The Best Translated Book Awards longlist was announced yesterday, and it included Naivo’s singular novel, Beyond the Rice Fields. The first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English (from the French by Allison Charette), it comprises a narrative that unfolds like palm fronds. Set in 19th-century Madagascar, the narrative stem follows the evolving relationship between Tsito, a boy sold as a slave to a trader, Rado, and the trader’s daughter, Fara.
Naivo (the pen name of Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa), who is also a journalist, pairs a reporter’s unflinching approach to storytelling with a poetic style and distinctive orality that stems from the Malagasy literary tradition. The story moves from the Madagascan highlands through the midlands to the country’s capital, Antananarivo, the ‘City of Thousands’, and even to England. Through it all, the concept of “frontiers”—between traditions, social classes, countries, and historical moments—is posed as a question: how do we close the interstices between beliefs, and the gulfs between each other?
In Beyond the Rice Fields, Madagascar’s brutal history is revealed through individuals whose journey, relationship and thoughts are as important as the larger historical narrative, which sweeps them along, but is never in danger of sweeping over their story. In one instance, Fara’s grandmother’s tales dissolve into the outcome of the primary narrative. Here, the past is not viewed as finished, nor the present as momentary; rather, Naivo shows that the past is still with us, and that we are part of the past. This is evident even in his phrasing: the “evil red crickets” of an invading tribe; the juxtaposition of terms like “judge” and “earth husbands” within the context of a trial-by-poison. Although Naivo paints the march of time as implacably brutal, his is not a moral nor critical view of history; crimes are committed—in the name of both tradition and progress—but what is more important is what endures: love, nation, storytelling.
Asymptote spoke to Naivo and Charette about inspiration, the process of writing and translation, and the literary scene in Madagascar.
Alice Inggs: Allison, How did you come across Beyond the Rice Fields and how did you come to translate it?
Allison M. Charette: Back in 2013, I randomly found out that no novels from Madagascar had ever been translated into English. I decided to help fix that, and ended up traveling there the next year to meet authors, learn the culture, and acquire books. Beyond the Rice Fields was one of the thirty-some-odd books I brought home, but it was a particularly good one: it had been recommended to me by a couple of booksellers and several authors, who all called it one of the best literary debuts they’d ever seen. I read it and loved it, so it was one of the top 5 novels that I wanted to start shopping around to American publishers. I was fortunate enough to receive a PEN/Heim grant for it in 2015, which is how Restless got interested. And the rest, as they say . . .
AI: What was the translation process like? To what extent did you collaborate? Were there any moments that stood out as particularly rewarding? What were some of the challenges?
AMC: Naivo played a large and very important role, and I’m grateful for all the time and energy he dedicated to the English translation. Because of all of the historical and cultural components to this book, I had literally hundreds of questions for him, from clarifying a certain person’s role in the royal court to figuring out what proverbs really meant to the nuances of how slavery worked in 1800s Madagascar. We were lucky enough to be selected for the Translation Lab residency at Art OMI in 2016, which we spent editing the English translation I’d created (and, in a couple cases, altering the French original to match for its e-book publication).
We spent many hours discussing how to best strike the balance of the different audiences. Naivo originally wrote the book for both Malagasy and French readers, so the English translation had to work for readers who knew Malagasy history (or who were Malagasy) and those who knew absolutely nothing about Madagascar. The minutiae were the challenging part of this: all the small details at the level of words and phrases, where each choice had to serve the larger balance somehow. But working together, the rewards came in abundance: every time we landed on the right phrasing, every time the cadence of hainteny poems was achieved in English, the time we decided that there was really no point in putting “bird’s honeycomb” into the manuscript . . . It’s magical, creating art together.
Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa: The translation process was a very instructive one in which every participant’s role was well-defined. My task consisted essentially in providing clarifications on passages and segments in French that were susceptible to lead to ambiguities and misunderstandings in English. I also had to provide explanations on parts of the text that referred to specific aspects of Malagasy culture and required a more thorough work for the translation. The difficulty that has really been recurrent was the transfer of balance from one language to another. Each language and culture have their own level of stylistic and conceptual balance that only native speakers can master. For example, each language has its own tolerance to gravity – or to weightlessness. The part that has really been rewarding was to witness a rebirth of my writing through translation. It was particularly powerful because translation inevitably includes—and I would say it is what makes its essence—a sometimes imperceptible regeneration of visions, intentions, and articulations of one’s work.
AI: Naivo, was there a journalistic imperative behind telling this particular story, specifically exploring a particular historical moment in Madagascar, which is perhaps not widely known?
NPR: Yes. The story that I tell in Beyond the Rice Fields, and elsewhere, reflects an investigation into my own culture and my own contradictions as a Malagasy. The journalistic imperative would dwell, in this respect, in a need to re-immerse myself or emotionally rediscover [Malagasy] history. With regards to the need to inform, it is more nuanced, more complicated than the simple drive to describe or surprise or explain. It would be rather the need to question the reader, I would say—something that journalists often do but don’t talk about. I had to cover this first half of the 19th century in Madagascar because it contains the seeds of a great number of phenomena and states of mind of modern times. In every modern Malagasy, there is something of this 19th century that I describe in Beyond the Rice Fields.
AI: Can you tell us about your research and writing processes for Beyond the Rice Fields? What sparked off the novel?
NPR: I was driven by a constant sense of incompleteness, and the impression of a flight of time. The idea of opportunity dominated the whole creation process—the need to write down my feelings, but also to tell the story in my own words. Beyond the Rice Fields is a personal story woven into the fabric of history. To me, storytelling was like the blood circulating in my veins. In my younger days, I read books on Malagasy traditions, some of which were unknown to me as they are not featured in the school [curriculum]. For example, the tangena poison ordeal does not appear anywhere in textbooks, the role of which is to sing the praises of fihavanana, the Malagasy version of community solidarity. Yet the tangena is a practice that played a fundamental role in the moulding of Malagasy society and psychology and has been too often relegated to the bizarre. In my writing, I tried to address these fundamental gaps. Some Malagasies came to see me after reading the book and asked if the customs described had really existed.
AI: It is implied that many of the characters in Beyond the Rice Fields are speaking Malagasy; it almost seems as if there is a double translation at play—the silent Malagasy echoing through the French and English. Did you use any particular linguistic strategies to emphasize this?
AMC: Essentially, all of that is Naivo’s doing; he’ll probably tell you about how the original French was an internal translation from the Malagasy story in his head. A lot of the Malagasy feel does actually come from the language: much of the French was essentially a calque from standard Malagasy phrases, especially the proverbs. All I had to do was translate them rather directly into English.
NPR: I always try to think in Malagasy when I write in French. It allows me to better apprehend the cultural significance of what I write. But the opportunities to deploy this cultural energy are limited, for various reasons, including the imperatives of action and plot, or simple intelligibility. Nonetheless, whenever it’s possible, I use approaches that poets like Flavien Ranaivo or Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo adopted in their time. I am very happy that Allison was able to carry this work in the English version. In the French text, I use Malagasy expressions, Malagasy-like sentences, and references to Malagasy proverbs. Proverbs, in particular, are a form of self-reflection that is central to Malagasy culture as well as to many other (if not most) African cultures. Some [proverbs] are explicit, but fragments of proverbs are also blended into my writing, intertwined with descriptions, dialogues and action. It will be difficult for readers who are unfamiliar with Malagasy culture to spot them, but it will at least provide them with a sense of foreignness. [Proverbs] are the best way on a linguistic level to ensure that a Malagasy residue remains. It also conforms to the spirit of hainteny.
AI: Can you tell us a bit more about hainteny and how it has perhaps influenced the tone and structure of the novel?
NPR: Hainteny is a poetry-like usage of speech characterized by plural signification, and generally comes in the form of a dialogue. A hainteny can be perceived and interpreted in many different ways, which is why I spoke of multiplicity. Hainteny is, to borrow a phrase by famous scholar Bakoly Domenichini-Ramiaramanana, “a fruit of poetry and an aggregate of culture”. Beyond the Rice Fields is built in the same way. It is a dialogue. And I have put multiple significations and layers in the text throughout the writing process. For example, the past is sometimes also the present and I did not hesitate to revisit certain customs and meanings. Some of the layers are at times so intertwined that it is hard for me, six years later, to recall my thought process, but that’s fine because hainteny is also meant to allow you to lose yourself in it. The essence of hainteny is to have an independent and collective life; it does not accommodate the notion of authorship very well. The reader, whether she identifies herself as a Westerner or Malagasy or something else, will probably stick to the first layer of the novel. But if she is patient enough, she has a chance to discover other stories and other significations, other “fruits of poetry”, another culture.
AI: What is the literary scene in Madagascar like? Is the literature predominantly in French or Malagasy? Is there a preference for fiction or non-fiction or poetry? Is there a predominant or favored style in which novels are written?
NPR: The literature is predominantly in Malagasy. We have a very rich and powerful literary language—but it is weighed down by the colonial past, regional tensions and disastrous economic conditions. In Madagascar, Malagasy literature in French is considered the turbulent offspring that attracts too much attention, which is sometimes pleasing, and often irritating. This controversial position is inherited from the political past, as is apparent in the personal struggles of the best writers of that category, like Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo, Michèle Rakotoson or Raharimanana. One day we will understand that French, like English, is now an African language and belongs more to Sony Labou Tansi than to Molière. In terms of preference, authors are generally more present on the fiction side, although non-fiction, which was [popular] in phases of nationalism and anti-imperialism, [is making] a comeback. In the fiction realm, poetry remains sovereign and takes new interesting directions, but is still disproportionately made up of love poems in my opinion. Short stories come second and are very popular. Modern short story writers, led by Soamiely Andriamananjara, renew the language and the topics in innovative and fascinating ways. Novels only arrive third—fourth if esoteric non-fiction is taken into account. There is no definite favored style, but the landscape gets wider every day.
AI: Allison, what is your experience of francophone literature from Madagascar? In what ways does it differ from and in what ways is it similar to the francophone literature that you have translated? Are there any themes or styles in literature from Madagascar (or Malagasy literature) that stand out as being particularly of Madagascar?
AMC: Political boundaries don’t define literary themes and styles. They’re defined by each author, or each book that each author produces. Of course there are going to be some broad commonalities across literature from Madagascar—questioning identity (on an individual and a societal level), grappling with being a former colony, problems with love and family and money and power—but those themes are present in literature from huge swaths of the world, if not every single book I’ve ever read.
The more interesting consideration, I feel, is between authors: what makes Naivo’s writing different than Raharimanana’s or Michèle Rakotoson’s or Johary Ravaloson’s or Andry Andraina’s or Magali Nirina Marson’s. My experience with Naivo’s work is that he is a generous historian who writes both magisterial, expansive, sweeping histories and biting satires of contemporary society. The thing that makes his literature of Madagascar is that he is from there and writes stories that take place there.
As a final note, I think it’s telling that there aren’t huge conversations happening around what defines American literature versus British or Canadian or Australian literature—we know those conversations wouldn’t mean anything.
AI: Why do you think this is only the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English?
AMC: I’ve been rather stumped by this for the entire process, to be honest. No one’s really been able to explain how Madagascar missed out on the wave of academic interest in postcolonial Francophone literature, which is how many authors from Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Tunisia, and other countries were introduced to English speakers (Djebar, Mabanckou, Diop, Nganang, Bâ, etc.). It would be a logical fallacy to attribute the lack of translations to how impoverished Madagascar is; although the island is one of the ten poorest countries in the world, it’s home to a large number of authors, several of whom have published in France to reach a larger readership and received critical acclaim. I ended up chalking it up to the wider issue of not enough literature being translated into English—it’s just one of the things that’s been completely missing up to this point.
NPR: The publishing industry in Madagascar is very poor and most authors self-publish. 95% of the readership only reads in Malagasy and the percentage of texts translated in French is small. With the exception of the translation of proverbs by British missionaries in the 19th century, I think that very few important Malagasy texts have been translated directly into English. For this reason, with few exceptions, only texts written in French are being translated in English. Given the limited number of Malagasy authors who write in French, it explains the current situation.
AI: What do you believe is the purpose of literature?
NPR: From a Malagasy perspective, as expressed in storytelling and displayed in a number of traditional tales, like the epic of Ibonia, human beings are to leave a dindo, a trace of their existence. Storytelling itself, which we call tantara in Malagasy, is the art of expressing a vision and a trace or a shadow of existence. Hainteny, on the other hand, which is a form of speech most closely related to what the western world calls poetry, is more enigmatic in its manifestation and reveals in that regard an important element of the Malagasy mind. Literature, according to hainteny, is a door that one tries to open at the intersection of self and the other, allowing meanings, desires, regrets, fantasies, but also opportunities, to rush in. It is less about messages or intentions than it is about a sometimes playful and sometimes passionate coexistence. For me, literature is dindo, or trace, and hainteny, or an outstretched hand to a multiplicity without which life would be terrifying. It is a thrilling experience around the shadows of thought and life. The transition from oral to written literature in particular has created turbulences that reflect the slow suffocation of the oral, and the lineaments of this transition are far from having been completely explored. If I can upset some easy truths in my writing while remaining intelligible, I would have achieved something.
AI: Are there any projects you’re currently working on?
AMC: My next translation will be of Michèle Rakotoson’s Lalana, for which I’ve received an NEA Fellowship. Rakotoson is one of the greats: a hugely prolific author who’s received numerous awards, including the Grand prix de la francophonie from the Académie française for her body of work. I’ll be traveling to Madagascar again this summer to work with her on this translation.
NPR: I am particularly interested in a brief period stretching from the end of the 1850s to the beginning of the 1860s in Madagascar, which could be called a phase of intense social and political experimentation. The pivotal part of the period is the reign of Radama II, who was murdered some two years after becoming king, but who oversaw a great development of the arts, and especially of music.
Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa, who goes by the pen name Naivo, has worked as a journalist in his home country of Madagascar. He writes about Malagasy societies, past and present, and is interested in the intermingling of cultures, particularly the collisions between Western and African cultures. He is the author of a work of historical fiction, Beyond the Rice Fields, and the short story-collection Madagascar entre poivre et vanille. His short story “Dahalo” received the RFI/ACCT prize in 1996, and another story entitled “Iarivomandroso” was adapted for a theatrical production in Antananarivo, Madagascar. He writes a series of essays on contemporary Madagascar and the weight of the past, on his blog Fenitra. He is currently working on his second novel, which will evolve around the dissolute reign and tragic death of the anarchist king Radama II.
Allison M. Charette translates literature from French into English. She has received an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, been selected for the Translation Lab residency at Art OMI, and been nominated for the Best of the Net. Her most recent translation is Beyond the Rice Fields, the first novel to be translated from Madagascar, which was published by Restless Books in 2017. She founded the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America (ELTNA.org), a networking and support group for early-career translators. Find her online at charettetranslations.com.
Alice Inggs is an editor, writer and translator from South Africa. She has an M.A. in media theory and practice from the University of Cape Town. Alice is the South Africa Editor-at-Large at Asymptote and has contributed to a number of literary, arts, and pop culture publications, including The Arkansas International, EuropeNow, Critical Arts, VICE, and Rolling Stone.
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