An Interview with Toronto Poet Soraya Peerbaye

An Interview with Toronto Poet Soraya Peerbaye

“He was forbidden to speak to his father in Créole, but once,
when he was six, playing in the garden with his friend,
………..his father called to him

language shimmered on his tongue like a fever

If he answered in French, his friend would think him strange, un snob,
would shun him; if he answered in Créole, he would be
…………punished

he chose Créole”

-from “Pomme” (Scroll down for the full text of the poem)

Soraya Peerbaye’s first collection of poems, Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names, contains as improbable a personal and poetic map as exists in the chorus of new Toronto voices. From Mauritius to Tierra de Fuego to, yes, Antarctica, the book is a linguistically ambitious micro-epic that never has to leave the intimacy of the author’s personal history to achieve its dizzying scope. A challenging melee of often incongruous cultural and historical cues, the book is warmed by the specificity of its humanity and the aptness of Peerbaye’s observations.

Soraya Peerbaye exchanged words with Jacob McArthur Mooney earlier this month. What follows is a selection from that discussion.

Jacob: Thanks for doing this. I thought we could spend our time talking about language (and languages). The complex identity politics of mixed-history languages (specifically Mauritian Creole) weigh heavily on the book’s first section. And of course, the poems themselves add another layer to that complexity, because they’re all written in English. I imagine this was something you considered while writing the book. Can you walk me through your concerns regarding language and identity, and how those concerns might be manifest in the final product?

Soraya: My first concern with language was less immediately connected to cultural identity, and more so to familial identity. I think this is one of the oddities about being from a tiny, far-flung island, which had no indigenous population before colonization, and where many have lost a connection to languages of origin (Urdu in my family’s case). Moving to Toronto, my family was somewhat adrift – though there is a Mauritian community here, and my father’s practice as a doctor was one of the things that kept us connected to that. Nonetheless, I can’t say there was a sense of belonging to a diaspora through language.

I read a beautiful essay on growing up in a French-language family in America by Belgian writer Luc Santé, in which he says: “For me the French language very nearly became detached from its base, like so many of our household customs, which had lost their connection to any wider world and hovered in a vacuum….” That – with the added dimension of race – was very much my experience. Even when we are with French speakers from France or Quebec, each one of us in my family loses the island accent and subconsciously adopts a more “cosmopolitan” (i.e. Parisian) accent. Speaking in my own accent in that context is a physical impossibility – I cannot will it. So my mother tongue – in the deepest sense, the language and its natural inflection – hardly existed outside my family.

Even in my family, after living for three decades in Toronto, my French is filled with franglais, interjections of “Ç’est quoi le mot” and general anxiety about the poverty of my French. For my father, the sense of loss is doubled: it was during our conversations about these poems that he told me he considered Creole his mother tongue, a language that none of us speak with him.

I wrote in English because, with a few exceptions – when I’m in between asleep and awake for instance – it’s the language I think in now (though my year-old daughter is changing that, subtly, as French comes most naturally when I speak with her). I could do this without feeling as though I were somehow betraying my family because of a shared love of English literature and song. But French and Creole were direct points of access for me to an intimacy to my family’s voices, and to memory and childhood. The way I heard my mother’s voice in my mind when I was walking on a beach in Antarctica. Ultimately, I think, that was my concern: language and intimacy. I wanted to say something about how language and intimacy, or language and delight, change the colonial project – whether it’s describing my father naming the varieties of Mauritian mangoes, so many of which are named for the white families that owned the plantations, but identifying them by taste and sensuality – or describing the Yaghan (one of the several tribes native to Teirra del Feugo) grammar and its eloquent structures of reciprocity between subject and object.

Jacob: That element of Mauritian history (the lack of a historically consistent “pre-colonial period”) really recasts the poems in the first section. And as the other dominant location, Antarctica, is also a colonial creation (before being settled by explorers, it was without its own people), maybe there’s something of a through-line we could talk about there. In a couple of poems, you approach linguistic identity more specifically. The anecdotal poem “Pomme” is an example. The boy in “Pomme” chooses his language, and in doing so, his identity, if only for a moment. There seems to be a lot of that in the book, speakers who assert their identity as individuals, choosing a place in which to self-situate, however extreme the location (Antarctica, eg) and speaking their experience as observers.

Soraya: I do feel there are strange and unexpected connections between Mauritius and Antarctica, as well as Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. They are extreme locations, not only geographically, but in the imperial projects they were a part of. The violence done there – whether to the slave population in Mauritius, the Aboriginal people in Argentina, or the whales in Antarctica, was also extreme.

Yes, the boy in “Pomme” chooses his identity, but the implications of that choice aren’t immediately clear to him. I’m not even sure to what extent it’s an act of defiance – there is something private in the act, an interior sense of identity that he must acknowledge – it’s an act of integrity. And he accepts his father’s apology, the gift of apples, even though it’s still fraught with his father’s pride. So identity isn’t oppositional (and I’m not suggesting that this is a radical statement) – it is personal, relational, it tries to stay open-minded and open-hearted toward the world, even when the world isn’t so.

This came up for me in researching the relationship between the Yaghan people and Reverend Bridges, the missionary. The degree to which the Yaghan helped him in his ethically fraught project to translate their language, even while they were clear eyed about the threat he represented, is an example. How they seem to have adapted some of their words to help him describe his peculiar act of writing in Yaghan.

I think language, translation, and shifts from one language to another come up as ways of maintaining a sense of continuity when the sense of self is ruptured. I think of my dad, who addressed his father in French – even using the formal “vous” of colonial address – and his mother and siblings in Creole; and then he and my mother raising their children in French in an English country. I think of the Chilean beekeeper we met in Tierra del Fuego, who learned French in exile during the Pinochet years. But every translation and shift entails a certain loss; a devastating one for the Yaghan.

Jacob: I guess what you’re expressing here might called the “polynational”, or even “polylingual” element of language. That is to say, the whole ebb and flow of languages running into each other, invading each other, coming to dominate and eventually assimilate each other, often though not always as mirrors for the cultures that first bore them. I think a lot of good contemporary poetry is cognizant somehow of that big-picture language stuff. Of course, being cognizant of it doesn’t mean playing into it, necessarily. Looking at that big picture, if you had to choose a reading of this book, would you pick a relatively post-colonial interpretation, with its assorted blinders and focus-pullers, or would you prefer a reading that sees language as “just” a vessel for the sounds and ideas that make up the heart of the work? In other words, as this is a book about your life, are you more comfortable with the political reaction to the poems, or the apolitical one?

Soraya: I’m not sure that I want to choose. Partly because, of course, I can’t control the reading, and don’t want to; partly because both choices seem reductive – “post-colonial” suggesting predictability and “language as just a vessel” suggesting passivity, a lack of engagement.

I know the politics of the book is subtle, but it’s there, for me – I can’t dissociate it. I can’t speak for the reading, but I can say where the writing came from. The political comes forward in an intimate space, familial or social, often unexpected. The way in the Vernadsky research station in Antarctica, with the maps and charts and graphs measuring the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir next to the researchers’ children’s drawings. The way the Ukrainian geophysicist quoted Bob Marley in an exchange with my brother. Yes, I want the political reading, and other readings too – though “other” is not a binary, does not mean “apolitical”. Even in a very personal poem like the rabbit poem, I thought my way through its politics – it’s about a girl learning power over another being. But there are many ways that I feel dumb and inarticulate about a post-colonial analysis. Language – and silence, especially in Antarctica – is a space for a political sensibility to be suspended, for a moment – not suspended as in halted, but as in, hanging in mid-air, particulate – as I try to figure out how that way of thinking and the experience or story come together.

Pomme

by Soraya Peerbaye

from Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names

……….Un objet donné?

…………………………..Eh bien –

He was forbidden to speak to his father in Créole, but once,
when he was six, playing in the garden with his friend,
…………his father called to him

language shimmered on his tongue like a fever

If he answered in French, his friend would think him strange, un snob,
would shun him; if he answered in Créole, he would be
………….punished

he chose Créole

remembers the switch’s whipped syllables, swift,
faultless, welts rising like letters
…………on his bare back –

Next morning his mother kept him home from school,
…………tongue-lashed her husband;
at noon he closed the clinic, knocked
at his son’s bedroom door, told him to accompany him
…………to town

they stopped at the cinema: bought two tickets
to Les Trois Diables Rouges, a Western starring Herman Brix,
………..parts I and II

At intermission, his father brought out a brown paper bag

………..inside,

two sweet red apples, imported from France, one for each of them;
………..taught him to rub the apple on his sleeve

til it shone –