Andrea Lee on Cross-Cultural Encounters
Your story in this week’s issue, “The Children,” is a narrative about identity, in which, one could say, three continents intersect: North America, where Shay, the narrator, comes from; Europe, where she lives; and Africa, where she spends part of the year. How did that encounter of diverse cultures inform the story? Is it a theme that you’re often drawn to?
For me, it’s a perennial subject. I’m obsessed by the concept of exoticism, foreignness, and by the theme of encounters between strangers. Whether I’m writing about being an American in Soviet Russia, or recording the different social and racial dimensions of a middle-class African-American childhood, or chronicling the life of an expatriate in Italy, I’ve always explored the confrontation of different worlds. Some years ago, I heard a fragmentary story about an exiled French aristocrat, who, centuries ago, fathered numerous children with tribal women all around the Indian Ocean, and I was immediately captivated. The tale 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 is set in Madagascar, an African island nation that most Americans don’t know much about. What has been your own experience with the country?
Like Shay, I have a vacation house in Madagascar, which I first visited years ago with my husband, who is an avid diver familiar with the Indian Ocean. I live in Italy, and, for Europeans, Madagascar, a former French colony, has become, like Mauritius, a popular vacation spot, perhaps comparable, for Americans, to the Caribbean islands or Hawaii. From that first visit, I fell in love with the huge island and its satellites, with the incomparable natural beauty of the country, and its intricate mix of cultures—there are nineteen different Malagasy peoples. As an African-American, I have always had an uneasy feeling about having a superficial “summer person” relationship to a place that is not just pristine beaches and spectacular wildlife but also an African nation with a troubled colonial past, a history of piracy, an involvement in the slave trade, and a present-day reality, in which ambition and creativity contend with dire poverty. The atmosphere connects me emotionally with what I know of my own West African heritage, yet I must keep in mind the fact that each African country is unique, and that the color of my skin doesn’t offer a simple key to understanding people who may look like me. I’ve made deep friendships in Madagascar, but I never delude myself that I am more than a visitor. As such, I try to be respectful, and above all to keep learning about the place where I’m fortunate enough to spend time.
You begin “The Children” by announcing it as “The adventure of the lost heirs,” which sounds like the title of a swashbuckling Boys’ Own tale, and you end it with a lullaby-like chant. There are allusions to poetry and prose throughout the story. Why did you choose to give literature such a prominent role in the narrative?
I didn’t do it consciously, but it establishes the atmosphere. One of the first things we learn about Shay and Giustinia is that they are writers and became friends over Victor Segalen’s eccentric essay on exoticism. That strange little work—one of my favorites—records the author’s 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 rarefied intellectual world, Shay and Giustinia meddle in real affairs with callousness and end by causing pain.
Shay seems to have made a journey of awareness, at least.
Yes, I think she does. She starts out by recounting Harena’s story to Giustinia as “an exasperated hostess”—that is, she tells the story for the most superficial reason. At the end of the story, she feels a confused shame at her own actions. She has become aware that “whatever happens close to you becomes part of you.”
In the end, what do you think Leandro’s children really want or need?
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They do not need to be “rescued” from their present lives, as Shay fantasizes about doing for Didier, and as Harena seems to fantasize for herself. But they are in need of acknowledgment: recognition from their father and his half of their family. And some money would be helpful.
Why did you begin and end the story with a serial killer?
The serial killer’s crimes are intended as a misguided form of revenge on the foreigners who have taken advantage of the country, and they parallel the tale of Leandro, who took casual advantage of young Malagasy women. In the end, it seems that it’s the innocent and powerless people who suffer.
Is “The Children” part of a book?
Yes. It is one story from my upcoming collection, “Red Island House,” which recounts Shay Senna’s adventures in Madagascar over two tumultuous decades in her life. It will be published by Scribners in January, 2021.