Mauritian novelist, Priya Hein, hopes readers discover unknown aspects of Mauritius through her debut novel, Riambel: ‘I hope that my readers will appreciate seeing another side of Mauritius other than the glossy brochures used to lure tourists to our island. There is so much more to Mauritius if one is willing to look deeper and scrape off the layers.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I fell in love with books before I could even read. I would look at the pictures and make up stories based on the illustrations. From poring over picture books, I gradually moved on to early readers, comics, Paddington Bear, Tales of Beatrix Potter, as well as books by A. A. Milne, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Drew, Comtesse de Ségur to name a few. Most of the books I read as a child were borrowed from the library and I loved inhaling their familiar musty scent. And even if I rarely saw myself in those books, I was living vicariously through the characters that stimulated my young imagination. Little did I know back then that I would one day write a book of my own, for a(nother) little brown girl to see herself in.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
As we’re leaving 2022 behind and entering the new year, the text that I can relate to right now is New Beginnings by Lang Leav.
If I have learned anything this year, it’s that I won’t ever be ready for what life throws at me. I will never be adequately prepared. I won’t have the right words when it counts for something. I won’t know the right answer when fate itself is staring me down.
I’ve learned I can go on waiting for something, sustained by hope and nothing more, or I can put it to one side and shrug my shoulders. Bravely accept the fact that I can’t keep my heart safe anymore than I can stop love from taking everything from me.
I have learned to stop saying yes when I don’t mean it—to live as authentically as I know how. To allow the tips of my fingers to skirt the darkness, as long as I remember to keep my eyes fixed on the light. And as one door opens and another closes, I will move forward with the knowledge that unlike so many others, I have another year ahead of me— another shot at making it all the way around the sun, and a chance to get it right this time ‘round.
Most of the books I read as a child were borrowed from the library and I loved inhaling their familiar musty scent.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I recently came across a book by a Franco-Mauritian, published in the early 2000s, that glorified a white-only club in Mauritius. Needless to say that I am against this sort of old-fashioned establishments that are stuck in the colonial era, and whose fusty members powerfully resist change which they fear will abrogate their own rights and assumed white privileges that uphold the toxicity of white supremacy.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
The book that comes to my mind is Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Eddo-Lodge writes about white privilege, white-washed feminism, race and class, and more. I had tried to talk to white people about racism and the issues I had to deal with in the past. This book made me realize that, no matter how hard I tried, they would never fully understand what it is to be a person of colour.
The book describes the near impossibility of communicating the fact of structural racism to white people who are the unwitting beneficiaries of it:
I can no longer have this conversation, because we’re often coming at it from completely different planes. I can’t have a conversation with them about the details of a problem if they don’t even recognise that the problem exists. Worse still is the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but still thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t. Not to mention that entering into conversation with defiant white people is a frankly dangerous task for me. As the heckles rise and the defiance grows, I have to tread incredibly carefully, because if I express frustration, anger, or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their pre-subscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and their safety… So I’m no longer talking to white people about race. I don’t have a huge amount of power to change the way the world works, but I can set boundaries. I can halt the entitlement they feel towards me and I’ll start that by stopping the conversation.
Reading this book was an absolute revelation and sadly relatable on so many levels. I cannot recommend it enough.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I am not a disciplined writer and don’t really have a rigid writing process. I like to jot things down first thing in the morning, often when I am still in bed, before my thoughts and ideas evaporate as the day progresses. I don’t like to force myself to write. If I don’t write, then I read because for me reading is research. It forces you to think about you like or dislike about the book and what works or does not work.
If/when inspiration strikes then I tend to write continuously without much editing to avoid breaking the flow. Then I read the text, make a few changes before letting the words ‘rest’ for a while. After taking some distance, I go back to the text with a fresh perspective for a thorough editing process. If I’m not happy with something I’ve written, I don’t delete it but store it in a folder which I may revisit at a later point. Once I’ve gone through the first round of edits, I often share my work-in-progress with my husband and children who are my first readers. I am always grateful to receive their feedback and usually incorporate their comments and suggestions in the editing process.
What inspired you to write your forthcoming debut novel, Riambel?
I wrote the first draft of Riambel during the Black Lives Matter movement, after the brutal murder of George Floyd in May 2020. I was in Germany at the time and to some extent, it was my way of protesting. Shocked and disturbed by some of the comments and discussions I was hearing around me, I felt compelled to write about racism, white supremacy and entitlement from the perspective of descendants of the former enslaved. So I sat down one long weekend and wrote the first draft of Riambel. Even though I thought no one would ever read it except my immediate family, I felt exhausted and relieved at the same time as it was a way for me to channel my emotions.
What was your process for writing Riambel?
As mentioned above, I sat down to write Riambel on a long weekend as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement. When I started writing Riambel, the fragmentary form came naturally. Words, thoughts, poems, haunting voices of the enslaved came pouring out of me in a flow. It took me five days and five nights to write the first draft which I then left aside for a few days. A week or so later, I re-read the text, and kept adding flesh to the skeleton draft. After receiving feedback from my husband and children, I sent the manuscript to my cousin who encouraged me to submit it to the Jean-Fanchette competition chaired by J. M. G Le Clézio, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. As the competition only accepts submissions in French, I had to have the manuscript quickly translated in order to meet the deadline. I was over the moon when a few months later Riambel won the Prix Jean-Fanchette and landed three publishing deals within two weeks of winning the prize.
Then came the professional editing process and I really enjoyed working with all my editors, especially the Indigo Press team on polishing the original English version prior to publication. I felt privileged to have such smart and experienced people reflect on my work and suggest ways for improvement.
What does Riambel mean to you?
Riambel is the title of my debut novel which borrows its name from a rural fishing village situated in the most southern point of Mauritius, which is one of the most beautiful and inspiring places on the island and where I have many childhood memories. The coastal village of Riambel is featured in old maps of Mauritius as ‘Ariambelle’ which originates from the word ‘Ariambelo’, meaning sunny coast in Malagasy.
When I started writing Riambel, the fragmentary form came naturally. Words, thoughts, poems, haunting voices of the enslaved came pouring out of me in a flow.
Why this book at this point in time?
As mentioned above, Riambel was written in response to the Black Lives Matter movement after a brutal murder that shocked the world. It is a contemporary book about the effects of colonialism and inter-generational trauma through the story of a teenage girl called Noemi, who is forced to leave school to work for the De Grandbourg family. Throughout the book, she is haunted by the voices of her ancestors who were enslaved on the De Grandbourg’s sugar plantations. The novel, which is interlaced with poems, songs and recipes, is written in a non-conformist style. By writing in vignettes, I wanted to experiment with form and also as a testimony to the lives fragmented by the enduring legacy of slavery and indenture.
What’s something simple but surprising about writing and publishing a book?
Receiving feedback from readers! I am so touched when readers take the time to share their thoughts with me. What I sometimes find surprising is their interpretation and way of looking at things, from perspectives which I had never thought of. A few weeks ago, I was at a literary festival when a lady in her late 30s approached me. She proudly told me that the first book she had ever bought in her life was the French version of Riambel after reading the opening lines in a booklet published by the literary festival. It was deeply humbling for me to think of this hardworking mother who had spent her well-earned rupees on a book that I wrote.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
As a former fellow mentee of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, I regularly received feedback on my writing-in-progress. I remember being told to stop questioning and doubting myself, but to simply write and to trust my writing because if I don’t trust my own writing then no one will.
I don’t like to force myself to write. If I don’t write, then I read because for me reading is research.
What’s the best book you read in 2022?
I am finding it hard to decide between Diego Garcia by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams (Fitzcarraldo Editions) and Arrival by Nataliya Deleva (Indigo Press).
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
Joyce Carol Oates.
What are your expectations for the new year?
My debut novel will be published on the 23rd of February in its original (English) version by The Indigo Press. The French translation of the book came out in France a couple of months ago. Publishing my debut novel, which deals with sensitive issues, is an intimate act which I find rather daunting. Hence, I am not really sure what to expect, but I am full of literary anticipation for the coming year, and I hope that my readers will appreciate seeing another side of Mauritius other than the glossy brochures used to lure tourists to our island. There is so much more to Mauritius if one is willing to look deeper and scrape off the layers.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
I am particularly interested in Mauritian novels, especially those set in colonial times, so I am trying to read authors such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul-Jean Toulet, Savinien Mérédac, Robert Edward Hart, Marcelle Lagesse, Marie-Thérèse Humbert, Loys Masson, and Malcolm De Chazal.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently finalizing a manuscript partly set in London whilst doing research for a potential new book.
Publishing my debut novel, which deals with sensitive issues, is an intimate act which I find rather daunting.
Question from Ntsika Kota: Describe the scene around you right now, as if you were in a story. Where are you?
I am standing under the almond tree as the sun, soft as honey, makes a timid appearance on the blue horizon. The gentle sea breeze causes the light to dance on my skin. Tiny waves whisper onto the shore as I walk towards the ocean, breathing in its saltiness before wading into the sea. As I lay motionless in the lagoon, I think of all the childhood holidays I have spent on this beach in Riambel, a sleepy fishing village in Mauritius—far from the madding crowd.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
If you could use a book title to describe you, what would it be?⎈
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