Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

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. ;-)

Willful Blindness

It's an interesting thing, being in a country that's so different from what you know. Especially as a white Westerner in a poor black African country. There are a lot of misconceptions that come along with that, and I think that many/most of them come from a lot of reductive travelogues that have been written over the years. Over the centuries, really. This started way back with European explorers keeping journals that detailed the "primitive" "native cultures" they "found." The whole assumption that European culture is more "civilized" has led to a whole host of other ignorant assumptions about anybody who doesn't fit that norm.

But it's an extremely pervasive narrative, especially having been educated in the States. And, just like systemic racism, it seeps into your brain and starts messing with your own thoughts, convincing you that your experiences in, for example, Madagascar, aren't valid unless you just see the extreme differences between that culture and your home, all the poverty and want and lack and oh-how-quaint-life-is-here.

I fell victim to that the first time around four years ago, definitely. (Sadly. I'm sorry.) But now that I'm back, I've started actively looking for things to disprove my earlier assumptions/misconceptions. Here's what I've got so far:

  • Yes, there are in fact addresses. Kind of all over the place, on all sorts of different buildings, in both the city and the countryside. It's standardized, too, even if there isn't daily/regular mail service like at home.
  • Ditto for street signs. Either official or not, there are a bunch in the city for specific streets. And then there are signs on main roads that point the way toward different neighborhoods (in the city) or towns (in the country).
  • Yes, there are women who drive scooters and motorcycles. It's not just men. Remember, helmets and protective gear tend to be (and should be!) pretty gender neutral . . .
  • There are women breastfeeding EVERYWHERE -- although to be fair, I was pretty blind to this in every culture until I had my own child.
  • Yes, there are actual grocery stores, the way I normally think of them, instead of “just” markets. There’s even a Malagasy chain. (It’s called “Supermaki.” The maki is the classic ring-tailed lemur. :-D)
  • Yes, there are plenty of other vazahas, even in non-vazaha areas. (Although, this trip, I truly do still have yet to see another white woman.)
  • There are even funeral processions, cars with their hazards on following a hearse and everything.

So yes, even if I feel out of my depth here, completement dépaysée, that doesn't mean there aren't any similarities between here and home. Just because I didn't ever set foot in a supermarket last time, doesn't mean I can't go buy more shampoo here if I run out. And I don't have to go to a special Euro-import store, either. It's just normal.

I will no longer be willfully blind to the parts of Malagasy society that overlap with American society, and I can actively work against the misconceptions stuck in my own brain. Life here is just life.

I don't even need to sleep under a mosquito net. (Yet.)


Don’t let anyone ever say that literary production in Madagascar is minimal, doesn’t exist, isn’t up to snuff.

Maybe there aren’t as many publishing houses as in a Western country, maybe printing books is sometimes prohibitively expensive, maybe there are extremely few people who can live off of their writing alone.

Let me tell you, none of that matters. Malagasies are just as creative and impressive as people all around the world.

Case in point? SLAM POETRY.

On Friday, I went to a 2-in-1 event organized by CRAAM, a cultural organization, and Madagaslam, which is pretty much what it sounds like: the premier association for slam poetry in Madagascar. There was a writing workshop at the university in the early afternoon, followed immediately by an open slam. HOLY CRAP IT WAS AWESOME.

First, the workshop. One of the Madagaslam organizers was going to give a whole history of slam (in and outside of Madagascar), but we started late, so about two minutes in he went, “Should we just write?” Resounding yes. So we came up with seven topics we could write about: education, politics, nose, love, money, friendship, and travel.

Most of these people were there for the first time. And believe me when I tell you that they got roughly one piece of advice: it doesn’t have to rhyme. The end results?? HOLY CRAP THESE PEOPLE CAN WRITE. We had about fifteen minutes, and a couple people presented at the end, and what they came up with was astounding. Not just the content, but the rhythm, the repetitive sounds in some cases. I went up to two of them to exchange contact info, asking if they were writers. They tried to brush me off.

I’ve been in workshops and situations like this before, where people come up with some amazing piece of art in an extremely limited window of time. But this is just proof that so-called “third-world” or “developing” countries are not actually lagging behind the US or France or any other “developed” country in terms of artistic prowess. They lack some resources, sure. But not skills. Even without any formal training. Humans everywhere have amazing capabilities.

Then, the open slam. I was simply blown away. There will probably be video up soon on the Madagaslam Facebook page []. I was going to record a few people’s performances (with their permission), just to have for myself, especially the ones in French, in case I wanted to try translating them. I was thinking, to preserve my phone battery, to give each one a few seconds and then stop if it wasn’t amazing.

I recorded every single one in full. Even the ones in Malagasy. I can’t explain the power these poets have, standing in front of their peers, declaiming at the top of their voices the problems with their country and the great things about life.

This is art. Just because they’re not in a hip little cafe in NYC doesn’t mean these people aren’t extremely talented artists. Just because a good percentage of the books published by Malagasy authors are printed either with thinner paper covers or in France doesn’t mean the literature isn’t amazing.

And isn’t that why we translate? I’m only one person, so I can only do so many things. But this is why translation exists and is a good thing. Let’s allow everyone to enter the global cultural conversation. Everyone has good and important things to say.


I'm back! Back to the blog, and back in Madagascar. I'll be here until October, and let me tell you, it's already been quite a trip.

I've been here once before, for almost six weeks back in 2014. That was back when this blog was a little more active, but if you look at the archives (or if you've been following for a while), you'll see that I barely wrote anything at all about that trip. Seems a little incongruous, considering it was literally a life-changing trip: my first time in a developing country, my first time anywhere on the continent of Africa, and the trip that kick-started what has become my professional niche (at least for now).

It was a difficult trip. I was yanked out of any semblances of a comfort zone, and I found it hard to adjust. But it was also one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I met so many wonderful people, and saw so many wonderful things . . . I just couldn't figure out how to write about it.

This lasted for a while. How could I write about the good parts and ignore the bad? Or, perhaps worse, how could I write about the bad and have that be the only perspective that many Americans/Westerners would have on this country that already struggles to craft any image for itself to the wider global community, besides lemurs and poverty?

I saw an interview a few years back that was a prime example of this. (It might have been Benedict Cumberbatch on Top Gear, but I don't remember exactly, and I don't currently have a fast enough internet connection to figure it out.) Whoever it was, he'd been asked about a trip he'd taken to South Africa, where he and some friends had gotten carjacked and abducted on a highway at night, they'd had hoods over their heads for a while and guns pressed up to them every so often, and he'd really believed he was going to die. But he added very quickly that he didn't like telling that story, not publicly, because there were so many good people in South Africa, and he didn't want the audience's assumptions about that country to be that it was all violence all the time. Granted, I didn't get kidnapped or anything, knock on wood, but I didn't want my struggles to be the only things people knew of Madagascar.

But at the root of all this, really, was my chosen role as a translator. What good would my stories be, when I could tell the stories of the people here, in their own words? The real stories of the real lived experiences of the real people in this real country, instead of some quick travelogue jotted down by someone who flew away almost as quickly as she'd arrived? This is what I've been doing for the last four years: telling Malagasy stories by Malagasy authors. Because they know best. It seems like a "duh" thing to say, but that's the truth. Why would I want to let my own stories get in the way of theirs, especially when I have chosen to dedicate my professional life to telling other people's stories in a new language?

So that's what I've done. I've tried to keep pretty quiet about my own experiences in Madagascar for a while, because there was such a lack of Malagasy voices in English. However, that's finally starting to change -- the first novel is out in English, and there are a few more in the works (more on that when I'm allowed to talk about it!) -- so my voice will no longer be the only one that many English-speakers have access to. Plus, there are a few Malagasies writing directly in English, too (they're listed on the Madagascar page of this website, which I'll link to once the internet is faster!).

So . . . I'm here. Again. For a longer trip this time. And although I still feel rather ridiculously out of my depth, there are things that I can write about, that I can feel comfortable writing about. I want to write about this place, and I can easily share little snippets of different parts of life here. (What I can't do is try to summarize the entire culture and people and food and art and life of this whole wide country in one huge over-arching essay. So why try?) I can write about little things as they happen, the same way anyone does in normal life on a blog or social media. Because any life, all life, is so much more complex than one page on the Internet.

"Beyond the Rice Fields" Giveaway Winners!

Happy Friday, all! We had two signed copies up for grabs of Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo, translated by yours truly, published by Restless Books. Please give a hearty congratulations to our two winners:

Twitter entrant @ritualgibberish
Blog commentator Christiana

I'll be contacting both of you shortly to get your mailing addresses!

Beyond the Rice Fields_cover.jpg

And THANK YOU to everyone who commented and spread the word! If you're interested in purchasing your very own copy of the book, you can, right here.


"Beyond the Rice Fields" Giveaway

I promised it would happen, and here it is! The first couple times I did this, I called it something ridiculous. And tradition must be upheld. Please, prepare yourselves for:

The Third Not-Nearly-Regular-Enough-To-Be-Called-Annual-or-Biennial-or-Monthly-or-Anything-Else A.M.C. Giveaway!

*assorted cheers and trumpets*

 Isn't it pretty??

Isn't it pretty??

The Prize: Two (2) randomly-chosen people will each receive one (1) paperback copy of Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, translated by yours truly, published by Restless Books, released this month. Each book will be signed by me and inscribed however the winners desire.

The Entry(-ies): There are two ways of entering, each of which grants you one entry (so every person can enter up to twice).

  1. Beyond the Rice Fields is the first novel to be translated into English from Madagascar. Without translation, the English-speaking world would have no Naivo, and no Madagascar. In light of this revelation, comment on this post with your favorite non-Anglophone writer, who you'd never have been able to read if it weren't for translation. (Bonus brownie points if you #namethetranslator!)
  2. To help spread the word, tweet a link to this post. Must either tweet at me (@sunshineabroad) or include this hashtag: #NaivoGiveaway

The Deadline: One week from today! Thursday, December 7, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

The Rules: After the contest, I will randomly select two entrants (by assigning a number to each comment and Twitter account and using a random number generator), and announce the winners on this blog on Friday, December 8. I will then contact the winners for their email and mailing addresses. Anyone with a valid mailing address anywhere in the world may enter. Limit two entries per person.

The Why: Did I mention this is the first novel EVER to be translated into English from Madagascar? And that it's amazing? (True fact, not my very biased opinion.) That's why.

Good luck to all!

You Can't Please Everyone

Beyond the Rice Fields is out. We've been getting some really nice reviews about it. (And there will be a giveaway coming after American Thanksgiving! Watch this space.)

Reviews are all subjective, though. One person's opinion. And people's opinions can vary wildly. I accept that. It's part of putting creative things out into the world -- no matter how much negative reviews might hurt.

And yet . . . sometimes you have to wonder.

Here's one review in Publishers Weekly. It includes this:

"Naivo’s encyclopedic attempt to capture Madagascar’s history is admirable, but the depth of that portrait comes at the expense of the novel’s characters: they are only fully realized in the novel’s thrilling conclusion, and only then as victims of “the foundational animosities” tearing the island apart. Nevertheless, Naivo provides readers with an astonishing amount of information about Madagascar’s culture and past."

Seems legit.

Here's another review from the Historical Novel Society. It includes this:

"The period of Queen Ranavalona’s horrific reign was one of intensity and violence, and yet for a few occasions near the end of the book, much of the historical context is superficial at best."
"Naivo captures a profound relationship between two people and how vastly our lives and experiences change on our various paths, while also illuminating the Malagasy experience."

Also seems legit.

*record scratch*

Wait. Wait a sec. So, on the one hand, the characters are sacrificed at the expense of the historical context, and on the other, the historical context suffers from the relationship between the characters?

Friends, I have translated a paradox. It seems congratulations are in order. :-P

Hey, at least people are talking about it.

Book 11: In Sickness and In Health

The End of My Career, by Martha Grover
Perfect Day Publishing, 2016

The New Deal (of my books): I'm reading books from my to-read shelf, because darn it, they need to be read. Afterward, I'll write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It is keeping me accountable, and will continue to do so.

Page 58 says this:


I ask my father to read an article about male entitlement and emotional labor.

"Can you just tell me what it says?" he says.

That's it.



"Couches" is an essay about Grover's, as she calls it, "year of suspenseful illness, while I waited to see if the drug worked, while I got slightly sicker and sicker." Several friends gave her keys to their apartments so she could have several couches in several neighborhoods available for her to crash on as her body gave out at various intervals each day. She is "exhausted and dehydrated from bouts of diarrhea from the experimental drug that I injected each morning and night." And yet. The essay closes with this:

"I enjoyed it. That's something I've never told anyone. That year was one of the best years of my life."

What a narrative. What a popping and soothingly different narrative.

Next up: Hi, This Is Conchita, by Santiago Roncagliolo, tr. Edith Grossman

Book 10: Oh, the Humanity

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe
Soho Press, 2014

The New Deal (of my books): I'm reading books from my to-read shelf, because darn it, they need to be read. Afterward, I'll write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It is keeping me accountable, and will continue to do so.

I’m not generally a very fun person to watch sitcoms with. If something that resembles real life is being depicted, I have a hard time suspending disbelief. Especially when it comes to dumb characters. I just want to sit them down and shake some good, old fashioned common sense into them. Tell them to talk to each other. Just think about this for a minute.

I’m trying to come up with examples of this from sitcoms I’ve seen, but . . . it’s been a really long time.

Okay, so when I was younger, “I Love Lucy” reruns were on all the time. I could not for the life of me imagine how anyone could be that dense. Why would you perform in an opera if you couldn’t sing? Why wouldn’t you put something down to protect your carpet when cutting out a dress pattern, so you didn’t end up with a dress-pattern-shaped swatch of carpet? (I understand that Lucille Ball was a phenomenal comedian. It’s not her. It’s me.)

All this leads me to Ike. Poor, poor Ike.

Ee-kay. Ikechukwu Uzondu, the protagonist of Ndibe’s novel. I just wanted to take him by the shoulders, stare into his eyes, and explain to him how to deal with people. Then I thought, perhaps, that it was just a foreigner’s story, of not knowing how to interact with people in a completely different country, although he’d lived in the US for several years. But no, he has no idea how to be when he returns to Nigeria, either. For a while, I was frustrated.

But there is magic in this book. A bit of confidence here, an action against all odds there, Ike second-guessing his own choices . . . and I understood. I know Ike, I know his dreaming, I know his yearning, I know his feeling stuck. This book is a rare gem, one where I could see the ending coming (well, some of it, anyway), and yet the journey to get there was worth it. This is reality for so many people, coming from a place of nothing, trying to build themselves up, so of course any small mistakes are amplified, and economic factors blow up disproportionately to affect personality traits and expectations of social interactions. This is not a sitcom. Not some ineptitude to laugh at (although there are many humorous parts). But nor is it a sad state of affairs to be pitied. It is just life. In all its messiness and trials and joys.

P.S. Okey Ndibe is a Nigerian-American author. Know his name. Not only to find his books in the bookstore, but also to have someone else to list as a contemporary “African” author besides Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Next up: The End of My Career, by Martha Grover