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.