Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Security, Life, and Madagascar

Point of order #1: I realize I haven't written much about Madagascar in the months since I traveled there. I've been hard at work doing lots of translating, both of stories and novel excerpts. The first piece has been picked up for an anthology from Serving House Books, and more announcements will be coming soon! If any of you lovely readers are interested in helping out, either from a publishing or translation standpoint, please do let me know.

Point of order #2: The main reason I haven't written much here is that I've been busy. (See above, plus life.) But the secondary reason is that I'm still trying to process a lot about my trip to Madagascar last summer/fall, and consequently about the decision I made to learn more about the culture to be able to introduce it to my home culture.

Here follows some processing.

I knew that I would experience major culture shock going to Madagascar. It was going to be like nothing I'd ever experienced before. I talked with some friends and colleagues before I left to get tips on traveling to an impoverished African country as a white American female, and I prepared as best I could. I also had essentially an entire family looking after me the entire time I was there, guiding me through the city, the food, the bathrooms, the expectations, and the very very few bookstores.

Because I had help, my experience was worlds easier than I'd expected. And yet it was also infinitely harder than I could have ever imagined. I was sleeping almost twelve hours a night, and I eventually realized it was because my mind and my senses were so overwhelmed with being constantly on guard. There was nothing I could take for granted, from the electricity being on or the water being hot, to being able to communicate with people or keeping myself safe.

This is hard to explain with the proper subtleties, so let me illustrate this with contrasting stories: a few weeks ago, I was pulled over by the police on the interstate in New York. (The reason was legitimate, but also unimportant to this discussion.) Although it was my first time being pulled over while driving, I knew exactly what to expect. I know a few cops, and they all say that traffic stops are the scariest parts of their jobs. They want to have as much control over the situation as possible, because anything could happen. So if they approach a car and the driver has already rolled down the window, turned their interior lights on, and put their hands in plain sight on the steering wheel, with their license and registration within reach, they feel better. Safer. So that's exactly what I did.

And I felt safe, too. I wasn't driving on a suspended license, the cop was just doing a routine stop, and I knew why. There was nothing for me to be afraid of, and no reason for me to not trust the cop.

(I understand that much of that feeling of security is because I'm white. That's a different discussion, but for now, I'll just acknowledge that I have that privilege.)

Let's contrast this to when the taxi I was riding in was pulled over by the cops in Madagascar around 11 at night in the middle of the capital city. I was going home from a party, one that I'd only attended because I'd been assured that the host would have a taxi driver friend of his available to take me home whenever I wanted. Madagascar doesn't have an official curfew, but it's not really safe to be out and about at night, especially for foreigners. Especially for a white vazaha. So I'd arranged a ride home well before the party. But come 11pm, when I wanted to go home, the host's friend was nowhere to be found. About five young Malagasy men, high schoolers, immediately volunteered to escort me to a taxi. They were friendly and protective (and still slightly in awe of me, the American girl), and they helped me find a taxi and negotiate a good price. The driver spoke a little French, and I knew the route home, so I felt as in control of the situation as I could have, given the circumstances.

The taxi was stopped by the cops as we were driving through the central square of the city. That was quite common, a practice set up to check the registration of taxi and bus drivers, and it does help to cut down on crime. But when we got stopped, they didn't care about the driver. There was a vazaha in the backseat. So I got asked for my papers, instead.

For security reasons—actual security reasons—I didn't carry my passport around with me. I had a copy of it and my visa. But as I discovered that night, that wasn't enough. I had to have my copy certified at the town hall. Fine. I said I'd do that come Monday morning. But that wasn't enough.

"Step out of the car, ma'am."

Well, it was that, in French. Said by a very uniformed gendarme with a semi-automatic weapon strapped across his chest. For all the talk about curfew, all the talk about corrupt politicians, no one had told me whether or not the police were trustworthy. I had no idea whether to cooperate or be scared out of my mind. Or both.

Ten minutes of questioning followed, while my taxi driver got out to smoke a cigarette. The questions started rather harshly, what are you doing in Madagascarwhat do you do for a living,  where are you fromwho are you staying with (which had the most terrifyingly hilarious response of "I don't know", because although I knew everyone's first names and had memorized the neighborhood name I was staying in, I hadn't yet memorized the last names of the huge family I was staying with . . . mostly because every generation has a different last name, and last names are quite long, and 95% of the last names start with A or R anyway). Eventually, the policeman turned a little chatty, was genuinely interested in what I thought of Madagascar, and I thought that maybe he was just bored and needed something to do.

Then, another police SUV pulled up onto the curb . . . in such a fashion that I was caught between the taxi and the first policeman, getting my shirt caught on the end of his rifle barrel as my toes tried to evade the SUV tires as they came by.

More questions followed, which now included the phrase well, we'll have to take you down to the station. Definitely not a situation I want to be in. I just kept answering any questions they asked, all the while asking if I could call my "host mom" to have her bring me my actual passport. The number I was actually bringing up on my phone, surreptitiously, inside my bag, was the emergency after-hours line to the US Embassy.

Suddenly, I got a new question: "It's dangerous to be out at night. Do you trust your taxi driver?"

Somehow I figured that if I answered "no", I wasn't going to get home that night. And the taxi driver hadn't done anything to make me not trust him. So I answered "yes".

My copies were handed back to me, and I was told to have a good night.

Now, the point of this story is not to say that Madagascar is a terrifying place to be. Nor to illustrate how naive I can be sometimes. (I realized later that they were only looking for a bribe, and one that would be equivalent to about 5 USD, at that.) It merely stands in contrast to the uneventful, non-worrisome, and routine traffic stop that I experienced in the States.

Madagascar is a hard place for an upper-middle class American to be. Most of Antananarivo runs about as well as early 1800's New York City, if someone had waved a magic wand and suddenly there were cars and cell phones dropped in. There are some slum areas where sewage literally runs through the gutters, where it looks like cell phones have been dropped into the Middle Ages. Basic expectations of life are different. Electricity is not a given. Freedom is not a right. Red zones of rioting are known as easily as the names of streets (and neither are marked on maps, generally speaking). It's a different world. And from my perspective, a difficult one.

But for some people in the world, that is just their life. I went, and I stayed, and I endured, and I left after six weeks to come back home to my spring-filled mattress and my shower with running hot water and my country where political unrest means angry Internet comments instead of life-threatening protests. And while I will never claim that my experience in Madagascar gave me PTSD, I do have some lasting reactions that approximate a very mild version of similar symptoms. I have had nightmares about the night I got stopped by the police in Madagascar. I play stories over and over again in my head that people told me about boarding up their houses and fleeing for the country in front of rioting mobs. And, while I have been working on translations and talking to all the authors I met there, I haven't necessarily proffered up many stories to friends and family here, for fear of . . . well, fear.

So. That's that. I'd been avoiding writing this post for a very long time, because I don't want anything to get in the way of Madagascar's chances for entering the international literary scene. I don't want my hard, not-perfect, but still glorious experience to dull the excitement of their literature.

Because here's the thing. Madagascar isn't perfect, but Malagasies know that, and they're working on it. They're not doing it in the same way as America, and that's fine. They're not at the same developmental point as America, and that's also fine. They know they have corrupt politicians, and unsafe streets, and questionable water supplies, and racism, and children who die during the rainy season because the country roads get so washed out that they literally can't get to the doctor. But they also know about the good things they have to offer: vanilla and lemurs, of course, but also completely organic food, a really great basketball team, a proud history of unifying the island before the Europeans came, the actual honest-to-goodness friendliest people I have ever met, and stories. Oh, the stories.

And that's what I love about Malagasies, and about Madagascar. They're not quite as far along the development scale as the States, but that's okay, and they're on their way. And there are lots of very, very smart people who live there and write remarkable works. So even if part of me is scared to go back for more research, I will go, and I'll get better at adapting, and I'll learn how to do that from Malagasies. I'm under no illusions that I can fix anything, but maybe I can help English speakers broaden their horizons a bit. And isn't that why we all translate, anyway?