change the world, what are you doing to really help other people? Are you doing anything, or are you just being nice?’ Although he is a monster, he is questioning something in each of us which is very vital. So I think that we are able to sympathize with him in some ways.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: You often write from the male perspective. Is it a greater challenge for you?
Ananda Devi: What attracted me to writing in the first place is that I could be anybody and anything. Already as a teenager I wrote as a 40-year-old man, a 60-year-old woman, and even as a lizard on the wall, trying to put my myself in the head of the animal. I just have to find a voice.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: Professor Krzysztof Jarosz, has recently shared some problems he has had as a translator of your books. For example, in La Vie de Joséphin le fou you put an important word play in French between the words sea (mer) and mother (mère), which is absent in Polish. As you have translated some of your own works, do you think Ananda Devi is a blessing or a curse for translators?
Ananda Devi: Some are easier to translate, because they’re more linear. Others are more poetic, and the meaning in them is fluid. One verse can be interprested in several ways. And this is what makes it difficult, because you have to decide: ‘Maybe I need to fix the meaning?’, and translators of my work often ask me questions about specific places in the text.
The Polish cover of the book “Le sari vert” (Green Sari) by Ananda Devi
Tomasz Grząślewicz: And they often get frustrated with your answers.
Ananda Devi: Absolutely! They ask, ‘What did you mean by this?’, and I don’t know. Sometimes the sentence or the image just comes out, almost subconsciously. So I tell the translators to free themselves from the actual words. Let the meaning distill inside their own heads, so they can recreate something not exactly the same, but with the same kind of a feeling, which is what I do when I translate myself. I probably betray my own texts more than other translators do.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: Do you trust yourself when you translate your own work?
Ananda Devi: I rewrote rather than translated Pagli to English. It’s a very poetic novel, with all the sounds and alliterations coming together, and so I let myself be pulled by the language rather than by the original meaning. Also, some things that are lyrical and poetic in French sound excessive in English, which is more restrained. When translating my own work, I sometimes find myself thinking, ‘I could have written this better.’
The other major work I translated was the collection of poetry about migrants called Ceux du Large. I went to USA for a book tour in 2016, in the middle of Trump’s campaign, and I wanted to read these poems to the audience, because Trump unleashed the language of hate, talking about walls and prejudice. I rewrote the whole collection in English, and then in Creole, to have this book as accessible as possible. Sometimes what I wrote in English sounded better, so I went back to French and changed it, then Creole came in. It was like a dialogue between 3 languages.
Look at the titles in three language versions of Ceux du Large. In French it’s ‘those who are at sea’, which doesn’t say whether they drown or not. In English it became ‘afloat’, whereas in Creole I rewrote it as ‘the drowned’, referring to the history of slavery in Mauritius: all who crossed the seas were metaphorically drowned, as they were turned into slaves. I thought this tragedy would be more immediately visible in the title.
This is why I don’t translate the other novels myself: I would be tempted to do the same.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: You said, ‘When I write prose, it’s not as if I’m thinking of each sentence and writing it down. I’m just letting the flow of the words and the music of the words attract each other and create some images.’ I’m just letting the flow of the words and the music of the words attract each other and create some images.’
Ananda Devi: I listen to a variety of music when I’m writing. The advantage of being Mauritian is that we grow up with a lot of different music: Indian, classical, pop, western, African. What I listen to sometimes really influences the cadences, the rhythm, and when I read back those books, I can remember what music I was listening at the time. In Eve out of Her Ruins, at one point I quote Krapo kriye, a popular song from Mauritius. The rhythm of this song was at the back of the story when I was writing it. Music does play an intricate role in what I write, and I want it to be inside the novels, even if no one knows about it.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: In Indian Tango, the narrator says that the purpose of the novelist is to hide behind the words, and warns the reader to beware of the novelist’s lies.
Ananda Devi: When I was writing this passage, I thought about how much as a person I’m different from the writer, and how much as a writer I can play with this. Somebody told me that it’s lucky The Green Sari was written by a woman, because if it was a man, the reader might have thought that the writer is thinking the thoughts of the narrator. I’m hiding behind a persona, which is really not who I am, and when I write, I’m completely divested of everything that’s my identity, I become my characters, I become the place.
The thing that annoyed me in France, especially at the beginning, was that critics or journalists would talk about the Mauritius I described as the real Mauritius, while I wasn’t talking about physical Mauritius, but about its mental representation. In the same way I redraw New Delhi, the roads that probably don’t exist, or not in the same place, etc.
Everything about novels is a lie in a way, but it’s closer to truth than news stories or social media. A novel tells you that it’s fiction, but at the same time it seeks for truth deep inside places or people. So beware of the lies, but know where the truth is.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: In Great America, one of the short stories in The Sad Ambassador, three American women fail to tailor India to American standards. As a person who has lived in several countries, continents, languages, with refugee crises, climate migration and wars just around our corner, what advice would you give to those who are about to meet people from a different culture, to face the other?
Ananda Devi: Just realise that we’re all humans. Different individually, but fundamentally alike. Everyone has their own personality, hopes, dreams and suffering, so why should they be hated and rejected? The strangers are not coming over to invade you, but because they have to. People in France say that those who come from the Middle East can’t deal with their own problems. However, these problems are often the heritage of colonialism, like the way European countries divided the countries in Africa.
History is a continuum and none of us is innocent, for example with the climate change: we all still use plastic. I try not to buy products made by certain companies, because I know their owners have the fortune of the world in their hands and they’re not sharing it, so I say I won’t buy with them, but sometimes it’s so easy that I do. We are all guilty, and that’s the first thing to think about when we see people coming with from countries that are being torn apart: we could be in the same situation tomorrow.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: What’s next for Ananda Devi?
Ananda Devi: The old project I finally managed to finish: a book about the poet Sylvia Plath, partly biographical and partly fiction. It will come out in October.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: And what about your next novel?
Ananda Devi: It’s called The Day of the Chameleons. It’s set in Mauritius in the future, when things are really falling apart. The main characters are three chameleons from Madagascar, changing colours all the time, waiting for humans to disappear, so they can come back and occupy the island again without the pesky presence of human beings.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: You’re writing it in French, and not rewriting it?
Ananda Devi: No, I will trust the translators.
Tomasz Grząślewicz: Thank you for the interview.
The article “To Find a Voice” was published in the July issue of Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ (University of Silesia Magazine) no. 10 (300).
Meet the author session with Ananda Devi
On 22 June 2022, the outstanding Mauritian writer Ananda Devi Anenden was conferred the honorary doctorate degree from the University of Silesia. The day before the ceremony, a meeting with the author was held at Scientific Information Centre and Academic Library (CINiBA). The meeting was led by the literary scholar and translator of Ananda Devi’s works, Prof. Krzysztof Jarosz.
Ananda Devi | private archive