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The Literary Gifts of Ari Gautier


Ari Gautier Interview Diriye Osman

French Indo-Malagasy novelist, short story writer, poet and cultural critic Ari Gautier’s objective as an artist is to translate the vividity of his beloved Pondicherry, a kaleidoscopic city in India that was once a French colony, into a form that can penetrate the exclusionary landscape of Francophone literature. In that regard, there is a pioneering puissance to Gautier’s writing in presenting the reader with what John Berger once termed “other ways of seeing.”

 

As his short story collection, Nocturne Pondicherry, is translated from the French and published in India by Hachette, and his novel, Lakshmi’s Secret Diary, by Columbia University Press, I interviewed Gautier via email about subjects as diverse as the impact Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola had on his writing life, the perks of being a late bloomer, Kréyofuturism, and the resilience and perseverance it takes to reject marginalization.

 

You're someone who's consistently made a lot of fascinating, enjoyable art and cultural contributions over a sustained period, so naturally, my first question is: Were you an especially creative child and if so, was that creativity encouraged by your family, friends and teachers?

 

I am kind of a late bloomer, Diriye. When I was young I wasn't particularly interested in any form of creativity, and as I recount in my book Le Thinnai, which has some autobiographical passages, Kurussukupam is not a place where you can expect to be exposed to art or culture. That said, there was a popular culture of cinema and street theater that could be seen during temple festivals. The people in the neighborhood, most of whom were poor and of low caste, had other existential and economic preoccupations than a general interest in culture. Even though I come from a slightly better-off family, we weren't necessarily inclined to take an interest in culture. 


To be honest, I can't say where my interest in art and culture comes from, but from a very young age I knew that I didn't share the same tastes as my family. I was already sensitive to art movies , while those around me loved popular cinema. And my taste in music was more inclined towards Indian classical music than film scores. But one thing my father gave me as culture was the love of reading. In the absence of any other artistic or cultural form in my milieu, I found refuge in literature. But it's also important to understand why Pondicherry, the town where I grew up, was a cultural desert. The French, who had colonized Pondicherry for 285 years, left the city in 1962. The city was in a process of decolonization and finding its own identity. That  generation of Pondicherrians had to get rid of the colonial vestiges on one side and form their own identity on the other. With hindsight, that's how I analyze and understand this lack of cultural life and a form of artistic inertia. Of course, I'd be wrong to say that there was no culture at all. It existed, but it was reserved for the little elite who lived inside the boulevard that is the colonial city. I explain and talk about this he told me urban anomaly in my short stories and novels. 


At seventeen, when I told my father I wanted to learn Bharata natyam to become a dancer, he packed my suitcase and sent me to France to join the army like all the other members of the family.  “There's no room for troubadours or acrobats in the family,” he told me. 

I left Pondicherry, aware of my interest in art and culture, and with a taste for literature. 

 

What was the moment that made you say, 'I'm going to be a writer?'

 

Although a lover of literature and an avid reader, I never thought that one day I would become a writer. Because writing is a luxury not available to everyone. The instinct to survive in the urban jungle of Paris never inspired me to write. And also, it seems to me that I wasn't intellectually ready for this adventure. I'm an instinctive animal who doesn't calculate. I follow the flow of life with what it gives me and I take the best. I'm a very bad swimmer, but a very good surfer. I can surf in deep water without drowning. 

 

So the idea never crossed my mind until my wife had the opportunity to work in Nigeria for three years. She said she would accept the offer on condition that I did something useful during that time. Without thinking, I told her I was going to take up writing, as I wanted to escape the polar cold of Norway. She accepted with a suspicious look. Two minutes later, despite the cold, I was warm and I broke out in a cold sweat. How was I going to write, what was I going to write about? Sleepless nights followed this decision until we arrived in Abuja, where my wife was going to work. The day after our arrival, I prepared breakfast for my wife and she left for work afterwards. As soon as she closed the apartment door, I opened my computer and typed a few random words into the empty screen to feel the keyboard. And the first word was “Why”, which is the first word in my first novel, Carnet secret de Lakshmi. And ever since, I've never closed my computer. 

 

But as you know very well, Diriye, you don't just invent yourself as a writer overnight. It takes a lot of perseverance and conviction to embark on this adventure. I was convinced that I could write when one day I stumbled across The Palm Wine Drinkard, Amos Tutuola's book. After reading this magnificent book and learning about the author's life, I said to myself: if Tutuola did it, I can do it too. He has been the greatest inspiration to me in my writing. 


Ari Gautier Diriye Osman Interview Lakshmi
The US edition of "Lakshmi's Secret Diary" published by Columbia University Press

To me, you're not just a writer but also a literary activist not only in terms of honouring Dalit culture, but also in regards to bridging the gap between Dalit culture and the global literary community. Is that a conscious sense of cultural intervention or is it anchored in the many different aspects of your own life? 

 

As far as I'm concerned, writing is a political act and my personal story cannot afford the luxury of triviality. When I started writing, I didn't know what to say. I was initially tempted to write about my migration experience to Norway as an adult and the challenges of entering a new culture. But I quickly gave up the idea, as I didn't want to get bogged down in this immigrant literature. When I did a bit of research, I was shocked to realize that there was no French-language Indian literature. It's true, I've never read a book by someone from the Franco-Indian community to which I belong. 289 years of French presence in India, especially Pondicherry which was the seat of colonial power, has not been able to produce literature in French. It's an anomaly, isn't it? It would take too long to explain this inconsistency in this interview, but I've written an article about it which is on my website. So I set out to fill the gap by writing the history of Pondicherry from the indigenous perspective, because for the past three centuries, it's been the colonizers who have written our history. It was high time we wrote our own history. As my writing progressed, it became clear to me that my objective was to write historical fiction,  because our history had never been taught to us, neither in primary school nor at university. The French civilizing mission had wiped out all traces of my civilization in Pondicherrians’ collective memory. This awareness of giving justice to colonial history has led to another consciousness, that of my Dalit condition. Since then, my pen has found the political words to tell this unknown story. Until then, Dalit literature had focused mainly on the human condition and social injustice in India, without really dealing with colonial history. Through my books, the world discovers literature written by a colonised Dalit in French. For I am the first French Dalit writer! This stance has enabled me to join forces with other literary activists  from the Global South and Kreyol writers, which are claiming their rightful place in the literary world. Added to this is another narrative that does not exist in mainland France literature. It is the little-known and largely forgotten story of indentured labourers. When I looked into the history of Pondicherry, one thing really struck me: the town's place in the tragic episode when millions of Indians were sent to the four corners of the world to replace enslaved African  after the abolition of slavery. Of course, writers from the Mascarene Islands and the Caribbean have written extensively on this subject in several languages. Apart from Amitav Gosh, very few Indians write about this subject. But I thought it essential to write their stories through the history of Pondicherry. What's more, most of the people who left Indian soil were of low caste. It's another way of talking about people we never talk about. All this to tell you that Pondicherry is still a literary terra incognita for the outside world. By telling all these stories I defy the colonial narrative and I move Pondicherry from the periphery to the centre  and give it the place it deserves in literature. 

 

I very much enjoyed both Le Thinnai and Nocturne Pondicherry. These are characters whose circumstances might be relegated to marginalia, but you consistently amplify their realities. Tell me more about your literary activism.

 

The French have always written about India through their exotic pens. The fakir, the majestic palaces, the indolent maharajas and the snake charmer, the sati, have always been their colonial fantasies and continue to feed their vision of India, which refuses the multi-faceted reality. When I decided to write about Pondicherry, I didn't want to fall into the trap of feeding the fantasies of the French and telling them what they want to read. I want to show another India, another reality that they don't know. Although I generally place Pondicherry in the centre, I also move it beyond its four boulevards, which I call the colonial city, or Babylon in Rasta parlance. 


In doing so, I'm talking about the little people we never talk about. This is very important, because in Pondicherry there are communities that have never been mentioned. For example, Lourdes, one of the characters in my novel The Thinnai, belongs to the low-creole community. Creole characters have been mentioned in French novels about Pondicherry, but this is the first time anyone is mentioned this sub-group within the community. And the Bas-Creoles for the most part don't live in the nicer parts of the city, they live with the Dalits and low-caste people in the outskirts of Pondicherry. Until now, no one has put Pondicherry's Creole heritage at the centre of the narrative and shown the cultural richness of this city. By doing this, I'm creating solidarity between the Bas-Creole community and the Dalit community. The Dalit becomes a Bas-Creole and the Bas-Creole, who is considered to be outside his caste, asserts his Dalit status. Thank you for this question, because through your interview, I've just discovered Kréyodalitalité!


Ari Gautier Nocturne Pondicherry Diriye Osman
The English edition of "Nocturne Pondicherry" published by Hachette India.

I'm fascinated by the curatorial work you're doing at Melahuset in Oslo, so two questions in one if you don't mind. What inspired you to settle down in Oslo, and how did you embark on this radical work?

 

In all the years I've lived in Norway, I've rarely met anyone who's told me they woke up one day and decided to move to this cold country, despite its beauty. Like many people, circumstances brought me to Norway. Mine is a beautiful one, because I've come to join the person I love. Ever since I discovered my attraction for art and culture, I've always dreamed of working in this field. But the opportunity never came. When I returned from my stay in Nigeria, such an opportunity presented itself and I started working for Melahuset where I organise literary events, film screenings etc... 

 

Talk to me about Kréyofuturism, the concept which is anchoring your current output. What does Kréyofuturism mean? 

 

About two years ago, I wrote a short story for a West Indian magazine whose theme was Afrofuturism. I was familiar with this genre, but science fiction is something totally unknown to me.  Apart from Jules Verne, I don't think I've ever read a science fiction author. I've never been interested in this universe that's so far away from me. But I think that's my ignorance in this field. When I was writing Si(s)tas, for which you did the graphics, I realised just how vast this genre's imaginary universe is. I took great pleasure in writing it and was amazed by the capacity for imagination that my mind could produce. The story in question wasn't published in that magazine, because the editor, who is a science fiction writer himself, thought it wasn't right. Two weeks later, another, more prestigious art magazine found the story interesting and published it. It just goes to show that you should never trust your peers. 


Ari Gautier Kréyofuturism Diriye Osman
The cover of Ari Gautier's "Kréyofuturisme", which is designed by Diriye Osman.

This sci-fi adventure made me thirsty. For a historical fiction novelist, I love this limitless imagination. Here, I don't need historical details, known geographical areas and historical characters. I can create whatever I want from my imagination. So I'm creating a new universe with characters that don't exist in reality. But the historical fiction writer soon got the better of the science fiction writer. And I didn't like what I was writing. So I decided to combine the two. Historical fiction and science fiction! Now that's something innovative, isn't it? Kreyofuturism! I found the word before the story. The idea is to tell the story of slavery and indentured labourers experience and the process of creolisation in a future world. Inspired by Edouard Glissant's "la mémoire de futur", I take past events and project them into the future.The history of the subaltern gods on the plantations is a subject that has fascinated me for a long time. The cohabitation of the planters' religion with the beliefs of Afro-descendants and Indo-descendants is a subject that has already been extensively studied in academic circles; but it does not exist in popular literature. And that's what I've set out to do. I put the voodoo divinities, the African divinities and the Indian divinities that came to the sugar islands  into a big Creole calabash and projected them into an archipelagic future. Kréyofuturisme is ready to revolutionise science fiction. 

 

What are you working on at the moment? 

 

I hate working on a single book. It makes me feel like I'm trapped in a single story and narrative. I write several books at the same time. 


I've just finished a collection of short stories that tell the story of Indian women on plantations in different sugar islands. The idea being to tell the story of a certain form of women's liberation that took shape in these countries. Although we cannot deny the violence inflicted on these women, far from being mere victims, they resisted patriarchy and found their place in society. Mémoire de Canneraies is a tribute to all these resilient women. 

 

My second collection (untitled for the moment) is about the history of the urbanisation of Pondicherry through funny and absurd short stories. Did you know that in Pondicherry there is still a white town and a black town? And these two districts are separated by a canal that clearly demarcates two different worlds. A white town once inhabited mainly by whites, and a black town inhabited by natives.  Another community replaced the Europeans who left the city in 1962, retaining the same colonial privileges. So, Pondicherry is a city where the natives live in a colonial system. This is largely due to colonial town planning. This is the story I tell in this book. 

 

Which music, writers and artists have brought you the most joy over the years?

 

There are so many, but to cut a long story short, jazz and Baroque music are my favourites.


Amos Tutuola, Saadat Manto, Jacques Roumain, Ousmane Sembène , Pramodeya Ananta Toer, Jean Joseph Rabearivelo, Diriye Osman, Ananda Devi,  just to name a few.


Basquiat for ever!

 

Finally, when you're not cooking up literary magic, what brings you the most pleasure in your downtime?

 

My wife and my two children.

 

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