Ananda Devi’s Painful, Poetic Prose

Good books are the ones you can’t get off your mind.

You continue to think about them, mull over the plot lines and character development, try to discern the ending’s “meaning”––especially when the novel is a “tough read,” one that takes you out of your comfort zone and causes you to see people and places in a new light.

41a4-hhccyl._sx316_bo1204203200_

I just finished Ananda Devi’s Ève de ses décombres (Gallimard, 2006), and it is what I classify as a “good book.” When I fell asleep, and the moment I woke up, the novel was on my mind. And luckily for you, it’s available in English as Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum, 2016). (J. M. G. Le Clézio, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote the forward to the novel’s English translation; I haven’t read it yet, but I’m dying to.)

Ananda Devi is both a scholar and novelist. Born in Trois-Boutiques, Mauritius, she earned a doctorate in social anthropology from the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. After spending time in Congo-Brazzaville, she moved to Switzerland. Devi has published more than a dozen novels and also writes poetry and short stories. She writes in French, but incorporates Mauritian Creole into her texts; much of her work is set in the island of Mauritius, which is located off the eastern coast of Africa. The French government named Devi a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 2010. In 2006, the author won the Prix des Cinq Continents de la Francophonie for Ève de ses décombres

mauritius_rel90

For my academic work, I veer towards novels written in poetic prose. These are the texts that make me want to write and attempt to untangle various layers of meaning and discern the literary devices that create meaning. The novel’s polyvocality is one of the poetic aspects that drew me in. It is told through the voices of 4 young adults––Sad, Ève, Savita, and Clélio––who disturb the reader’s desire to make quick assumptions by following a singular narrative. The poetic style illustrates the characters’ exploration of the complex and difficult psychological development of youth. There is also a nameless narrator whose thoughts appear in italicized font, noting their non-physical existence in the text’s setting.

The characters live in the city of Troumaron, which might be a wordplay on the familiar word for “sewer” in French trou and the color “brown,” marron, a name that disrupts the stereotype of Mauritius as a tourist destination with sandy beaches and palm trees. The young people in this novel are at a grave disadvantage: they suffer from being a neglected group on a small island with few few role models and resources they need to succeed. The only teacher we meet in the novel is ineffective (an extreme understatement) and their parents are worn down by economic struggles and harmful gender dynamics. The text’s violence is certainly tied to Mauritius’ postcolonial history,  which I do not fully understand but am interested in knowing more about. In the novel, the volcano that created the island becomes a metaphor for the violence in their own lives. While Savita feels herself being swallowed by the disaster

“My feet are sinking in lava. Soon I won’t be able to move anymore. The volcano will tear me to pieces.” (73)

Sad feels he might have the chance to escape it

“I don’t want to be one of those waking up the volcano. This island was born from a volcano. One eruption is enough.” (126)

Other scholars have written on the inexpressibility of pain, such as that which is experienced by the characters, particularly the young women, in Ève de ses décombres. I’ve also been thinking about how poetic language serves as a possible, and perhaps ethical, way to narrate stories of extreme violence and trauma, which we might call correlates of “pain.” Devi’s poetic language imbues the fear, confusion, and identity disruption that often results from these situations.

Ève de ses décombres, (like Devi’s other novels) also caught my attention because of its subject matter. The novel closely examines the “construction and confinement of femininity” through the main character, Ève, who struggles with disembodiment. Ève uses her body as a source of power to get what she wants. And yet these endless sexual encounters in exchange for material objects comes with a price as she slowly loses her sense of self. Because of the themes it tackles, Devi claims that this story extends outside the borders of Mauritius: 

“I am not only talking about Mauritius in my books, I am talking about human beings who happen to live in Mauritius and who could be from anywhere in the world. This is particularly so for Ève, whose four young people could be from anywhere — a Parisian suburb or a South American city.” (Devi cited in a LARB interview with the translator, Jeffrey Zuckerman)

I have a feeling that my relationship with Devi’s texts will be a long one. Her 2018 novel Manger l’autre (Eating the Other) is now on my bedside table, and I’m already wondering how it will figure into my next book project on consumption. 

1599px-photo_of_mauritian_writer_ananda_devi

Political Literature: Marie NDiaye’s “Three Strong Women”

Screen Shot 2019-08-04 at 12.34.02 PM
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-MA, top left; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, top right; Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-MI, bottom left; Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-MN, bottom right.

 

“…Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.” (@realDonaldTrump on Twitter, Jul 14, 2019)

These comments came from “the occupant of the White House’s” Twitter feed. Most unfortunately, these words revive a fear of the Other that has plagued American history. Uttered from the mouth of a white man, this Other has often represented non-white and female identities. This is unmistakably the identitarian tension at stake in the president’s derogatory remarks directed at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar. In an effort to erect another boundary between himself and these Congresswomen, the president falsely stated that they were not natural-born American citizens and ordered them to “go back” to the “places from which they came.” As we all well know by this point, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Pressley are natural-born US citizens, and Omar became a citizen in 2000 after immigrating from Somalia as a child. All of the women responded to Trump on Twitter that indeed, the country “we all swear to” is the United States (Ocasio-Cortez) and that “THIS is what racism looks like” (Pressley). While researching this news story, I was immediately taken back to a novel we read in my French Women Writers course this past Spring.

“You can go back where you came from.” (Rudy Descas in Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye)

This all-too-familiar phrase––a paraphrase of the president’s comments––appears midway through prominent French author Marie NDiaye’s three-part novel, Three Strong Women. NDiaye is the first black woman to receive France’s highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she was awarded for Three Strong Women. Published in 2009, the novel touches on several current political concerns in the US: distinction between fact and fiction, trust in authority, systemic racism, sexual equality, and xenophobia. It is unsurprising that this French novel reflects tensions in American political terrain as both countries currently suffer from an uptick in right-wing nationalism. Continue reading “Political Literature: Marie NDiaye’s “Three Strong Women””

The Sweet Solitude of Summer

IMG_9809
The Canal Saint-Martin, to which many Parisians flock on evenings and weekends.

When I was a kid, my mom would walk into my room to find me passed out amidst villages of Weebles, Barbie dolls, and race-car tracks. I often exhausted myself over traveling the endless avenues of invention. I also holed up in my room to sketch my immediate surroundings––my bed, Christmas postcards, the garden. I loved nothing more than the quiet privacy of my own space where I could construct worlds. Unsurprisingly, my favorite school assignments were writing portfolios because they allowed me to delve into memories and to create new, fictional ones that opened up transportation into other realms. Thinking back on this time of my life, my childhood creativity surprises me. Perhaps I was so creative because, within the confines of my room, I had a place of my own where my imagination could unwind, unsupervised (at least for a moment). 

Growing older got the best of me and I sought out this solitude a little less and became (a little too) invested in less-productive activities (and who could blame me with the recent emergence of MTV and AIM, two pastimes that easily consumed the free time of a pubescent girl). In the past half a decade, I’ve realized that I need––and have started to crave––more (productive, creative) alone time. Now that I no longer have a room of my own (I’m married) and am still waiting on that dreamy, closed-off, individual office space, I have to carve out time for seclusion––my preferred writing mode. This is what I was able to do for a short period this summer. And in Paris, nonetheless.

IMG_9799
Parisian rooftops from the Centre Pompidou.

Continue reading “The Sweet Solitude of Summer”

The Bookish Flâneuse in Paris

In her recent book, Lauren Elkin displaces the focus from the 19th-century flâneur—dreamed up by Baudelaire as someone who ambles aimlessly, soaking up inspiration from their surroundings—to the contemporary flâneuse, the woman who “gets to know the city by wandering its streets, investigating its dark corners, peering behind its facades, penetrating its secret courtyards.” One’s ability to wander and investigate is surely dependent on skin color, nationality, gender, ability, and class, among other things. The role and privilege of the flâneur as a privileged, cosmopolitan, white male has been critiqued by a number of writers (see these pieces by Doreen St. Félix and Aysegül Savas, and this book by Teju Cole). Elkin’s text falls into this line of thinking.

My own exploration of big cities—in the current case, Paris—is facilitated by my skin color and (in most scenarios) my American nationality. I know the city well and feel generally safe, though, as a woman, I avoid wandering alone too much at night. (Which now doesn’t fall until around 10pm. It’s marvelous.) 

I’ve been in Paris for nearly two weeks now, and—I have to admit—most of my promenades have been powered by GPS. I’m a planner. An obsessive one even. Often, I’ll plot out a destination and then stroll around that area as a way to plan for allow some spontaneous exploration. And these Parisian promenades almost always have one of two themes: food and books. In my search for the best bookshops that Paris has to offer, I have found two that top my list. It should be known, of course, that this list is totally biased (but aren’t they all?) as I’m pretty partial to bookstores that overlap with my research and pleasure-reading interests.   

Screen Shot 2019-06-07 at 3.21.22 PM

I have been visiting Violette and Co for years now. I usually stay near the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th or 11th arrondissement (neighborhood) of Paris, which makes this bookstore a 30-minute walk southeast down the Boulevard Voltaire. This boulevard was one of the major routes created by Haussmann who completely renovated Paris under Napoleon III in the 19th century. The boulevard carries the name of a canonical writer and philosopher. But my destination aims to shake up such canons!

I go to Violette and Co to get inspiration, buy feminist paraphernalia, and drift into my happy place. Their funky, hot pink façade decorated with feminist street art would have pulled me in even if I hadn’t discovered it in one of my FOMO-driven google searches. The bookshop was founded around fifteen years ago by two women wanting to fill a gap: Paris needed a bookstore that both addressed LGBTQ+ issues and also emphasized women authors and feminist theory & pop culture. At Violette and Co, I am a kid in a candy store. Their collection is thoughtfully curated and they give helpful, direct advice on your book searches. And not only do they offer a solid variety of textual genres, but the owners also host literary discussions, book clubs, book trades, and artistic exhibitions. On my most recent visit, I spotted that they had just hosted a discussion with author Jo Güstin as part of Le Festival Nio Far (Decolonial Festival of Visual and Performing Arts). Sadly, I missed Güstin’s talk, but snagged the book!

IMG_9577

Given my love for feminist bookstores, it is a surprise then that I just visited Librairie des femmes for the first time during this summer visit to Paris. The walk from the Canal Saint-Martin to the 6th arrondissement where des femmes is located has to be one of my favorites. To get there, I took the long route to walk down rue de Turenne and through the Marais via rue Vieille du Temple. This road winds through the Jewish Quarter (which houses some of the best falafel you’ll ever eat) and the fashionable shops and bustling cafés of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements.

On my way to des femmes, I extended my path down the Seine to pass by Notre Dame, which is in a major state of repair and closed off to visitors. The juxtaposition between modern industry and Gothic architecture struck me as both mesmerizing and shocking.

58151302425__7AB68E13-EC5F-46D1-AE3C-EA4CB847CE3D

The last part of this promenade had me gliding through the 5th and 6th arrondissements. This area carries the name of the Quartier Latin (the Latin Quarter) where a number of Parisian university campuses are located (the Sorbonne, namely)–thus the name of the area, as Latin was the exclusive language of study in the Middle Ages when many of these universities were founded. The area has become somewhat touristy, but I am able to get over this because I get to majorly geek out here. The Latin Quarter is to bookstores as churches are to the American South.

The Librairie des femmes is a dual bookstore and publishing house that was established in 1974, when it was open from 11am until midnight (sadly, they have since revised their opening hours!). Antoinette Fouque, a major figure of second-wave French feminism and a contemporary psychoanalyst and political commentator, founded the bookstore. Des femmes has since served as a meeting space and major producer and seller of women’s writing from the early 20th-century to today.

The shop has three comfortable chairs and encourages visitors to stay and browse a while. (I spent at least 30 minutes perusing the bookstore’s titles and displays before finally deciding on a couple titles.) They not only carry titles that they publish under the des femmes name, but they also have a wide variety of literary, sociological, psychoanalytic, and historical works correlating with their mission: to highlight and exhibit the creative force of women.

IMG_9575As I was trying to find this bookstore, I first stumbled on the adjoining building: Espace des femmes. This space is connected to the bookstore by an alleyway flanked with greenery. The zen, light-filled room houses exhibitions, debates, and performances. This time, I got to take advantage of a display of Emmelene Landon’s “Pacific portraits.” The artist’s landscapes enlivened the gallery with swaths of turquoise, gold, and navy. And I was more than delighted to find that the exhibit’s expository text was authored by Marie Darrieussecq, one of France’s foremost novelists.

I’m learning more that a good bookshop not only prints and offers thought-provoking literature but also provides a space for engagement, community, and reflection. It also inspires the discovery of Paris for this bookish flâneuse

Next on the docket in Paris? A jump from bookstore promenades to library visits. I’ll soon be spending a week at the Bibliothèque nationale de France to study some manuscripts for a current research project. Ciao for now, and à bientôt !

Sparkling Water and Chocolate Eclairs: An Interview with Lauren Collins

If I don’t go for a career in academia, I still want a position in which I can read, research, think, and write. To brainstorm possibilities for a future career––potentially outside of the university––I often look to individuals who have jobs and lifestyles that appeal to me. Lauren Collins is one of those people. To glean some insight from her path to writing, I requested an interview. She graciously agreed. And now I’m bringing her answers to the SWW community.

Collins_When in French

Lauren Collins began working with the New Yorker in 2003 and has been a staff writer since 2008 (she just published a fascinating piece on the pioneer-princess of Georgian cuisine, Barbare Jorjadze). She has also written a book, When in French: Love in a Second Language, that explores the nuances of affection in another language. 

I loved reading her responses. Not only does Collins provide a glimpse into her own writing experience and idiosyncrasies, but she also plants seeds of inspiration for those interested in launching a writing career. Spoiler alert: There are mentions of Michelle Obama, Vogue, and chocolate eclairs. Continue reading “Sparkling Water and Chocolate Eclairs: An Interview with Lauren Collins”

Final Projects

It’s the end of the semester, which means it’s final project season. When everyone has their eyes set on summer break (myself included), it can be difficult to keep students engaged and putting effort into the last week or two of coursework. So this year, I decided to try something new.

This spring, I have been teaching a course on women writers and filmmakers in contemporary France. My students have submitted a blog-style composition that applies earlier course readings (more theoretical texts from the 1950s-70s) to contemporary events. They have also completed two close-reading papers (standard for developing analytical habits of mind for literary scholars). The final project — the one they’re working on now at the end of the semester — allows them to transform one of their close reading papers into a multimodal text. These projects are being created in an online format for a general audience (i.e., not just their professor). My hope is that this activity will encourage them to consider (1) how engaging with course texts can go beyond the classroom walls and (2) how and why they might talk about this course material to their peers. This links to a bigger question: What will you take away from this course? (How) Have the course’s readings influenced the way you think about identity politics and everyday life in France and in the US? Continue reading “Final Projects”

Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum”: Film Thoughts & Historical Background

Movie going

In an attempt to elevate my self-care routine, I’ve started to take myself out on dates a little more often. I actually *love* to spend time alone. I’m probably not the only Humanites PhD who feels blissfully energized by an evening of solitude and reflection in the company of art, film, and food.

This goal has resulted in an uptick of visits to my local independent theater. Given my penchant for female artists and francophone media, when I saw the trailer for Capernaum, a film directed by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, I immediately knew that it would figure into my solo-night-out calendar. I’ve been fascinated with Lebanon ever since I read Etel Adnan’s novel Sitt Marie Rose in a French feminisms grad seminar (so much so that it became the focus of a dissertation chapter!).

Continue reading “Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum”: Film Thoughts & Historical Background”