Read African Writers: Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo

beyond the rice fieldsmadagascarUntil two weeks ago, Beyond the Rice Fields — by Naivo — was the only novel by a Malagasy writer to have been translated into English. The translator, Allison Charette, doubled that number this month with her newly released translation of Ravaloson’s Return to the Enchanted Island.

Beyond the Rice Fields visits Madagascar during the first half of the nineteenth century. A young boy, Tsito, and his family are captured in the forest and sold as slaves. Tsito ends up serving a family with a daughter, Fara, with whom he falls in love. Their story takes place against the backdrop of massive upheaval in Madagascar, with a queen heavily persecuting converts to Christianity and others judged disloyal. Naivo balances an intimate portrayal of Tsito’s and Fara’s lives — the book’s narration alternates between them — with the country’s political shifts. Other characters — Fara’s mother and grandmother, Tsito’s patron, an older slave who serves as a mentor — flesh out the picture. This glimpse into Malagasy history and Naivo’s imagination is well worth the read.

Here is how this ended up being the first Malagasy novel translated into English.

Here are a few lines I liked:
  • One character observes how Madagascar is changing: This is a sacred land, but it is adrift, at the mercy of outside interests, foreign dealings that go far beyond us. This land is rich, but we’re leaving it fit for pigs and stray dogs.”
  • On the subtle art of persuasion: “I just told him that the next time, I’d rip his head off with my own bare hands. Sometimes you need to make a convincing argument.”
  • And, an economist’s favorite euphemism for death: A man “has left for the market of no return.”
Here is what some others thought of the book:
  • Kate Prengel, Words without Borders: “Beyond the Rice Fields is a spiraling, dense, and prickly work, difficult to access until the foreign reader has agreed to put in some time and effort. But once the effort is put in, it is richly rewarding.”
  • Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews: “With quiet surety, the novel pairs an elegantly poetic narrative with an intensifying brutality of events as Madagascar finds itself beset by internal strife, French industrialism, and the zealous efforts of Christian missionaries.”
  • Publishers Weekly: “Naivo provides readers with an astonishing amount of information about Madagascar’s culture and past.”
  • Ann Morgan, A Year of Reading the World: “Vivid, thought-provoking narration; rich, mind-furnishing imagery; and an insight into a place and time that has hitherto been absent from the English-language literary landscape.”

This is book #50 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019. You can read reviews of all the books here.

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