Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

All Good Things Must Come to an End...

Well. I am approaching the end.

This trip to Madagascar has entered its final 48 hours (not counting airport time). Only two sleeps and two packed days ‘til takeoff.

I’m proud of myself. I’ve made so much professional and personal progress over the past three months.

I’m proud of the writers I know here. The ones who are just learning how to write and publish. The ones who have been fighting in the name of books for decades. The ones who are trying to teach people to read. The ones who have figured out where is best for them to publish. The ones who are running events and editing and doing publicity and distribution all on their own because that’s just the state of literature here at the moment.

I am proud of my independence. Three months ago, I was scared to make this trip. I had remembered all the hard parts about being in Madagascar, I couldn’t remember any of the ways I had started getting used to life in this country. But life here is just like life anywhere else. It’s a culture shock when you arrive, and then you figure out how to mitigate risks and where to buy food and who to ask questions of and how to have fun. I’ve spent the past six weeks living by myself in an apartment in Tana, which has given me the confidence I needed. I know a bunch of bus lines. I know a couple shortcut staircases and alleyways. I know how to cross the street. I know how to avoid hawkers. I know how to look like I belong.

Last time I left Madagascar, I was convinced that I would never belong here. It’s pretty clear I don’t look Malagasy (blond hair, blue/green eyes…practically the opposite of Malagasy, if physical features can have opposites), and I couldn’t speak more than 15 words of the language, and I just thought I would always be an outsider.

But this country welcomes people with open arms. The Chinese and Indians (known as sinoa and karana here) are even considered the 19th and 20th tribes of Madagascar. I may look vazaha, I may always be a vazaha, but there are vazahas who belong here, too. I may not eat enough rice, but the woman at the epicerie and the woman at the veggie stand and the man at the butcher shop and the craftwoman I bought my computer bag from all know me now. I do belong here.

A couple months ago, I took the taxi-brousse to Fianarantsoa, and I was terrified of making the trip by myself. Last week, I took the taxi-brousse to Mahajanga, and it was a completely different story: I bought my own ticket, ate at the roadside hotelys along the way, figured out the Wifi (or not — it was broken), and wasn’t worried about arriving after dark.

The state of translated Malagasy literature is also improving markedly. There are so many exciting projects in the works. I finally got off my utopian high horse and accepted that I’ll never be able to translate everything that I want to, so now there’s a small (and growing) network of translators who are looking over all the books that I’ve gathered from this country, especially everything that isn’t readily (or at all) available outside of Mada. Three young writers have already been paired up with translators. Two translators have already picked books to work on and pitch. And I signed a new contract during this trip and have started the pitching process on two new books, as well.

I’m ready to go home and keep working.

I’m going to miss this place, but I’ll be back.

All good things must come to an end…but they can also happen again.

International Translation Day!

Happy International Translation Day, everybody!

We celebrated early in Tana. ITD, celebrated every year on September 30 (the feast day of St. Jerome, patron saint of translators), falls on a Sunday this year, and there is zero point trying to organize anything on a Sunday in Madagascar. Besides church.

So yesterday, we all took over the bar at Madagascar Underground for a Café littéraire de la traduction — the very first celebration of ITD in the entire country that we know of. There were writers, translators, slam poets, writers who also translate, translators who also write, a singer-translator, and a really awesome number of people who are ready to take a flying leap into literary translation.

Also Mexican food, which is something of a novelty here. I got to introduce several people to the concept of burritos. But I digress.

This event was probably the most joy I’ve felt in my entire stay here in Madagascar. Clearly, I’m passionate about literary translation, so anything that focuses on that is good by me. I also got to talk about my experience in translating “Beyond the Rice Fields,” which is always fun. It was especially rewarding to be able to tell a bunch of Malagasies just how much Malagasy we kept in the English translation, and how many American readers are learning about their country.

But it was also so excellent to be able to share the knowledge that I have of translation and the industry with a bunch of people who are dying to get started, if only they had a direction to go in. Most of the questions during the Q&A session were some variation of “I do X for a living but I’ve always been interested in translating books/poems/literature. How can I start?” That, I can help with.

Some other choice moments and quotations from the afternoon:

  • Tsiky, a writer who’s just starting out in translation, said that “Une langue est toute une universe,” a language is a whole universe.

  • In response to a question about his translation process, one of the slam poets (Joak Kely, I believe) said “Il faut de la patience et il faut de l’amour,” it takes patience and love, to translate.

  • Fara, another writer here, was asking me about how I handled certain things in translating “Beyond the Rice Fields,” so I whipped out the classic translator’s line, “Ça dépende du contexte !” It depends on the context. Most of the audience laughed — they understand.

And probably the coolest part of the whole event wasn’t even a scheduled part of the event: There was a journalist from Viva, a bilingual TV station, who came to report on the event and interview a few of us. Less than four hours later, there was a really flattering segment in the evening news of us and our event. Two segments, in fact — one for the French-language news, and another 30 minutes later in the Malagasy-language news. So now I can say I’ve appeared on Malagasy TV, which is already pretty cool. But what’s even cooler is that I got a message from one of the younger writers right after the program aired. She’s a law student at the university, and her family hasn’t really understood or accepted “the whole writing thing.” But her mom was watching, and the young woman’s appearance on the evening news made her mom very proud and started to legitimize the writing work she’s doing.

The literary scene here is growing. It’s gaining attention and acceptance. Happy ITD, indeed!

Lalana eto Ambatomanga

(I’m not sure that’s the right preposition, but it’s supposed to be Malagasy for “The Path to Ambatomanga.”)

Last weekend, I had the translation experience of a lifetime. The quintessential trip that all translators dream of. I went with my author to the place she wrote about in the novel I’m currently translating.


With all of the many projects I’ve been starting and working on and contributing toward while I’ve been here in Madagascar, it’s been good to recall, every so often, the main reason I’m actually on this trip. This whole crazy séjour is only possible because I got a fellowship to translate Michèle Rakotoson’s novel called Lalana, which is Malagasy for “the path” or “the road.” It’s the story of a young man dying of AIDS in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar, and his friend who gets him out of the hospital to fulfill his dying wish: Rivo wants to see the ocean before he dies.

This means a road trip, driving east from Tana for roughly seven hours until you hit the coast. If you make the trip straight through on the Route Nationale (the technical translation is “highway,” but it is definitely not that…). But they turn off of the RN2 fairly early, to follow the Queen’s Path -- the roads that Rasoaherina (also called Ranavalona II), the second queen of Madagascar, took when she knew she was dying.

The Queen’s Path runs through several villages, one of which our two protagonists spend the better part of the day in when their way is blocked by a mass of pilgrims. There’s a church, a tomb, a cave, a river… It’s all described, but the village is not named. As a translator (and reader), you never know if such a place is based off of a real town, an amalgam of many different places, or just something the author created out of thin air.

Turns out, the village is Ambatomanga. Plain and simple. It’s the place where Michèle spent most of her vacations growing up, the place her grandparents lived, the place where her father’s tomb is. And she made it very clear that I should see it during this trip.

So, last Sunday, we set off on a day-long outing, just under two hours away from Tana, with her son’s family and their adorable dog. We saw her grandparents’ house, we met and shared a meal with her cousin and his family, we ate really good yogurt and too-new cheese (the dry season has caused a water shortage, which means there’s not enough milk to keep up the cheese production), we hiked through the rice fields and forest, and yes, we retraced the steps of two characters she wrote almost twenty years ago. I did the only thing I could think to do: shut up, listen, and take notes. Five pages of notes, by the end.

I’m still processing the trip. I’m still processing the experience. I’m still processing how it’s going to change my translation -- or maybe it won’t be so much “changing” as “deepening.” But I did take five pages of notes, after all, and that, I can share. Or at least excerpts thereof.



Leaving Tana: When she wrote this book, and even 10-15 years ago, none of these houses were here. And the road wasn’t this straight, smooth thing with streetlights and roundabouts. The city is spreading, quickly.

Here we go. After about 45 minutes of driving, we’ve reached the point where it looks like how it used to. Forested hills that look deserted. Tiny clusters of simple, two-story clay or brick houses nestled in seemingly random nooks. The river, waterfalls, where some things happen in the book...the river that’s so dry right now that people can barely wash their clothes in it.

The Queen’s Path: It’s a quick turn-off, at least sooner than I thought, only about half an hour after the old winding ways of the road take over. Here, it’s pavers and cobblestones for a while, and barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other.

To me, this all just looks like nondescript countryside. Pretty, dusty, poor. To Michèle, though, every village is known and named, every dirt track has a purpose and a destination, every tomb and cemetery is a family and a dynasty. This village here is where her friend lives, that village just behind the hill is the one that this character returns to in another one of her books…

Approaching Ambatomanga: Michèle’s grandfather was a country doctor with an old, beat-up car, he cared for the whole area. He was the one who built the church in her ancestral village.

The wilderness side of Michèle, the rustic side, the passion, it’s all from here. These are mountains, this is where caves dot the landscape, a place of traditions and old religion and angaro, and later a place where Christians went into hiding under the reign of the first queen, Ranavalona I, when she decided that Christianity was a scourge on her country and must be purged. (For that story, see Beyond the Rice Fields...)

There’s graffiti on a rock just outside the village that says “Naivo N-2.” Naivo is a fairly common name here. It’s the pen name of the author of Beyond the Rice Fields, for example...and it’s also the name of the narrator of Lalana. I’m not necessarily one to see destiny in random occurrences, but it does feel like a good sign. Like I’m on the right path.

Ambatomanga: This place is technically a historic village. People aren’t really allowed to build new houses within the village, which is why there’s another village expanding just outside called Alarobia -- it means “Wednesday,” it used to just be the place where the weekly market was held.

Ambatomanga was a bit of a border town at the entrance to Imerina (the region/tribe which produced the Kingdom of Madagascar that unified most of the island in the late 1700-early 1800s). The house behind the church on the outskirts of town, for example, that’s the missionaries’ house, it’s 150 years old. There was a period where foreigners weren’t really allowed into Imerina, or they had to wait at the border for a long time, so the missionaries kind of set up shop there.

We run into a couple of peasants on our hike, heading back over the mountain to their village. They have a very pleasant conversation with Michèle in Malagasy, while I smile and nod and use the pleasantries I know. Afterward, Michèle explains what their nonchalant tone didn’t hint at: they were telling her about the fire burning on the other side of the mountain. They just managed to put one out last week, and there’s another one already. And their water supply was poisoned. Someone else is doing it, someone from outside the area. Someone who’s trying to sow panic in the run-up to the elections -- two of the major candidates’ families are from this area.

Lalana: “That’s probably where they danced,” Michèle says. She means Rivo and Naivo, the two characters from her book. But somehow, I’d recognized that place before she said anything.

I’m completely bowled over by how similar this place is to what I had been envisioning in my head. I’ll always imagine a picture of a book’s setting, that’s just how I read, but it usually turns out that the real place (if it’s based on one) is pretty different that what I’d come up with. But here? It’s so so close to how I pictured it. This means two things: One, Michèle is a really good writer. Holy crap. Two...I am achieving my goal. I am experiencing enough of Madagascar to picture it properly.

It was a completely normal day, and to me, it was magic.

Awesome Things About Malagasy

I’m in week 3 of Malagasy lessons, which is about the point where you learn just enough to be dangerous. But I am learning a lot, including a bunch about just how Malagasy operates as a language, and I’m loving it. Here are some things I’ve learned and loved (spelling and accuracy not guaranteed):

  • “Sira” means salt. “Mamy” means sweet. “Siramamy,” or sweetened salt...means sugar.

  • Counting: When they got to a million, they were done. “Iray tapitrisa” comes from “tapitra,” which means “all done” or “that’s all.” So, y’know, let’s stop counting. But a billion exists, too… “Iray lavitrisa” comes from “lavitra,” which essentially means “we went too far.”

  • There are a lot of words that come from English, and a lot of them are about school: pen is “penina,” pencil is “pensilihazo.” This is because the British missionaries from the London Missionary Society were the first ones to set up schools.

  • There are a lot of French loan words (or whatever you want to call them), too...but they’re mostly for food. “Dite” from “du thé” (tea), “dibera” from “du beurre” (butter), “divay” from “du vin” (wine), “dipaina” from “du pain” (bread).

  • A translator is “mpandika teny:” one who copies language.

Oh, if it were only that simple!

Stampedes, Riots, and Revelers

Unfortunately, something scary happened at the soccer game here in Tana yesterday -- yes, I'm fine; no, I wasn't anywhere near it; in fact, I was in bed recovering from a stomach bug -- there was a stampede outside the stadium after it hit capacity and the (only) door was closed. Someone died, a bunch of people were hurt. Never fun news to wake up to.

And then, if you're Reuters, the news also says this:

"Deaths at stadiums have been all too frequent on the African continent in the past as poor policing and marshalling of spectators at usually over-crowded venues has provided a recipe for tragedy." (NYTimes, from Reuters)

It goes on. Six of the thirteen paragraphs of that article are describing these "frequent" happenings "on the African continent:" in Ghana, Malawi, Egypt, and South Africa.

That's a lot. Almost half the article.

I've been trying all morning to figure out how best to react to this. Yes, it's a news story. Yes, people were hurt and killed. Yes, it's a problem if the stadium only has one entrance, if there isn't an adequate system for tickets to let people know ahead of time if they will or won't be getting in to see the game, if there isn't enough security (or trained security) to prevent stampedes. But still, it's really reductionist to talk about ALLLLLL the other stampedes on "the African continent" for almost half a news article. The BBC does much better from a reporting angle, but...still: "Stampedes at stadiums in Africa occur on a regular basis, often due to poor crowd control in over-crowded stadiums."

Plus, I can't shake the feeling that there's a problem in how Western news outlets talk about stampedes before African soccer games versus, say, riots after American football games. In recent years, there have been more and more articles about this, from trying to explain the psychology of American football fans rioting after a win to this more direct and chilling Mic article:

"The city of Baltimore has been besieged by riots Monday night [late April 2015] — and police are on the scene ready to serve, protect and subdue.

This has become an evergreen narrative in the aftermath of reactions to state-sanctioned violence against black people. But that it persists sends a troubling message about how officials and, by extension, many of the people they serve regard rioting: specifically, when there's white people involved versus mostly black people.  

Usually, if a riot involves black people, it's connected to intense episodes of where systemic racism is undoubtedly at work. [...]

But when a mob of mostly white people take to the streets, vandalizing cars, storefronts and street signs in the process it usually means someone either won or lost a game.

As Mic's Zak Cheney-Rice noted in January, these rioters are usually called "revelers," "celebrants" and "fans." They're not even called "rioters" in many cases. They're not derided as "criminals," "thugs," "pigs" or even "violent." Those descriptors, as events in Baltimore Monday night reveals yet again, are only reserved for black people. They're the ones who need to be quelled by militarized police forces. They're the ones who need to be off the streets, immediately. They're diminishing the validity of their cause. Yet somehow, reckless behavior over a sports team, not a systemic matter of life and death, is viewed as a costly nuisance."

The article continues with some really scary photos of "celebrations," some where police didn't even get involved.

I dunno. I've been trying to learn and process a lot of systematic racism and my role in this world over the past four years. Maybe I'm overreacting, maybe I'm seeing things where they don't exist, maybe I'm comparing two vastly different things.

But then again.

Words are important. How we use words matters. How we label people and their actions matters. And just like I pointed out before, if cheating politicians exist all over the world, maybe it's a problem to say that "corruption" only exists in Madagascar and other poor countries, but not the US. Maybe it's also a problem to talk about "poor policing on the African continent" if we can't bring ourselves to call white fans "rioters," and black people fighting for their freedom are automatically labelled "thugs." Maybe it's a problem if I type "riots after football games" and the first page of Google results are mostly news outlets from the UK and Singapore talking about riots after (yes) American football games in the US.

(Surprise, here's a translator talking about how words matter. Who'da thunk? This is breaking news, too, right??)

I'm a Slammer Now?

Leave it up to this country to get me writing and performing in ways I never have before.

I've focused on prose for several years now, so I don't know a lot about the poetry world. From the little I see, though, slam poetry is one of the most awesome (and the most intimidating) forms -- although I might just be reacting to the performance aspect. At any rate...nah, never would've thought that I'd ever have anything to do with it. No way. Absolutely not.

Well of course my first slam experience would be here. In Madagascar. In French. Because why not? There was a writing workshop beforehand, why not.

But then, there was another slam last weekend. An English-language slam. And so of course I had to go. And...maybe write something real quick beforehand, just in case?

It was fun. :-)

Here it is, in all its glory. It's a hastily-written first draft by a beginner, and it gets a little sappy near the end, but it's mine, and it consolidates a lot of the thoughts I've been having for the past few weeks. (Video of the performance exists somewhere, but not in my possession. Yet.)


First and Third: A reflection on the US and Madagascar

What does “first-world” mean?
The term is tossed around
by well-rounded, well-meaning intellectuals,
but we all know.
First-world is rich.
First-world is luxury.
First-world is developed, finished, no more work left to do.
First-world is a good life, an automatic win,
if you can get in.

But that’s not right, not it at all.
The US of A, this country we call
what is it first in?
Do we win?
At anything?
Health, human rights, happiness?
No. None of the above.

In education, we’re not first, but 14th.
In literacy, 24th.
In math, 38th.
In gender equality, 22nd.
Economic freedom, 10th.
Peacefulness, 99th.
Life expectancy, 49th, and falling.
Even in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,
the very ideals our country was founded on,
we’re not first.
We’re not even Top 10.
We’re a lowly 19th.

So much for the greatest country in the world.
This “first-world” business only counts for
incarceration rates,
military spending,
death due to firearms,
death due to violence,
plastic surgeons,
breast augmentation,
oil consumption,
wine consumption,
the ultra-rich,
mental health disorders,
and you think none of this is related?
We trump the world in the worst things.
Gold stars all around.

In product development,
first means alpha,
too early, too soon.
Third is better,
third is post-product launch,
third is all the bugs have been worked out.
Let’s take third.

And I don’t want a third of the world to be held down,
held back,
just so that another part can be first.

And really,
there is no third-world,
there is no third of a world,
not just one-third of the world.

When I am here,
do I see a third of the sky? No.
I see the whole sky,
stretching further than I can ever imagine.

When I am here, 
do I sleep a third as long? No.
For the night is dark and deep and strong.

When I am here,
do I eat a third as much? No.
There is food in abundance,
a mountain of rice at every meal,
and always good company to share it with.

When I am here,
do I feel a third alive?
I feel it all, everything,
joyous and quick and sharp and whole.
My heart is full and fit to burst,
at the first sign of smiles,
the first sign of green,
the first sign of love.

I have been here, and I have seen:
People here do not
work just a third as hard,
or mourn just a third as long,
or laugh just a third as loud,
or dream just a third as strong.
Here, there is
the whole sun,
the whole day,
a whole life.

But why even try to differentiate?
Why keep driving wedges down to separate?
We aren’t that much different, the first and the third.

Call it corruption, call it lobbying:
we both have politicians who cheat.

Say, you don’t have money to see the doctor,
say, you can’t afford insurance to see the doctor:
you both might die.

Call it kabary, call it a speech:
we can all talk for a long, long time.

Covered in red dust, covered in mud:
all our children play outside.

After all...first and third,
they’re both steps on the podium,
medals get awarded for both places,
it’s a huge accomplishment
no matter how you try to define it.

But then again…
If just a third of this world
can work together,
to help the rest,
we can all share first place
at the very top.
There’s room up there for everyone.

Don't Worry, I'm Not Here to Steal Your Literature

Things are starting to happen fast here. Last week at this time, I was in Fianarantsoa. Between then and now, I’ve talked to two journalists, both interviews have been published, and there’s a third hoping to do a TV interview soon. I’m...turning into a minor cultural celebrity? This is a very strange thing, especially for someone who actively despises the idea of ever being famous.

But hey, people are interested! And that’s a really really good thing -- not for me, but for Malagasies. Because if I can be the hook, the attention-grabber, the reason that people here start paying attention to their own literature, then that can help the authors and editors and publishing houses here who are fighting to find readers, to create readers from a population that is no longer really accustomed to reading.

And apparently, I must be doing something right, because the first interview even attracted some critics. None that I found out about myself, because they’re all writing in Malagasy, but some friends here were good enough to translate for me. The basic gist was: “Oh, so now we have to listen to a vazaha about our literature, too? Just like we already are about everything else?”

Obviously, there’s no point in giving any sort of official response. But here’s the unofficial one:


Of course not! You don’t have to listen to anybody.

Sorry to disappoint you, but my primary purpose in translating is for American readers, for other readers all over the globe who speak English and know nothing about Madagascar. I’m working for them, to teach them things, to help them discover new books and new worlds. My goal is and always has been to diversify literary offerings for Americans, not to launch the careers of Malagasy writers.

However, it’s a mistake for anyone to try to close themselves off from the rest of the world. If we share art and culture and, yes, literature with each other, our lives can only be enriched. We Americans, we need Rabearivelo just as much as Malagasies need Shakespeare.

And I would never tell a Malagasy author what to write. That’s up to them, always. All I can do is take their text and try to render it as faithfully as possible into English.

But...if my work happens to help Malagasy authors along the way, too? That’s awesome! If my presence here means that Malagasy authors get more attention? Brilliant! If I can share what I know about marketing and distribution with Malagasy publishing houses, so that they can do their job more effectively and find more readers and sell more books? Win-win-win-win-win. If I can bring a new perspective to the already-rich conversation on how to increase the literacy rate here, that would be amazing, especially for those people who will be able to learn to read and write.

It’s ultimately up to Malagasies to fix the problems here in Madagascar. I can’t do anything about that, and I wouldn’t presume to waltz in with *the thing* that will *obviously* solve everything. Similarly, it’s my responsibility to work on problems in the States. But sharing information with each other makes everyone’s jobs easier.

Plus, I like these people. Why wouldn’t I want to see them succeed?

Men. (A rant.)


The journalist’s driver who coveted my bilingual French/English dictionary. No, but really, I have never seen such a blatant example of coveting in my life. At first it was just “oh, this is nice” while leafing through it, but then the repetition, the insistence, the claiming, pulling it to his side of the table, putting his phone on it, no matter how many times I said “This is actually going to the Mobile Library when I’m done with it, and I need it for work until then,” or “I’m sure one of the bookstores in Tana has one, there’s a couple with growing English sections.” I was told later that he was talking to my host in Malagasy (in front of me), trying to get her to make me part with it. That when a Malagasy dictionary came up in conversation (the best one there is), he said “nah, don’t care, I want this one.” That when he was given a book from the house’s library (she’s trying to purge), he spurned it and said “no, I want that dictionary.” Hands off. It’s mine.

The artist who ignored my companion at the painting exhibition. We walked in together, he came to greet us, but literally turned his back on her to talk to me. Whether it was ageism or racism I don’t care, it wasn’t right. And then to say to me that I was the second person to come through that day? At the very end of the day? When four other groups of Malagasies walked in over the next five minutes? It’s not only the white people who count, Mr. Arab Malagasy. Don’t you dare express interest in my literary work when one of your country’s literary giants is invisible to you on the other side of the room.

The candidate for president who asked a well-known writer to translate his manifesto into French, but then railed that they didn’t have it done immediately -- “Who the f*** cares if it’s proper French?” And then to not pay them? Or even credit them for their work? You’d think that as a presidential candidate, you’d been concerned about your image, at least enough to appreciate that they were willing to take the time to make your prose sound beautiful in another language -- the language that, most likely, most of your donors will read. And as we creative types like to say: Eff you. Pay me.

There is truth to the generalization in Madagascar that women run everything and get none of the credit.

Oh sure, maybe I’m just sore because I couldn’t abide the sharp increase in catcalling on my trip to Fianarantsoa. It wasn’t a difference in location, it was a difference in companion -- it was the first time I’d been walking around a city with another young woman, instead of a guy or an older woman or a group. It’s enough to make me turn to vigilante justice.

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people and decent human beings here. I feel loved and welcomed. But the society (not just here, but everywhere) that makes men feel entitled to power, or women, or labor, or even dictionaries, is abhorrent. A society where women barely exist in government, where there are zero women drivers or bus conductors, where women are ignored, or vilified, or raped, is untenable. 

Fuck the patriarchy.

Serrer les dents

The longer I stay here in Madagascar, the more I am just astounded by what people here are doing for literature. Writing books and getting them published is difficult in any environment--we in the States love to complain about it, mostly because it's true--but there are additional hurdles here in Madagascar that American writers and publishers have never dreamed of. Things like no commercial printing presses, and precious few other ways to get books produced. Things like no established grants or fellowships or stipends or anything from the government--the poor Ministry of Culture is routinely underfunded--so every fundraising effort requires new ideas. Things like a tiny readership for any book, because so few people can afford books here that reading as a pastime has dwindled to almost nothing.

And yet.

People here are dogged, tenacious, willful, even stubborn. They grit their teeth and muscle through to get books published, write new ones, and train the next generation of writers. They hit the pavement every single day to make things happen, and it's so impressive.

I've only been here for a short while, and yet here's what I've seen in the past two weeks alone:

  • A non-profit association that's existed for over six years and has been publishing books for the past two years is spearheading a new initiative: a federation of writing associations and unions, in both Malagasy and French, to coordinate their efforts, cooperate on projects, and share resources.
  • A center for mothers and children in one of the ghetto areas of Antananarivo is preparing a show for Christmas. A couple of writers are volunteering their time to come in and teach several of the kids, ages 8-14, to write and perform slam poetry as part of the show. (I got a little taste of it on Thursday when they performed their works in progress for their peers. It was intense, in the best possible way.)
  • A bookstore that opened just three years ago is coordinating a "booksellers' picks" list from all over the Indian Ocean region, to be featured at the Salon du Livre in Paris next year.
  • A well-known author is planning to re-release one of her best-known titles in a new edition with illustrations and photographs, and publishing it here, in Madagascar, instead of France.
  • A few of the associations in the brand-new aforementioned federation are already laying the groundwork for a new project next year, to bring a mobile library into one of the most rural and hard-to-reach areas in the country (160km northeast of Tana...a minimum of three days to get there).
  • There's a new event being planned to celebrate a recently published posthumous work of Madagascar's most famous and beloved poet, which will feature the critical work of people who until now had remained in the shadows.
  • And I'm here, too, getting connected with writers who are interested in translating directly from Malagasy to English--we'll be working on polishing their translations and finding places in the US and UK to submit, query, and look for grants.

Pretty good for an "impoverished Third-World country," huh?

Strike that. Pretty good for two weeks ANYWHERE. Go Madagascar, you show the rest of the world how it's done!

The Common Threads

In Madagascar...

There’s a woman in the next village over whose toddler son is very sick. He had a botched circumcision. And he’s not getting treated because the woman doesn’t have money to take him to see the doctor.

The other day, we went into town for the Internet cafe, and when we got back to the car after a couple hours, it wouldn’t start. Someone had stolen the battery. My host said, at least they didn’t take the tires, too.

These could easily be examples of “how things work in a Third-World country.” Poverty. Poor medical care. Riffraff on the streets. Etcetera.

But...the same things happen in developed countries. In the States especially, there are so many people right now who can’t afford health care. There are reports about people in rural communities lining up the day before a free dental clinic opens to get their rotted teeth pulled, because they can’t afford to have proper dental work done. Late last year, in a town near where I live in Rochester, there were a slew of car burglaries, people breaking into cars at daycares when parents were inside dropping off their kids, to take purses left inside.

There are actually pretty enormous similarities.

The only real difference I see is that we in the States (supposedly) have systems set up to help or prevent these situations, whereas few, if any, systems exist in Madagascar. Instead of not being able to afford insurance to see a doctor, people in Madagascar just straight can’t afford to see the doctor. In the States, car batteries aren’t worth as much as smartphones, and smartphones are equally widespread, so that’s what gets stolen instead. Rich people in the States don’t pay much in taxes because of lower tax rates; rich people here don’t pay much in taxes because they’re able to pay a smaller bribe to government officials for them to look the other way.

Things that go wrong in the States are often the result of established systems not working or being broken. Things that go wrong in Madagascar are often the result of no systems existing to try to fix the problem. But the same things go wrong. It’s not a matter of this “Third-World” country being a haven for crime and corruption and poverty, but everything’s great and safe and gleaming bright in the kingdom of democracy. And it’s not just people all around the world being pretty similar, all wanting the same thing, all having the same hopes and dreams--the basic foundations of many societies around the world are pretty similar, too, no matter what level of “development” they’re at.

Besides, in the span of a week, I had a rich white lady in France and a poor black man in Madagascar each cut me a sprig of lemongrass from their respective gardens to infuse for my tea. If that doesn’t say that countries are basically all the same, I don’t know what does. ;-)