Francosphères

‘Unreal city, unreal world’

Conversation bilingue avec Ananda Devi et Jeffrey Zuckerman à propos des Jours vivants

Francosphères (2021), 10, (1), 109–124.

Abstract

‘Unreal city, unreal world’

Conversation bilingue avec Ananda Devi et Jeffrey Zuckerman à propos des Jours vivants

Amaleena Damlé: Let’s begin, in English, as does Les Jours vivants, with this beautiful and evocative epigraph from T.S. Eliot:

Unreal City Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. […] That corpse you planted last year in your garden Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?1

I first read this novel in 2013, immersed in Ananda’s lyrical, disorienting tale of disenfranchisement, vulnerability, and white supremacy in a cold, crowded, and haughty London. I was living in London at the time, a city I had grown up in and returned to, a city that had always been my home, but living there was beginning to feel like an ever more dislocated experience, the city a sort of fictional, unreal version of itself. In January 2019, in advance of our planned event at Durham University, I read Jeffrey’s eloquent, attentive rendering in English of Ananda’s writing, and was struck, on the eve of Brexit, by the amplified resonance of this story, of a city fragmented by political divisions, resurgent racism, and irascible violence. And now, during these late summer months of 2020 marked by the myriad uncertainties of Covid-19, I read and re-read this novel, beginning with its epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Burial of the Dead’, and I think about the burial of the dead. I think about photographic images of deserted cities that we have seen during lockdown. No crowds flowed over London Bridge. Death has undone so many. And, as ever, and still, some lives are deemed more disposable than others. Ananda and Jeffrey, what has it meant to you to think and to write about this city, to return to it with the publication of Jeffrey’s translation in 2020, and to reflect on the magnification over the years of the themes of a city, indeed a world, racked with division and precarity? Qu’est-ce que cela signifie pour vous, de penser et d’écrire sur cette ville, d’y revenir avec la publication en 2020 de la traduction de Jeffrey, et de réfléchir à l’amplification au fil des années de ces thèmes d’une ville, voire d’un monde tourmenté par les divisions et la précarité?

Ananda Devi: Amaleena, merci pour cette réflexion sensible au sujet de ce roman, de la ville de Londres, de T. S. Eliot, et du bouleversement actuel du monde… Le roman a été écrit entre 2011 et 2012. Il est en très grande partie le reflet de mon expérience d’étudiante à Londres, de 1976 à 1982. C’est-à-dire que, entre 1976 et 2020 (quatre décennies!), la validité de ce que je dis dans ce texte ne s’est pas démentie. C’est un constat terrible.

J’arrivai à Londres en septembre 1976, à l’âge de dix-neuf ans, pour des études d’anthropologie sociale à la School of Oriental and African Studies. Je me souviendrai toujours de ce premier contact avec Londres: j’avais pris un taxi depuis l’aéroport, n’osant emprunter les transports en commun, et les premières phrases du chauffeur me furent totalement incompréhensibles. J’avais pourtant fait mes études secondaires dans le système anglais, j’avais une grande maîtrise de l’anglais et je pouvais écrire dans cette langue, mais l’accent cockney me laissa perplexe. Il me prit pour une gourde venant du tiers-monde et me laissa tranquille. Je pus ainsi découvrir Londres par ses banlieues de briques sombres sous une pluie automnale, moi qui venais d’une île tropicale ensoleillée, et le sentiment de désolation qui s’empara alors de moi me donna l’envie de dire au chauffeur de taxi de rebrousser chemin et de me ramener à l’aéroport. Je ne le fis pas, mais ce premier regard sur la ville allait colorer mon regard pendant les six années qui ont suivi, même si je finirais par l’aimer, cette ville, malgré le racisme ouvert, malgré les skinheads et les fans de football terrifiants, malgré l’immense disparité entre riches et pauvres et les différentes races. Ces deux personnages, Mary et Cub, viennent directement de cette époque, et sont tous les deux nourris des poèmes de T. S. Eliot, surtout les Preludes:

You tossed a blanket from the bed, You lay upon your back, and waited; You dozed, and watched the night revealing The thousand sordid images Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling.2

J’ai porté cette histoire en moi pendant toutes ces années, et lorsque le roman est arrivé, Londres était là, pulsant de toutes ses histoires, de tous ses personnages, de toute sa promesse d’une jouissance cauchemardesque. Mary, Cub, Howard, la musique aussi (d’époque également, No Woman No Cry, Baker Street, Streets of London), tout cela a été une sorte de voyage dans le temps, pas seulement dans le passé mais également dans un futur où la ville est ensevelie sous la neige et seule Mary survit, marchant pieds nus au bord de la Tamise. Quand j’ai redécouvert mon roman à travers le regard de Jeffrey, qui n’est pas seulement mon traducteur mais mon complice, tant il comprend intuitivement et profondément tout ce que je veux dire, je me suis mise à l’aimer de nouveau, et c’est là que j’ai été frappée par le fait que, non seulement il était encore d’actualité en 2013, mais il l’était devenu encore plus en 2019! Je me suis aussi rendu compte que ce roman-là était en réalité en anglais et que je l’avais ‘traduit’ en français au moment où je l’écrivais. Jeffrey l’a restitué, magistralement, dans sa langue d’origine, même si c’est l’anglais américain!

Aujourd’hui (j’écris ceci en septembre 2020), je me demande avec effroi comment nous sortirons du chaos. Nous assistons à une sorte de désagrègement contre lequel nous ne pouvons lutter. Comme si la terre se dérobait sous nos pieds et nous ne pouvions que la regarder fuir en tentant de rester debout. Mary, Cub, et Howard, ces trois marginaux, ces trois êtres blessés, fragiles, tendres, perdus et riches de leurs pensées, représentent bien tous ceux qui sont jetés aujourd’hui sur le bas-côté de la route et pour lesquels il n’y a presque plus d’espoir. L’extrême-droite a gagné du terrain dans de nombreux pays; nous voyons les limites de la démocratie dans des pays comme les États-Unis; et lorsqu’une crise comme la pandémie actuelle arrive, ce seront toujours les mêmes qui auront à payer, qui seront les perdants, qui seront les sacrifiés. Ce chaos-là est celui que le monde moderne a créé. Et il ne sait pas comment s’en sortir.

Jeffrey Zuckerman: Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful question, Amaleena, and thank you, Ananda, for such warm words - I’m really quite touched to hear them from an author I’ve come to think of as ‘the aunt I never had’. I feel very, very lucky to get to work with such an incredible writer and such a kind human being.

As somebody who grew up deep in the American Midwest - my summer holidays were punctuated by long road trips through the relentlessly flat prairies of Kansas and Nebraska - my first encounters with London were not in person, nor even in literature, but through, of all things, Disney. The opening scenes of Mary Poppins (1964) and Peter Pan (1953) showed me a place seemingly worlds apart from the suburbs I’d grown up in; the only image I had of Portobello Road was a song in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971):

Portobello Road, Portobello Road Street where the riches of ages are stowed Anything and everything a chap can unload Is sold off the barrow in Portobello Road You’ll find what you want in the Portobello Road…

In high school, I read Dickens and Orwell; the city finally became a living, breathing space in my mind when I delved into Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and then Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000). And then, in university, I read ‘The Waste Land’ at the end of a survey course - positioned as if history ended with that poem, among all those shades that ‘death had undone’.

The first time I actually visited London was the summer after graduating from university; I saw it as a tourist and without real insight into the city beneath the city (I don’t think I got to wander down any of the streets Zadie Smith described in such wonderful detail!). Eight years later, in 2018, after settling into a career as a translator and after having done a first draft of The Living Days, I came to London again, finally positioned to see the city as so many layers of history and social classes. I stayed with friends in Stockwell, not far at all from Brixton. I spent an afternoon walking up and down that famous Portobello Road where so much of the novel takes place. I took trains out of King’s Cross Station. And I could finally sense that ‘unreal city’ that T.S. Eliot had made so vivid in ‘The Waste Land’.

I’ll confess that I hadn’t been keen at first on bringing The Living Days into English. It was our editor, Cécile Menon at Les Fugitives, who proposed it. And I was concerned that a novel that felt so deeply, inherently British would inevitably be tinged by my American voice. But as we moved from idea to contract to first-draft translation, Brexit happened, Theresa May lurched from one horrible course of action to another, and the divisions that might once have been invisible to tourists were now bared painfully to the world at large, emblematizing the polarization that seems to have gripped the whole world. It was a work of fiction that only seemed to become more and more true as time passed. By the time I was done with edits, I was scratching my head as to what other book of Ananda’s we could have possibly published just now. And I wasn’t so concerned about my language any longer; I’d come to understand how Ananda had given this British diction a French tinge when she’d written it, and as such I felt that it was right to give it a similarly foreign flavor, as an outsider in my own way, when I rendered it in English.

Amaleena: I love how the theme of otherness, or perhaps an unfamiliar familiarity to a place or to a culture, seeps through the writing itself, through these transpositions in language (and languages within languages) that emerge in the weaving of cultures in the textual fabric of the book and its translation, in movements between Mauritius, England, the US… It’s there too in the writing, in the textual slippage between reality and fantasy, ‘une jouissance cauchemardesque’, pour emprunter vos mots, Ananda, that breathes life into this sense of being an outsider looking at an uncanny world. A feeling that has probably been augmented for many of us recently is that this can of course happen in our very own homes. In the novel, when Mary looks through the window at the city she has adopted, she sees somewhere that she no longer recognizes:

Ce n’était plus la ville des premières années, sa ville à elle, apprivoisée par de longues marches, portée par le tracé des pieds plutôt que par une quelconque destination. Ce n’était plus cette ville de la survivance et des fantômes éclos de la guerre. C’était une ville qui piétinait les vieux, une ville exigeante et extravagante, moqueuse des faibles, amoureuse des forts. Elle ne s’y reconnaissait plus depuis longtemps.3

This was no longer the city of her earliest days, her own city, tamed by long walks, formed by well-trodden paths rather than particular destinations. This was no longer a city of legacies and ghosts of the war. It was a city that trod old people underfoot, a crowded yet glorious city that crushed the weak and rewards the strong. She hadn’t recognized it in decades.4

Ananda, dans ce passage il semble qu’on a oublié les héritages de la guerre dans un monde transformé par des appétits capitalistes et des pulsions néolibérales. Ceci dit, il y a partout des fantômes dans le roman. Mary elle-même est une présence spectrale, qui conjure le fantôme de son ancien amant, Howard, et qui soutient, d’une manière vampirique, la vie de Cub (même si c’est dans son imagination). Le roman est rempli d’images de revenants, des fantômes d’un autre temps et d’autres croyances, des fantômes de la guerre, le spectre de l’empire chez les skinheads, ‘des survivances’ comme vous les décrivez. Comment entendez-vous ces incarnations spectrales et présences fantomatiques? Et comment nous aident-elles à situer Mary et Cub, et la façon dont ils s’entrecroisent?

Ananda: J’ai toujours écrit au sujet des marginaux, pas seulement dans le sens où on l’entend généralement, mais aussi dans le sens de ces êtres qui n’entrent pas dans un cadre, qui sont en dehors, qui ne sont pas classifiables et catégorisables. Je me dis que c’est parce que je suis moi-même marginale, j’ai toujours eu l’impression depuis que je suis enfant d’être sur les rives d’une rivière et de la regarder couler, de ne pas faire partie du flot. Je suis la même, depuis cette enfant solitaire jusqu’à maintenant. Ces personnes en dehors du flot, elles sont des fantômes, moins réelles que ceux qui vivent leur vie à chaque instant sans s’observer ni observer les autres. Ou peut-être est-ce eux les fantômes? Enfin, oui, dans ce roman en particulier, ces trois êtres sont des fantômes à divers niveaux. Mary, encore vivante, et ayant connu la ville depuis la seconde guerre mondiale jusqu’au temps présent, est reléguée aux commissures de sa propre vie parce que la vieillesse désormais nous rend invisibles; Howard est revenu du chaos de la guerre, mais n’a plus de véritable existence et a été effacé par le progrès; Cub, le plus vivant des trois, est aussi un fantôme parce que la rage identitaire veut le broyer. Tous les trois sont des effacés du regard d’un monde impitoyable. Les migrants qui meurent aujourd’hui sur les routes sont aussi des fantômes parce que ceux qui meurent en chemin ne seront jamais connus, jamais nommés. Ceux qui ne meurent pas sont insérés de force dans un entre-deux, un no-man’s-land où on peut les ignorer et les faire disparaître. Mon roman parle de toutes ces disparitions-là. L’image de Howard prenant une gomme pour effacer Mary contient cette résonance. Tous les rêves et les espoirs de Mary, au sortir de la guerre, cette promesse d’un monde sans guerre, un monde neuf, un monde qui danse et qui rit, sont trahis par ce qui est symbolisé par la City, où l’on broie les gens d’un clic de souris: la haute finance. Il n’y a donc que les marginaux qui peuvent se comprendre et se retrouver et se redonner un sens. Pour les critiques qui ont pris le roman à son niveau le plus réaliste, et ont donc vu la relation entre Mary et Cub comme étant une relation de pédophilie et de domination du blanc sur le noir, je dirais que cette interprétation est fausse, parce que ces deux marginaux ont un rapport d’égalité, ou plutôt, c’est Cub qui est le dominant dans cette relation, même si quelque part il comprend et aime Mary et qu’il a sa fragilité propre. C’est une manière de voir le roman qui le réduit à sa plus simple expression. C’est cela qui est triste.

Amaleena: C’est une relation fascinante dans ce sens. Comme dans beaucoup de vos romans, Ananda, on est invité à confronter la complexité et l’ambiguïté éthique des personnages principaux, qui se trouvent dans des situations dévastatrices, impossibles, qui les conduisent à enfreindre les normes sociales. Le lecteur/la lectrice se trouve perplexe, désorienté.e, quelquefois mal à l’aise dans sa position d’identification (je pense aussi au Sari vert (2009), ou à La Vie de Joséphin le fou (2003)…).5 Dans Les Jours vivants, vous poussez le lecteur/la lectrice à faire face aux préjugés internalisés, dans la relation entre Mary, femme âgée blanche, et Cub, adolescent noir. Mais la narration de cette relation est extrêmement puissante dans sa subtilité, et ne les réduit pas à ces identités. L’attraction physique entre les deux, c’est un magnétisme invisible, pas inexplicable exactement, je veux dire en anglais ‘unaccountable’. L’attention que vous portez à la sensualité, voire à l’érotisme de cette rencontre, est bouleversante, transgressive, déchirante. C’est une relation investie de pouvoir aussi, une relation fétichiste. Que veulent-ils, Mary et Cub, l’un de l’autre? Le fétichisme va-t-il dans les deux sens?

Ananda: C’est ce que je disais plus tôt: il faut passer outre les identités visibles et superficielles. Cub est noir et jeune? C’est vrai. Mary est blanche et vieille? Vrai aussi. Mais intérieurement, qui sont-ils? Cub est un jeune qui est devenu adulte trop tôt (il est ‘l’homme’ de sa famille, il veut prendre soin de sa mère et de ses sœurs, le sac à main qu’il veut offrir à sa mère est un exemple poignant de son amour à la fois naïf et trop adulte); Mary est une adolescente qui l’est restée depuis qu’elle a été figée par sa rencontre avec Howard: elle n’a jamais grandi. Comment peut-on la voir comme exploitant Cub? Ou alors, seulement dans ce sens que toutes les relations humaines contiennent cette part d’exploitation. Mais bien sûr, quand on lit le roman, on se pose la question. On se demande ce que veut Cub, réellement. Ce que veut Mary, réellement. C’est ça l’important: qui sommes-nous en réalité, une fois débarrassés de nos masques? Combien de vieux sont infantilisés par les jeunes? Combien d’enfants pensent savoir mieux que leurs parents?

Ce que je veux dire par là, c’est qu’il y a une définition officielle de la pédophilie et des rapports d’exploitation de race ou autre; et il y a un sens profond où certaines relations tombent hors de cette définition, où l’on doit comprendre que face à la solitude, la pauvreté, l’exclusion, des êtres se rejoignent, pas forcément sexuellement, mais cela peut aussi l’être, et toutes les règles sociales sont démantelées. Je crois que ce roman a été bien mieux compris en France à sa sortie que dans le monde anglo-saxon où on a besoin d’étiquettes et de balises précises. Or, la littérature doit se situer en dehors des balises. En particulier aujourd’hui, il y a une sorte d’élan ‘prescriptif’ qui rend difficile le genre de liberté que je m’accorde par rapport à mes sujets, à l’ambiguïté éthique et autre, par rapport aux ténèbres que j’explore et aux limites que je touche dans mes textes. Écrire en français m’aide en quelque sorte à éviter les grosses polémiques. Je ne suis pas suffisamment connue dans le monde anglophone pour devenir un sujet de controverse. Les réseaux sociaux ont du bon comme du mauvais, et moi qui ai été contre eux dès le début (je ne suis ni sur Facebook ni sur Twitter), j’admets que les mouvements Me Too et Black Lives Matter ont créé une vraie prise de conscience et sont en passe de changer les choses, je l’espère durablement. Mais la spécificité de l’être humain est qu’il parvient à tout tourner en extrémisme. Moi qui suis contre toute espèce de fanatisme, d’intégrisme, et de fondamentalisme, je me réserve le droit de dire, faites attention: toute la vie humaine ne peut être rangée dans de petites boîtes bien ordonnées. Nous sommes des êtres régis par l’entropie, tout comme notre monde. La littérature est l’exploration de ce monde entropique. La transgression peut parfois être le seul lieu où les marginaux se retrouvent, comme dans Manger l’autre (2018), où une adolescente souffrant d’obésité morbide trouvera l’amour en un SDF qui sait ce que c’est que de mourir de faim…6

Amaleena: Parlons un peu plus des marginaux, de ce monde entropique, et de black livesAu cœur du roman est une agression horriblement violente commise par les skinheads. En 2020, après George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, et Jacob Blake, la brutalité raciale - qui n’est pas bien sûr spécifique aux États-Unis - a été au premier plan de l’actualité. L’existence du racisme systémique et l’abus de pouvoir ne représentent pas une surprise pour ceux qui habitent la périphérie, mais l’extrême violence raciale a récemment capté l’attention du monde. Frappantes ont été les images des manifestations globales en soutien au mouvement Black Lives Matter. À un certain point dans le roman, Cub reçoit un grand coup de botte dans l’estomac, et il émet un cri perçant, un bruit viscéral écœurant - presque éternel - un son qui confirme la faiblesse aux yeux de ses prédateurs:

Ce fut cela qui créa la brèche, impossible de la refermer ensuite, les mots y entraient en ouvrant de nouvelles voies d’eau, voies de sang, et lui, la proie, acceptait, comme toute proie, l’évidence de sa faiblesse et de leur force, s’inclinait devant elles, abandonnait paisiblement tout droit à la vie et aux choses. Il était à terre, maintenu par des mains qui n’avaient rien à voir avec lui, qui n’étaient là que pour sa souffrance, rien d’autre, il n’avait de physique que son teint: le noir le trahit.7

It was that sound that opened up the gap that could never be closed again; the words that followed wrenched open new waterways, bloodways, and he the prey, accepted, as every prey did, the fact of his weakness and his predators’ strength, bowing before them, abandoning in submission his right to life and to things. He was on the ground, held down by hands that had no sympathy for him, that were only there to make him suffer, nothing else, all they saw in him was his color: his black betrayed him.8

À quoi pensiez-vous, Ananda, en écrivant cet épisode? And what different contexts, Jeffrey, were brought to your mind in translating this scene? Je m’intéresse à ce cri, une expression viscérale de l’être, qui témoigne de manière très émouvante la relation entre la fragilité du corps et le pouvoir des autres. Je remarque aussi les évocations sensorielles de la vie dans la narration qui s’ensuit, de l’être sur le point de mourir, un état de vie qui semble presque résister à la violence même de sa condition.

Ananda: Ce passage est terrible à relire, parce que tout le roman menait vers cela… et je ne voulais pas l’écrire. J’aimais Cub, comme Mary, je ne voulais pas qu’il meure de cette façon-là, je voulais le sauver et le garder vivant, et comme Mary je le garderai vivant au-delà de la mort. Mary se transforme en Furie pour le sauver, mais elle n’y arrivera pas. Et pourtant, même dans cet instant où il est tabassé et tué par les skinheads, j’ai éprouvé le besoin de ne pas les décrire en ‘noir et blanc’. L’un des hommes qui le tabassent se surprend soudain à voir en lui une ressemblance avec son petit frère. En ce seul instant, cette seconde où il est surpris et troublé, il y a une possibilité. Une possibilité non de rachat mais de réflexion. Ensuite, cela passe, et Cub sera tué.

Mais son cri, oui, c’est celui de tous ceux qui se retrouvent dans cette position d’ultime faiblesse. Pour écrire cette scène, j’ai repensé à mon expérience londonienne, où je m’étais retrouvée dans une rame de métro emplie de hooligans anglais. Je suis descendue à la première station venue, et ils sont descendus derrière moi, touchant les seins des filles sur leur chemin, qui n’osaient protester, qui souriaient même avec une sorte d’horreur. Je me suis précipitée vers un homme indien qui me semblait (j’avais dix-neuf ans) plutôt vieux. Je lui ai demandé si je pouvais me mettre à côté de lui comme si nous étions ensemble pour éviter les hooligans. Il a très gentiment accepté et m’a proposé de prendre un café. Pourquoi cet homme indien m’a-t-il semblé plus rassurant que les Anglais? Parce que mon identité mauricienne me poussait à lui faire confiance alors que rien ne me prouvait qu’il en était digne? Sans doute parce que l’esprit de horde anéantit tout raisonnement et toute mesure: ma réaction a été une simple réaction de panique biologique. Tout ça pour dire que la terreur que j’ai ressentie ce jour-là m’a aidée à comprendre ce qui se passait lorsque l’on devenait une proie. Cub était une proie à cet instant-là mais je ne pouvais le laisser partir silencieusement. Cub est le monde qui hurle et que personne n’entend.

Jeffrey: The Black Lives Matter protests carry a great deal of weight for me: I mentioned that I’m from the Midwest, but, more specifically, I’m from St. Louis. The 2014 Ferguson protests, in the wake of Michael Brown’s shooting and then after a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, were ongoing events that I tracked closely through many sleepless nights and frantic text-message conversations with my friends back home who actively took part in the protests. Two were later arrested and then released; even though I did not personally know anyone assaulted or killed, it was still harrowing to have that eyewitness perspective.

An important consequence of these protests was increased news coverage of police brutality and, more broadly, of the many forms of discrimination endured by people solely on the basis of their skin colour. Because a large percentage of reporters are white, they often fail to take into consideration the daily experiences that those who are not white undergo. When these stories were forced to the forefront of the national consciousness, journalists had to reckon with a reality they’d all too often shied away from - and doubly so with the rise of cell-phone cameras, body cams, and other ways to tape and share footage of events as they unfolded.

When I translated that scene, more than a dozen such viral videos were replaying in my mind; it’s hard, in retrospect, to recall which screams and gasps are the victim’s and which are those of all the onlookers (us viewers included). It’s a gut-wrenching panorama of cruelty that it’s hard for me to stop watching. When we see those videos, we enter the moment and we relive it, again and again, on an endless loop. And it was in this welter that I found the words for Ananda’s description. I can’t reread them without seeing again, in my mind’s eye, all these other instances of human cruelty.

Amaleena: I like how you phrased that, Jeffrey, ‘a gut-wrenching panorama of cruelty’ that’s hard to stop watching. I think that’s something I’m really drawn to in Ananda’s novels and in your translations, that sense of not being able to look away from these gut-wrenching instances of cruelty and violence. These are moments that need to be seen, but how? What constitutes an ethical regard towards the other? Towards the other’s pain? There’s always a sense in Ananda’s writing that we are implicated in that cruelty by our very act of witnessing. I’m thinking here of Manger l’autre, in particular, whose young female protagonist’s relationship with food and extreme acts of eating reminds us of the hypocrisy of any gaze fixed on the spectacle of the body.

In fact, much of your writing, Ananda, draws on the language of food in ways that underscore how taste, appetite, and acts of eating or preparing food are invested in wider relations of power. Food lurks in the background of Les Jours vivants, too, where it tells us as much about class as it does about race and gender. There are several passages in the novel that describe food and experiences of eating. Mary, trying to save money, accidently ends up buying cans of dog food, which she then eats. Elsewhere, trying to impress Cub, she attempts to cook him a Caribbean meal, while he ironically is accustomed to eating ready meals and frozen hamburgers with his own family. It seems to me that your writing is also about different modes of consumption: how we consume food, how we consume each other, how we consume the world. There are echoes of this in Ève de ses décombres (2006) too, which Jeffrey has also translated (Eve Out of Her Ruins, 2016).9 What do you each bring to thinking and writing about food? Is there something in the assemblage of food akin to an act of translation? Is food a way not only to explore cultural specificity, but also to characterize the often obtuse ways that we relate to one another?

Ananda: Yes, you know the dimensions of food… especially in Indian culture, but everywhere too. My relationship to food is very ambiguous. I love food, but I have always hated spending time cooking, because for me time meant writing. So I will be happy to cook if it doesn’t ‘eat up’ my writing time. My mother was a very good cook but also hated spending time in the kitchen and having to cook every day (it symbolized her frustration with being a woman and confined to a role). Towards the end of her life, she was living on toast and tea, and forcing my father to do the same. He never complained. When I got married, after having lived in a family with this rather curious attitude to food (my father said his daughters didn’t have to learn to cook because they would have to do it all their life after getting married!), I was plunged into a family where cooking was a major happening and event. I saw my husband’s family spending half a day preparing the ingredients for a biryani, and this was their achievement. It was also a communal undertaking that I couldn’t partake in, because I was terribly shy and retiring and couldn’t imagine sitting with them peeling onions and garlic, and crushing ginger. So I held back, and couldn’t belong. They probably felt I didn’t want to belong. It wasn’t the case, but I have never accepted the possibility of food becoming the highlight of the day. The highlight of my day was writing. I gradually learned to cook, but I only liked it, as I said, if it took the minimum amount of time. All these attitudes to food, my mother’s, my father’s, my husband’s, his family’s, seeped into what I was writing. I think it is most explicit in Pagli (2001),10 when the narrator’s in-laws give her a tray of spices to sort out, and suddenly she thinks that these small seeds should be freed, why should they be cooked in hot oil, she upends the tray and laughs when the seeds roll into the earth, where they will presumably grow into plants… And she earns the title of Pagli, the madwoman, from then on. She doesn’t want to belong to them in the way that food pulls them together as an identity.

At the same time, I understand the sensuality of food, of eating. In Manger l’autre, I describe the food that the father prepares for my narrator with the utmost sensuousness. It’s different from the ritualistic aspect of food preparation for Indians or people of Indian origin. It’s pleasure at a heightened level, especially food that is bad for our bodies: chips, cheese, fatty meat, pasta, patisseries etc. Everything that is good to the taste is bad for the body! But my protagonist is well beyond this. Consumption is the key word in Western societies, and commensality in Eastern ones, if you want to categorize things this way. But of course, food cannot really be categorized in this way…

Jeffrey: Funnily, Ananda, I’m the same way - I enjoy cooking only when it doesn’t get in the way of other things I’d rather be doing. Using a recipe to go from a set of ingredients to a final dish doesn’t hold much of the appeal that reading a text and attempting to recreate it in another language does - translation, for me, is as much a manner of puzzle-solving (case in point: I love crossword puzzles) as it is a matter of negative capability, of forgetting myself and entering the linguistic patterns of someone else.

Recipes, by contrast, are very cut-and-dried. I can work my way through one comfortably enough, of course. I grew up in a household where nothing was dogmatically the domain of one gender or another - the two Dr Zuckermans in my family, for example, are my mother the psychologist and my sister the health-policy researcher - and the only reason my mother didn’t continue her career after having us as children was because she enjoyed looking after us more. She did happen to be an incredible cook, among many other skills, and when I came home from school, I would sometimes start my homework at one end of the kitchen island while my mother set out ingredients for that night’s dinner at the other end. It wasn’t uncommon for her to tell me to help mash ingredients for one thing or another before I set the table. So I grew up being able to handle the basics of cooking from a recipe and thinking about food as a creation and not simply something that appeared at six on the dot.

But it’s telling that I only really enjoy cooking when it’s done with other people, when it’s a pretext for more interesting things. Each year when we’re all back in the family home for Thanksgiving, we all have individual dishes we’re responsible for (for me, it’s usually the roasted vegetables) - and it’s the chatter of all five of us filtering in and out of the kitchen, trying to time everything correctly and answering each other’s questions, that I actually enjoy. When I have friends over, I’d rather have us all make individual pizzas or take turns frying latkes than do all the work on my own and wait for them to show up. So maybe this is a long-winded way of explaining, in fact, why I prefer translating and editing to out-and-out writing: it’s a chance to reach out to someone else, and to spend time connecting with them. Can the food be sensual? Of course, and often it is, but to me it’s merely a means to more important ends.

Amaleena: I love how you speak of translation as a reaching out, Jeffrey, a way of forming connections. You’ve both evoked this strong sense of connection and complicity in the work you’ve done together, as it crosses through languages and places. I’m reminded that francophone writers are often asked about the specificity of place in their work; place and intercultural transmission are key to the art of translation too. I’d like to pose the question of place in a slightly different way, and in some way to link it to these notions of commensality and consumption that we’ve been touching upon. There is a phrase early on in the novel about the city not realising that the second half of the twentieth century ‘allaient pétrifier la terre et terroriser la nature’/‘would petrify the earth and terrify nature’.11 Though the novel takes the particular setting of London, like much of Ananda’s writing, whether in London, Delhi or Mauritius, there is a relation between the local and the global - it speaks to other locations. Do you see the themes and images you’ve both been drawn to in this novel, and elsewhere in Ananda’s writing, responding to particular forms of world crisis? What place is there in literature for reflecting on the relation between the local and the global in thinking about our relation to the natural world, and to the many fronts on which we face ecological collapse?

Ananda: Oh, absolutely! For me, it’s been a theme even before I realized that it was a theme… Just one example: in Solstices (1977), my first collection of short stories, written between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, one of the stories ends up with a young girl merging with a tree in an élan vert.12 In another, there is a strange relationship between a girl and a spider, both weaving a web to capture the man looking for them. Even in ‘Les Cerfs-volants’, which is the first story of that collection, and was written when I had just turned seventeen, two children, a boy and a girl, both marginals in the sense I explained above, are fascinated by kites, and it becomes a game of domination for both of them, until in the end the boy builds a kite big enough to pull away the girl and fly her off into the unknown… These kids are really strange and otherworldly. But I think that what I wanted to say is how much we are part of nature and of the natural order. In Moi, l’interdite (2000), the narrator offers her body to insects for nourishment, and transforms into a dog because animals show far more compassion than the humans who rejected her.13 In La Vie de Joséphin le fou, again, Joséphin finds solace in the sea and among its creatures, when society has rejected him.

So, yes, for me, the consciousness of humankind’s depredations of nature has always been there. It was, paradoxically, mostly subconscious in my youth, but this gradually became an awareness that is now explicit. And now, we are facing an unprecedented collapse. It’s a terrible, awful fact. We have destroyed our habitat for the sake of money. And it’s not even individual people. It’s a deliberate mission on the part of a small group of indecently rich people to become richer. What do they care about the fate of the world? They are the 1%. They can make and break. They are the new gods. They can create a war where there are ores to be mined, so that the population will leave this region and allow them free access. They can buy and sell countries. They can ruin countries. They can draw a line in the middle of a continent to divide the pie. They can kill people who want to change things. Extremism and fundamentalism are useful to them. They will provide the weapons required. Countries that used to be autonomous for food have now become dependent on the market economy. When the stock market collapses, these people will die of famine, when the land is there for them to cultivate food. But they were told to cultivate cotton or coffee or cocoa or corn or maize or bananas.

Plastic is our god. How to get rid of it? You can’t. Look around you. Try. Almost impossible.

So yes, I am angry about the world we have inherited, created, and bequeathed to our children. We have allowed ourselves to be blinded by spurious comforts. But in the end, we don’t have a choice. We’ve become slaves to our needs. I include myself in this. How can change be achieved? I honestly don’t know.

It’s not to say that there is no hope. But we do need to heed the wake-up calls we are increasingly getting, and I believe, not surprisingly, that literature can help us make the right choices, because at the moment it is the only way to occupy the intangible space where possibilities can emerge, where understanding can grow, and where silenced voices can be heard. Where would you hear Mary, if not in a book that gives her flesh and bones and a voice and a dance? Where would Cub do his little dance in the London streets hearing the song of the seraphims as if he came out of a James Joyce novel? If we want these ghosts to be heard and not remain ghosts without faces and voices, we need literature, we need novels, we need fiction and poetry and art, because this is where humanity can truly be found: in the ghostworld of fiction.

Jeffrey: Fiction is often one of the emotionally powerful ways that one can critique the world and its problems. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1905) sparked governmental investigations into the meat-packing industry; Orwell’s 1984 (1949) has given us a vocabulary to describe some of the worst actions of totalitarian regimes. It doesn’t matter that the space of Orwell’s story is a heavily fictionalized version of London; it finds a site that allows these concerns to be as thoroughly expressed as possible. I translated Ève de ses décombres before I really knew much about Mauritius, and when I interviewed Ananda about it, she was quick to say that it could have just as easily taken place in a Parisian banlieue or a Bronx housing project or a Rio favela, which is true. The themes she chooses to address are manifest throughout the world and not just in a single location.

In recent years, there’s been a call to write more powerfully and forcefully on the major crises facing us - creeping authoritarianism across the world, extraordinary concentrations of wealth in short-sighted individuals, and irreversible climate change the effects of which my generation and after will have to endure for the rest of our lives. As I’ve delved further into Ananda’s work, it’s consistently struck me how she’s tackled these issues head-on long before they became popular. In her first novel, Rue la Poudrière (1988), her narrator - a prostitute - comes to a stop, knowing that the wooden walls she faces will be demolished for structures of concrete and cement.14 And in her latest, Manger l’autre, the panopticon of the Internet becomes an overwhelming, crushing force that threatens to rip apart a woman’s life. Ananda is a truth-teller who looks where so many of us dare not look, who says what so many of us dare not say.

It is no secret that authors writing in other languages crave translation into English, considering its current status as a lingua franca. The Nobel committee reads most of its considerations in English. And Hollywood, of course, that vector of culture staffed by so many Americans who never learned a foreign language during so many decades of American imperialism, mines novel after novel for stories that will undergird its most unforgettable movies. It is true that the medium that now speaks most widely to the greatest number of people is film, whether feature-length or a short clip shared on YouTube or Instagram or TikTok (such as those cell-phone clips of police brutality I mentioned earlier). But stories have been a unifying force for humanity, and they carry a force that is still undeniable today. When I translated the diaries of the Dardenne brothers, those brilliant filmmakers who addressed some of society’s most difficult problems through characters populating the Belgian city of Liège, I was brought to a stop by a single line: ‘Art cannot save the world, but it can remind us that it’s possible to save it’.15 I think Luc Dardenne is right. And I think it’s important for each of us to keep pushing for change however we can - by writing, by translating, by asking questions, and by always, always refusing to back down.

Epigraph given in Ananda Devi, Les Jours vivants (Paris: Gallimard, 2013), p. 9, and in Ananda Devi, The Living Days, trans. by Jeffery Zuckerman (London: Les Fugitives, 2020), p. 7. Original lines in T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems (London: Broadview Press, 2011), pp. 66-67.

T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), p. 24.

Devi, p. 37.

Devi, The Living Days, trans. by Zuckerman, p. 33.

Ananda Devi, Le Sari vert (Paris: Gallimard, 2009); Ananda Devi, La Vie de Joséphin le fou (Paris: Gallimard, 2003).

Ananda Devi, Manger l’autre (Paris: Grasset, 2018).

Devi, Les Jours vivants, p. 145.

Devi, The Living Days, trans. by Zuckerman, p. 135.

Ananda Devi, Ève de ses décombres (Paris: Gallimard, 2006); Ananda Devi, Eve Out of Her Ruins, trans. by Jeffrey Zuckerman (London: Les Fugitives, 2016).

Ananda Devi, Pagli (Paris: Gallimard, 2001).

Devi, Les Jours vivants, p. 27; Devi, The Living Days, trans. by Zuckerman, p. 24.

Ananda Devi, Solstices: Recueil de Nouvelles (Port-Louis: Regent Press, 1977); new edition with author preface (Vacoas: Le Printemps, 1997).

Ananda Devi, Moi l’interdite (Paris: S. Editions, 2000).

Ananda Devi, Rue la Poudrière (Abidjan: Les Nouvelles éditions africaines, 1988).

Luc Dardenne, Diaries 1991-2005, trans. by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Vol. 1 of On the Back of Our Images (Chicago: Featherproof Press, 2019), p. 99.


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Damlé, Amaleena