An Interview with Ananda Devi by Her Translator Jeffrey Zuckerman
Photo of Ananda Devi © Catherine Helie Editions Gallimard
Ananda Devi is the author of 11 novels and the recipient of numerous French prizes for her rich and luminous writing. In 2010, she was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. After her featured appearance at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival, Devi returns stateside this fall to fête the new English translation of one of her best-loved books, Eve de ses décombres (Eve Out of Her Ruins, Deep Vellum, September 13th), which she will discuss at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 18th.
Devi was interviewed by her novel’s translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman, on the formative power of place names in fiction, the extraordinary gift of “rediscovering” one’s own work in another language and the enduring lives of Devi’s best-loved works.
Jeffrey Zuckerman: Every time I email you, it seems like you're in a different part of the world! How does a place—whether Mauritius or Congo-Brazzaville or your house on the border between France and Switzerland—eventually become a home for you?
Ananda Devi: This is both a strange and a challenging question! Which place do I really consider “home”? I was born and lived in Mauritius until I was 18, after which I spent six years in London, studying social anthropology. Immediately afterwards, I went to Congo-Brazzaville, where my husband was working for the World Health Organization. I spent more or less seven years there, with frequent stays in Mauritius, especially when my second son was born.
We moved to the French-Swiss border in 1989 and have been there since. So Ferney-Voltaire, the small town in which I have lived since 1989, is home as in the place where I can put my suitcases down and take in the familiar and unique scents that are the imprint of one’s deep-seated presence.
It’s the place where I feel as if I am writing under the tutelary eyes of Voltaire, whose château is about 100 meters away from my place, and of Rousseau, who was born in the nearby city of Geneva. It’s the place where I instantly gravitate towards my beautiful, old-style wood desk with its leather inlay and softly-veined finish to sit in front of my computer and write while keeping an eye on the birds in the cherry trees and the occasional squirrel on the balcony.
"A writer friend once said that home, to him, is the place where he feels he will be buried. In my case, I guess it is the place where no one needs to ask ‘why are you here’?"
— Ananda Devi
Yet, when I go to Mauritius, my very first instinct, upon coming out of the airport, is to breathe in. With that first breath, I have the feeling that I am “here,” that “elsewhere” is abolished, that this is my place, the one where I belong and to which I belong. I may rant and rave against the way social mores are changing, against the race for materialistic things, against the nefarious influence of politics and politicians, but the place itself is mine, something that I can never feel as forcefully as with that first whiff of verdure and earth and sugar cane and wild flowers and rocks.
I cannot explain it, but this is a place where I do not have to negotiate my presence and to explain why I am here. A writer friend once said that home, to him, is the place where he feels he will be buried. In my case, I guess it is the place where no one needs to ask “why are you here”?
JZ: Maybe it’s strange for me to say this, but translating Eve Out of Her Ruins has made me nostalgic for Mauritius, even though I’ve actually never been there. The novel feels universal, as its characters share the emotions and hopes and fears we all experience as teenagers, but even so it's very deeply rooted in the landscape of Mauritius. Translating the novel felt like a treasure hunt: a single word could send me on a two-hour search through the Internet to learn all about le Souffleur, where the ocean waves can spurt 20 meters high, or those tiny non-venomous snakes called couleuvres.
You've written books set there, and in Delhi and London and many other locales—so I'm wondering if you think of your books as, maybe, love letters to these disparate parts of the world...
AD: Yes, that’s true. All my novels have been grounded in a way that I myself, in my peripatetic life, haven’t. It may have started because of the poetic names of Mauritian places: Gris-gris, Brisée Verdière, Poudre d’or, Crève-Coeur, Solitude, Terre Rouge… which all seem to call for their own story! Just as I have always used symbolically-charged names for my protagonists, I also use the name of the place where the story is set to give it a kind of mythical dimension.
Actually, sometimes it’s the place that guides the story: when I began writing the first page of my novel Pagli, I didn’t know yet where the story would be set. Within the first few lines, I thought of this village called Terre Rouge (the Red Earth), and I immediately saw the role that the color red would play in the story—the symbolism of the red wedding sari, of menstrual blood, of Mitsy’s sensual red dress—as well as the end of the story—heavy rains falling for days on end and transforming the lateritic red earth of that region into a sea of mud that would slowly rise and encase everyone—all because of a name!
The same happened with my novel entitled Soupir. It was inspired, literally, by the name of a tiny hamlet on the island of Rodrigues, called Soupir (the Sigh). After I read a newspaper article about this hamlet, it began to haunt me, quite literally, with questions: why should a place be called the Sigh? Who is doing the sighing? Is it the wind? Is it the people living there? Is it the dead souls who died and remained there? And so on… until the story had to be written.
So, even when my novels moved out of Mauritius, the same obsession with the setting was present, and Portobello Road, with its antiques shops, in London, or the streets of New Delhi became the places that would ground the characters—or bury them.
Troumaron, in Eve Out of Her Ruins, is the only fictional place name I have used. But it is constructed like many real names in Mauritius, such as Trou aux Cerfs, Trou Fanfaron, Trou d’eau douce, while having several layers of meanings, such as “brown hole” or “hole for marrones (escaped slaves).” I didn’t want to use a real place name in this novel because of its closeness to contemporary situations and the way in which the novel could—wrongly—be interpreted as being demeaning towards those who lived there.
It somehow felt right to come up with Troumaron, which symbolizes so much that is wrong with our history and our present. And indeed, I do love these places and fall back in love with them when I am writing about them, not in an anthropological way, despite my background, but more as if they were themselves fictions that I was creating in order to populate them with characters.
JZ: The translation itself was an delightful process. It's not often that I've gotten to work with an author who herself works as a translator, much less one whose ideas made my translation sound even better in English! Did it feel surreal to see your own words in a wholly different language, especially since it's a language you know perfectly?
AD: It didn’t feel strange because in a way I am in a permanent translation process! I believe most multilingual people tend to live with the changing music of languages in their head, and perhaps this colors the way in which we apprehend the world.
Or it may just be me, but even when I am writing in French, there are echoes of English, Creole, and Hindi winding into the threads of my sentences, a distant melody that changes the rhythm of the writing, so that the language I am writing in appears to be French but is in fact a hybrid language that reflects my own cultural hybridity.
"It is an immense pleasure, a gift like no other, to rediscover your own work in another language and to find that—to paraphrase T. S. Eliot—you have arrived where you started and know the place for the first time." — Ananda Devi
Furthermore, I believe that writers who write in a language that was in some way acquired, whether by historical happenstance or as part of the gamut of languages available to them in their social environment, are in a process of translation that writers who come from a more linguistically “monolithic” background do not necessarily experience. Being translated into another language simply seems to be a step further in this process.
Moreover, I am fully aware of the importance of translation in literature, and of how much we all owe to the dedication and talent of translators to discover writing from all over the world, without which we would be circumscribed within insurmountable linguistic barriers. It can never be said enough how much translation is necessary to understand the world, and even more importantly through literature, which is a window of truth disguised as fiction. In an increasingly fractured and fragmented world, this cannot be stressed enough.
I also feel as if my novel has been given a new life, and translation becomes a door that will lead the novel to another place. Even when I don’t understand the language, I try to read passages of the translation to get a feel for it. In English, it is of course easier for me! When I read your translation, I felt as if I was rediscovering my own novel, but through another voice.
It is an immense pleasure, a gift like no other, to rediscover your own work in another language and to find that—to paraphrase T. S. Eliot—you have arrived where you started and know the place for the first time. Our exchanges have been an absolute pleasure, especially as I felt that you understood the characters as deeply as I did, and that you were committed to this novel to the extent that it became your creation as well.
“I realized then that my writing is intensely musical, in the sense that rhythms and cadences and alliteration almost precede rational thinking.” — Ananda Devi
By comparison, my self-translation of Pagli was a similarly fascinating experience in that I knew exactly where the story was going and could let the language guide me. I realized then that my writing is intensely “musical,” in the sense that rhythms and cadences and alliteration almost precede rational thinking.
I was also able to take liberties with the text that I would not have taken if I were translating another writer. I could tone down the lyricism of the French where I felt that it would not translate well into English, and I even corrected a few aspects that I might have corrected if I had been revising the French. I was so fascinated, intellectually, with the process that I considered writing about the process itself. I might still do it at some stage…
JZ: Oddly enough, it was only a couple of months ago that I realized we would be publishing Eve Out of Her Ruins ten years after it was originally published in French. Has your relationship to the book changed in that decade, as you've published other novels and kept on talking about this one?
AD: There are two novels, out of the dozen or so I wrote, that have taken on a life of their own: these are Moi, l’interdite and Eve de ses décombres. It’s as if they’ve had several incarnations, and in a way they’ve remained more vivid in my mind than some of the other ones I have written, especially as I don’t like rereading my novels, unless I am specifically asked to read a passage or to talk about them. Le sari vert is being studied in several universities, so I also revisit that novel very often.
Eve de ses décombres has had a charmed life… It won several prizes, it was made into a film, it was translated into Romanian and now into English. It is also being studied in high schools in France and in Mauritius, and the seventeen-year-olds who read it have a very intense connection with the characters, to the extent that they discuss them as if they were real. So, it doesn’t feel as if ten years have passed since I wrote it. It is as valid today as it was then, with the disenfranchised youth and the way violence and the temptation of violence rush into the vacuum created by the abandonment of the young by the adults and by society at large.
We are now seeing the same phenomenon, with young people being tempted by the violence of extremism—in fact, it is the temptation of nihilism. If they feel they have no reason to survive, then why should others survive? If they can’t be happy, nobody should be happy. And the rhetoric of hate being poured into their minds is telling them that it is these others that are responsible for their unhappiness, who should be destroyed for what they themselves cannot have.
So, I don’t feel that the novel has aged, but if I were writing it today, perhaps I would have touched upon the radicalization of the young, perhaps I would have touched upon the lies that make them kill and want to die because no one appears to care for them.