Absence is the only distance felt by the heart: Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully

Without a spurious memory,
the sole true blood, like salt
flowed around
every white seashell
wrenched from the belly of languages.

Speak so as not to forget—
isn’t this the true gift of tongues?  (p. 62)

The island nation of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean about 800 kilometres east of Madagascar, was uninhabited until the Dutch took possession of it in 1598. They named it after governor Maurice of Nassau, but despite two attempts to settle the island, they abandoned it to pirates. Mauritius was then occupied by the French East India Company in 1721 and renamed Ile de France. Over the next forty years settlement proceeded until the French Crown assumed control and established a thriving sugar cane industry, bring in African slaves to work the plantations. In 1810, the British captured the island. Four years later, their sovereignty was confirmed and the name Mauritius was restored but, in contrast to other British colonies, French customs, laws and language remained in place.

When abolition brought an end to slavery in Britain, pressure extended to the colonies and the replacement of slaves with indentured servants, primarily from India, began. Between 1849 and 1923, millions of men and women were brought to the island and beyond to other European colonies. Today, Mauritius, an independent Republic with administrative control of several nearby islands (including a still-disputed claim over the Chagos Archipelago), has a population reflecting its short history. Approximately two-thirds are of Indo-Pakistani origin, one-third Creole (French-African) and a small percentage of mixed Chinese heritage.[i]  A rich blend of cultures, traditions and religions have contributed to a diverse and growing economy in this small African country, but the wounds of a history of slavery and indentured servitude cannot be ignored. Countless people were torn from their homelands and transported in unsafe, sometimes deadly conditions to work in a harsh environment with little hope of ever seeing home again. Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Mauritian poet, essayist and filmmaker, Khal Torabully, is a poetic tribute to his own ancestors, and an attempt to give voice to those who made that fateful voyage, human cargo in the hold of ships, to the shores of Mauritius so many years ago.

I want to go to the grand bazaar
to seek at last the saffron of shadows
o refrain from your refrain
the hoist of spices clears the remains
o refrain from your refrain
for your bodies heaped on the wind:
cries of cumin: cries my journey’s route
cries of thyme: cries my future
cries of coriander corpses awaiting return.
And the bids of roots chased away
my terrified dreams all the way to hell.   (p. 37)

This collection moves backward, from the blended community of peoples forced into labour who not only held on to traditions carried in their memories, but, with the blending of cultures created a stronger community, through the horrors of the seabound journey, back to the point of departure from their distant motherland. Torabully’s mission is reflected in his reclamation and empowering of the word “coolie,” the pejorative term for primarily Indian and Chinese indentured workers once common throughout the colonies. Echoing Aimé Césaire’s term “Negritude,” he coins the idea of “Coolitude” to recognize the resilience, dignity and cultural and linguistic endurance of these forgotten men and women. By taking up their voices, he is at once giving them back their unique histories and setting them free:

Coolitude: because all humans have the right to a memory, all are entitled to know their first odyssey’s port. Not that this port is a refuge, but because in this place, forever unnameable, they raise those anchors that sometimes bind to their truth.

Yes indeed, all humans have the right to know the flames that ignite their dreams and silences. Even to be their own history’s moth.

By coolitude I mean that peculiar clashing of tongues which cracks the heart of hearts of millions of men for a history of crystals and spices, fabric and parcels of land.

Unsuspected music at the threshold of words from different horizons.

Within myself an encounter with those who invert the course of boats.

In a cargo hold of stars.  (p. 18)

Given the cultural diversity inherent among the population of the workers who were brought to Mauritius, honouring their experiences demands a language of its own. As translator Nancy Naomi Carlson explains in her Foreword, Torabully developed a “poetics of coolitude” by creating “a new French, peppered with Mauritian Creole, Old Scandinavian, old French, mariners’ language, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Urdu and neologisms.” The playfulness and musicality of his verse serves to accentuate the serious, even tragic themes that recur throughout this work, but provided a unique challenge for Carlson, whose wonderful translation of this work has been awarded the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. She employed a “sound mapping” technique, identifying “salient patterns of assonance, alliteration and rhyme in the original, using a colour-coded system to help keep track within each poem, then tried to infuse this music into [her] translation without sacrificing the original meaning.” The results invite reading aloud—the resulting poems read like a cycle of songs—verses recited in the fields, on the ship, around the home fire. Songs of longing, songs of loss, songs of hope.

Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude by Khal Torabully is translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson and published by Seagull Books.

[i] Historical and population data from Britannica.com. https://www.britannica.com/place/Mauritius