Some years ago I heard a fragmentary story about an exiled French aristocrat who, centuries ago, father numerous children with tribal women all around the Indian Ocean, and I was immediately captivated. The jail had everything that fascinates me: class, race, injustice, desert island fantasy. My first feeling was that it resembled a myth, or an Elizabethan comedy. Soon I began to play with the idea of bringing that narrative into contemporary reality, and then the story started to write itself. … The story also gave me the opportunity to shine a light on one of my own favorite pieces of writing on exotism: Victor Segalen’s eccentric Essay on Exoticism, over which the two major characters bond. That strange little work records the authors attempt to keep foreign peoples and places mysterious and glamorous by fitting them into an artistic form – exoticizing them, in effect. Art can strike at the heart, making the ordinary events of life deeply comprehensible, but, conversely, it can also create emotional distance from reality. Absorbed in their rarified intellectual world, Shay and Giustinia meddle in real affairs with carelessness and end by causing pain.
Andrea Lee, Contributor Note
I got a bit sidetracked by the Segalen essay, seeing as it was mentioned twice in the story and once in the Contributor Note. I found the editor’s introduction online for free, which helped give me an idea of what the essay was about:
…[I]f previously colonialist attitudes perverted the capacity to sense out and appreciate the exotic, then an aestheticizing, restorative vision must replace them. If modernity has entailed an acceleration in the means and modes of travel and thereby an unprecedented intermingling of cultures and peoples, and thus a waning of difference, that process has to be resisted by a renewed appreciation for differences or by an ever finer eye and capacity to experience the ever finer differences which remain intact. If exoticism is apprehended and interpreted vulgarly by the large majority of individuals, authority to speak of it must be limited to the great artist, to the individual possessing a strong individuality: the ‘‘Exot.’’
…In the essay, ‘‘diversity’’ does not refer in the first instance to a kind of multiculturalism or to the close coexistence of (cultural, class, or gender) differences. Rather it refers to the existence of absolute (if not essential) differences between peoples and cultures in theworld.
…So that when, for example, Segalen laments the decline of diversity, he is lamenting the breaking down of these differences and their disappearance due to such processes as cultural intermingling, democracy, and feminism.Thus diversity for Segalen is not initially a moral concept; rather, it is an ontological concept to which he accords aesthetic value, as the subtitle of his essay indicates…
Yael Rachel Schlick, Introduction to Segalan’s Essay on Exociticm, available online
I later found the essay itself (though it’s probably not supposed to be there, so I’m not providing a link), and I can see why it’s described as “eccentric.” It’s clear it was unfinished; in some places it’s little more than notes.
The one thing that stood out to me about the essay itself was Segalen’s comparison of the loss of diversity, whether through travel, colonialism, or the passage of time, with the scientific concept of entropy, the physical process of increasing disorganization and disorder – that is, homogeneity – that is inevitable in the universe itself.
[In the margin] There is a dreadful expression, I no longer know where it comes from: ‘‘The Entropy of the Universe tends toward a maximum.’’ This notion has weighed upon me—in my youth, my adolescence, my awakening. Entropy: it is the sum of all internal, nondifferentiated forces, all static forces, all the lowly forces of energy. I do not know if the latest advances in thought on this subject refute or confirm it. But I imagine Entropy as a yet more terrifying monster than Nothingness. Nothingness is made of ice, of the cold. Entropy is lukewarm. Nothingness is diamond-like, perhaps. Entropy is pasty. A lukewarm paste. … The decline of Diversity. It seems that yes. Like Energy, the Entropy of the Universe tends towards a maximum.
Victor Segalan, Essay on Exociticm
And that’s just a margin note. See why they call it eccentric? The thing is, he’s right about the science. Entropy has the universe tending towards a bland, low-temperature even distribution of matter/energy, where planets, solar systems, and of course people no longer exist, but all that is left is the “lukewarm paste.” This is how Segalen sees the decline of diversity: everyone and everything the same. Is it any wonder he values exoticism and the preservation of differences, which at the time he saw under attack by colonialism and tourism. However, the human race has, over the last 200,000 years, has become more diversified, not less; it seems to me people as a whole tend to differentiate just fine.
The story embodies these fears quite adeptly. Our narrator is Shay, a black woman scholar who owns a hotel on Madagascar and lives there part of the year. Her friend Giuliania, an Italian noblewoman and poet whom she met professionally, is staying at the Red House with her.
The adventure of the lost heirs begins when Shay and her friend Giustinia run into Harena at the Fleur des Îles café. This happens in the early two-thousands, at the same time that a criminal at large on Anjavavy Island is cutting off people’s heads. The mysterious beheadings are not connected to the events recounted here, except to establish the lawlessness that is always present behind the dazzling Anjavavy panorama of sugar-white beaches and cobalt sea. The crimes begin to surface one hot January morning, as a French hotel manager is taking his predawn constitutional along Rokely Bay and spies through a mist of sand flies something just above the tide line that looks like an unhusked coconut. It turns out to be a human head, one that was last seen on the shoulders of a part-time sweeper at the Frenchman’s hotel.
…But while Shay, an African American scholar transplanted to Italy and, for part of each year, to this small island in northern Madagascar, find her interest drawn to restless expatriate artists of color, Giustinia, whose noble family has ancient roots in Tuscany, most often writes about the inescapable pull of a place to which you belong entirely. Her regal air is quite unconscious, based mainly on the authority with which she can speak about famous authors she knows.
The girl Harena turns out to be the daughter of an Island mother and Leandro an Italian father with noble titles but little else going for him: exiled to the island, he spends his time doing drugs and spreading his seed with little concern for the consequences to anyone else. He long ago went back to Italy, and Harena was given, at age fifteen, to a local German businessman, yet the locals claim she has “nourished herself on the myth of her Italian father.”
Shay and Giuliania wish to do something about this. They aren’t too clear on what exactly they want to do, but it’s something along the lines of finding the father or his family and forcing them to accept responsibility for the girl, who is now about eighteen years old.
Later Shay wonders why she saw no harm in this. It has to do, she thinks, with the general trifling nature of her behavior in Madagascar, where her brown skin and her American expansiveness lend her a false sense of familiarity with the people of color around her: people of the island, whose language she doesn’t speak, and whose values and motives she will never fully understand.
There’s a moment that seems striking to me: Shay tells the Italian owner of the café in which she first sees Harena that she’d like to meet the girl, and the next day Harena comes to Shay’s hotel. This sounds like a summons from someone who feels entitled to issue a summons. Why not ask where she can find Harena and go meet her? That the connection takes place through an Italian businessman further emphasizes Shay’s distance from the Malagasy.
You can already see how Segalen’s ideas play into this. There’s the travel element putting an Italian reprobate (that’s Lee’s word, I love it) and a German cement salesman on an island of tribes originally descended from the Malay Peninsula back in the early common era, blended with various African, Indian, and Arab settlers over time. Shea herself is profiting from the tourism he decries. He must imagine an island of beige people emerging. And he might not be wrong, because Shay and Giuliania discover there’s a second child of Leandro, an older boy. Shay considers these two children to be unusually beautiful because of their blended heritage; Segalen would see travesty. But maybe Segalen needs to consider: what is exotic from one vantage point might be considered disruptive from another.
The beheadings turn out to be the project of insanity, aimed at attacking native islanders who work for those invading the island, as he sees it. It seems an unnecessary element to me, though I think the air of creepiness gives the story a slightly different tone. It does fit into Segalen’s essay though there’s no reason to suppose he would approve of such methods.
One thing she has learned in her few years of sojourning in Madagascar, with its convoluted history and its pulse of dark magic concealed just under the skin of events, is that in this country, whatever happens close to you – under your roof, say – becomes part of you, though you may not realize it at the time.
This story reminded me in tone and structure of Nicole Krauss’ “Seeing Ershadi” in that the events set up a future that seems to be the core of the story. Years later, Shay and her husband have two children, who she often thinks of as shadow children. And more and more beige children appear on Madagascar as tourism and trade promotes cross-pollination.
I’m left uncertain, as I have been with so many of the recent stories. “What more could we have done” is Shay’s mantra after she realizes she can’t get the happy ending she envisioned, Leandro is dead and the family is disintegrated socially and economically. Giuliania seems to take this in stride, but it’s Shay who carries a lot of guilt. She tried to do something, and it wasn’t possible. Would it have been better not to try? Shay is maybe thinking of financial help, or some kind of practical boost to their lives. I’m not sure Shay understands that what the kids need is to know their father cared about them – and that’s not something Shay can provide. It’s her distance, the “values and motives she will never understand,” that get in the way of understanding that.
Maybe because she’s an African American she’s more sensitive to the way people of color are treated by white European stock. But she herself has hovered in the Great White Savior mode – though it would be Black Savior in her case – when she sees the boy who is Leandro’s second child on the island:
She stammers in confusion, suddenly gripped by a cinematic vision of snatching this beautiful youth out of his present life, as if she were conducting a helicopter rescue at sea. In an instant she pictures schools, clothes, university, some grand career, where that flawless face would gleam in the high marble halls of European tradition. Later she will tell herself but this is a maternal impulse, but it is as selfish and intoxicating as sex.
Has a mutated form of White Guilt – call it Rich Guilt – become part of Shay’s subconscious?
I was left conflicted about a lot while reading this story and Segalen’s essay. Diversity has become a rallying cry, even as we ensure the kind of cross-pollination that reduces diversity. But what’s the remedy, to go back to restricting cross-racial marriages? There’s a difference between exploiting an area, and the people who inhabit it, for economic gain with little regard for the consequences and no concern at all for the people left behind when leaving, and the occasional match made between cultures. Or am I just defending what I want to believe? Because Segalen seems to be arguing against cross-racial marriages, and that feels like a step backwards.
I thought of Kant a lot while working on this story. First, his idea that a moral action must have a moral motivation; if you’re acting out of idleness or a savior complex, you don’t get brownie points. And second, his categorical imperative, that people be treated as an end in themselves, not as a means; that we regard everyone as having intrinsic, not instrumental, value. Leandro fails, but maybe the rest of the foreigners who’ve descended on the island fail as well.
This appears to be an excerpt from Lee’s forthcoming book, Red Island House. In her TNY interview, Lee calls it “one story from my upcoming collection, Red Island House, which recounts Shay Senna’s adventures in Madagascar over two tumultuous decades in her life,” but the Simon & Schuster website calls it a novel. I’ve read that the publisher often makes a decision about how to market a book, and it’s possible the change was made in the final edit.*
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Other takes on this story:
Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “Ultimately, we all are living in the wreckage of colonialism. Those who caused the initial harm are now, like the Italian family of the father, only a shadow of their former selves, so they cannot fix their own mistakes alone. Which means that righting injustices means taking an active interest in something you yourself didn’t actually cause. It means having a different meaning of ‘doing what you can,’ one that is extremely demanding on the person doing the introspection.”
mkevane at The Mookse and the Gripes: “As a metaphor for colonialism this was perfect. The ‘children’ are the colonies: used, abused, left stranded, ever hopeful cadgers. The two women, the ‘old hand’ and the ‘naive newcomer’ are Europe today.”
Paul Debrasky at I Just Read About That: “This story reads like a fairy tale. It has a slow inevitability in the pacing and real lack of urgency.”