Literature and the politics of visibility in the Indian Ocean

Clara Défachel
Monday 22 July 2019


Little did I know when I applied for the 2018 Laidlaw Programme that this internship would completely challenge my perception of literature as a discipline, of myself, and even of my own country. Thanks to the generous Laidlaw travel fund, I was able to travel to the Comoros last July to collect research material (especially: collections and translations of traditional folktales, contemporary written literature, and secondary literature on these topics). I realized how much politics had impacted and would impact any further research in the region, since literature and politics are intricately linked in this part of the world.

The Comorian archipelago – located just above Madagascar – used to be a French colony. In 1975, after a referendum for independence, the ‘Union des Comores’ was born and included the islands of Grande-Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli, while the fourth island, Mayotte, was kept by the French and eventually became a French ‘département’ in 2011. The Union des Comores condemns this partition of the archipelago by a foreign power, which created a lot of political turmoil in the region. At the same time, many Comorians moved to Mayotte to get all the ‘advantages’ the French were thought to bring – that is, better infrastructure, healthcare and wages. To counter this, France imposed a visa on Comorians wishing to travel to Mayotte, which properly split the archipelago into two.

I remember writing in my blogpost last year that ‘very little has been written about the Comoros so far.’ Well, that was wrong. The reason I wrote this sentence is because I had spent several weeks trying to find primary and secondary material in the UK and in France, and since I could not access any, I concluded that it simply didn’t exist. Actually, after spending a week in the library of the CNDRS (the National Research Centre of the Comoros) I was able to identify a broad range of local publications on related topics. These could be dissertations or pHd theses from the Université des Comores, publications from the CNDRS’s bi-yearly journal Ya Mkobe, or academic journals from other islands of the Indian Ocean (such as Madagascar or the Reunion). By talking with Comorian scholars and writers, who were incredibly helpful in informing and guiding my research, I realized that it wasn’t (critical) literature that the region lacked, but rather, international visibility.

Some of the secondary literature I was able to find in the Comoros.

Visibility is indeed one of the biggest issues of both literature and academic literature in the region. Even though I was working on Comorian folktales, my eyes were focused on Europe and the US rather than on the Indian Ocean itself when it came to critical literature. Step by step, I became aware of how this Western gaze impacted my research, and how much the region had suffered and still suffers from it. For example, I initially excluded from my research folktales from Mayotte, considering that since it wasn’t part of the Union des Comores, I shouldn’t study these tales. That was stupid, since the archipelago has shared the same culture for centuries. But I thought: “I’m working on the Comoros, let’s not include France in here!’

The problem is, France is actually still present in most aspects of Comorian life, and consequently, of Comorian literature too. The Comoros have had a rich and prolific oral literature in local languages for centuries, but many consider that its actual literature is still very new, since the first novel (in French!) was published in 1985. It means that a form of (Western) hierarchy of literature is being imposed upon the archipelago, claiming that written literature has more value than oral literature, and that literature in French is superior to literature in local languages. Some writers do write in local languages to resist against the French monopoly, but it drastically reduces the number of potential readers and their chances of finding a publisher. Two weeks ago, Nassuf Djailani, a writer from Mayotte, told me that no local literature (even in French!) was included on school or university syllabuses. ‘We’re told that it is not proper literature as long as it’s not published by Gallimard or Seuil’ (two of France’s most prestigious publishers). The validation (or disdain) of French publishers still conditions how ‘serious’ Comorian literature is and considerably impacts the visibility these writers get, even at the local level. And even in French bookstores, while Mayotte is a French ‘département’ on paper, just like Brittany or Burgundy, its literature is still classified as ‘littérature d’outre-mer’ – not ‘proper’ French literature.


This made me question the so-called ‘Francophonie’ and the politics of writing in French in such contexts; the power relations that literature inevitably reproduces through both form and language ; how the visibility of certain writers and literatures is determined by geographical and political contexts ; and how this ultimately impacts and conditions the circulation of Comorian texts at the local, regional, Francophone and international level. It is with all these questions in mind that I will start the second phase of my research in two weeks. I would like once again to thank Lord Laidlaw for providing me and my fellow scholars with such an amazing opportunity to develop our academic and leadership skills; the Laidlaw team at St Andrews for their constant support; and my supervisor Prof. Nicki Hitchcott for her valuable help and insights on these questions.

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