By Aminah Sheikh
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
This is the kind of question, like “what do you write about”, that plunges me into a regular quandary because it’s as if I were being asked to summarize my life in one paragraph. I actually don’t know how I came to writing because I started as a child, almost as soon as I began to read and write, and it grew up with me. But I realized its importance when I was around 12 years old and started writing my first “novels”. I obtained my first literary prize at 15, published my first collection of short stories when I was 19 and never really looked back. I would say that I began to write because it was a way to break the silence – both mine and that of Mauritian society around me, which is one where things are left unsaid, where there is a kind of culture of stifling real feelings, and where, as in many other parts of the world, a large number of people are condemned to be unheard and at times invisible. My first novel, after my collections of short stories, was a first person narrative about a prostitute of Port-Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Written in the eighties, it broke a taboo in many ways, including the sexual violence being described and the sensuality of the writing. I’ve sometimes been described as a writer who writes for the voiceless. But this is a little too grand and emphatic for me. We are all voiceless in certain ways, and writing delves deep into our psyches, into fears and obsessions that fear to reveal themselves because they make us vulnerable.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
The novel I have just completed and that will be published early next year was probably one I found most difficult to write because it broke away from my usual literary haunts. For instance, in all my novels, the place where the story is set is extremely important and plays a major part in the narrative. Whether it is Port-Louis, or Terre Rouge, in Mauritius, New Delhi or London, my characters tend to take on part of their meaning from their surroundings, which closely reflect their states of mind. This roots them in history – their own and the larger history of the place – in their being, in their becoming. In this last novel, however, I do not name the place; it could be any modern city, and there is hardly any description of the outer environment of the main character. This is because the story is told by a morbidly obese 16-year-old for whom, in a way, the “place” is her body. It is her prison and her shrine. She is captured by this inflationary process, trying to come to terms with it, with the fact that her mother left her with her father when she was still a baby, and her father, who adores her, also destroys her by constantly feeding her the most delicious food. He has also created the myth that the protagonist is obese because originally her mother was expecting twins, and that somehow, one was absorbed by the other. So the girl is both constantly shadowed by this invisible sister, and believes she has in a way devoured her inside the uterus. At the same time, it is a very contemporary novel because it talks about the constant “eye” of social media and the virtual world on all of us and on her especially, which turns her into a monster that is constantly being watched. The virtual world is the fourth dimension in which we now live, whether we like or not, and that has unleashed the most negative traits in people, mockery, aggression, hate, racism, behind the walls of anonymity. It all ends in an orgy of self-inflicted violence, the nihilism that is reflected in the many different sorts of violence surrounding us.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
Wow, that’s a terse and almost impossible question! My aesthetic? I would say mingling prose and poetry, sensuality and violence, myth and realism… Generally, I’ve been told that the poetry of my writing draws the reader in before he or she realizes how violent and dark the story is. So I guess this is it.
Who are your favorite authors?
There are so many! I am sixty years old, so my tastes have changed time and time again. Ok, here goes: the anonymous writers of Arabian nights and the Mahabharata; Albert Camus; T.S. Eliot; Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Virginia Woolf; Sylvia Plath; Toni Morrison; Albert Cohen; J.-M. G Le Clézio; J. M. Coetzee… and many others.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
One of my most challenging pieces of writing is my latest collection of poetry, Ceux du large, that I wrote in three languages. I wrote the poems first in French. They are about crossing the seas, migrating, leaving, arriving – and dying in many ways in the process. Then, during a book tour in the US, just before the elections last year, I thought about reading some of these poems, as they addressed an important issue of the campaign. I began to translate them, and found that I wanted to rewrite the entire collection in English. When I completed this, it seemed to me that I should also use my third main language, Mauritian Creole, to make this collection as widely accessible as possible. Of course, translating poetry is the most difficult translation task there is, as something is always lost in the process – either the music or the meaning. However, since this was my own work, I felt free to change whatever needed to be changed, and even went back to the original French to make changes on the basis of the rewriting in the two other languages. Finally, I have three series of poems that are basically the same, but with a slight slippage of meaning here and there that makes them all “speak” to one another in a very subtle and sometimes strange way.
What is your idea of bliss?
I come from an island, so my idea of bliss would be to retire in a house that opens out on the sea so that I can write surrounded by the sound and the image of the sea, alone and without any worries about my family, words flowing out with the same cadence and the same beautiful danger as the Indian ocean.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Opening the newspapers in the morning and seeing Trump’s face on every front page, reading about migrants dying at sea, about walls being built everywhere, about the danger of Marine Le Pen becoming President of France, about Mauritian dirty politics, about fundamentalism on the rise, about species dying… To be honest, at the moment the entire world is a source of worry and anger!
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
I would definitely take the complete poems of T.S. Eliot, as they seem to take on new meanings at every reading. And also Belle du Seigneur, by Albert Cohen, which is also a book that keeps on giving. Perhaps the complete version of the Mahabharata. But I would also make sure to have writing material, as reading always triggers the writing impulse, and I would feel devastated if I couldn’t write as well!
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
If there was nobody else in the house, my computer, containing my writing.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Ananda Devi is a Mauritian writer of Telugu and Creole descent. She has published 11 novels as well as short stories and poetry, and was featured at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York in 2015. She has won multiple literary awards, including the Prix du Rayonnement de la langue et de la littérature françaises (2014), the Prix Mokanda (2012), the Prix Louis-Guilloux (2010), and the Prix RFO du livre (2006). Devi was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2010. Her latest book Eve Out of Her Ruins has been published by Speaking Tiger.