Interview with Michèle Rakotoson, by Taina Tervonen

June 1998
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Novelist, script writer and journalist, Michèle Rakotoson moves effortlessly from French to Malagasy in her writings. « Language is magical, one must possess several », she says, and calls for the valorization of the art of translation.

You have been living in France for 15 years, and yet you continue to write about Madagascar. What does this country represent in your writing?
It is true that I am somehow deeply Madagascan. I come from the Hautes Terres. I left when I was 30, and therefore spent my formative years in Madagascar. I see writing is a quest, and the further I go in this quest, the more I realize that its profound depths are in Madagascar. Especially with novel writing, which is a lone undertaking. It is a little more complex with the theatre which is an open form of writing that is enriched by other people’s sensibilities, notably the director, the actors…
Your mention quest. Is this an identity quest or….
That’s all. Identity is a meeting between collective history, the history of a country, a region, a town… and individual, personal history which stems from collective history. Identity is also something that is essentially changing. I am Madagascan, but as I live in Paris, I am also Parisian. There is no single, easy identity!
An identity that can only be defined in opposition to others…
I am firmly convinced so. I believe that my greatest trauma was being confined in Madagascar. I suffered from it a great deal, like many people of my generation. It is good to go and confront oneself with the outside world, even if you sometimes take a beating. In all the major initiation myths, the young hero decides to head off, to leave the cocoon.
What made you decide to leave?
It was a question of psychological survival. There were also political reasons. But in retrospect, I realize that I in fact had only one desire, the desire to leave. I wasn’t brave enough just to get up and go, so I found the reasons.
You write texts in both French and Malagasy.
Since I’ve been in France, I write directly in French. When I was in Madagascar, I wrote in both languages. I wrote French in protest at the « Malgachization » policy. It was implemented in a very negative way in Madagascar, it was virtually fascistic, and essentially power-related. Malgachization had the potential to open people up to Madagascan culture, which is very rich. The means for Madagascan artists to express their identity existed, but were nothing was ever done beyond the slogans.
What did Malgachization entail?
The education system was changed so that pupils were only taught in Malagasy, which is theoretically good, but in reality was not at all well implemented. Nobody thought about the costs… A whole generation ended up without books, without libraries, without any real tools for reflection. Now they’ve decided to replace one disaster with another, deciding overnight to do everything in French, in spite of the fact that the teachers aren’t capable of speaking this language anymore.
Are you against the promotion of African languages as a literary form?
My position is more nuanced than that. Malgachization was necessary, but not in the way it was done. When I hear people preaching about Africanization, I always say « gently does it »! Create the conditions required for a successful Africanization first: produce the books, set up the publishing houses, train the teachers… The loudest defenders of Africanization need to remember that they have also had the advantage of being able to speak French, and not to take this away from others. Africanization is imperative, but shouldn’t be synonymous with cutting oneself off. Economists, psychologists, writers need to participate in the process, so that little by little, countries dispose of all the necessary means. One of the reasons for what is happening in Algeria at the moment is that there is a whole generation of young Arabizers who have ended up being rejected by the system.
How do you experience your two languages as a writer?
Up until now, very easily, I am not torn between languages. I am aware that there is a very clear boundary, however. French is my main language of communication, my combative language. When I write in French, I am disguised, I can say whatever I like. Given that my whole essence is in Malagasy, as soon as I write in this language, I come up against certain taboos. I have noticed that a perfectly innocuous texts in French does not necessarily work in Malagasy. They become extremely violent.
Does French give you a greater sense of freedom?
Yes, but at the same time this freedom has its limits as the foundation remains Malagasy. In Henoÿ, when I begin to approach the core, the relationship with death, with the sacred, with life, the rhythm is Madagascan. I’ve noticed that I increasingly think my texts in Malagasy today.
What determines whether a text will be in French or in Malagasy?
I don’t know how to answer that… I know that certain stories will be novels, and other texts that are voices, sounds, lights and will therefore be plays. I think that French was a language of convenience at one point as I could get my work published in French. It was also a meeting point – beyond all the nonsense about Francophonia… In reality, it is a false debate though: if you have a good translator, you can write in whatever language you want to. Authors should be able to write in their own language or languages, and the art of translation developed.

///Article N° : 5308


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