Ariel Saramandi on Mauritius, identity, and the languages in which she writes, thinks and dreams.
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I used to think that it could have gone either way. If choosing a language to write and think in is primarily a matter of exposure – that, in the end, we pick the tongue in which we’re comfortable, the language by which we’re surrounded – then I would have chosen French. Or, at the very least, I would have also written in French.
I was brought up in English, French and Kreol. I spoke English with my English father; French and English with my mother; French with my aunt, who took care of me and my sister while my mother worked; French, Kreol and a smattering of Hindi with the women and men who cared for me alongside my aunt; French and Kreol outside of our home.
All the leading newspapers and media outlets are in French, a postcolonial particularity that stems from the British administration’s decision not to impose English on the island’s (mostly Francophone) residents when they colonised the country in 1810. I’d read the papers after watching cartoons early in the morning on national TV: Babar, Petit Potam, Cat’s Eye and Sailor Moon were all either in French or French dubbed. When I was around seven, our island was introduced to satellite television, and no provider to my knowledge offered a mix of both English and French channels. My father made sure we alternated between English and French satellites every year, to balance out our tongues.
I spoke English at my international primary school. Later, when I joined a Catholic secondary school run by the Diocese, our textbook education was in English but everyone spoke French. It was there that I learned the intricate ways in which language is linked to ethnicity in Mauritius.
The school was in the same town as the private French lycées, whose fees most of my classmates’ families wouldn’t have been able to afford. It was considered to be a better institution than the other public schools in the area. Within the school there was a separate building dedicated to prevocational education. The students attending these classes were often darker skinned with unstraightened hair, and spoke Kreol outside of the classroom. This was untenable to many of the schoolgirls I knew who would only speak French: Kreol was used sparingly, in jest, never spoken earnestly. These girls spent hours polishing their accent by watching French satellite television; lusted over the white boys of the lycée and the light-skinned boys in the school next door; straightened their hair, wore green contact lenses. When I won a place at a prestigious state school, the languages around me changed again: French was rarely heard, English, Kreol and Hindi were dominant. Like the Catholic school, many of the girls were middle and lower-middle class; unlike my previous school, my classmates were now mostly Indo-Mauritian. The obsession with whiteness didn’t change: some of the girls would buy bleaching creams advertised by Bollywood stars.
But one mustn’t be quick to sketch out an order of things. It’s often believed that light skin and wealth are associated with languages of power; darker skin and lower incomes with the Kreol language. Besides and beyond Kreol, it’s assumed that Indo-Mauritians generally prefer to speak English, whereas Creoles and Franco-Mauritians choose French.
These linguistic schemata are blasted apart every day. None of them hold. A wealthy Indo-Mauritian child attending one of the lycées would probably speak French at home. And Kreol is spoken by over 90% of us, across all spectrums of wealth and ethnicity.
A conversation with my friend Marek Ahnee, a researcher at the EHESS, also complicates this idea of linguistic correlative order. Both of us – and our families and friends in our Creole milieu – speak in a mix of French-English-Kreol every day without thinking about it. I’ve just said ‘Allume l’aircon s’il te plait mo pe mor’, for instance.
I’ve seen our parents and our friends be questioned for their supposed ‘allegiance’ to French, when they speak and write in English and Kreol just as perfectly. Marek tells me that when Creoles speak French it’s often seen as French colonial mimicry. English, incongruously, is seen as a somewhat ‘liberated’ language – this whole line of thinking is another example of how colonial empires always exist in relation to other colonial empires. He adds that French, which has been used (and is still used, in certain settings) as a tool of colonial power, is also a refuge for many Mauritian Creoles and marginalised Indo-Mauritian communities; it even serves as an instrument of social mobility to these people.
There are rancid ideas that are, hopefully, in the last stages of putrescence before they die out. There are tough, complex systems of caste and white supremacy that will take the efforts of a nation to dismantle.
There is also money. It chose my tongue. I’ve spent a few months thinking about this essay and it allows for no other conclusion: if it weren’t for my father – his excellent position, his English nationality that I inherited, my private primary school, the English bookshops to which I travelled, the English books I amassed – I would probably be writing in French. And perhaps I’d never be a writer at all.
Mauritius in the mid 1990s: you could count the number of bookstores on one hand. They sold an excessive number of self-help books, as well as copies of classics in strange fonts, reprinted by local publishers with or without permission. The municipal libraries were (and still are) pathetically stocked. The British Council’s library perhaps existed back then – it closed in 2016; English officials didn’t think there’d be much interest in keeping it open – but I don’t remember my parents taking me there. The Institut Francais de Maurice’s gorgeous mediatheque only opened in 2010. I don’t know where their first library was and wasn’t brought there, in any case. As for Kreol – the only book I had in Kreol was a poetry pamphlet. There were no Kreol books for children back then.
I had books in French: picture books of Disney movies, the Martine series, Hector le Castor and friends. These French books, bought in Mauritius, couldn’t rival the number of books I had in English from abroad. My father travelled several times a year, and there was often a book or magazine packed inside his suitcase for me when he returned. Once a year, we’d all go to England. My parents would leave me alone in one of the bookshops in Canterbury and I’d leave with ten to fifteen books. I would depend on that bookshop well into my teenage years, when it seemed that everyone abroad was able to buy books online except for me: Mauritius didn’t exist in the ‘choose your country’ drop-down menu. There was also a book catalogue that my primary school sent out once or twice a year: I’d circle the ones I wanted most to read, the school would order them, and they’d arrive a few months later.
I was cushioned in English children’s literature, and then PG 13 classics like Little Women.
When I’d finished rereading my books I searched for others around the house. My father mostly read tomes on the world wars, biographies of athletes. My mother, however, had a proper, literary, adult collection of novels.
I was nine when I stumbled on the first volume of Henri Troyat’s Les Eygletière. The volumes were furrowed under piles of Cosmopolitans and Anaïs Nin, stored away in a broken cream drawer. They weren’t especially hidden. As I started reading the novel – I didn’t know there were two more books in the trilogy, and in any case I never sought them out – I felt, acutely and for the first time, very young and stupid and scared. The Eygletière family live in Paris in the 1960s. Philippe, the patriarch, has married his second much younger wife, Carole, whom he cheats on. Carole, in turn, begins to have an affair with Philippe’s son Jean Marc. Daniel, the youngest son, sets upon discovering himself in ‘pure’ Africa (of course!)
I don’t remember finishing the book, but I do remember putting it back in the exact place I found it, never telling my mother. I was cautious around her other books in French, and French literature in general. Given that I didn’t have that many French books anyway, it wasn’t difficult to read exclusively in English.
As I grew up, I turned to French literature again, but always with a certain apprehension. I prepare myself to be disquieted, thrilled. Some of the greatest reading experiences of my life have been in French: Madame Bovary, L’Étranger, Vipere au poing, Bonjour Tristesse,Proust, Zola, Ernaux, Énard, NDiaye, Colette, Blanchot, Bachelard, Levinas. Sometimes, I wonder whether I hold the language as sacrosanct, the language of the sublime – my sublime – that I won’t tamper with, won’t attempt.
That may change. I think and dream in French. Over the past few years in Mauritius, it has become rare for me to talk in English for more than a few sentences at a time. My son is bilingual but chooses to speak mostly in French. Sometimes he will surprise me by repeating to me a sentence I’ve just said in the other language. Bookshops now are filled with French offerings, and though he knows and loves the classics – the animals of Eric Carle, Margaret Wise Brown’s rabbits – it is the adventures of Timoté that he picks up again and again. He has books in Kreol, too, like the translations of Tintin by Shenaz Patel. I wonder if he’ll end up choosing one language over another, or if he won’t feel like he has to make a choice. Whatever happens, I’ll keep a steady supply of age-appropriate books in all the languages he knows.
Ariel Saramandi is an Anglo-Mauritian writer living in Mauritius. Her fiction and essays have been published by Granta, LA Review of Books and Brooklyn Rail, among other places. She is represented by Lisa Baker at Aitken Alexander Associates.