#MadagascarLitMonth: The Poetry of Elie Rajaonarison

By Mialy Andriamananjara

Elie Rajaonarison was a Malagasy poet, for whom Malagasy literature was above all an oral literature.

He was born on November 15, 1951 in Ambatondrazaka, a town in the central highlands of Madagascar known for its rice and tobacco production. He was a “poète engagé” who “served as Secretary General to the Minister of Culture in the 1990s under President Albert Zafy. A faculty member of the University of Antananarivo over 25 years, Rajaonarison was promoted mid-career to head the Department of Sociology. His classes and research explored Malagasy culture history, arts and world view. He was noted for his strong convictions, love of Madagascar and warm personality.

Elie actively promoted Malagasy poetry and theater. He surrounded himself with young Malagasy poets in the Faribolana Sandratra, an association of poets, which he founded in 1982, with the actor and playwright, Solofo Jose. He was also active in the Cercle Germano Malagasy literary circles. Elie emphasized that Malagasy literature manifested itself mainly as a living, verbal art .

“Parler de la littérature, parler de l’écrit à Madagascar, c’est d’abord dire que cette littérature prend racine dans l’oralité. Et cela explique en partie que l’approche de la littérature malgache par des chercheurs ou des observateurs extérieurs n’a pas été ce qu’elle devrait être, car elle n’a peut-être pas suffisamment pris en compte cette dimension d’oralité. C’est bien cette culture-là que nous vivons, malgré le fait que depuis 1823, Radama I a officialisé l’écriture de la langue malgache en caractères latins, et que nous sommes ainsi entrés dans l’écrit seulement au début du XIXe siècle, dans l’ère de la scolarisation. Nous sommes écrivains, nous publions des livres, ET nous sommes aussi des gens de l’oralité, nous parlons et disons nos œuvres. “

“To talk about literature, to talk about writing in Madagascar, is to say that this literature is rooted in oral tradition. And it partly explains why the approach to Malagasy literature by foreign researchers or observers has not been correct, because it has not sufficiently considered this oral dimension. This is the culture we are living in, despite the officialization of Malagasy language in 1823, with the usage of Latin characters, despite our entry into the writing world only at the beginning of the 19th century, during schooling age. We are writers, we publish books, and we are also oral people, we speak and talk our works.”

To Elie Rajaonarison, to speak Malagasy was to be a poet and all Malagasy are poets, because of the centrality of the “teny” (word) in the culture.

“Mais qu’est-ce qui fait qu’on devient écrivain, ici, à Madagascar ? En réalité, je ne sais pas. On ne devient peut-être pas un poète, ici, à Madagascar. Tous les Malgaches sont poètes, et ce n’est pas une affirmation gratuite. Quand vous écoutez les Malgaches parler, quand ils ne font pas du vary amin’anana, ce pidgin horrible, ce mélange de français et de malgache, cette créolisation de la langue malgache, alors c’est beau, c’est toute une poésie. Voilà pourquoi les lavandières sont des poètes, et les paysans de Talatanivolonondry, et aussi dans les temples, car lorsque le prêtre ou le pasteur fait le prêche, c’est toute une poésie, et c’est un délice de les écouter. “

“But why does one become a writer, here, in Madagascar? Frankly, I do not know. One does not become a poet, here in Madagascar. All Malagasies are poets, and this is not an unwarranted statement. When you hear Malagasies speak, when they don’t speak in vary amin’anana, this horrible pidgin, this mix of French and Malagasy, this creolization of Malagasy language, it is beautiful, it is poetry. This is why laundresses are poets, why peasants of Talatanivolondry are poets, and also in churches, when priests and pastors preach, their sermon is a poem, and it is a pleasure to listen to them. ”

Elie Rajaonarison published a collection of poems, “Ranitra”, in 1992. The poems were translated into French in 1999, by Patrick Rakotolahy, and were published by Editions Grand Ocean. He has left an imprint in Madagascar, beyond the poetry collection he managed to publish in difficult financial circumstances, by his presence in literary associations, his political stances and services, and also frankly, thanks to his personality which reached out to many in the literary, academic and political spheres.

For English speakers, some of Elie Rajaonarison’s poems have been translated into English, after his stay at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. (https://iwp.uiowa.edu/writers/elie-rajaonarison)


Fa aiza foana Ianao

F’angaha ianao variana

Fa teto niandry Anao

De niandry Famonjena

Fa tojo an-katerena

De miandry Anao hanavotra

Kanefa ianao toa lavitra

“Where are You then?

Are you distracted then?

I am here waiting for you

Hoping for your rescue

I am imperiled

And I am waiting for salvation

But you are distant”

(Ranitra, translated by Mialy Andriamananjara)

“Ranitra”, the title of his unique book of poem, is an adjective that may mean simultaneously, “sharp”, that it may wound, or “smart”. 

Ranitra as a root may also mean “tease”, as in provoke, irritate.

Lastly, Ranitra also means “friend”, in the Merina language, secret friend as in “mistress”, vady ranitra.

And a beautiful bitter booming poem, of which I attempt a translation.

Elie Rajaonarison wanted his poems spoken out loud. I hope you will do so, as you read this one through.

Most bitter is the bite of hunger
which awakens you in the morning
keeps you up at night
Most bitter the price of sweat
you do not even notice
dried out while indebted
It is even harder
to not raise, crushed by complaints
to not dream, petrified by weakness
to not reconcile, closed minded

Bitter is all that!
In the darkness of the everyday
shines Light
joy rises,
floods and vanquishes the unshelterable bile

Then rise the chants…ready
to win every day
to place their rays to history’s legacy

Sing o hills
as she the most beautiful
raises unremittingly unvanquished in war

Written by Elie Rajaonarison on August 15 1990, 1 year and 5 days before the Iavoloha massacre. (https://globalvoices.org/2010/12/01/elie-rajaonarison-renowned-malagasy-artist-has-passed/)

Elie Rajaonarison died on November 27, 2010, at the age of 59, leaving a wife and three daughters.

Mialy A.

Mialy Andriamananjara is a writer and publisher from Madagascar, currently based in Washington D.C. She writes in three languages-Malagasy, French and English. Her short stories have been published by Sable London and Picador Africa.

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