By Nathan Dize
Gaza is a name capable of conjuring many ideas: statelessness, precarity, violence, tenuous and embargoed freedom, occupation, colonialism, and the list goes on. The name has also become synonymous with contested sovereignty in an era of postcolonial globalization, where, despite their supposed ephemerality, words like “settlements” and “camps” are imbued with a certain permanence. Media coverage of life in Gaza tends to revolve, almost singularly, around the theme of violence. Although it shares a name with the territory of Gaza, the eponymous neighborhood in Nathacha Appanah’s Tropic of Violence (Graywolf 2020) is not in the Middle East. The Gaza at the heart of the novel is in the island of Mayotte, a French overseas department in the Comoros archipelago of the Indian Ocean.
In real life and in the novel, Gaza is a tropical shantytown on the outskirts of the city of Mamoudzou where much of the action of the novel takes place, but it is also one of the novel’s primary acts of translation. For Appanah and her translator, Geoffrey Strachan, the name Gaza serves as a metaphor for understanding the way that Mayotte and its Afro-descended inhabitants, many of whom are French citizens, are portrayed in French media. For Olivier, a police officer and one of the novel’s many narrators, the global discourse of poverty and violence is the only way of conveying the lived reality in the neighborhood of Gaza: “Gaza is a shantytown, a ghetto, a dump, a bottomless pit, a favela, a vast encampment of illegal immigrants, open to the skies […] Gaza is Capetown, it’s Calcutta, it’s Rio. Gaza is Mayotte, Mayotte is France” (39). Another narrator, Stéphane, is a twenty-seven-year-old employee of a French-based NGO who has come to Mayotte to start a youth center and to simply get away from his life in metropolitan (mainland) France. Even though Stéphane chose Mayotte as the destination for a year of “voluntourism,” it is clear that “[the] favorite destination that looks good on your CV was still Gaza, and I mean the real Gaza, in Palestine, but that was reserved for the most experienced volunteers” (93).
While Olivier and Stéphane’s perspectives bolster the realism of the novel, it is actually the story of Moïse who is forced into the streets when his adoptive French mother, Marie, suddenly dies of an aneurism at the end of the first chapter. Told through the voices of multiple, alternating narrators––Bruce, Marie, Moïse, Olivier, and Stéphane––the novel flashes backward and forward in time to tell Moïse’s journey from adoption to imprisonment and from imprisonment to deliverance.
When he is an infant, Moïse’s biological mother makes a clandestine crossing to Mayotte from the Comoros Islands, presumably looking for a better life, but also to get rid of her son whom she believes is causing her bad luck. She explains to Marie that her son’s multi-colored eyes make him the “baby of the djinn,” and because of his heterochromia she must abandon him (12). Recently abandoned herself, after she and her ex-husband Cham fail to conceive a child, Marie takes in Moïse and demands Cham recognize him as his son for legal purposes. However, as he gets older, Moïse begins to ask about his origins, where he comes from and where his father is. The pressure proves too intense for Marie, leading to a mental breakdown and her eventual aneurism.
Marie’s passing sends Moïse and his dog Bosco into the streets of Mamoudzou, where he has nothing to cling to but the makeshift youth center where Stéphane works and a gang led by Bruce, the infamous, de facto Godfather of Gaza. For a time, Moïse enjoys helping Stéphane with the center’s programming, reading books, and wandering the city with Bosco. However, still reeling from the trauma of Marie’s death, the insecurity of homelessness, and the violence he experiences at the hands of Bruce and his gang, Moïse ultimately kills Bruce, shooting him with Stéphane’s pistol, a gun imported from metropolitan France when he returns to Mayotte after the Christmas holiday. In this way, mainland France and the humanitarian industrial complex are, in part, implicated in the violence of the plot, allowing Appanah to draw attention to myriad ways the French Republic fails the people living in Mayotte and other French overseas departments.
Tropic of Violence is a novel that lives up to its title in content as well as in its use of language and syntax. At times it reads with the intimacy of a diary or the directness of testimony, which in the depictions of abject poverty and violence in Mayotte aid in the critique of French colonialism and the failures of postcolonial and humanitarian projects.
When the novel was first translated in 2018 and published in the UK with MacLehose Press (Graywolf is reissuing this translation) by Geoffrey Strachan, Mayotte and Gaza appeared frequently in French newspapers like Libération, referring to it as “the poorest overseas department,” where nearly 19% of the island’s inhabitants are undocumented. What these journalistic accounts often lack, however, are the language and the intimacy that often only a novel can provide. Appanah and Strachan, in turn, translate the realities of the migrant population through the use of the local language, Shimaore, compelling the reader in either French or English to encounter words like kwassa-kwassas (the makeshift vessels that bring migrants to Mayotte) and muzungu (foreigner), among others.
The most noticeable difference between the French original and the Graywolf edition of the novel is the way that these words in Shimaore are framed textually. In the 2016 French edition (Gallimard), the Shimaoran words are not italicized, but they are marked by an asterisk and collected in a glossary at the end of the novel, while the Graywolf edition features the words in italics with no glossary at the novel’s conclusion. For the former, the glossary aids the reader while simultaneously integrating Shimaoran words into a French lexicon, making a tenuous case that they are a part of a localized Francophone reality. The Graywolf edition begins with Strachan’s eloquent and concise translator’s note, which explains Appanah’s use of Shimaore and provides definitions for a number of terms. Readers in English will appreciate Strachan’s approach because it serves as a reference tool as well as a cultural note yet without the encyclopedic or scientific feel of a glossary.
Another remarkable translation choice is the way that Strachan handles Bruce’s character and the use of slang and profanity. There are times when Strachan employs a double and/or inverted contractions to render guttural accents in English, for instance:
Me too, I’d’ve liked someone to fix me a bowl of cereal, fucking cereal, I don’t even know what cereal tastes like, d’you think I wouldn’t have liked someone to take me for a picnic by Lake Dziani or in its island of sand, or go swimming with the dolphins? […] I should’ve kicked you out of Gaza the very first day, that’s what happened to me in the shit. La Teigne warned me, said having you around wasn’t good for business. He told me you were a nutjob and that the end would all go fuckries. (33)
For the North American reader these choices might seem odd and perhaps doubly foreign, but the language Strachan uses here is an effective domestication of Bruce’s harsh language for readers from the United Kingdom, especially urban centers like London or Manchester, without falling into a version of linguistic voyeurism. In this way, Strachan’s translation works in the same register as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and NW or even TV series like Skins or the recent Netflix hit Sex Education.
In an age where daily land, sea, and ocean crossings bring hopeful migrants across porous and artificial political boundaries, we need stories, real and imagined, that transcend the vacuous language of the news headline. In the production and support of these narratives, authors and translators alike are called to carefully hone their craft so that the lives of others are intelligible and compelling for broad swaths of readers. Tropic of Violence has already made multiple crossings itself, from Mayotte to metropolitan French readers (winning the Prix Fémina des Lycéens), from France to the UK, and now from the UK to the United States in its present form with Graywolf Press. Stories like the ones in this novel are necessary for our world, as we learn about the lives of the people compelled to our borders and shores. They are especially important if we are to understand how places like Gaza are constructed and maintained by the very political structures and bodies capable of ameliorating the lives of the people who live there.
Appanah, Nathacha. Tropic of Violence. Translated by Geoffrey Strachan. Graywolf Press, 2020.
Nathan Dize is the translator of Makenzy Orcel’s The Immortals (SUNY Press, forthcoming), Kettly Mars’s I Am Alive (University of Virginia Press, forthcoming), and Louis Joseph Janvier’s Haiti for the Haitians (Liverpool University Press, forthcoming).
 In 1946 France declared its oldest colonies (French Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Reunion) as “overseas departments,” effectively incorporating these territories into the political body of the French Republic and granting them seats in the French National Assembly. Mayotte became a French department in 2011.