Forced Exile: Shenaz Patel’s “Silence of the Chagos,” translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman

By Preea Leelah

SonOfBlackThursday_cover1vEvery day, Charlesia walks to the ocean and fixedly gazes in the direction of her homeland, the island of Diego Garcia, the place she may never see again.  Shenaz Patel’s novel Silence of the Chagos is the haunting, still unfolding story of the people of Diego Garcia, one of the 56 islands that form the Chagos Archipelago, situated in the Indian Ocean. In 1973, inhabitants of Diego Garcia were given hours to pack a minimum of belongings and ordered to leave their island, which was being transformed into a U.S military base. Deprived of their land with initially no compensation, and forbidden from ever returning to Diego Garcia, inhabitants were sent to Mauritius––an island itself largely responsible for this human tragedy, yet unwilling to show any support or treat these people with compassion and dignity. Since then, generations of Chagossians have lived in utter oppression, the world barely acknowledging their human rights.

Based on true events and real characters, the novel is a powerful rendering of forced population displacement in the 20th century. Most daunting is the vivid way the novel depicts how political decisions by powerful nations can destroy the lives of the most vulnerable, those whose voices and sufferings could easily go unheard on an international platform, and therefore be ignored.

Originally written in French, the novel invites readers to first-handedly imagine the pain, sadness, void and feeling of incomprehension faced by the people of Diego Garcia when abruptly deprived of something most of us take for granted: a place we can call home. Not only does the novel beautifully narrate daily life on Diego Garcia before its depopulation, but Patel’s style is permeated with sensory descriptions of the striking serenity of a nation living peacefully on their land. The Chagos are described as “islands where time flowed unhurriedly, as still and sweet as the milk of a tender coconut” (132). Nonetheless, far from presenting an idealist or utopian picture of an insular island, the author invites us to imagine the normalcy in the daily routine of a group of peaceful hardworking people. Engaged in making a living during the week for instance by harvesting coconut (43), neighbors get together on Saturday nights and cheerfully dance the Sega to the rhythm of their hand-made drums (73-74).

The reader also becomes acquainted with specific characters such as Charlesia taking care of her ailing husband, Serge, or making choices of what to buy on her income when grocery shopping (66-67). We follow her in her other chores such as when she goes fishing for evening dinner:

She stepped into the warm sea, up to her thighs, cast her line and heard it whistle before hitting the water. She didn’t move, she was one with the sea, the fine sand beneath her feet, the sun warming the headscarf cloth. Beyond the green and then blue wave, another strip could be seen with its band of coconut trees, their island, behind her, before her, a calm, reassuring backdrop. She waited. (47)

We further see Charlesia run after her children, yelling at them not “to gorge on the eggs” of tortoises before dinner, and is then tempted herself when the children find some on the beach: “she weighed it up, broke it, peeled back the shell, then swallowed it letting the warm, flavorful liquid glide along the inside of her cheeks” (53). Such practices may be intrinsically unique to the people of Diego Garcia, thus engaging the reader in a different culture and the extent of human diversity. At the same time, their lives are also extremely relatable.

In sharp contrast, the narration then moves to show the abrupt depopulation of the island. One morning, the inhabitants are forced to board the Nordvaer, the very ship for which they used to excitedly wait, as it was their connection to the outside world. Men, women and children of all ages are brought to the island of Mauritius in despicable condition, with little or no possession. In Mauritius, the Chagossians would always be treated as second class citizen, pejoratively referred to in creole as “Zilwa” (134) or “islanders”; notwithstanding that Mauritius is also an island, and technically its inhabitants are of course islanders as well. Upon the arrival of the Chagossians at the quay in Port-Louis “trucks carried them away, them and their scattered belongings, to set them down a few minutes later in a town of metal shacks: Cité la Cure” (129). The simple, peaceful life is no more. Instead when another character, Raymonde, “stepped into the [house] meant for them, she was overwhelmed by a smell of filth and excrement. The terrified children grabbed at her skirt and did not dare to move” (129).

One can wonder what led to this inciting incident. Briefly stated, in the 1960s during the process of decolonization, Mauritius, then a British colony, conceded, in order to gain its own independence, to let Britain keep the Chagos. During that same time period, the United States decided to establish a military presence in the Indian ocean region and negotiated with Britain for an uninhabited island to build a military base. Since being forcibly removed from their island between 1968-1973, the Chagossians have fought relentlessly. In 2019, almost half a century later, the United Nations General Assembly backed a resolution that condemned the occupation of the Chagos Archipelago, and asked that Britain return the islands to Mauritius to complete the process of decolonization.[1] This would allow for the resettlement of the people of Diego Garcia. However, neither the U.S, nor Britain have issued any immediate plan to leave the island.

Henceforth, the political matters that surround the Chagos is one of international scope, and clearly touches the Anglosphere. As such, to have the novel translated in English by Jeffrey Zuckerman is an extremely valuable linguistic addition. An adept of Mauritian literature having previously translated Ananda Devi, Zuckerman’s translation captures Patel’s stylistic narration perfectly. While the novel is in French, Patel herself oftentimes includes creole especially during verbal interactions between characters. It was interesting to see that Zuckerman also maintains the voices of the characters in the original creole when using direct discourse in the narrative. The meaning becomes evident as the narration continues. Furthermore, Zuckerman chose to work closely with Shenaz Patel in his translation project. In a recent email exchange about this work, he shared that:

 […] I very firmly believe that a translator has to decide, for each book she or he works on, whether or not she or he wants to be a spokesperson, a mouthpiece for that book. Shenaz’s English was strong enough, and her knowledge deep enough, that I wanted her to be front and center in speaking for this book and for the Chagossians whose voices it represented. […] This kind of extremely close collaboration is very atypical for me, and it stems from a belief that, in this case, I want to step back and let those whose histories are more proximate have the final word. [2]

The effort made by Zuckerman to translate this novel while respecting the “voices it represented” is noteworthy considering to what extreme the same voices have been silenced. In that vein, another striking feature is the various quotations and epigraphs used by Patel. Zuckerman, tackled translation of such sources through worthy collaborative work:

To preserve this hybridity, I asked various other people to translate those texts — such as Laura Jeffery, who has done a great deal with the Chagossians and Saradha Soobrayen whose poetry touches on the Chagossians’ struggle. The most personally touching instance, I have to say, was when Shenaz drew from Michel Ducasse’s poem on Diego Garcia — and then their daughter, Lisa Ducasse, herself a spoken-word poet, transmuted it into an English that was wholly different yet utterly perfect. It just took my breath away. [3]

By writing in French and English, both Shenaz Patel and Jeffrey Zuckerman are bringing attention to the on-going struggle of the people of the Chagos to a wider international audience, thus hopefully raising awareness of this wrongdoing.  As a native of Mauritius who teaches courses on Creole cultures and civilizations in the U.S, I am particularly thankful for such enterprises that allow me to use literature as a gateway to introduce geopolitics of the Indian Ocean in my courses. While Silence of the Chagos is a wonderful literary work valuable in academic settings, it is first and foremost meant to be a captivating story of human struggles in the face of political oppression.

Patel, Shenaz. Silence of the ChagosTranslated by Jeffrey Zuckerman. Restless Books, 2019.

Preea Leelah is a lecturer in the Department of French and Italian at Oberlin College. She specializes in Eighteenth-Century and Francophone Studies, with teaching and research interests in race and gender, French colonial societies, women and crime in Francophone history, and technology in second language acquisition.

[1] “UK suffers crushing defeat in UN vote on Chagos Islands.” The Guardian. May 23rd 2019. Retrieved January 24th 2020.

[2] Zuckerman, Jeffrey. “Re: Review of the Silence of the Chagos.” Message to Preea Leelah. January 19th 2020. Email delivery.

[3] Zuckerman, Jeffrey. “Re: Review of the Silence of the Chagos.” Message to Preea Leelah. January 19th 2020. Email delivery.



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