Andrea Lee on Fictionalizing Madagascar

Your story in this week’s issue, “ The Rivals ,” stands on its own as a story, but it is also part of a series of stories that join toget...


Your story in this week’s issue, “The Rivals,” stands on its own as a story, but it is also part of a series of stories that join together to make a novel, your forthcoming book, “Red Island House.” How does “The Rivals” fit into the larger narrative? Why did you choose this form for the book?

Photograph courtesy Andrea Lee

“The Rivals” is part seven of “Red Island House,” which is a novel about neocolonialism in the African island nation of Madagascar. The book centers around an Italian and American couple, Senna and Shay, and their grand house on a paradisiacal Madagascan beach. This gorgeous part of Madagascar is a borderland between cultures, which attracts a motley cast of international characters: artists pursuing tropical dreams, rapacious developers, sex tourists, and criminals on the run. Invariably, there is friction between these foreigners and the indigenous Malagasy residents, and the foreigners’ exotic island fantasies implode. I long ago dubbed this phenomenon “paradise twisted,” and I chose to illustrate it in a series of stories, each of which sheds a different light on the people and the place. “The Rivals” is one of these vignettes, showing how easily obsession takes root in such a climate. (“The Children,” which was published in The New Yorker last year, is another.) As for the form of the book: I love nothing more than short stories, unless it is short stories that themselves make up a larger story. This is something I have constantly attempted to produce as a writer, starting with “Sarah Phillips,” my first novel. I see the form as a private challenge, a sort of balancing act: each story must be satisfying on its own but also be a bead on a string that joins it with others. It is hard, but I can’t resist trying.

The story of two old European men competing for the affections of a much younger, much poorer Malagasy woman would seem to be a meditation on power. In fact, at the climax of the story, the question is asked: Who won? What kinds of power are you thinking about in this story, and who does have the upper hand?

“The Rivals” explores several different types of power—economic, sexual, cultural—and the dynamic between servant and master, between male and female, between youth and age. By the end of the story, it is very clear who has the most power in this odd trio of relationships: Noelline. She survives her two lovers, who initially had every advantage over her—survives and thrives. Indeed, perhaps the reason that she is disliked by so many of her own people, including Shay’s redoubtable housekeeper, Bertine la Grande, is that she is so enviably brilliant at surviving. I wanted to turn the literary norm on its head, to disrupt the conventional narrative of the exploited indigenous woman victimized by the colonial man, and its tragic ending. I personally don’t like to overuse tragedy, and I love tales of people who triumph in unexpected ways.

You describe a detailed and vivid Madagascan landscape in “The Rivals.” How did you acquire this intimate knowledge of the country, and what research did you do?

The characters and situations I create in “The Rivals” and in “Red Island House” as a whole are amalgams of people and situations I have observed in my travels in the country. I am an American who lives permanently in Italy, but, in the past two decades, I have spent long periods of time diving and trekking with my husband in Madagascar, which, because of its unique biodiversity and beautiful landscape, has become a popular vacation destination for Europeans. During that time, I have made friends from the different indigenous groups in the country, and have had ample time to observe the curious contortions of morality that occur when one of the poorest countries in the world becomes an object of the attention of some of the richest. I’ve seen the growth of sex tourism, the development of international resorts, the expansion of industries such as gem mining and oil drilling that threaten the precious natural life of the country. I have seen politicians rise and fall. Beyond my own observations, I embarked on an informal but far-ranging research project into the history and culture of the country, and also into the images that people from outside have held of Madagascar through history. My reading included French and English translations from the extensive corpus of Malagasy literature, from the ancient national epic “Ibonia” to Naivo’s contemporary novel “Beyond the Rice Fields.” I read travellers’ and naturalists’ memoirs, the reports of nineteenth-century English and Norwegian missionaries, a Dutch slaver’s diary, and, perhaps most interesting, a seventeenth-century English book titled “A General History of the Pyrates,” by a certain Captain Charles Johnson, who may or may not have been Daniel Defoe. I read Sir William Davenant’s fulsome patriotic poem “Madagascar,” from 1630, and William S. Burroughs’s 1991 novella set in Madagascar, “Ghost of Chance.” This reading gave resonance to what I had already seen in this extraordinary country and helped shape my fictional evocation of a real place.

There are several viewpoints in “The Rivals”: that of Shay; those of the lovestruck aging Italian men; and those of the other islanders, rich and poor, including that of Bertine la Grande, who is the voice of old-fashioned island morality. The one person whose perspective and interiority we don’t access is Noelline. Why is that? What do you think her view of the events in the story would be, and why did you choose not to express it in her voice?

As I said before, Noelline has great power, but the nature of that power is elusive. Perhaps it is that she is an enigma, a mystery. In some ways, she is a symbol of the country itself as it comes into contemporary existence: she is from humble village origins, yet she is powerful, self-reliant, unsentimental, determined to make her fortune from the invading foreigners using what she has—her sexuality and her head for business. Yet she doesn’t reflect on or speak of her situation unless it somehow serves her, helps her to get ahead or to manipulate others. Everyone else projects things onto her: she is a servant; she is a village girl who gives herself airs; she is a gold-digger; she is an object of romance; she is somebody who dares to dramatize herself “like a white girl”; she is a wealthy businesswoman with mysterious links to politics. But she herself never proclaims what she thinks or wants or how she views herself—she simply keeps moving along. Her silence, in the end, is part of her strength.

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Newsrust: Andrea Lee on Fictionalizing Madagascar
Andrea Lee on Fictionalizing Madagascar
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