Another Middle Passage
“Every human wound is my own story …. Every human encounter is my true hope.”
During the 19th through early 20th centuries, millions of East and South Asians were indentured and transported to European colonies across the southern hemisphere, including the island of Mauritius, then a French colony. They were called “coolies” and used as unskilled laborers wherever they landed. The story of this mixed multitude has often been overlooked by those of us in the West — yet in truth, their voyages constitute another Middle Passage. If not as cruel as that suffered by the enslaved peoples of African origin, it was, nevertheless, marked by profound disorientation, alienation, and exploitation. The product of this diaspora was a state of mind and being that Mauritian poet Khal Torabully has termed “Coolitude”, borrowing from Aimé Césaire’s concept of Negritude, with the intention of similarly recognizing and celebrating the inherent dignity of those far-flung voyagers, cast so far from home.
Author of over 25 books, Khal Torabully’s Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude (Seagull Books, 2021) is the second full collection of his to be translated into English. (The first, Voices from the Aapravasi Ghat, was released in 2013 by AGTF Publications, Mauritius.) Son of a Trinidadian sailor, his mother a descendent of migrants from India and Malaysia, Torabully was born in Port Louis, capital city of Mauritius, in 1956. The history of Mauritius is unusual in that the island had no known indigenous population. It was first settled by Europeans, Dutch and French, who brought slaves there from many parts of the world to work the sugar plantations. Following the mid-19th century abolition of slavery, a system of indenture was spawned to maintain the supply of cheap labour. 1
Translator Nancy Naomi Carlson has made a mission of bringing to western eyes and ears the work of Francophone writers from the scattered lands once held as possessions by the nation of France. She has translated authors from the Caribbean, from Africa, and now, the island nations of the Indian Ocean. [Full disclosure: This reviewer has known Nancy and her family for over twenty years and counts her as both a colleague and a good friend.] Carlson’s approach to translation entails a “sound-mapping” stratagem whereby she first attends to patterns of rhyme, alliteration, and assonance in the original text. She uses colour-coding to track those resonances, then endeavours to fuse the music of the author’s words with their essential meaning. The results are arresting — but as may be said of any translation, in Torabully, Carlson is working with a very rich lading of material.
Torabully crafts images of the sea, replete with longing, to help the reader comprehend the depths of Coolitude — the experiences of these indentured workers, cast across the wide world and caught in a net of circumstance which insists they formulate new ways of existence while at the same time struggling to preserve their heart-links to distant homes. The result is frequently reminiscent of Saudade, the Portuguese concept which speaks of yearning, nostalgia for lost loves and lost places, often drawing on nautical imagery.
“By coolitude, I mean that peculiar clashing of tongues which cracks the heart of hearts of millions of men for a history of crystal and spices, fabric and parcels of land.”
Elsewhere, he writes:
“Define me please:
“What’s a Coolie?
.”… [K]now that my sabre of blood
has uprooted me to the core.”
Time and again, the reader is dazzled by the spangle of the poet’s words and images, by wordplay which glistens like moonlight over dark waters to create a delicate glissando:
“Indian almond tree amends the sand
“the sea speaks to slash the sea”
Always, the reader hears the vast call of oceans and always, longing echoes back. Make no mistake, amidst all this beauty, there is also deep pain. As the author points out: “every new start / is for us an exile ….”
“Don’t forget, island of mine,
“that the first pigeon perched on my windowsill
“was afraid to take wing in your eyes,
“for fear of finding a cage inside.”
When Europeans first came to Mauritius, they found an indigenous pigeon so large it could no longer fly — the Dodo. This bird was prized for its feathers which were eagerly sought to grace the hats of Parisian ladies of fashion. Within mere decades, the Dodo was hunted into extinction.
Though extinction was not the lot of the Coolies, we would be remiss to understate the extent of their travails. While Torabully upholds their resilience, he makes plain the cost: “Coolie, because my lost memory chooses its roots in my truths.” Here is no romantic vision, but an unforgiving reality: “… my cries are the backwash of men captured by silk, exiled by nutmeg and rooted by sugar …. My skin is caulking for my flesh, and all the memories carried by pitching masts.”
Thanks to Torabully, memory is not extinguished. His is a vivid and evocative testament to which the reader may return again and again, for in the saga of Coolitude, we may see mirrored the struggles and the hopes of all humankind. And we anglophones owe a further debt to translator Nancy Naomi Carlson for bringing Torabully’s epic song so lyrically to our ears.
watch us dream
and prefer wider windows”
Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude, by Khal Torabully; translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson; Seagull Books, 2021
1 For an in-depth analysis of Torabully’s earlier work and his concept of Coolitude, c.f. Mohammad, Shanaaz; “Reimagining the Aapravasi Ghat: Khal Torabully’s poetry and the indentured diaspora”; April 2021,The Journal of Indian Ocean World Studies
Nancy Naomi Carlson is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland Arts Council, and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County. Carlson is author of four books of poems and translator of six books from French to English, including An Infusion of Violets (Seagull Books, 2019), recently named a "New & Noteworthy" title by the New York Times Book Review. A senior translation editor for Tupelo Press, her work has appeared in APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review and Poetry. Her website: nancynaomicarlson.com/ To read more by this author: Summer 2005 issue
W. Luther Jett is a native of Montgomery County, Maryland and a retired special educator. His poetry has been published in numerous journals as well as several anthologies. He is the author of three poetry chapbooks: Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father, (Finishing Line Press, 2015), Our Situation, (Prolific Press, 2018), and Everyone Disappears, (Finishing Line Press, 2020). A fourth chapbook, Little Wars, is slated for release by Kelsay Books in June, 2021. To read more by this author: "Recessional," The Wartime Issue, Vol. 7:2, Spring 2006. To read more by this author: "Recessional," The Wartime Issue, Vol. 7:2, Spring 2006.
Khal Torabully is a poet, essayist, film director, and semiologist who has authored some twenty-five books and has won several awards in France, Switzerland, and Mauritania. He was born in Mauritius in 1956, in the capital city Port Louis. His father was a Trinidadian sailor and his mother was a descendant of migrants from India and Malaya. He is credited as the originator of the term “coolitude”. Torabully’s heritage permeates his work, whereby he seeks to transform the suffering of indentured laborers into a strong and resilient cultural identity.