Jaipur Literature Festival 2014: Music of Languages, An interview with Ananda Devi
Ananda Devi, a Mauritius born writer was exposed to diverse ethnic and linguistic cultures from an early age. Being of Indian descent from her mother`s side, Creole from her father`s, she speaks a slew of languages including Telugu, Creole, French, and English, as well as a bit of Bhojpuri and Hindi.
Over the years Devi has established herself as a prominent writer by developing her hand at translation, while also publishing a collection of short stories and novels. More importantly she has become a pioneer in spreading the idea that literature is an expression that should not be bound by language.
Although most of her work deals with the backdrop of Mauritius, Devi`s texts actively explore different aspects of the confines of the human mind and body, particularly women sexuality and a woman’s relation to the world around her. Her themes have been a little controversial due to their dark overtones at times.
Devi’s writing has been translated into several languages, though to date only Palgi and Indian Tango are available in English, translated by Devi herself.
Devi`s work is versatile and her ideas are quite unique, so to shed some light on her work, she provides some insights on themes explored, what they mean to her and why she writes about them.
Your writing has a lot of cultural influences. Do you look on that as an advantage when writing? How would you define your writing?
Yes, this is definitely an advantage. This has opened up a world of inspiration for me, as I have had access from early on to writing from Africa, from India, from America, from Europe – basically the world of literature. This is why I am a firm believer in the importance of translation, without which we would be deprived from so many masterpieces of literature. The writers I re-read most regularly are Toni Morrison, J. M. Coetzee, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Albert Cohen, T.S. Eliot and others. I believe these varied influences or inspirations and the different music that languages play in my head when I write, have imbued my writing with a kind of varied cadence that makes it specific and perhaps with a hint of strangeness to French readers. Although I write in French, there are many languages and sources running in an under-current in the flow of my words and sentences.
Is there a message or an example you are trying to give while writing about women locked in traditions and conventions?
It has always been a question of ownership. Who owns a woman’s body? When she is a child, she is her parents’. When she grows up, she is her husband’s. Later on, she becomes fragmented into the identities of mother, wife, her professional role, her social role, whatever. But in the middle of these identities, who is she? Does she know herself? I think a very powerful mythological example of this is in the story of the Lakshman Rekha, in the Ramayana: this line drawn in front of Sita tells her that she must remain within the lines. If she steps over, there is danger, there is emptiness, there is dishonour, there is death. And so, Sita, like the eternal Eve, steps over the line and is kidnapped by Ravana. It is obvious that these mythologies all talk about the need to keep women within bounds. Because a woman will always be a mystery to men, she holds a powerful secret of creation and this secret, which can turn her into a goddess or a witch, is dangerous to men. All the rules are made to curb this power, to make a woman disown herself, lose her capability of choosing for herself, and most of the whole, the freedom to do as she wishes with her body. The first step is to take back the ownership of her body. The rest will follow.
Was it a conscious decision to explore social realities, questions of displaced identity and social conventions?
No. I think that every writer has his or her obsessions, probably at a deep subconscious level. It’s only gradually that we begin to realize that in the end, we are writing the same book over and over again. For me, being a hybrid creature, I suppose the question of identity was naturally paramount and would come up in every book. But as an anthropologist, there is also a certain way of looking at society and decoding the laws that govern it, to reveal its inner mechanisms and gearing. On the other hand, I also explore the novel as a form and the ways in which I can play with language. There is thus a stylistic intent in what I write as well as these questions of identity and social realities.
Your writing challenges accepted notions of masculine, feminine and heterosexuality.
The purpose of writing is to challenge oneself and the reader. You want the reader to walk into the novel and find that the doors are not quite where he/she expected them to be. They might be expecting classical music and find that it is jazz they are hearing. They might think the story is about one thing and find out it is about something else altogether. I like to play little games with the reader, leave some revelation to come at the end. For instance, in my last novel, `Les Jours Vivants` (The Living Days), at the end of the novel the reader suddenly realizes that one of the main protagonists might not have been alive at all during the entire story. It is not just a question of gender but also of preconceptions. How can I bring the readers to question their own entrenched beliefs?
What does gender and identity mean to you?
They are part of our make-up, of course, as biological beings and social beings. Biology dictates our membership in one or the other of the two genders. Society dictates that we “belong” to some group or the other, to some form of congregation that gives us a role and a function. Being and belonging are an inevitable part of human nature. However, they are also constructs that can be used for various purposes not necessarily linked to their original purpose. Being a woman is no longer essentially a biological fact but an entire set of constructs that regulate our life. Similarly, identity is not just a simple fact of belonging but also a set of beliefs, ties and oppositions that can be exclusive as well as inclusive, and can thus become explosive. It seems that our world is becoming more and more fragmented, despite the apparent ease of linkage that modern media have created, and that differences are becoming the key nodes around which societies revolve. Yet, I still think that our behaviour is strongly governed by biological instincts disguised under a veneer of social norms – the strength of the horde and the pack as opposed to the vulnerability of the individual; the “alpha male” need for control; the nesting need of females; the fight for control of the group and of territory. If we recognized this, perhaps we would be better able to control and change dangerous patterns.
Do you believe that there should be more writing that explores themes of gender and sexuality?
I believe these themes are constantly explored, both by male and female writers (if such a difference should be made, which I don’t think it should). There is no need to be explicit about it or for a writer to say: I am going to explore these subjects. If a writer does so, the message would take precedence over the work as a whole and lose its power. In fact, what writers do is raise questions. There are no answers, or no simple answers, but if readers are led to ask themselves these questions, then a process will have begun. In one of my books, I write an eighty year old man who is a misogynist, even a misanthrope, and who has exercised a form of physical or psychological violence over three generations of women. He tells his story by using half-lies and half-truths to explain his behaviour and justify it. If you take it at face level, you might think that I, as a writer, am justifying his behaviour and excusing it. But of course, you know that you are meant to read between the lines, to see where the truth lies. I am not giving it to you on a platter: you have to build your own case against this man, and at the same time, you realize that you may have had similar thoughts occasionally, that some of his justifications make sense. He is a monster – but aren’t we all?
What does Mauritian feminine identity mean to you?
I am a woman (or I think I am!) and I was born in Mauritius, where my roots are. They are part of my make-up and have made me the person I am today. However, when I write, I do not “think” myself as a Mauritian woman. I do not “think” myself at all. I am some kind of creature sitting in front of the computer or with a pen and paper, and letting stories come forward and unfurl, that might take me to places unknown, towards the unexpected. I like to think that I have no identity as a writer. I can be whoever I want to be. I can put myself in the head of the most strange people or things, try to think as they do, try to be who they are. So, although as I was saying before, my subjects do tend to lead me towards the weak or the marginalized or the silent people, I want to write with my mind open to all the stories that are out there or inside me and go with the current towards the unknown.
How did you get involved with `Words Without Borders`?
I knew about their work and read the online texts quite regularly. Then they contacted me to tell me they wished to publish one of my short-stories in translation. I think they do wonderful work, and it is very important in getting writers from different parts of the world read and better known.
Do you feel that the work that the organisation is doing is creating better avenues for foreign writers and giving their work better exposure?
Yes, exactly. There is so much wonderful writing out there, just waiting to be discovered. We spend our lives not having read work that would yet have resonated with us and led to this extraordinarily intense recognition of who we are and what we are. Opening readers’ minds and hearts to these diverse and resonating voices is what `Words without Borders` does, and this is a gift to both writers and readers.