A Conversation with Naivo, Author of the First Malagasy Novel Translated into English

by Sophie Levin


Epiphany’s Fall/Winter 2017 issue features an excerpt from Naivo's Beyond the Rice Fields, the first Malagasy novel translated into English. The novel’s central love story unfolds in dialogue with the cultural and political developments of early nineteenth-century Madagascar following the arrival of the first British missionaries. Naivo explores the conflict between traditional Malagasy culture and mounting European influence in the very form of his novel, which was inspired by the hainteny oral poetry tradition. Epiphany’s editor-in-chief Tracy O’Neill spoke with Naivo and his translator Allison M. Charette at Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore in November of 2017.

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N: I’m going to start reading a little love poem in Malagasy. It's called hainteny. Hainteny is a traditional form of poem that usually comes in the form of a dialogue between a man and a woman and actually this particular poem, this particular hainteny, I used it in the novel as a kind of a blueprint for the novel so I used it throughout and so I'm going to read it in Malagasy.

[Naivo reads poem.]

Allison: This is the translation that went into the book.

‘And how will you love me?

I will love you like my eyes

The windows of my soul

Without them I am weak as a child

But with them the world smiles with me.

Then you do not love me,

for I will be of no use to you in the darkness

I will love you like the door to my home,

protecting me from enemies and keeping the hearth warm

Then you do not love me,

for you push through me without shame to achieve your ends

I will love you like the sovereign of this realm

Mistress of our lives, and our destiny.’

[Applause]

T: Well that was beautiful. So I just want to say that I feel so lucky that we get to be here tonight because Naivo is here from Ottawa.

N: And thank you Tracy for accepting to moderate this.

T: Yes, thank you. An excerpt of the novel will be appearing in the Fall/Winter issue of Epiphany, which will be out in a couple of weeks, and as soon as I read the book I was so excited about it; it's gorgeous. So, why don't we get into conversation?

This book is really one of the most ambitious and textured novels that I've read in a long time and it takes on the encroachment of Europeans in Madagascar, slavery and freedom, thwarted love, some issues of class beyond the Western world, and coming of age. I'm wondering if one of these strands came to you first, or what was the genesis of the novel? It seems like we got a little bit of a hint of what the genesis of the novel was like in your discussion of the poem, but maybe you could talk more about that.

N: I started thinking about this novel many years ago. It came in two ways actually. First when it happened was when I was in first year of university a long, long time ago. I came upon a little book that was about Malagasy customs, and in this book I read a text about the poison ordeal of the tangena, which I use in the novel. [ed. note: from the book’s glossary, the tangena or sea mango was a poison used for the ordeal of the same name, the judgement of last resort in the Malagasy judicial system in different eras.] So I was really shocked by the violence of this practice of giving people poison to determine if they were innocent or guilty of something, especially if they were innocent or guilty of witchcraft or rebellion. And it came as a shock because I was educated as a Malagasy and there are all sorts of stereotypes about Malagasy being very peaceful people, being very respectful, being not willing to go into a quarrel, you know, this kind of stuff. So this one was really a shock for me. That’s when I started thinking, maybe one day I’m going to write something about this.

And the second thing was when I rediscovered this tradition of poetry called hainteny. That was again in university when I had to write a master’s thesis and I chose the hainteny. And then I read these beautiful poems, and I read a book by a famous scholar called Bakoly Domenichini-Ramiaramanana. She was describing the way this form of speech became a poem. So at the beginning it was not a poem, it was the way ordinary people were speaking in their everyday life. They would speak like that even when they talked to their neighbors, even when they went to the market, so you can imagine what kind of a strange world it is. Like, for example here if you have a city like New York and everybody goes on errands and talks to their neighbors singing. So you can imagine this kind of style. It was a really strange society and what fascinated me was in that book that scholar Bakoly Domenichini was describing how this form of speech was pushed to the margins of society and of the culture and ended up being considered poetry.

I was telling myself maybe I could try too, because many other Malagasy writers took on this hainteny, this poetry, very famous ones like Jean-Joseph Rabéarivélo and Flavien Ranaivo, and they were very successful in writing it, but I was thinking to myself maybe it would be good if I could give a context to this poetry and write, in a sense, poetry in context.

T: This poem that you just read appears at one point in the novel as a point of dialogue between Fara and Situ.

N: Yes.

T: One thing that I wanted to ask you about is that Allison—who’s here with us tonight—your translator, wrote about first encountering the book and a bookseller telling her, ‘He's writing about slavery, no one ever thought they could get away with that before.’ And I was hoping you could talk a little bit about writing about slavery and maybe the context in which this would be taboo, and what gave you the courage to write about it.

N: Yes. Slavery is a part of the novel through the character of Tsito. I didn't want to go very deep into the conditions of slaves because actually Tsito grows up in a family that is very tolerant, but I wanted to give this Tsito a very hard start because his family was exterminated by the military. And the whole idea of the novel—you call it ‘coming of age’—I call it trying to catch the vision of how the people of that time were envisioning their future, because it was a society where at the top you had an oligarchy and it was really a play of power. It was all about power, all about commerce, all about getting as much advantage as possible. But ordinary people I think were more likely to dream about this future, this so-called modernity that they were seeing. At the time it was coming through many things: People started dressing in European clothes, they started going to school in the European sense, and they started, of course, going to church. So there were all these changes coming and I thought that it would be more interesting to have a vision of ordinary people instead of writing a historical novel about princes and nobles, which to me was not really interesting.

So the slavery question is important because I think that the structures of the society of that time in the early nineteenth century, they still exist in modern Madagascar even today. Slavery has been abolished when the French conquered the island in 1895, slave exports were ended as early as 1817, but this problem of slavery and of a very hierarchized society that we still see today in modern day Madagascar goes back to this very period of the first part of the nineteenth century.

T: Yeah I think that, interestingly, bringing up social structures you really do position the narrative at a precipice at which there is a great deal of social vicissitude, and you draw out the paradoxes of that really beautifully, especially in the encounters between Europeans and Malagasy people. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you thought about elaborating some of those tensions between what’s foreclosed and what’s made possible in the act of encounter itself. So you brought up school, for example; Tsito in the book is able to go to school with children who aren't slaves when the Europeans come, but of course there's also an extremely destructive part of the missionary presence. And he goes and works at one point for Laborde, the French industrialist, and he's able to travel at some point, although of course he wants to come back to Sahasoa. I'm wondering if you could sort of talk about the way that advances the story for you.

N: This tension between Malagasy traditional custom and the European influence, I tried to use this idea of the closing even as a way to write the entire novel itself. When I was doing this research to write this novel I had the feeling that the Malagasy society at that time in the early 19th century when king Radama the First opened the gates of the kingdom to European influence, it was really unlike in other parts of Africa, for example in South Africa or in Western Africa. Ashanti and Zulu, they battled against the British. But I had the sense that maybe in Madagascar because the sovereigns were too eager to accept this European influence, in a sense they got an overdose; it acted like a poison. And the proof of that is that one king, Radama the First, allowed everything to happen: he allowed the missionaries to come to build schools, he allowed traders to come to the coast and do commerce—commerce was multiplied by 4 in a matter of years—and people's lives were changed dramatically.

And the proof that there was a kind of overdose is the reaction of the queen who succeeded him. At first she continued this policy of her late husband because it was her husband, but then at one point, she starts to backtrack because she's realizing that this influence is undermining her power and undermining the traditional structure. That's how I tried to craft this tension in the novel between Western and European influence and Malagasy traditions.

T: At one point Tsito joins a brotherhood with Prince Rakoto that has the goal of surpassing the vazahas (foreigners) in the arts. I was wondering if you could talk about how you think about the relationship between art and resistance.

N: The existence of this brotherhood that was created by the crown prince and their goal, as you said, was to surpass the Europeans in craftsmanship, and this was a very good opportunity to show the positive side of this culture, this collision of culture through the character of Tsito. Actually it's going to be the topic of my next novel, and hopefully I'll be able to write it. I tried to mix the positive and the negative in the novel; unfortunately, maybe in a sense the negative was dominant. But even the fact that Tsito and Fara were able to go to school: although there was this negative effect of pushing the existing culture to the margins, there was this other effect of giving ordinary people a new form of consciousness. It was really fascinating, and that's what I tried to do, tried to imagine how they would dream of the future, how they would envision the future, what would be their ambition seeing all these new things happen.

T: So there's a part in the novel where it's right after Bao has died, and Fara notes that Bebe doesn't even tell stories anymore. I was really struck by that moment, and thinking about it for a long time, and wondering if that suggested something about the way that you think of storytelling and the function of storytelling in everyday life.

N: Yes, storytelling is life, just as you said. In writing and creating these characters and writing the novel, I used many old Malagasy tales about princes and princes of the light and all this kind of stuff, and storytelling is really the thing that makes the dynamism of the society. So in this particular part when Bebe stops doing storytelling it's really the part when something is dying, not only Bao, but in a way, it's like a spirit is dying, the spirit of storytelling because of the violence of this shock between the two cultures.

T: I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about how the research for this book might be similar or different from the work that you do as a journalist.

N: I had this idea when I did the research for my master’s thesis and I read many wonderful scholarly books like the one that I just mentioned written by Bakoly Domenichini, but for so many of them, I realized that there was a problem because who’s going to read these books? Only the people in universities. So it’s a very limited readership although there are really wonderful things in these books. So one of my motivations was also to try to take this all these riches and put them in a novel. In terms of the research itself, what really helped me a lot was doing my masters thesis because it was about the hainteny. And what was similar to the work of journalists—maybe it's more on the sentimental side that each time I go to Madagascar I try to go to these traditional sites, these old places where things were happening, and also I tried to go as much as possible to traditional events. Like there is something like that we call kabary, people doing public speeches.

T: I think the way that you talk about some of the research that you've done is almost a little bit like translation, translating this scholarly work into a narrative form and, of course, now the book has been translated into English, it’s assuming a new life and a new shape in this other language, and so I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how involved in the process you were with Allison, what that was like for you.

N: It was a really wonderful experience and I'm so happy that Allison did this translation and I'm so happy with this translation because of a very particular thing. When I wrote the novel in French—it's a foreign language for me—I tried to put as much Madagascar in it as possible, not only in terms of historical facts and events, but also in the language. I used the French language, but I tried to use Malagasy ways of saying things. That's why I put many hainteny in the novel and even many proverbs, as well, in the sentences. And so the goal was to give a Malagasy flavor to the text although it was written in French, and I was so happy to work with Allison because you don't meet a translator every day who’s able to go to Madagascar, to really go there and meet people and try to understand the culture. I mean this is really what I would call deep translation, and I'm very happy with the English version; it captures this very Malagasy soul. And we worked very hard with Restless Books as well on this front, and yeah, I think it’s very good work.

T: I was thinking a little bit about the book and one of the features of the book is that there are some Malagasy words that are just in the text and there are various historical figures who are mentioned without necessarily couching it in a lot of exposition. When I thought about that, I also thought about one particular passage in the book. This is in England when Tsito's gone there, and he is with a friend, and he's thinking about how he's tired of hearing his friend explain things to white men. In a way, I see a parallel in your work; I see maybe that sentiment a little bit. And so I'm wondering if that strategy or that technique suggested maybe a certain politics of legibility or if this was something that was important to you as you wrote.

N: I'm a translator myself so I know that translation is treason, as you say. Inevitably when you are a translator, you have this sense that there's something that you won’t be able to do when you write in a foreign language, and there's something that you won't be able to explain fully to foreigners, whatever effort you make, unless the foreigner is really very accustomed to your culture, to your language, to your way of thinking. So yes, that's why I put this particular sentence in the novel.

T: So I think that because we began with this love poem, maybe we could end my questions with the relationship between Fara and Tsito and why it was important to you to have the novel operate through the two narrative point of views.

N: Yes, the two narrative point of views is the structure of the hainteny which, as I said, is a dialogue between a man and a woman. And this dialogue allows me to try to show different kinds of feeling that I thought could arise in people's mind at that time, the particular question of love itself. It has been so deformed, changed when Christianity came. If I would have tried to be very honest, I would have written the dialogues in real hainteny and I would have put in the mouths of these characters a way of speaking that would be very close to what happened in the 19th century, but I couldn't do that because on one part I had to do the historical work, and on the other part I was writing in a foreign language, so I thought it might be might be might become unintelligible in a sense. But the question of love—you see, for example, the hainteny, this form of traditional speech, a big part of it was eliminated by the missionaries. But what remained was these love poems, these were the jewels of the hainteny. So what I tried to do is really tell a Malagasy love story through this hainteny, through this dialogue, and through these dreams these two characters would have. The hainteny is about hesitation, it is about not succeeding. He doesn't succeed it's—how do you say that—it’s écheque réussit, failure and success and failure and success. In the hainteny, the woman would challenge the man to explain something, and it's really a battle of words. And I tried to do this love story, Malagasy love story, in that way. I tried as much as possible not to write a very conventional love story, but in the Malagasy way of this back and forth and these disappointments and see what happened.

T: We’ve all been there.

You can read an excerpt from Naivo's Beyond the Rice Fields in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Epiphany. The novel is now available from Restless Books.