Priya Hein’s poetic, visceral novel addresses the devastating legacies of slavery, racial injustice and economic disparity in Mauritius, layering the stories of fifteen year old Noemi and those of her enslaved ancestors to lay bare the brutal realities of colonialism, writes Laetitia Erskine.
Riambel is the name of a fishing village on the southern tip of Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island located over a thousand kilometres east of Madagascar, independent since 1968. The name is derived from the Malagasy word for ‘sunny coast’, and features on old maps as ‘Ariamebelo.’ But Noemi, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Priya Hein’s short, award-winning debut novel, who was born, lives and possibly dies in Riambel, took the word as derived from the French phrase for wholehearted laughter – ‘rire en belle’. It is a joyous, beautiful, unhindered notion. The contraction of huge and painful historical layers in this word, this phrase, this thought, is characteristic of this artfully fragmented novel’s movement and meaning. Local language has become indelibly marked with the language of former French colonisers, and the meaning of everything indelibly changed under that forced dominion. Where laughter, and the laughter of Noemi’s childhood innocence, might be as full-bodied as the island’s paradisial gifts, it could also be as twisted and terrifying as their exploitation.
Priya Hein prefaces her novel with a statement describing its inception in a rapid onrush of creativity following Black Lives Matter in 2020. Hein was living in Germany, and notes that in her experiences as a migrant in Europe she has been repeatedly burdened by the pressure to conform, to assimilate and obey. Riambel arises in defiance of this, and further, to redress the denial and diminution of racist aggression she has been expected to participate in. Pushing back against being told she was ‘oversensitive’, that she should not ‘complain’ but instead be ‘grateful’, Hein ‘decided to let my pen and my heart speak for themselves.’ Her novel sets out to tell the other side of the story.
Its brief and economic pages span the story of Noemi’s life, from being born into the cité neighbourhood, or kan kreol, or shanty town where she lives with her mother, and depicts their way of life as workers at the local manor, on the other side of a deep, excoriating, and grotesquely visible social divide. Through its fragmented form, the novel layers Noemi’s present story with the hauntings of her enslaved predecessors. The contrasts and the violence of this story – which is more than Noemi’s story of living in servitude to a large, wealthy French family, but also history and ongoing lived experience – are extreme. ‘Mauritians don’t like to be reminded of the racial ambivalence mothered by our colonial legacy. Or have to face a violent past that is still very much embedded in our modern society,’ Hein writes in a passage that seems to equally stand as memoir, reportage, historical redress, and as a stark summation of the poetry and many other evocative passages elsewhere in the novel. While at first glance the island might be a story of black and white, thief and slave, tourist luxury and gritty reality, the co-mingling of peoples – not least through rape – further complicates these binary injustices, as well as producing further layers of denial. Riambel blows open the normalization of this hyper-evident gap of wealth and privilege, to drive a lament that would burn with rage – yet its candour transcends this, to invite the reader to draw their own conclusions from the myriad evidence of a brutal colonial legacy evoked in Hein’s stark and poetic assemblage.
Hein uses short chapters, mostly from young Noemi’s perspective, interspersed with lines of poetry, some of it quoted from other celebrated Mauritian poets, and other passages that come across like living recipes. One of the resonant aspects of this sensual and deceptively simple approach is the way Noemi’s voices carries the voices of her ancestors, who were also born to a life lived on the fringe of, and made to serve, the big family in the big house. Noemi’s narrative has the power to slide into theirs, and to evoke on a more visceral, sometimes dream-like level what it feels like to be ‘Nothing but a mere shadow’, and to hear others presupposing the limits of your existence: ‘Who are you but a maid in the house?’ The name of these colonisers? – the Grandbourgs: a name that begs to take part in a story, a fairy tale, were its meaning not so evidently backed by fact. Hein does not shy away from the sinister and grotesque, but in her select word use, her touch is light yet her effects incendiary:
Sometimes when the day wanes, you hear the piercing cries of the fugitive slaves, the lashing of the whips and babies weeping.
The recipes, when they appear between other chapters, seem to function effortlessly on several levels. Octopus, chilli, coriander, sea salt, prawns, curry leaves, tomatoes – the closeness of island life to its produce is tantalising, suggesting pleasure wrapped up in a great simplicity that is actually anything but. The skill and local knowledge embedded in all the recipes is evident, with even the whiff of a romantic notion that all people, whether local, coloniser, tourist, or bastard combination of these, will share this pleasure in eating what the island grows. It is enough, however, to show a description of cooking these ingredients to suggest the opposite, and to give a reminder of a dynamic of servitude and resource theft, as well as their complex, usually violent co-mingling in arrangements like gato pima with pain maison.
The ancestral voices that haunt the novel, and elide with Noemi’s inner thoughts, piece together a cyclical story. When Noemi is taken on a school trip to ‘Domaine des Eaux to visit the famous chateau’, she and her classmates come face to face with the grandeur in which ‘only one family’ of ‘colonisers’ lived, but it is difficult for the children to parse the events behind the building, given that their ancestors’ work in the chateau’s construction and upkeep has been erased from history books. Change is recent and radical – the chateau was ‘converted into a museum in the 2000s, when the family moved out in the 1990s’ – yet, for local visitors like Noemi, still unaccustomed to entering through the front door, there is still ‘a very long way to go.’ When the young master of the big house makes eyes, and lays hands, on Noemi, she is again initially without suspicion, but hope for the purity of his intentions is quickly extinguished. Hein beautifully withholds a too-obvious ending for Noemi however, even while she is clear-eyed about setting forth on the page the repetition of acts of violence that Noemi, like her ancestors, has little power to resist. In this elision, and this open-ended evocation of an individual’s life and suffering – which is only theirs, ultimately, to know – is an expression of the ongoing assault on another’s self-respect, and how this extends to their very notion of self. But reading Riambel, surrendering to the layers of its prose and poetry, inviting a look at the map, a look at history, a look at the natural world, a look at the literary culture of Jean Fanchette, Robert Edward-Hart and Priya Hein herself, is both to understand how far there is to go and to contemplate spaces where futures are made.
Riambel by Priya Hein is published by Indigo Press and is available to order online.
Feature image: Priya Hein (c) Florence Guillemain, courtesy of Indigo Press