wed 29/05/2024

'The people behind the postcards': an interview with Priya Hein, author of 'Riambel' | reviews, news & interviews

'The people behind the postcards': an interview with Priya Hein, author of 'Riambel'

'The people behind the postcards': an interview with Priya Hein, author of 'Riambel'

The writer discusses her prize-winning debut novel, the power of fragments, and the motivations that drive her work

Author: Priya HeinCredit: Florence Guillemain

Priya Hein’s debut novel, Riambel, is an excoriating examination of Mauritius’ socio-political structures and the colonial past from which they have sprung. Centred around Noemi, a young Mauritian girl who lives in the novel’s titular village slum and is forced to give up school in order to work for the wealthy De Grandbourg family, Riambel focuses on the "other" side of Mauritius, the one not depicted on tourist postcards.

Intertwined with Noemi’s poignant and beautifully recounted life story are those of other women, former enslaved mothers, daughters, sisters and girls. From beyond the grave, these multigenerational female voices come to us in songs, recipes, fragments of poetry and apparitional interludes, connecting Noemi’s story to Mauritius’ wider history of colonial violence and resistance.

I met with Priya Hein to discuss her powerful novel, the impact of the 2020 international Black Lives Matter protests to her work, the importance of centring young women’s stories, confronting the truth about Mauritius’ colonial past, the fragment as formal protest and food as a legacy bearing witness to the care, creativity and resilience of Mauritian women throughout the ages.

RiambelHannah Hutchings-Georgiou:  In your foreword to Riambel you cite the murder of George Floyd as the final push to write and "complain" about systemic racial abuse and its links to colonial violence. What is powerful about this is how you connect the awareness and outrage of a young girl – and generations of women – to a present moment. Could you talk more about this and its connection to Noemi’s anger?

Priya Hein:  For me, what happened to George Floyd was the last straw. I had been living in Germany for a couple of decades and it was all those little moments (micro-aggressions etc.) that added up. I did complain about things but people dismissed it. They felt that what I was experiencing wasn’t important, offensive or racist. They were dismissing it as if I should put up with this sort of behaviour. I was actually told as an immigrant you’re supposed to accept this. Then it got to the point where I was having a discussion around Black Lives Matter and was shocked by what I heard: things like "all lives matter" – which is from a right wing group in Germany – and "that’s happening in America, it has nothing to do with us here in Germany." I thought how can you say it has nothing to do with you? I felt angry and frustrated. Whilst other people protested, I picked up a pen and felt compelled to write. I didn’t know what I would write, but something raw and totally unfiltered came out. My character is called Noemi; the name starts with "No", which is to say no, to protest. So writing this book was my form of protest, and though I initially didn’t intend for it to be published – I wrote it for myself – it was my way of responding to the issue of white supremacy from the perspective of a brown person.

HHG: Riambel centres Noemi’s story and its place in a long line of violence and resistance for women in colonised nations. Did it feel empowering to spotlight a figure – a 15-year-old darker skinned Mauritian girl – who usually would be ignored or silenced?

PH: Yes, it felt good. She’s young and a bit naïve, but full of hope and energy. She wants more from life. I think it’s also to do with my daughter being of a similar age. It felt empowering to write of a girl telling her story, as well as the story of her people.

HHG: You also foreground the story of Mauritius as a country that has gone through successive waves of colonialism and the resistance, conflict and socio-economic shifts this inevitably entails. Would you say Riambel highlights the plight of a forgotten nation and all it has had to overcome?

PH: Mauritius is Europe’s number one holiday destination. It’s popular with British, French, German and Danish tourists. When people think of Mauritius, they think of gorgeous beaches, the sea and sunny weather, all of which is true, but there’s so much more to it. I wanted to write about the other side of Mauritius. Now slavery and colonialism are being talked about, but the country’s past was kept a secret for so many years. Essentially, I wanted to write about the people behind the postcards.

HHG: Noemi repeatedly returns to the sea throughout the novella, so much so that it operates as character, metaphor and backdrop at once. Would you say this is true and why does water hold such especial significance in the work?

PH: The sea has such an important role for Noemi, but also for Mauritians in general. It’s a small island and most of us will see the sea from our rooftops. You smell the sea, you hear it, you feel it. It’s like a person: it has its moods. It’s soothing, omnipresent and an important part of our everyday lives, because it’s a source of income for a lot of people. You will see the fishermen going to work very early in the morning and coming in very late. You will see boats taking tourists out for diving. In the book, Noemi sees the sea as a form of escapism, but also, later, it oppresses her. Also, I wrote Riambel in Germany and I was longing for the sea, and this must have come through into the novel, as a lot of people thought I was in Mauritius when I wrote it.

HHG: A whole range of emotional states are explored in Riambel, yet none more so than grief. Grief for stolen innocence and educational experience; grief for past trauma and death, for the futures, lives and loves that should have been but were never given a chance. Would you describe the novella as space to grieve?

PH: I hadn’t thought of it that way. I wanted to honour these women and give them a voice, and this is linked to grief, because they had terrible lives and experiences. We’re not only following the story of Noemi, but her sister, Marie, whose death Noemi is not over. So there is that element of trauma and grief in the book too. To touch on your previous question too, it is the sea that becomes a source of consolation for Noemi. In the sea, she washes herself of her emotions and suffering.

HHG: Riambel the narrative is as heterogeneously formed as Riambel the place. I loved the fragmentary narrative structure where we weave in and out of Noemi’s first person perspective, the apparitional voices of the enslaved past, recipes, poetical extracts, songs and stream of consciousness. For a novel concerned with the historic repercussions of slavery and colonialism, this formal eclecticism felt fitting. Could you talk about this hybrid technique of storytelling.

PH: I wanted vignettes because their lives were fragmented and short-lived. Also these enslaved women suffered so much at the hands of their masters and often when you suffer from such trauma (rape, abortion, addiction) you’re not always able to think coherently. That’s why I wanted to create a fragmented narrative; I wanted to show that you can’t write a coherent passage when you have so much suffering. I didn’t want to write long chapters, as it didn’t suit the book. I followed my instincts and wrote what I felt was right, in the way that it needed to come out. The fragment was my way of protesting and rebelling.

HHG: Despite your condemnation of colonialism, I also felt your immense pride in your country’s heritage through food and the care, labour and joy it implies. You generously gift us these recipes (for Kari Krevet (prawn curry) or Gato Pima (chilli fritters), for example). The recipes create an alternative history or archive that has both endured and survived colonialism as much as the people have. I imagine these are recipes passed down from generation to generation. Could you talk more about their importance to the text?

PH: These women were often uneducated and unlettered, so the recipes were their way of passing down their legacy, traditions, customs, secrets, from one generation to another. I wanted to show their generosity and what they were doing. The recipes are not like haute cuisine. They consist of simple, everyday food which you’ll find cheaply, for example the ingredients to make a tomato chutney. Octopus salad is perhaps a bit fancier because you need to have the octopus, but still it’s something most Mauritians have. Another reason to include them was to create a kind of literary pause amongst the violence of the narrative. A little softness and something to look forward to momentarily. Something that is good for the soul, and gets the women through the day.

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