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A Poetic Conjuring

Yagnishsing Dawoor

Ananda Devi
Éditions Cambourakis

Her books talk among themselves. They swap stories across a low wall. At the turn of the evening, they sing songs of women (and men) who’ve lost their tongues, scraped a knee, who’ve had their dreams cuffed to ruin by circumstance, rage and hunger pitting their flesh in a blaze of red. The result is an unbroken, dark susurration, an oeuvre at once varied, and so cleanly cohesive, that it is impossible to misread or mistrust Devi’s intent. Book after book on the lives of those raked to the margins –- prostitutes, paglis, abandoned children, refugees, chiens noirs (and soon, she tells me, a hijra)— she’s slowly but indelibly inscribed herself at the heart of Francophone literature, as one of Africa’s most impassioned champions of the persecuted. But ‘voice of the voiceless’? Devi’s too humble to relish the moniker. She is a sorceress, an interpreter of doom. To describe what she does, Devi prefers the more artful words of Aimé Césaire, the Afro-Caribbean poet: ‘my mouth will be the mouth of those calamities that have no mouth.’  

Fardo, her latest, is directly born of this impulse. Like any of her major works (Eve out of her Ruins, L’Arbre Fouet, Moi, L’interdite), it, too, speaks of pain, attends to silences left to moulder on the wayside of history. Fardo comes on the tail of Danser sur tes braises, Devi’s powerful ode to her mother published earlier this year, carrying over some of the same sinuously lyrical language this time to honour women who lived thousands of years before her. Commissioned by the Musée des Confluences in Lyon (France), Fardo is the upshot of Devi’s encounter with the mummy of a Yschma weaver, and the remains of a Koban woman from a necropolis in Caucasus, both part of the museum’s exhibit, Éternités, visions de l’au-delà, concerned with the dead and the sociology of funerary rites. Devi’s work itself, however, is only thinly invested in the devenir du défunt, the practices and punctilios meant to ferry the dead to the hereafter. What interests Devi are the threads that tie the living to the dead, the present to the past, the past and present to the future, weaving fates in a continuum that promises to illuminate a story of radical entanglement. ‘We are made possible by the innumerable deaths that have preceded us, begotten and nurtured us,’ Devi writes, humbled and inspirited by this wisdom, before turning fully to the dead, the two ‘corps’ (bodies), as she calls them, for a window onto the lives of women, and the pain and oppression immemorially heaped upon them. To allow these two women of the past to assert their claim on the present, Devi turns their individual, potential histories, if only a little too enthusiastically, typical, their bodies ‘[presences] that give on to other meditations.’ The titular fardo, the fabric wrapped around the hunched body of the Yschma woman, gives Devi a productive homonym to theorize the intemporal ‘fardeau’ (French for burden), the yoke of social expectations placed on the shoulders of women, bending their backs. Many other such details jump up at her in an uncanny mirror game, allowing Devi to reflect on her own trajectory as a woman and an artist. The Yschma weaver becomes an ancestor speaking to her across time. Her muteness, her unhearable cries of protest, her tragic lineaments kept out of view by her fingers—they are a language Devi feels compelled to honour with her own.

In the essay, ‘Venus in Two Acts’, cultural historian Saidiya Hartman revisits her account from her book, Lose your Mother, of a black girl feloniously killed on a slave ship, in order to clarify her decision to not write about another girl, Venus (of whom very little is known), who was also aboard the vessel and died in similar circumstances. ‘I feared what I might invent’, she writes, acknowledging the dangers of working with limited facts, of pressing past the limits of legal documents, of treading the thin line between recuperation and assumption, liberation and violation. Devi never plainly articulates the anxieties that fire up Hartman’s practice of ethical imagination (or ‘critical fabulation’ to use her own phraseology), but the humility and aching lyricism with which she writes these two woman she knows very little or, indeed, nothing about make hers a speculative exercise that never feels unethical, disrespectful, or exploitative. Working within a loose ekphrastic mode, Devi attempts to conceive of their potential lives guided by intuition and details offered up by the ‘bodies’ themselves (the body becomes its own archive), and if she frequently imagines these women as tragic, victimized figures, it is only to dream up (and exact) the certitude of a liberated future for them and other women. Upon encountering the Koban woman— a lone bejeweled figure on a bed of sand— Devi fixates, first, her striking, brittle femininity emphasized by her funerary accoutrements and then her bones until the illusion of her wholeness begins to crack under the weight of a terrible suspicion: what if the woman had been broken before her death? In Devi’s vividly intimate prose, the woman is not a figure of difference multiply separated from the reader. She is alive on the page, as a potential friend, an acquaintance, a lover; she’s a beautiful sight only scantily misted over in our mind’s eye, perennially retrievable, mournable:

we may have known her during her lifetime, met her, when she was buying these jewels, admired her as she danced to the rhythms of the wind, the back of her neck revealed by the hair gathered up to the top of her head and graced with elaborate adornment; maybe we have had tea with her, in these fine ceramics that surround her, maybe we were secretly in love with her, who knows?

Devi’s conjuring borne on the ache of poetry—the cutting, seething what if of language put to the task of overcoming distance and oblivion—turns the suggestion of the woman’s injury personal. Can poetry undo our indifference to the pain of others? Can art save us from ourselves? Devi believes it can. As readers, we reach the end of this slim book and, like Devi, we want to sit next to these two women from the past, and listen to the soft footfalls of their silences.


Yagnishsing Dawoor studies English Literature at St Antony’s College, Oxford.