Literature and Nation Building

Let’s Honestly Face It

If we had to rely on our senses only, we would only know what we see, hear or feel.

So, to a great extent we know what others see, hear or feel because art in general and verse or prose literary works in particular are windows that open into the life experiences of others. Leo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ or John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ tells us how other people cope with harsh reality; E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel, ‘Maurice’, on homosexual love has considerably helped humanity to come to terms with different sexual orientations although homophobia is still strong and requires all our efforts to be defeated. Love relationship between people from different backgrounds (Paul and Virginie, Romeo and Juliet, Laila and Majnu, Anthony and Cleopatra, Eloise and Abelard, Salim and Anarkali, Pokahontas and John Smith, Paris and Helen of Troy) has since time immemorial impressed and inspired people of all classes and creeds. Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Hard Times’ or Emile Zola’s ‘Germinal’ has shown to us the horror of working class reality or the grandeur of working class solidarity. By refining language, poetry has given us a beautiful tool to connect with others, to share ideas and feelings. A play at the theatre, be it comic, tragic or tragicomic binds us together in a common experience and enhances our humanity.

Art and Nation Building

The realm where I’ve personally experienced most vividly the contribution of literature to the ever-growing process of nation building is in my own homeland, Mauritius. On this island there have been successive waves of forced, not-so-forced and free immigrants from Europe, Africa and Asia. The different groups have preserved their ethnic identities and have so far failed to develop a common national identity although they have a common history (they are all immigrants) and they have a common destiny (willy-nilly, they must learn to survive together). Race, class, caste and creed divisions are rife. Economic stakeholders prefer to divide and rule; religious and political leaders cannot afford to go against the grain for it may mean a loss of allegiance. But artists in general and creative writers in particular are duty-bound to go against the accepted norm for this is the price to pay to create the new.

Pre-independence writing was dominated by French and English but independence saw the rise of new ideas and creative experience specially in the field of literature. First of all there was the drive to get the local language accepted as a language per se and not as a ‘patois’ or broken French. In the wake of this movement there was the emergence of a new literature using the local language Morisien as medium and expressing new aspirations in terms of social justice, gender equality, solidarity and sharing.

The two theatre buildings, The Plaza and The Port Louis Theatre, citadels of elite culture, were taken by storm by plays in the local language. ‘Zozef ek So Palto Larkansiel’, the Morisien version of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and ‘Zeneral Makbef’ an original full-length political satire became box-office successes and ran for weeks and months. Several books of poems appeared in the language of new aspirations; changes in mood and perceptions were palpable. Literary prose was slower to take off but soon the void was filled by some gifted writers.

If secular literature was initially the spearhead of the movement, soon religious leaders realised they could no longer ignore the language of the people in a democracy and the translation of religious literature moved to the front line.

Today the scene has changed radically from what it was 50 years ago. Morisien has become the L1 of 90% of the population; it is also the L2 of the remaining 10%; Morisien is taught as an optional language in primary schools; the public utility TV station has a channel almost exclusively in Morisien; the Open University of Mauritius offers a course in Morisien-English bilingual literacy; at the Mauritius Prison Services, Morisien is used as medium to teach basic literacy to non-literate and non-numerate detainees (85% of inmates) as part of an intensive rehabilitation programme and some detainees are already trying their hands at mother tongue creative writing. One day, we hope that some scholar will measure the contribution of secular and religious literature on the way reality has changed and is still changing.

Committed Art

Can literature really help to sensitise us to urgent issues affecting the lives of people of our country?

Recently I wrote a novella on the issue of global warming and climate change: ‘Lenpas Flanbwayan’ (2007) translated into English by Shawkat Toorawa as ‘The Flametree Lane’ (Pink Pigeon Press, London, 2012). Below is an extract from the last chapter. Readers will decide if committed art is of any value to nation building efforts.

“The sea level kept rising. Everywhere a sweltering heat burned. The elderly and infants were among the first victims. Water started running out. Breathing was becoming difficult. Then, after a long drought, there were torrential rains. Several violent cyclones passed over the island and the drenched earth could no longer take any water. There were landslides and building began to crumble. The landslides were sometimes spectacular, almost as if there was an earthquake. Huge chunks of the hillsides shifted. Between the sea and the hillside there was now a canal through which small boats could navigate. Our area’s appearance changed completely. The natural surroundings had been martyred; it was as if a giant was shaking the dust off his coat and adjusting his body. Property prices plummeted. The recession spread its tentacles everywhere. The economy crashed. … We had to re-invent our future, re-draw the contours of a new tomorrow.”


* Published in print edition on 7 February 2014

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