In Defense of Discomfort: On Naivo’s ‘Beyond the Rice Fields’

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If a writer from Madagascar wishes to reach a wide audience, they write in French, not Malagasy.

In Madagascar, French is the language of higher education, of high-paying jobs, and of international communication. The story of how Madagascar came to use the language of its colonizers is like that of many former colonies: When French and British missionaries arrived in Madagascar more than 200 years ago, they brought Western education and the Latin alphabet, along with religious conflict and political violence. Madagascar regained its independence in 1960, after 64 years under official French rule, but for many years the Malagasy education system was still based on the French. Today the country’s small publishing scene remains largely francophone. French, one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, has always been the only venue through which a Malagasy writer could reach an international audience.

Now, Malagasy literature has come to the English-speaking world: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo is the first novel from Madagascar to be published in English. A familiar arc of love and loss in an unfamiliar setting, this novel never lets the reader forget that it is a work of translation. Naivo uses Malagasy phrases and form to undermine the very language in which the story is written.

Beyond the Rice Fields takes place in the first half of the 19th century, as white missionaries first arrive in Madagascar. Within this changing world we meet Tsito, a young slave, and Fara, who is the daughter of Tsito’s master and his childhood playmate. The first half of the book is a slow build, set in the small farming village of Ambohimanelo. Tsito works hard, but Fara and her family are largely kind to him, and the two complete chores together, attend a missionary school where they learn to read and write, and take part in the traditional fampitaha dance competition. As the Malagasy government grows increasingly unstable, Tsito leaves for the capital city of Antananarivo to work and earn his freedom. From there the book picks up in tempo and suspense as Tsito and Fara realize their feelings for each other and seek to reunite against a backdrop of regime changes that lead to deadly religious conflict.

Though the book was primarily written in French, it employs liberal use of Malagasy words and phrases (there’s a helpful glossary at the back). This technique is retained in the English translation: vazaha, or foreigner, is used to refer to white men; an ambalavelona is a mental illness attributed to a curse; the tangena is a trial-by-poison used to judge religious offenders. By employing Malagasy words, and especially those that don’t exist in French or English, Naivo constantly reminds the reader that the storytelling language is not the language of the story. The harm done by the French invaders—starting in 1800 and still lingering today—is tangible in these disturbances to the story itself, as the reader is forced to notice again and again that which cannot be translated.

Equally notable is the way the novel reflects the form of traditional Malagasy oral poetry, hainteny. These extended poems take the form of a conversation between a man and a woman, generally lovers, and Naivo recreates this custom by alternating points of view between Tsito and Fara. The hainteny is, further, like a courtship, a jeu de paroles in which the woman playfully challenges the man to prove his love. Within the story, Tsito and Fara play these word games together as young adults as Tsito tries to flirt with his crush:
“How will you love me?” [Fara asks.]

“I will love you like my eyes, the windows of my soul: without them, I am weak as a child, but with them, the world smiles at me.”

“Then you do not love me, for I will be of no use to you in the darkness.”

“I will love you like the door to my home, protecting me from enemies and keeping the hearth warm.”

“Then you do not love me, for you push through me without shame to achieve your ends.”

“I will love you like the Sovereign of this realm, mistress of our lives and our destiny.”
When Tsito and Fara reunite as adults, the childish game is repeated as a moment of deep connection and romance. These evocations of hainteny provide a satisfying framework, even to those unfamiliar with the form. They are also reflective of the Malagasy tradition of circular storytelling, which uses recurring phrases for impact.

In particular, hainteny repeat proverbs, and Naivo’s novel is full of Malagasy proverbs and turns of phrase: “A crying orphan, only pitied by the back of his own hand.” “Do not cook meat without knowing its name.” “They can rise to the top as cream does, but milk will always reveal a common ancestor.” The English translation also retains descriptions that make use of metaphors: Fara’s father “smells like bulls moving to summer pastures” and a man falls under a woman’s charm “like a wild cricket halted in flight by a field of tender grain.” Some of these translate better than others, but they each help place the reader firmly in the narrators’ world. And though presumably unfamiliar to the English-language reader, the proverbs and expressions are familiar and comforting to the characters that draw on them.

In an interview in Africultures (conducted in French), Naivo admits that he took some liberties with historical events and dates in favor of what served his story, but all proverbs, songs, and traditions are historically accurate. This is because they are not just set dressing, but the most vital part of the novel. Asked whether the Malagasy phrases are meant to contribute a kind of “exoticism” to the narrative, Naivo replies,
The opposite. The Malagasy expressions, as well as the evocation of traditions, are the very vehicle that must teach us about the past. It is the romantic story that is built around them and not the other way around. Here, the decorative and entertaining element, exotic, reassuring, is the novel as an institution of Western culture with all its stylistics and expectations.
Naivo does make use of plenty of Western tropes, particularly those of the Elizabethan tragedy: unrequited love, forbidden love, a romantic power imbalance, a reversal of fortune, and of course heartbreak—Beyond the Rice Fields has enough death and destruction to make any tragedian proud. The brutality is matter-of-fact, rather than lyric or emotional, and so the horror builds over the course of the novel, until the final few chapters race by in a mess of carnage. There is no redemption narrative here.

The regime changes, political maneuvering, and massacres that lead to this tragedy can be hard to follow for those unfamiliar with Madagascar history. The world of Beyond the Rice Fields is huge, with a growing cast of characters that can be difficult to track. In this way it’s reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its quickly expanding world, incoming enemies, and characters with similar-sounding names. The book is certainly vast rather than tight, and occasionally messy in how it shifts through time or moves characters around the board. But as with Gabriel García Márquez’s classic, a little bit of effort (and the chronology and list of proper names in the back matter) make for a fascinating read, and a world that feels full to the brim.

And in fact, any difficulty a non-Malagasy reader finds in tracking names and history is part of the point. After spending some time in England, Tsito says he’s “getting a little tired of hearing [his friend] always explain things to white men, obvious things. Every time we did that I felt like we had to use a bit of lie and imprecision to make the vazaha words fit.” In the Africultures interview, Naivo explains his fatigue with the long, historical deference to the colonizer, the “white stranger.” Instead, “there is less need to clarify than to highlight. Yes, there are many things that are not obvious but…If the stranger feels some discomfort and misunderstanding in contact with this culture, that’s good. It means that he has encountered something unusual, which is worth any difficulty.”

Naivo goes on to explain that his novel is also a criticism of modern Malagasy society, and especially of the upper class. In that context it is a scathing review: in Beyond the Rice Fields the upper class either fails to protect its home villages or seeks to destroy anyone who might be associated with its enemies, and those who worship the regime are doomed regardless. Today, it remains uncommon in Madagascar to write from the point of view of the lower class or about slavery, and particularly with such clear eyes about the brutality slaves endured. Translator Allison Charette was initially drawn to the novel because it was stirring up controversy in Madagascar. In the bookstore where she first found Beyond the Rice Fields, the booksellers told her, “He’s writing about slavery. No one ever thought they could get away with that before.”

Abroad, as well as at home, Beyond the Rice Fields is an important read: amidst a tradition of deference, a story of colonization is told from the point of view of the colonized. Most strikingly, it challenges Western readers to see themselves as the foreigners, centering Madagascar in its introduction to the English-speaking literary world.