Shenaz Patel Interview Transcript
I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Mauritian writer Shenaz Patel.
Merrill: Shenaz PATEL (fiction writer, playwright; Mauritius) has written many novels, plays, and short stories in both French and Mauritian Créole: best known is her 2005 novel Le silence des Chagos. As a working journalist, she writes about social and cultural issues; much of her writing seeks to unearth the unsaid and untold. She participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
We are recording from the University of Iowa on Thursday, September 29, 2016. We’ve had the chance to sit down with Shenaz who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.
Shenaz, about a week ago during the general debate of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 23, 2016, the prime minister of Mauritius presented an argument for the recognition of the sovereignty of Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia, the military base that is so much a part of American military strategy. This archipelago and its history are central to your novel Le Silence des Chagos. Can you give the listeners a little bit of background about the Chagossians’ eviction from Dieg- Diego Garcia, and how you came to write a novel about it?
Patel: Well, the, the history of the archipelago of Chagos is, uh, closely linked to the history of Mauritius. It was part of the territory of Mauritius, uh Mauritius was a French colony then a British colony until we asked for our independence in uh, years 1960s. And the British said, “Okay, we’ll give you your independence but we’ll just keep that part of your territory, which is quite far from your mainland,” which is the Chagos Archipelago. At that time there were talks already between the British and the Americans, who wanted the main island of that archipelago, the island of Diego Garcia, to establish one of their main military bases. It was a very strategic point, which enabled them to control the whole of the Middle East, and it’s good to know that the latest bombings on Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have, went from uh, the island of Diego Garcia. So um, Mauritius wa- was granted independence in 1968, and the British uh, kept that part of our territory. Since then, Mauritius has been um, claiming its sovereignty over that part of, of the archipelago, and there is a UN resolution, uh, 1514, which says that you’re not allowed to dismantle territory when giving independence, or during decolonization, but that wasn’t uh, um, that wasn’t um, listened to by the British, and the fact is that there was a population on these islands. Um, there were people who had been living there for some generations, uh, it was their island, it was their lives, and they were taken away, um, I used the word “deported” and I think it’s not a st- too strong word, because they were taken away in two, two different phases, pha- they were taken away in two different phases. The first one, uh, they just closed the hospital on Diego Garcia, They didn’t send enough food, and then they told people, “Well, you have to be, to have medical treatment so go to Mauritius, take some vacation, go and visit, uh, the peop- your relatives or people you know there,” and when these people wanted to take the boat back, to go back to their island, to their home, they were told, “There is no boat, your island is closed. You’re not going back home,” without being told why and what was happening. And then, a few years later, the Americans were getting a bit nervous about it taking too long, so the British just sent a boat, and the remaining people were given half an hour to pack their things and just get on the boat and leave, without being told, once again, what was happening to them, why they were being taken away, where they were being taken. And I met that story a few years, uh, when I was still a, uh, student. One day in a newspaper I saw a big black-and-white photo on the front page and on that photo you could see a group of women, who were barefoot, um, totally disarmed and facing soldiers, who had boots and, who are the, usual attire of soldiers, and there was such a determination and violence in that picture and I just wanted to understand, who are these women and what are they fighting for or against? And then a, a few years later I became a journalist, and uh, for one of my first papers I went to meet these women, and I asked them to tell me their story, and they were Chagossian women and they told me their story. And I’ve made articles about it but, that story just kept walking in my head, and I felt like, um, it might seem a paradox, but I think that somewhere fiction, fictionalizing a story is one of, the best way to make it alive. I wanted people to feel with them what they have been through, and I felt like a nonfiction document or just mere, uh, articles in a newspaper wouldn’t do that, so that’s why I set about writing a novel, which is called Le Silence des Chagos.
Merrill: So it begins as an act of journalism and then the stories take shape in your imagination. Did you do some other kinds of research, or was it really just a matter of listening to the stories?
Patel: There was a lot of research. It took years actually, um, because it’s uh, it’s a very important dossier, the, the story is still ongoing, they were discussing it uh, the week before at the national, uh, the General Assembly of the United Nations, it’s still a very strong and very sensitive issue. There are many things at stake, political, geographical, historical, economical, so you have to get the facts right. You can’t just say, “Well, I’m writing a fiction so I’m allowed every freedom,” no. It’s very, you have to be very precise with all the chronological things, and in a way, I would say it has to be true. Um, so it took me years, and mountains of documents to go through, to be just sure have accurate uh, framework, and then at one point you have to put all that aside and uh, just let the voice of the novel come through. And that’s the most difficult part I think.
Merrill: So, uh, and that voice comes through in both French and Creole. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to write in both languages and what the complications might be about writing in Creole and what the opportunities would be for you as a fiction writer?
Patel: I have two mother tongues, and I don’t know why we say ‘mother tongues,’ I think we could say ‘father tongues’ also because they were given to me by my mother and my father. So, um, uh, I write in French and I write in Creole because these are the two languages that I inhabit uh, deeply. So I, I chose to write it in French but then, when I tried to have my characters speak in French, I, I found that I just couldn’t hear them, I couldn’t hear their voice because they speak in Creole, and in a way to have them speak in French would be dishonest to them, and uh, the voice wasn’t going through so I decided to just uh, let them speak in Creole as they would have, and uh, as I don’t really like footnotes I tried to use uh, a literary device so that you- the non-creolophone reader, would be able to understand in the sentences that come afterwards what was said in the dialogue in Creole.
Merrill: So a kind of, uh, definition follows.
Patel: Yeah, so you get the context, you get to understand what was said, and while it’s a book- you don’t have a lot of dialogues in this book, because uh, the Chagossians are not very talkative people. They’re not very talkative about where they lived, and this has a very simple explanation, because I think um, your language con- builds the world, and I think that what they went through that didn’t have words for that, these words didn’t exist in their vocabulary – the word “exile,” the word “deportation,” these words didn’t exist for them. And when I met them I was struck by the fact that when you talk about that period and what happened with them, they, they just say, they look at you and they say, “It was hard, it was very hard,” and then you feel like their, their eyes are just going away and you see a lot of things mirroring in their eyes, but they’re unable to talk about it. And I felt like, um, this story was confided to me because I spent a lot of time, uh, with a certain number of Chagossians, some of them have become friends. I think uh, it takes time, and a lot of uh, respect, and humility and care, because you don’t walk in- into people’s lives like you walk into a hotel and say “I want to write a book or write an article” and then you just walk out. It, it takes a lot of time, and some of them are friends now, um, but I just wanted to, to, to tell that story from the inside, even though I don’t pretend to be their voice.
Merrill: But in effect you are giving voice to their story.
Patel: I am giving voice but I, I’m a bit um, how would you say that, I’m a bit um, I’m always a bit precautious about that thing about being, as we say in French “la voix des sans voix,” the voice of the, the, those who have no voice because in a way for me it’s a bit preposterous, and a bit pretentious to “I’m the voice of…” such and such person, because even when we try, when we have a little bit of empathy, we try to understand what they’re living, uh, we are not them. Uh, I was listening to that reporter who does a lot of war covering, and then, “We know that at the end of it we’re going back to our safe home, and that’s not the case for these people, so we can’t say that we’re…” I, I mean, for me I’m a voice, trying to echo or to give flesh and reality to what I feel like these people have been living. But I’m not them.
Merrill: What has been the reaction among the Chagossians to your novel, if any?
Patel: They were very happy, because um, well they’re fighting on many fronts at the moment to have their story known, because the point is that the Americans don’t want to release these isl- these islands, because they say that it’s crucial for the security of the “free world.” But I think it’s very important that the free world knows, at all expense, our freedom uh, is established and gained. And I feel like the, the story of the Chagos- of the Chagossians is very, still very unknown, and I think it’s not fair because, um, they have been through a lot and I think it could have been so much different, uh, if they had been considered as people, as human beings, I think they could have been treated so differently and have such a different life. And I think sometimes we just ruin people’s lives by not considering that they’re people and not just uh, furniture that we move around and dispose of.
Merrill: Which might be one uh, way to define the difference between journalism and the work of literature, that you have tried to get to the heart of the story, where the v- the human heart of the story.
Patel: Yeah, I think that’s what literature is all about for me. For me literature is about the heart of people, I think. It seems to me that it, it takes a lot of time, and a lot of chance, to go um, to what’s inside people. We can go around, uh, with someone for thirty years and then wake up one morning and say, “Well, I don’t know that person.” Uh, with literature you take any book, on any shelf, and you open it and instantly you, you’re in, inside people’s hearts and flesh and feelings and doubts and fears and everything, so, I think it’s a very privileged way to be in contact with uh, what’s most human in us. And for me, in words there are people, and that’s why, um, well I think in journalism it’s something about very, being very precise with words, it’s very clinical, you can’t allow yourself to just um, take every freedom with what you’re telling. Literature is my other breath, because there I have the freedom. I, I, some years back, someone just took me by the shoulders, he stopped me in my tracks. He took me by the shoulders and he looked into my eyes and said, then he s-, he told me “you’re not God.” And I was very frustrated and annoyed at the time that he told me that, because I like to think of myself as being able to, to kind of, I don’t know, help in other people’s life, or try to make things different, and then I realized that in literature, I can be God. In literature, I can, I can kill someone if I don’t like him. I can resuscitate him the next morning if uh, if I’m missing him, and in a way um, words create people and the world, and that’s why it’s so important for me to inhabit words. It’s a very, very very precise work, um, I believe in the aesthetics of literature, but I don’t believe in the aesthetics for itself. Uh, there’s a lot of questions about being engaged or not engaged, I think when you write, when you create any work of art in a way you’re engaged because you could be just, running around, swimming, having a drink with friends, so… watching a film, anything. When you sat down and say… sit down and say, “I’m going to write something, or paint something, or compose something,” I think it gets from, some, it starts from something very deep inside of you which has to be expressed, and it, which in a way, is engaged in itself. And um, for me working on the aesthetics of word, of words, is primary to being engaged, because every single word has a lot of meaning, and to convey what you want to convey um, I think it’s a very tough job, to be finding the exact words, the exact sequence. I was reading an article by a French author that I like very much which is called, who is called Camille Laurence, and she wrote an article saying, um, “in words there are people.” And she was reflecting about the refugee crisis at the moment, saying how at one point we were calling them in French, “immigrants,” or “emigrants,” and then we started telling about mi- telling about “migrants,” and it’s a terrible word, because in a way it’s as if these people didn’t have a home before, it’s like nomads or, when you say “migrants” it’s just as if they are people who come from nowhere and who are going nowhere. They’re just passing through. And uh, and she was saying that the world- the word “refugee” is also a terrible word, and, and we have articles every day in the press about refugees being evicted, so just “refugees” and “evicted” are just, don’t seem to make sense, but it’s reality nowadays. And she was proposing the word “host” which in French applies at the same time to uh, the people who receives, the person who receives, and the person who is received. And I think it’s, it’s so important that we inhabit the words we use, and that’s particularly important in literature.
Merrill: And, whether we’re talking about creating a character in French or in Mauritian Creole, it has all to do with the sound of the words, getting that sound right, doesn’t it?
Patel: Uh, I’m not sure if, if for me, it’s really about the sound, or more uh, profoundly about the rhythm.
Merrill: The cadence.
Patel: Yeah. That, that’s very important to me. I usually write with, often write with music, classical music, but I often write also with just the sound of the sea or, the wind in an acacia tree, and it’s, I think it’s basically a, a thing about rhythm. When I write, I have to feel uh, that rhythm. I think there’s an inner rhythm to each one of us, and that’s why, what we have to listen to and try to get across, and there’s a, the- there’s an Italian writer also, called Ales- Alessandro Barico, yeah, that I like very much. He wrote a book which is called Soie, “silk,” which is the pure beauty, a very short book, but it’s… and it has that music, and, and he talks about that, the particular music of that book, and um, and yes, literature for me is that also. So it’s a, it’s a rhythm and it’s a music.
Merrill: Um, you write a lot of, you create a lot of female characters. Is there a particular rhythm to writing about women, and uh, is there a difference in writing them in French or in Creole? And how do you capture that, how do you bring them to life on the page?
Patel: For me, women in real life all, are already interesting characters, because I think they compose so many roles at the same time, that I’m always fascinated to look at women and how they compose with these different roles, and create characters out of themselves in everyday life. So, I think writing about women for me is, is, is part of that fascination and I, I think we write well about what we feel deeply. I can write about men living in Iceland, technically I can, it’s, it could be an interesting exercise, but then it’s not what I really feel like telling, so, I want to give way and to give voice to, to these characters and voices that I feel deeply, and um, there are stories that come to me in French and I write them in French, and there are stories that come to me in Creole and I write them in Creole and I just can’t say why. And I’m not too interested, I think, to know why, because I’m afraid that perhaps when I find out why, when I know why, perhaps I could just stop writing. Um, so it’s just part of a mystery and just part of the, of the wonder of, of writing because for me it’s a wonder. It’s, it’s, it’s like an expl- and I… I still find it difficult to talk about myself as a writer. Um, for me I’m first a reader, I’m a… um… and then I’m an explorer. I’m fascinated by the way something totally, uh, inanimate ink on a white page can become alive. It just depends on the way you align the word, the words, you put a comma here, or you put this word in front of this one, or in this sequence, instead of another, and then suddenly, there you have characters who are alive, who step out of the page, who walk along with you, and who sometimes stay with you your whole life. Uh, I’m really, I, I’m always trying to find out how does that work, and that’s why I’ve tried uh, many genres like novel, short story, plays, comic books, children’s books, um, I’m, I’m eager to explore all the possible ways that writing can bring to life.
Merrill: And you’re doing it in the context of the French literary tradition, but you’re far removed from the, from Paris. What are the advantages of writing in that rich tradition, but at such a remove?
Patel: I, I think-
Merrill: Do you have license to go in every direction in the way that you do in different genres?
Patel: Totally, I think. Um, for me, we Mauritians are uh, a métisse population, uh, we come from very different parts of the world, uh, from France and England, from Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Madagascar, from India, from China, so we’re, in a way, and I use the word in a very positive sense, we’re in a way a bastard population. Uh, or, to use a, uh, kinder word perhaps, métisse population.
Patel: That’s it. And I like in, in French, the word “métisse,” because um, things meeting up and mixing and at the same time keeping some characteristics and then creating other characteristics, and that also tran- is transposed into language, um… Creole is a, the, a language of meeting, of encountering, uh, although it tells about a violent history, because it’s the language that had to be found between the French colonizers who brought in slaves, and those slaves who came, who came from different parts of Africa, and who had different languages, and they had to find a common language. So it’s kind of, part of the violent history, but at the same time it’s, it tells about the creativity of people. Um, and, and that’s, for me, very interesting because I think we always um, creating with language because language is not just a tool to communicate. Language creates our world, and uh, in an ever-changing and fast-moving world, I think languages like Creole can bring a lot to other languages. And I- when I write, uh, I use French words, I use Creole words, and I sometimes use Creole syntax, uh, and I think, it’s my way also of enriching the French I speak and the French I write. I don’t feel any… I don’t feel any need or weight of past French literary tradition kind of overwhelming me and saying I have to go in that tradition. I think what would interesting would be each one of us trying to bring his own part, his own originality, not just for the sake of originality, and there I must say I’m very wary of exoticism, it’s not a question of bringing in folklore or something very exotic, but it’s just about being true, I think, to, to, to how we express yourself and not to feel like you have to take what comes from elsewhere and just use it as the canon of what’s right and what’s to be followed. I… I think being creative in language is so much part of our modern identities, where we have to adapt to, to so many things, and to create whole new ways of, of living.
Merrill: I love the way you talk about Creole as a language of encounter, because it seems to me that that’s what literature at its best is, it’s opportunities to encounter what we could not even imagine.
Patel: Hm, that’s true.
Merrill: Before we leave, could we, could you say a word about uh, what you’re working on, and because you’re writing from so far away, some books you might recommend for our listeners?
Patel: Uh, I feel like I’m wri- wri- I’m working on so many things at the moment, that I just have to settle down and decide on which project I’m going to work first. There are three major projects: there’s a, a novel, which is closely linked to the history of the United States, also, um, there’s a translation, there’s a play, um, but I’m a bit superstitious about talking about things that are not yet ready, so I hope to be able to talk more about them in the near future. Um, I was just reading this book, um, which is called Artful, by Ali Smith, and it’s a wonderful book, which talks about uh, the place of art in our lives, in our world, and uh, in that book she- she at one point talks about uh, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is one of the, which is regarded as the oldest written story on earth, um, and it tells the story of uh, the king Gilgamesh who goes on a long journey to discover the secret of eternal life. And there’s just an extract from that book if we have the time. So, Gilgamesh has a friend who’s called Enkidu and Enkidu dies, uh, he’s sent by the gods and then he’s killed by the gods. And so, um, Ali Smith writes, “Enkidu, Gilgamesh– Gilgamesh’s friend grows ill and dies. How can I keep silent? How- how can I stay quiet? My friend, whom I love, has turned to clay. Gilgamesh mourns him in one of the most beautiful poetic elegies that yet exists, then immediately goes on a journey to find eternal life so the same thing won’t happen to him. When he fails to snare the source of living forever, he returns home to the city of which he’s king, and builds a statue instead to commemorate his d- dead friend. He accepts his own mortality. He puts aside his tyrannous ways, reforms his morality. He remakes his friend in clay. ‘Decay is the beginning of all birth,’ as Paracelsus has it, ‘the midwife of very great things.’ This is Czeslaw Milost on decay, from his poem called ‘No more’: ‘If I could find for their miserable bones / In a graveyard whose gates are licked by greasy water / A word more enduring than their last-used comb / That in the rot under tombstones, alone, awaits the light, / Then I wouldn't doubt. Out of reluctant matter / What can be gathered? Nothing, beauty at best. / And so, cherry blossoms must suffice for us / And chrysanthemums and the full moon.’” And I think that’s what we’re in search of, that word, that we lost.
Merrill: Well, you have given us many of those words, Shenaz. Thank you so very much.
Patel: Thanks to you.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available December 15, 2017 on iTunes and SoundCloud where I talk with Indian writer Akhil Katyal.
 lit. “the voice of the voice-less”
 Originally Seto in Italian, I think she’s referring to the French translation.
 mixed, varied, also used for “cross-pollinated” – so yeah, a little kinder than “bastard”