Ka ny lasa tsy azo ahoana
Fa ny sisa ampanirina
There’s no protecting those that drop
But those that stay are made to grow
First, an embarrassing confession: I am woefully ignorant about Madagascar, the Malagasy people and the Malagasy culture.
It wasn’t until I signed up for Restless Books monthly book subscription that that changed, when I received a copy of Beyond the Rice Fields (Amazon | Shop your local indie bookstore) by Naivo, the first book in Malagasy to be translated in English. Last year’s book reviews comprised of titles gleaned from bestseller and notable lists (particularly from The New York Times and other mainstream publications such as the Indie Book of the Month), as well as shortlisted books for various distinctions so Naivo’s book is a welcome change.
Located in the southeastern coast of Africa, Madagascar is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. And here I was, thinking that growing up in an island nation myself I had a pretty good grasp of other island nation kin. This book is admittedly the first time I’ve come across any form of Malagasy literature, a surprising and embarrassing detail I honestly can’t shake off.
So I take the book in, prepared to be humbled. And boy did I.
Beyond the Rice Fields is primarily the story of Tsito, a slave who worked his way towards his emancipation. But unlike many slave narratives I’ve read previously, the conext of Tsito’s slavery is set during a time when a nation’s own people dealt with each other in a feudalistic manner–even before the vazaha, or white people came.
Naivo traces the young boy’s life from the time he caught the eye of a traveling merchant, Rado, up until he was gifted to one of Rado’s daughters, Fara. As the story wove in between the eventual lovers, he also portrayed the historical and colonial roots of Madagascar.
As the struggles of Tsito unfold and as he works his way to his emancipation, I was struck by the intimate sentimentality prevalent in the book, even amidst riotous violence. There were many scenes in the book that would make a reader shudder in terror, but Naivo told each scene with grace.
Even Tsito’s temperament is a testament, his steadiness remarkable in the fast-changing world of the southeast African nation. Lulled many times by his rhythm, I held on to passages like this that makes the ultimate connection between the book and its readers.
Another thing that endeared me to Tsito (and Naivo) is his love for literature, and how he imagined a different world for himself through reading. His hope that he would be free someday was steadfast, and it was buttressed by characters in books that he read like Paul and Virginia and Othello. Fortunate enough to have Malagasy masters who encouraged his love for reading, nothing became impossible for him.
When it came to pursuing Fara, he was able to muster the strength to conjure up a better future:
Fortunately, other stories came to my rescue when I was broken down, other heroes carried me on their broad shoulders when I felt too much like a slave. Nothing was impossible. Othello was a Moor, and hadn’t he captured the heart of Desdemona, the daughter of a rich and powerful Venetian lord?
Tsito was no stranger to foreigners during his time–vazaha, or white people–made their presence known in the nation through similar conquest strategies like religion. Missionaries descended upon the villages, preaching the word of Kristy (Christ) by educating young children. From the farthest village corners up to the nation’s capital, the influence of the vazaha grew but with consequences.
In spite of this, Tsito’s dreams never wavered. My first Malagasy novel is nothing but an exquisite introspection, almost as if I was interrogating the walls of my own consciousness. Naivo’s writing quickly grows on the reader, melancholic and tinged with tenderness making an introduction to Malagasy culture and literature a memorable experience.
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Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.