African Review of Books - Your Guide to African Books and More
A complex historical interaction
Eurafricans in Western Africa registers the many nuances of complex networks that linked dispersed communities and reshaped cross-cultural relations in West Africa over a period of three centuries.
Living on the edge of the world
In The Last Flight of The Flamingo Mia Couto addresses a matter that is close to his heart, an issue that is not peculiar to Mozambique but he uses the peculiarities of Mozambique to tell a tale of environmental tragedy.
A journey through langauge
John Miles writes in Afrikaans, and of South Africa, but in Die Buiteveld (Foreign Fields) he takes readers on a journey through Portugal, through the nature of language, as well as the nature of reconciliation.
Tragedy behind poverty's veil
Stanley Gazemba, a Kenyan gardener who has published many short stories, has created, in The Stone Hills of Maragoli, a work which reflects this expertise in shorter fiction. It tells an ordinary tale of love, celebration, betrayal and revenge, but places all this in a context that is at once familiar for its emotional impact and unfamiliar for its cultural environment.
Drive out Hunger is the story of JJ Machobane, the Lesotho-based agriculturist who pioneered, perfected and professed the revolutionary Machobane Farming System of agricultural intercropping.
A sensitive linguistic journey
Boy Lindsey Collen 2004 (hardback, paperback October 2004) Bloomsbury, London 204 pages
Reviewed by Jenny Doubt
As a native English speaker, language is something I have always taken for granted to a certain extent: in any café in the world, people will understand when I ask for the bill. As an editor I’m aware of the blind trust people put in the published word: what readers have in front of them is more often than not taken as the doctrine of correct language; and as a quebecoise living abroad, I understand the instinct to both protect and identify myself by the joual dialect native only to my province: its accents and sentence structures misunderstood everywhere but home.
As a reader, language is something that I am sensitive to. In her novel Boy, it is this aspect of reading that Lindsey Collen foremost elucidates. Boy is an adaptation of Collen’s 1996 Creole novel Misyon Garcon, and was therefore seemingly unwritten in English in order to be re-iterated in relation to the Creole native to Mauritius. Before we have even read a word of Boy, we have been pitched into the middle of a linguistic exchange; a dialogue that interfaces languages (French, Creole, and English) in order to both showcase the linguistic mosaic of Mauritian identity, as well as posit these languages in a larger spectrum of political power. With Boy, Lindsey Collen’s own sensitivity to language is also evident, as she seems to be writing first as an activist whose writing has been censored, threatened and banned, and subsequently as a novelist, and in this respect, Collen has not departed from the political role that has traditionally defined African novelists.
In Boy we follow young Krish as he leaves home for the first time to learn the "Enn de trwa"s of lying, "His coming of age is a story of Mauritius, and some part of that experience cannot be translated either culturally or linguistically" losing, loving and learning to "take care of the ones that are still alive. In a strange land, full of strange people speaking strange languages and applying strange laws". The novel is something of a boy’s adventure tale – it traces Krish, on the verge of manhood, on his accidental road trip across Mauritius. Sent to run an errand by his mother as a means to distract him from the high school leaving exams he has just failed, Krish’s lack of confidence leads him to spin a web of lies; his lack of direction takes him on a meander through the map of Mauritius, where he trips across friends and thieves; the beach, the road; murder and beauty; and most importantly, comes to terms with his older brother’s death.
Collen uses Krish’s venture away from home to chart the linguistic map of Mauritius – Krish’s encounters with gangsters and police; union workers (and their pamphlets) and hippies expose him to a language spectrum that stretches from the French voice of the law and of the newspapers, to the "Kreol or Bhojpuri" that is spoken with "loud and raucous, skirts swishing, and wide coloured collars nestling in their necks, with shawls and without shawls" of the people of Mauritius.
Yet in an era where African novelists are being criticised for not writing to the African people that they purportedly represent, Collen’s use of Mauritian Creole begs the question of which readers she is writing for. Despite authenticising a cultural space for us, the untranslated snippets of Creole and French that Krish narrates, remind non-speakers that the experience that he is relating, his coming of age from a boy to a young man, is on one level, a coming of age story of Mauritius, and that some part of that experience cannot be translated either culturally or linguistically.
And the Mauritius that is unveiled to us is riddled with contradictions – probably best exemplified in the mission that sets-off Krish’s journey: to collect a small portion of marijuana for his mother that she can use in the various preparations for the annual Granbasin pagan festival. Krish’s mission puts readers in an interesting moral dilemma – for one surely can’t pass judgment on the age-old use of marijuana in a traditional festival, as Krish dutifully explains to us:
My mother, I have to tell you, knows how to make all sorts of preparations. Not everyone knows these things. She learnt when her grandfather had his Gannja ke Dukann. That was in Krevker too. Had a licence to sell alcohol and the leaves of tobacoo and marijuana.
And yet it is evident that Mauritian law does not condone intercropping, and points to the use and sale of drugs as a major problem in the country. Unfortunately, Collen solves the moral riddle for us: at the end of his travails, when Krish pitches his puliah away, we are aware he has made the right decision, and as such, are also aware that Collen is using her writing to showcase a positive and hopeful trajectory for the future of Mauritius.
Collen, a South African born political activist now living in Mauritius, is well known for using her position as a published author to express her politics. With Misyon Garcon, which was only recently published in French, Collen made a statement akin to that made by N’gugi wa Thiongo, the great Kenyan writer who now only writes in Gikuyu, a language native to Kenya. By electing to write in Creole, Collen played directly into the MMM’s (Movement Militant Mauricien) avant-garde movement to use Mauritian Creole in written texts in order to elevate the Creole dialect to a higher social position. Empowering the native Creole dialect also acts to redress the legacy of the French language, a language still held in esteem because it once articulated the legislation of government administration in colonial France.
Moreover, given that the ability to read and write in French have historically been associated with power and government, with Misyon Garcon, Collen also re-empowers the folklore of oral storytelling, and recalls a type of cultural memory among her readers, even if this, once again, does nothing to modernise the concepts that have traditionally stifled the African novel. An yet it is the careful manipulation of language that give both Misyon Garcon and Boy its meaning – the re-iteration of Mauritian culture to its Mauritian people is where Collen most effectively manipulates the novel form.
Like many post-colonial writers writing to enact social change, Collen clearly posits herself as a spokesperson for the (silenced) people in Mauritius. This is made evident in the following excerpt from an interview about how Boy was conceived:
So lavi ti paret ankor pli dir, so mama tu pe konpar li toultan ek son frer ki tien mor. Sa fine trouble moi. Li ti boulversan pou trouv kiksoz ki motine ekrir, an pli pir. Lerla mone realize ki degree soufrans interier sa zanfan la pa tiene ave koze.
By reiterating her experience with a Mauritian boy whose brother had died in Boy, Collen forges an oral continuum with Misyon Garcon whilst making clear that Boy is drawn from the fabric of everyday Mauritian life. She describes that the boy whose mourning she modeled was conflicted by a lifetime of being compared with his brother, a dilemma that provides Collen with the emotional matrix that drives her narrator Krish to abscond from the errand he was supposed to run, and venture out into his native Mauritius in an attempt to escape the failure and mourning that had until then defined him. Collen’s explanation of the genesis of Boy therefore clearly delineates the socio-political grassroot parameters that inform the politicisation of her fiction. And yet using the politics of the post-colonial era as a departure point for her writing is in no way novel, and does nothing to suggest the Mauritian novel as a literary entity that might be worthy without its politics. Boy’s weaknesses seem to fall in the actual writing. Inasmuch as Collen uses language to coin, identity and reinforce the Mauritian tradition of oral storytelling – Krish is sketched primarily through his speech, which is very often colloquial, and his character, we are constantly being reminded, is narrating a story to us – she does not inscribe orality well. Collen is not successful at convincing us of the narrator’s authenticity as a teenage boy. Her superimposition of slang and angst: "At home they call me ‘Boy’. Both of them. I’m telling you. Enough to make you puke"; of aggressive interactions with the reader: "What d’you think of that"; and of intimate moments of sexual coming-of-age, all feel contrived:
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