In this interview writer Naivo tells Abhay K., the guest editor of Global Literature in Libraries Initiative’s #MadagascarLitMonth about his book Beyond the Rice Fields, the first Malagasy novel ever translated into English. why he wrote the book, what were his challenges in writing it, and his favourite Malagasy writers.
Abhay K.- Tell us about your book which has been translated into English.
Naivo- The novel, Beyond the Rice Fields, was published in its French original version entitled Au-delà des rizières in March 2012 by Éditions Sépia in Paris. This work, which describes the violent cultural clash and mass killings that arose in the early nineteenth century Madagascar in reaction to the arrival of British missionaries and the rise of Christianity, is the first Malagasy novel ever translated into English. The English translation, which was beautifully crafted by Allison Charette, was published by Restless Books in New York in October 2017.
Abhay K. Why did you write this book?
Naivo- When I was in my twenties, I was fascinated with the parts of Malagasy civilisation that had been wiped out by Christianity since the 19th century. This included beliefs and customs, but also things like the judicial system, and arts. Later in my life, remembering the angano tales that elders used to tell Malagasy children in the not so distant past, and even in my own childhood, I had the idea of trying to reconstruct or reinvent the lives and the imagination of ordinary people in 19th century Madagascar in a work of fiction. The opportunity to do so came after carrying out historical research on love poems called hainteny in university. That is how I wrote Beyond The Rice Fields.
Abhay K. What were challenges and surprises you came across while writing this book? How long did it take to complete it?
Naivo-The challenges were many, ranging from establishing credible characters in a very particular world which is very different from today’s Madagascar, to crafting a love story close to the angano, to maintaining a viable balance between the demands of fiction and the authenticity of the historical setting. But perhaps the greatest difficulty was writing all this in a foreign language that by definition distorts any indigenous reality from the start. It took me a decade to do all that.
Abhay K.- What would you like the readers to know or appreciate more about this book?
Naivo- Each reader will have his or her own way of apprehending the story. If they manage to get an idea of this Malagasy imagination as the aroma or flavour of a little known culture that has lived and continues to live and thrive in works of fiction, I think it would be my best reward as a writer.
Abhay K.- What’s your next book project? Can you please tell us more about it?
Naivo- I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel about the Menamaso, who were political advisors and fellow debauchees of the “anarchist” king Radama II, also in the 19th century – I’m fascinated by that century, which was pivotal in the formation of modern Madagascar. This is technically a sequel to Beyond the Rice Fields, but the perspective is actually quite different, especially since the so-called clash of cultures involves more complex, more subtle, and more violent phenomena as you approach the top political spheres.
Abhay K.- Who are your favourite Malagasy writers?
Naivo- For me, no author has yet surpassed the account given by the writer Andry Andraina of the Malagasy colonial period. Unfortunately, his books, written in Malagasy, have not been translated. As far as pure novelistic talent is concerned, I remain an admirer of E.D Andriamalala even if I do not subscribe to his sometimes too moralistic visions. As you may have guessed, I am a fan of “old” Malagasy authors. But I also enjoy reading the younger generation, in Malagasy as well as in French.
Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa, who goes by the pen name Naivo, has worked as a journalist in his home country of Madagascar and as a teacher in Paris. His first novel, Beyond the Rice Fields, a historical fiction, was published in its French original version in March 2012 by Éditions Sépia in Paris. The English version, translated by Allison Charette, was published by Restless Books in New York in October 2017. Naivo is also the author of several short stories, including “Dahalo,” which received the RFI/ACCT prize in 1996, and “Iarivomandroso,” which was adapted for a theatrical production in Antananarivo, Madagascar. These were published as part of a short story collection entitled “Madagascar entre poivre et vanille,” which explores various topics pertaining to contemporary Madagascar including the socialist era, the recurrent political coups, the corruption of the judiciary system, and the monarchic and colonial resurgences. Naivo lives with his family in Canada and Madagascar.
Abhay K. is the author of nine poetry collections including The Magic of Madagascar (L’Harmattan Paris, 2021), The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020), and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (Harper Collins, 2022), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems, CAPITALS, New Brazilian Poems and The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems. His poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Poetry Salzburg Review, Asia Literary Review among others. His ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into over 140 languages. He received SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2018. His forthcoming book length poem is titled Monsoon. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit, have won KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21.