In this interview, novelist Johary Ravaloson tells Abhay K., the guest editor of Global Literature in Libraries Initiative for #MadagascarLitMonth about his novel Return to the Enchanted Island, translated into English by Allison M. Charette, why did he write the book, how long did it take to write it, surprises he came across while writing it, and his favourite Malagasy writers.
Abhay K.- Tell us about your book which has been translated into English.
Johary Ravaloson – Return to the Enchanted Island (published by Amazon Crossing in 2019) was translated into English by Allison M. Charette from Les larmes d’Ietsé, my second novel: a love story.
The main character, Ietsy Razak, is a privileged young man from Madagascar who struggles to find himself. He is a walking island in a concrete jungle, and he keeps hurting himself. The hope is that he can open his eyes to see the world around him. He has to leave and come back. Opening up to others and to the world can hurt, but it can also heal. That’s life. That’s love.
Abhay K. Why did you write this book?
Johary Ravaloson – At that time, I lived in Réunion, not so far from Madagascar, and whenever the media reported news from my country, it was about misery, natural disasters, abandoned children, political aberrations, corruption, etc. I wanted to talk about my country in other ways. I was looking for some hope. And I remembered the fabulous stories and myths of my childhood, especially that of Ietsy, the first man on this land, who carved humans to have some company. Ietsy interested me because he was a creator, an artist. Like him, I would make the characters of my novel: create men in my image and women in the image of my dreams. I used the myth, expanded it, and built my novel from the myths and the life of Ietsy Razak, a contemporary living man, using the legends to shed light on the life of the characters.
Abhay K.- What were challenges and surprises you came across while writing this book? How long did it take to complete it?
Johary Ravaloson- It took me one year.
I did not have a story to tell at first; just some scenes and songs. One from the original sound track of Paris, Texas, the Wim Wenders film, by Ry Cooder, was stuck in my head, a melancholy Mexican guitar as Travis, the main character, finds his wife (Nastassja Kinski), in a peep-show club and starts telling her their story over the phone, without her knowing it’s him. “I knew these people…”
I loved Travis’ tone, and I wanted to use that tone in my novel. Eventually I realized that what he did was also how I wanted to write: telling a story to people who have lived it. A kind of search for what we have in common.
I did not know it consciously at the time but that was, and still is, my way of writing, my sense of writing itself: to tell myself a story that I’ve lived through, which I discover by writing.
Of course, using the myth of Ietsy searching for other humans inevitably leads to a search for identity, history, and relationships with others.
Abhay K.- What would you like the readers to know or appreciate more about this book?
Johary Ravaloson – It is a contemporary coming-of-age novel and a fresh interpretation of Madagascar’s origin story, its legends and mysteries. It is also a love story. I would like the readers to appreciate my way of handling these classical elements, the good old stuff.
Abhay K.- What’s your next book project? Can you please tell us more about it?
Johary Ravaloson – I don’t like to talk about works in progress.
My last novel, Amour, patrie et soupe de crabes (Dodo vole, 2019) shows a full cross-section of society and their unique but similar struggles.
The story begins with a nameless narrator discovering that May 13th Square, a place in Antananarivo where the people have historically checked the power of the ruling class, has been shut up behind a fence and renamed the Square of Love. Now there is a huge pool with choregraphed water fountains there—which the general public is not allowed near. The narrator, a taxi driver, laments this, and introduces a trio of characters who could possibly bring the gates down: Nivo Hope, a trans woman, a powerful force who wants to shake things up; Justin Rabedas, possibly her lover, a smooth-talker who works as the Director of Communications at City Hall; and Liva, the head of security at City Hall who tries to keep his head down and avoid politics. And then there is Hery, the little child who shall lead them.
Abhay K. Who are your favourite Malagasy writers?
Johary Ravaloson – My favourite Malagasy writers are
Esther Razanadrasoa dit Anja-Z (1896-1931), Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo (1904-1937), Emilson Daniel Andriamalala (1918-1979), Clarisse Ratsifandrihamanana (1926-1987), Soamiely Andriamalala (born in 1970) and Mampianina Randria.
Johary Ravaloson was born in Antananarivo, Madagascar. He studied law in Paris and Réunion (PhD, 2002) before returning to his hometown in 2008. He worked as a lawyer, writing his novels and short stories in his spare time. Since 2017, he lives in Caen (France) and dedicates his time to the writing, translation and publishing.
His writing focuses on Malagasy people as they are confronted with and accosted by the modern world, which brings changes that shake and sometimes shock them. His universe weaves together tradition and legend yet burns with a contemporary fire. Most of his characters feel out of place but try to cope. They are often romantic to a fault, inviting us to share in their belief that love leads to redemption.
In 2006, he founded Dodo Vole Publishing with his wife, contemporary artist Sophie Bazin, starting a new trend of in-country publishing in Madagascar and the region.
In 2018, he launched the magazine Lettres de Lémurie which publishes annualy literary texts of the Indian Ocean (24 authors per issue). He is also the recipient of the 2016 Prix du livre insulaire and the 2017 Prix Ivoire for Francophone African Literature for his novel Vol à Vif. His last novel Amour, patrie et soupe de crabes (2019) was shortlisted for the Prix Ethiophile and the Prix “Les Afriques”. Johary lives in Normandy, France.
#MadagascarLitMonth is curated by Abhay K.
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.