I have been studying and teaching Mauritian literature at Harvard for the past four years. The experience taught me to simultaneously be proud of my country’s specificities, and to keep asking difficult questions of it.
It is a cold Wednesday afternoon in Cambridge, MA. Sunlight streams through the large ceiling-to-floor glass windows of the Boylston Hall classroom that I occupy with my students. They are all Harvard undergraduates, each uniquely motivated to incorporate a course in Francophone literature into their constellated Harvard experience: Many are literary concentrators eager to work on new texts, while others are keen to complement their prior academic studies on subsets of the region - usually from the fields of political science or social studies - with a literary perspective. There are some heritage speakers of French, and others who fall anywhere on the spectrum from pure intellectual curiosity to the practical need to fulfill a certain requirement before graduating. I am their Teaching Fellow, a doctoral student in charge of hosting the course’s weekly discussion section. “Section” in this context means an hour-long opportunity for students to explore the text in the target language. It is designed as a supplement to the bi-weekly lectures that Professor Françoise Lionnet, the course’s Head Instructor as well as my advisor and mentor, conducts. As a Teaching Fellow, I also grade assignments, hold office hours, and fill in for lecture under exceptional circumstances.
Today, we are studying Ananda Devi’s novel Ève de ses décombres (2006), and the character list is up on the blackboard in white chalk.
Ève, Savita, Sad(iq), Clélio.
Present this list to any Mauritian, and they will automatically classify each of those names into one of the communautés - Hindu, Muslim, Sino-Mauritian, General Population - that condition life and minds on the island. The reaction is instinctive, though often tinged by a hint of unease.
It is perhaps best encapsulated by Abha Dawesar in her novel Babyji (2007): though the specifics of compartmentalization obviously differ in the Indian and Mauritian contexts - communautés are relevant to the latter but not to the former - the ‘taxonomic drive’ identified by Dawesar is, to my mind, relevant to our island: “Indians, myself included, must immediately place everyone we meet. We are a nation of taxonomists […] The system works. It is a science, thousands of years old, that has been taken to the level of a fine art. I often scorned it, but if I had to put my hand to my heart I’d have to admit that I operated by it. It was natural for me to classify people at first sight without even being aware of it” (6-7).
A discussion of Ève de ses décombres - an apt microcosm of a discussion of Mauritian society - would be glaringly incomplete without an acknowledgment of the markers of belonging encapsulated within character/individual names. And yet, as anybody who has ever tried to explain it to a foreign audience knows, communauté - and here I am careful not to use the corresponding and yet misleading English term “community” - is a complex form of organization. It is irreducible to the more straightforward categories of caste, race, religion or ethnicity that my students are familiar with. Communauté is an imbrication of all of these and more, I explain as I tighten my grip on the chalk. The system of organization holds within itself overlapping histories of migration including slavery and indentured labor, current systems of political organization, and socioeconomic probabilities. It exists in forms both explicit - the reserved allotment of certain seats in Parliament - and implicit - the careful curation of suitability in terms of marriage partners. Based on context and perception, it changes garb from a necessity to preserve minority representation in a multicultural country, to an insidious evil standing as an obstacle on the path to veritable national unity.
I have now gone through this exercise multiple times, with different sets of students. Working through these shades of complexity together is never an easy task, though always challenging and ultimately rewarding. Harvard undergraduates are brilliant, motivated and eager to learn; the course harnesses those skills by offering them new ground to dismantle binaries and go beyond oversimplifications. The vast majority of students have never heard of Mauritius before the course’s introductory lecture, which correctly and intentionally presents the multicultural “rainbow nation” where mosques, temples and churches exist side by side. There is no debating this fact: Mauritius is an African success story, a beautiful island with a strong welfare state that has never known a civil war.
This discussion on communautés, then, is often a critical juncture in the course, where Mauritius evolves beyond facile understandings and exotic depictions of a postcard-perfect tourist destination to a complex society that deserves to be treated as such.
As the days and pages inch by, previous understandings are not negated, but complicated. In Ève de ses décombres, we move beyond the looming black figure of Signal mountain and the glittering images of the Caudan Waterfront pulled up on Google images, to the fictional cité of Troumaron: “une sorte d’entonnoir; le dernier goulet où viennent se déverser les eaux usées de tout un pays” (13) [a sort of funnel; where all the island’s wastewater ultimately follow] (12). A student asks me what cité means in the Mauritian context and want to know how it compares to the “projects” of the United States. Another student raises his hand: “Does racism exist in Mauritius?” I don’t give an immediate answer but open up the floor to discussion, inviting students to bring up relevant examples from the text and urging them to be careful and explicit about what they mean when they words such as “race” and “discrimination”. We eventually conclude that yes, racism exists in Mauritius, as do various other forms of inequality - but not necessarily in the same way as they exist in the U.S. Instead, they are the product of specific social and historical realities, and therefore ask to be understood through different frameworks. We look for clues in the text, and find them in the intertextual echoes of Rimbaud’s poetry, in the haunting melody of krapo kriyé:
Mo mama li esklav papa
Mo papa li esklav patron
Mo mama li enn esklav
Esklav enn lot esklav
As we move from Ananda Devi to Nathacha Appanah, “What was the difference between slavery and indentured labour?” is another question that comes up often. After making clear what the actual historical differences were, I make sure to address the stakes of asking such a question: I explain that indeed, the latter system was designed to replace and perpetuate multiple facets of the former, but I also articulate how it could could potentially come across as a problematic or offensive comparison.
These discussions are always modulated by two other tensions. The first is of a practical nature, common to teachers and scholars of Francophone literature in general:
How much time should I devote to context, rather than to the analysis of the text itself?
Traditional French classes - those that deal with Paris and WWII - can assume that their students have some degree of previous familiarity with the subject matter, courtesy mainstream media. They don’t have to explain that Paris is in France, which is in Europe; and they don’t have to dwell on why WWII was a terrible blot on collective human history. On the other hand, Francophone classes cannot assume that students know that Morocco is in Africa and that Africa is not a country, or that colonization exterminated millions of people over the globe and its insidious legacies continue to shackle economies and mentalities alike. Contemporary society ignores these facts at best, and actively distorts them at worst. As scholars of the francophonie, our classes and presentations - even those that are not introductory - must therefore start from the very basics, and begin by undoing stereotypes (e.g. Africa is poor and in desperate need of aid) before beginning to explore the overwhelming diversity of daily life across the Francophone world through art and literature. To deal with this added burden, mini-sessions melding the basics in terms of geography, politics, sociology and law are required. Texts, after all, are produced within specific material and historical conditions, and it does not serve anyone to pretend otherwise. On a strictly temporal level, however, this takes time away from the literary analysis and discussion that Francophone classes are designed to do in the first place.
The second tension is of a personal nature:
Who am I to explain any of this? When I open my mouth in response, what part of my long history with these divisions will come to the fore?
If there is one thing that literature teaches you, it is that lived experience and truth exist as multiplicity. Objectivity is often the narrative of the powerful. While we deal with facts when introducing the country’s geographical location and GDP, any notion of singularity evaporates as soon as we turn to texts of literature. Ananda Devi’s Ève, Nathacha Appanah’s Raj, and Shenaz Patel’s Charlesia all have significantly diverging experiences of what it means to be (un)Mauritian…
As students and teachers of literature, the goal is not so much to reconcile these contrasting voices as to engage their plurality in a productive way.
I have never been as aware of my own entangled Mauritian identity as in front of that classroom, chalk in hand - the offspring of a mixed marriage that cuts across communauté lines, the girl who was as comfortable in English as in Creole for most of her life, the beneficiary of more kinds of privileges than I know. I put the chalk down; I claim belonging but not ownership.
Another of my favorite classes - “favorite” as in intellectually challenging and emotionally exhausting - revolves around literary production around the Chagos islands: Shenaz Patel’s Le silence des Chagos (2005), David Constantin’s Diego l’Interdite (2002), David Vine’s Island of Shame (2009). This year, I pushed myself to finish reading Caroline Laurent’s recently-published Rivage de la colère (2020) to have an additional point of reference. Together, as a class, we review recent press coverage of Mauritius’ reclaiming of Chagos on the international stage. We piece together different perspectives on what happened at the time of Independence. We go through various testimonies of the uprooting process, which detail the pitiful (un)welcome that the Chagossians received in Mauritius. We examine which voices dominated their narratives of displacement and uprooting and why. We ask: Where does one draw the line between complicity and coercion? How do the meanings of such terms shift, from Independence to 50 years later? Once again, the idea is not to uncover an abstract, definitive version of the truth. Instead, the aim of the class is to explore the grey areas that literature illuminates while acknowledging them as such. It is to resist the temptation of retreating into false certainties of black or white, and figure out a productive way of taking the conversation forward nonetheless.
When physically in Mauritius, it is tempting to retreat into the secure warmth of existing order. Everyone knows everyone. You can place people, and people can place you. Your identity is an extension of your family’s; deviations and perpetuations are chastised and rewarded accordingly.
Faced with the tabula rasa of a blackboard in a classroom on the other side of the world, each facet of Mauritian “existing order” needs to be stated, clarified, (un)justified.
Hard questions cannot be shied away from. They beget other, harder, questions: Half a century after Independence, have we outgrown the need for divisions of communautés - if so, what would an alternative organization of Mauritian society look like? Would we still be an exemplarily peaceful country if we did away with these entrenched divisions - is it worth the risk of finding out? What lies behind our desperate clinging onto notions of familial purity? What would happen if we all had free access to the archives permitting us to reveal these notions as fictions?
But in no way do these questions take away from the pride in everything that Mauritius has done right over the decades. Quite the contrary. Speaking of his own country, on March 2015, then President of the United States Barack Obama asked: “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” The quote feels alive, crackling through the classroom and burning through the chalk.
Perhaps what I have found here, midway between Cambridge and Troumaron, surrounded by precarious piles of Harvard-owned Mauritian-authored library books, is equilibrium. On one hand, I am more proud than ever of of my country, its towering achievements and valuable specificities. On the other, I confront its inequalities and fault lines with more critical eyes and intellectual honesty than ever before. I am able to hold these different realities within myself, to accept these contradictions without the constant urge of reconciling them: Yes, Mauritius is a distinctively warm and accepting society; yes, it is also deeply fragmented by divisions that hark back to the colonial period. Neither negates the other.
Perhaps, most of all, I have found conviction: I will not stop asking the hard questions, and I want to be part of the solution.
Dawesar, Abha. Babyji. Anchor Books, 2005.
Devi, Ananda. Ève De Ses Décombres : Roman. Gallimard, 2006.
Devi, Ananda. Eve Out of Her Ruins. Trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman. 2016.