Nancy Naomi Carlson and Catherine Maigret Kellogg translating Suzanne Dracius

A Translated Novel Excerpt from The Dancing Other


The rats are hiding out, now that it’s broad daylight. Too many humans have overrun their realm, but rodents and bugs are still masters of the house, as evidenced by a thousand signs, a thousand little teeth marks, suspect damage, carcasses crawling with ants, and dozens of holes strategically placed in the squalid, stale-smelling building.

Remorville’s foundations shelter rats, excrement, and vermin-infested filth. Rehvana suppresses a shiver, for she’s barely escaped falling into it: just in time, she was able to pull her foot from a gaping hole in the broken floorboards. The children swear they saw Madame Augustin-Lucile fall in last year and sink down to her waist.

A telegram arrived from the Board of Education, where she’d applied for a position, without much hope—following Matildana’s advice and under heavy pressure from Ma Cidalise, her neighbor.

“Since neither heaven nor hell care ‘bout you, do like your sister says; you’re smart enough to do it, my girl.”

She quickly became attached to her howling, over-active little pack—calmed down in a flash and ready to work—bent over notebooks, chewing on their lips, under the agreeable thumb of the sweet and strange schoolteacher. Despite being in middle school, they still have a tendency to call her “mistress,” and even informally address her, but with affectionate respect. Their youthful humor helps Rehvana find a new purpose in life, and she adores them all: the little dear—birdbrain and brilliant at the same time—who can’t stop jabbering away, delighting the class with her irresistible lisp, and the overweight, mollusk-like kid, eager to please—swimming champion and a fan of Le Cid, for whom French remains a glorious foreign language—who fights with giant fists for the right to wipe the blackboard clean, employing his imposing weight to scare away any contenders among the picturesque horde of students swarming her desk each morning who might challenge him for bucket or sponge. She loves big booty Rachel—sassy and busty—who looks like she’s already reared an entire family with an iron fist, and also the one she’s nicknamed “Gendarmette,” all rosy and red-haired—a short and shy White, daughter of a sergeant major in the gerdanmerie—at first lost, but by October, had found true friendship with a cheery sacatra girl with soft, caramel skin.

The students are charmed by their offbeat schoolteacher with fiery eyes, in boubou and African sandals, so different from the old, hoary schoolmasters with long metal rulers, who whack the back of your hand. She’s so unlike the pretentious pachyderms, maternal and uninformed, who treat them like “little Negroes,” and who despise, insult, and crush them, comfortably spreading the arrogant jelly of their rumpled flesh behind the desk to better belch the fish stock from lunch—incensed at having to leave the affluent breeze from the hills of Clairière or Didier to come down and “teach school” in the scorching heat of this poor suburb, royally butchering English like a Spanish cow—or Spanish like a Holstein from Holland.

From essays and secrets revealed after class, she was privy to bits and pieces of information—shared in a half-trusting, half-reticent way—of all these budding microcosms: adolescent loves and childhoods filled with neglect, unknown fathers, drunken mothers, fly-by-night biological fathers, abusive stepdads, tyrannical older brothers, Christmases without gifts, older sisters leaving the nest to earn suspect wages, pregnancies at age thirteen, pigs to feed and young goats to lead to the field before leaving for school, adoptive and noble grandmothers who only speak Creole, simple joys, pristine ideals and murdered innocence.

Rehvana was hired as an assistant teacher without having received either guidelines or educational training. She makes do, more or less, armed with ancient annals of the National Diploma and some kind of curriculum unearthed from the cubbyhole that passes for a library—the pompously named “Information and Documentation Center,” fiercely defended against adversity by a courageous female warrior, the chabine librarian, the only person in the building who appears to be endowed with the gift of speech, since she’s the only one who speaks to Rehvana—but she adapts the curriculum to her taste, and tries, in vain, to convince one of her classes of the allure of Masters of the Dew, that classic of Caribbean literature, when almost all of them, with the exception of a light-skinned mulatto girl and the fair-haired Gendarmette, are dying to dive into Molière’s The Miser, which she promised they’d read later in the school year.

She thinks of Matildana, smart and fulfilled, living in plush and timeless ease at her dear Sorbonne, sheltered by the sacrosanct and austere companionship of the Puvis de Chavannes murals that adorn its august galleries, redolent of wood and wax. But nothing frightens her, nothing unnerves her—neither the mosquitos’ attack, nor the venomous yen-yen, nor the acrid smell of rancid piss, nor the roaches, nor the rats that multiply under the piling, nor the condoms, still sticky with sperm, which she discovers each morning, at the foot of the blackboard, in this God-forsaken school, where all sorts of shifty individuals trespass at night to engage in shameful fights right in the middle of classrooms, and steal or destroy school property. Nothing discourages her, not even the hellish heat, nor the heavy rains, suddenly beating on the old sheet metal roof, overpowering her reedy and shaky rookie schoolmistress voice with a thunderous roar.

She’d give anything to know she’s truly making a difference in the lives of this flock of kids so eager to learn. She admires the patience of these students—so young—who’ve already had to endure injustice and misfortune, and are resolved to listen to lectures and get an education in this rowdy, run down, ill-equipped place.

Such a curious fate—an unfair fate!—for these children who grow up speaking only Creole, and are reduced to supposedly learning French in unbearable bedlam where words and culture get swept away at the whim of trade winds.

Arriving well after the start of the school year, she rarely interacts with her colleagues—most of them unfriendly, somewhat distant, somewhat cold, or perhaps simply shy and reserved. She listens to two or three vague ideas exchanged around her, and brushes past a few pleasant-looking young women so absorbed in their own lives they’re impervious to anything else; a venerable, straight-laced fellow who knew her family well, and each morning furnishes her with a deliciously stiff nod, worthy of Versailles; a toad-like old man with a hideous but kindly face and a benevolently bent back—probably an old math professor: she doesn’t really know and doesn’t speak to them. Timidity, apathy or complete vacuity? Rehvana can’t really say…No one has made the slightest move toward her; no one has ventured to speak with her, so why should she? They’re the kind of folks who’ve known each other for ages and who take eons to acknowledge you, and connect with only a chosen few in a type of false, verbal intimacy, hypocritically interwoven with a “How are you, my dear?” without waiting for a response, and a “See you later!” without a future.

She has no idea which worked-up roosters, which demented dogs—which anarchic dog choirs—welcome each dawn, as if howling at death, with endless ululations filled with despair, and with painful protests laced with madness and hope that tear each other’s cries apart, like great veils, and which slash through the still-dark house as if it were the first morning of the world.

Alone, huddled in the gloomy cave, devoid of even the human touch of fire, Rehvana hurriedly gets up and lights the oil lamp. Shivering and horrified by the clamors of dawn, she quickly gets ready, swaddles the sleeping baby in a blanket, and races across the garden, with its terrors and vain hopes of the world’s creation.

She wakes up with the sun, often way before, and goes to whisper “psst, psst, psst” at Ma Cidalise’s door, who has already jumped out of bed and is at the stove, busy preparing Aganila’s first toloman. The enormous matron has given birth to a good fifteen children, most of whom have died, or left for the “Other Side”—to Lyon and the Paris suburbs—and despite her age, she’s so happy and proud to take care of Rehvana’s child. When Rehvana told her she was looking for a nanny for her daughter, she stood up, hands on hips—grandiloquently and incensed—and declared, “Enough with this nonsense! Jus’ as you see me standin’ right here, my dear, I’m still good enough to babysit a li’l tot without droppin’ her on the floor, God help me! Who knows, I may still even have some milk left inside my tits! You’re goin’ to only make a mis’rably li’l salary; don’t even think that for one minute I’m gonna let you pay for some nanny who’s goin’ to make this child sick, oh no!”

Days pass. At pipiri, with thousands of roosters crowing, Rehvana walks up to the crossroad of Chère-Épice to wait for the unreliable, shared taxi ride which won’t drop her off in town before six o’clock if the driver, an affable Coolie, overflowing with life, didn’t pull himself fast enough from the warm bed of his paramour-of-the-day. He juggles several mistresses in tempestuous rotation—sometimes four, sometimes six—and depending on the day of the week and each woman’s temperament, Rehvana can estimate his delay. She can tell when the golden-skinned chabine’s morning fever makes way for the sleepier torpor of Thursday’s mulatto, and when the bushy, pubic pompom of the chappée kouli has vanquished the strong temptation of the statuesque and musky Negress who alternates between Mondays and Wednesdays, though Rehvana doesn’t know why, but surmises it’s because she’s married—to a baker, she tells herself.

But the Coolie with six sweeties doesn’t play fair. He takes great pleasure in misleading Rehvana, throwing off her calculations by maliciously turning his amorous calendar upside down, and some days he’s already waiting for her, like a true gentleman, at the top of the hill—his triumphant stature outlined against the sky, brazenly sucking on a stick of sugar cane—while she’s strolling up the slope, betting he’s still indulging in his warrior chabine’s spicy, golden delights.

He’s figured out she was obediently taking her post around five o’clock, give or take, depending on his lovers’ dispositions and the day. He pokes fun at her dependency, and ingenuously enjoys proving her predictions wrong, just to be able to blurt out, when he sees her coming, “So, Mam’selle Rehvana, I’ve taken root in this spot!” as if to make clear that she, too, could be part of his weekly schedule, if she so desired, that nothing in the world would make him want to be a slave to all these other women, and that she had the power to disrupt the whimsical order of his scattered and generous virility. Prodigious and bursting with exultant sexuality, he keeps leering at her, and takes advantage of these opportunities—those still nacreous dawns when he’s decided to show up early—to drive very slowly on the road to Vert-Pré, to prolong the pleasure of having her there, in his car, if not in his arms, and, when he must reach the town (for he cannot make the trip last forever), the sacrifice of his early morning friskiness offers him an even bigger reward—keeping company with Rehvana, alone with her in the pearly dawn and amid the retreating cool dew of the night, as she’s forced to wait for the second bombe that will take her to Fort-de-France, while he’s in no rush to go back down to Trinité.

At around five o’clock in the morning, they’re all alone in the gleaming car, washed and scrubbed daily, pampered like a pin-up girl, dolled up in stickers and accessories from “Vanity Auto.”

And Anastase makes her head spin with his amorous tales, which she pieces together day after day, from snippets and scraps, in the still-damp, pre-dawn light—in the immaculate car, freshly hosed down, barely dry in the rising sunlight—as he floods Rehvana with an exuberant flow of stories and true or false feats, perhaps with the secret hope to seduce the Elusive One through the narrative of his exploits—an account he censors himself as befits the decency required for a lady from France who teaches school in the city and speaks a pure French like they do in France, with rolling “r’s” and no accent, to whom Anastase has fiercely devoted all the crude and boorish respect he can muster.

Rehvana wonders which of these women is the legitimate wife, but soon learns that marriage is out of the question, that leading a woman to the altar is tantamount to becoming a slave, that men should be available and free and intend to remain so. Still, she would have loved to know who among these women was her sister in solitude, neglect, and pain. She quickly figured out it was likely the whole lot of them, except, perhaps, the buxom Black woman from La Plaisable, who, to Anastase’s great dismay, appeared to be leading a double love life with her calling the shots—as despotic as if she were a man. Anastase badly hid his distaste at being summoned, as well as his fury at having to cancel evening plans already booked. Rehvana also understood, cruelly and confusedly, how Anastase’s comments and theories about women and marriage were so like Enryck’s, as if they’d both been cut from the same cloth.

However, Rehvana can’t seem to elude the magic of the fiery, lingering gaze—the smoldering eyes—of the chappé-kouli, blazing with all the brilliance in the world.

Each morning, fresh out of bed, the handsome Indian with African blood appears before her, with his body’s uniform blackness and the guileless obscenity of his simple gestures: the offhand, vulgar way he yanks up his pants—which are not even sliding down—rotating his belt with a pelvic thrust, legs innocently bent in the provocative impudence of his wide, bulging shoulders.

Enryck has become almost invisible, nothing more than the man-who-walks-through-walls, sometimes coming home after she—weary and completely drained once papers are graded, and the baby bathed and put to bed—has fallen asleep. When she leaves in the morning, he’s still sleeping off god-only-knows what hangover, reeking of tafia and feminine scents.

From the Black Indian wafts such a violent and devilish sexual charge that Rehvana kicks herself for being a one-man woman.

Every Friday, the motorized suitor—his presumptuous appetites frustrated—must tend to his sinful and unseemly heartache; he’d immediately be the laughing stock of every last person in Martinique if his secret were revealed. Driving at breakneck speed and mocked by Venus, the thwarted Don Juan barrels up the winding road to town, insults passengers and pedestrians, grudgingly stops when hailed, and sadistically jolts his unlucky customers whenever the road curves, because Rehvana has the day off from work.

One Monday, during her lunch break, Rehvana attempted to walk up avenue Sainte-Thérèse, but had to stop because of the heat. Standing in front of “The Mariners’ Marguerites,” blinded by the sun, she was having a hard time deciphering the cursive words, written in chalk, on a gargantuan slate board:

 BAR — RESTAURANT — DAILY SPECIAL — NO STOP SERVICE [sic] — MARINATED FISH WITH LOCAL VEGETABLES — OCTOPUS WITH RED BEANS — SMOKED CHICKEN — BLANCMANGE — HOMEMADE JUICES — TO TRY [sic] OUR TESTICLE KEBABS — PATÉ AND CHELLOU BY SPECIAL ORDER — TREMPAGE TUESDAY’S [sic]. In need of something to drink, she spoke to the toothless manager, whose age she couldn’t guess, who fixed his inordinately inquisitive eyes on her. Caught off guard at seeing her walk through his door, and likely never to recover, all he could do was stand there, dumbstruck.

Feeling guilty for not having understood his inaudible response, Rehvana turns her head a bit and notices the bottles of La Mauny—unequally full—given the place of honor at each table, next to thick glass bowls filled with coarse brown sugar clumped together in crystals by the humid air, as well as the perennial droplets of rum from prior customers’ spoons. She self-consciously contemplates the tables for a good long while, then in a whisper, quickly orders a white rum punch. In a daze from the heat, she’s standing with one hand gripping the sticky display case for balance, where a few gnats, gorged with marmalade and fattened with lard, listlessly buzz behind the cracked glass. Her other hand wipes her forehead with an awkward, robotic stiffness after her long and reckless walk in the glaring sun. She senses the insistent, almost tangible, glances of the seated men, glued to her slightest move—even when she’s completely still—and pictures them plastered all over her skin, like a rigid film, prickly and paralyzing—an intolerable poultice mixing with her sweat, which the blades of the fan cool and dry in an unpleasant way.

She’s got no business being in this worthless place of leering hostility, with this onslaught of hateful desire. She doesn’t belong here, with her manners from France. She’s out of place with her woman’s body and face, and her too-light skin tone—oh involuntary and nevertheless unforgivable provocation!—under the collective rancor of all these mute and hardened faces, reflecting only dislike and aggressive macho drives, but where, at the risk of being taken for some prostitute from the port, Rehvana lingers too long, looking in vain for something else.

However, after a while, even their curiosity subsides, and they slowly drown their sexual drives, like the sparks in their eyes—perhaps, deep down, more defensive than hostile—in the clear alcohol of their drinks, and Rehvana casually picks up her glass. There’s no syrup, and she’ll not dare to ask for some; the rum, barely diluted by the coarse sugar crystals that refuse to dissolve, burns her throat and her chest, but who cares? It’s alive and kicking! And with the most impenetrable indifference, Rehvana sips, then swallows the rum in one gulp, asks for the price in a low voice, hastily pays and bolts toward the door to take refuge in the implacable light of day. She pauses a moment on the sunlit threshold, and, overwhelmed with regret, flees the incomprehensible darkness of this closed circle, where she sought communion and something fraternal, but only found rejection.

Behind her back, conversations have resumed.

And booming behind her, the forbidden chant grows: the words they didn’t want to speak, and this Creole language, oh God, this Creole! they’d shushed when she walked in, that cracks like the lash of a whip, and pushes her into the merciless sun—toward the desert of the street from which everyone had fled for the siesta.

She remains a second at the doorway, while the withheld words scourge her back.

The words withheld from her.

They’ve kicked her out, under the cruel midday sun. She’s got nowhere to go; everyone has withdrawn into the coolness of homes, into the shade offered by roofs, but her own home—her so-called home—is many kilometers away, and the school is closed until two o’clock. Where else should she go in these circumstances, if not under the sun beating down on her head?

She’d forgotten to buy a tchébé-coeur, though she’d promised herself she would, and she aimlessly drifts in somewhat of a daze until school reopens, an outsider in Remorville’s sleepy little streets, with their rows of small houses inhabited by unknown families, from which rises—muffled by the heat—a faint clinking of dishes or a few stifled voices.

Translator's Note

The Dancing Other examines what it means to be born in the Antilles and living in mainland France, and whether true authenticity lies in Africa, in the Antilles, in France, or somewhere in-between. Dracius challenges the pan-African ideal of a return to the origins (Africa), and champions the concept of “métissage” (refers to the blending of two distinct elements, in either a biological or cultural sense) and Creolization, with its de-emphasis on afro-centrism and androcentricity, which was central to the Negritude movement. In a failed quest for authenticity, Rehvana, the novel’s female protagonist, mistakenly embraces cultural traditions that are oppressive to women, leading to her eventual alienation and self-destruction.

Dracius writes in French, but her work is peppered with Creole, Latin, and French slang, and she often revels in word play. To respect the richness and flavor of the original text, and to follow the format used in the French edition, we made a deliberate effort to keep Creole words and expressions intact throughout the text, as follows: “chabin(e)” (biracial person with golden skin and hair), “yen-yen” (mosquito), “toloman” (type of mash made with vegetable powder), “pipiri” (morning bird whose song imitates the onomatopoeic name it was given), “chappé-kouli” (mulatto who is part-Indian, part-Black), “tafia” (cheap rum), “chellou” (Antillean stew made with beef organ meats), “trempage” (traditional dish from Martinique originating from the time of slavery, consisting of stale bread previously soaked in water, then laid out on large banana leaves), and “tchébé-coeur” (snack).

The difficulty in translating the text was magnified by the juxtaposition of multiple narrative voices in the story: the narrator’s erudite prose, Rehvana’s girlish or hallucinatory monologues, and the rambling Creole speech of Ma Cidalise, her elderly, uneducated neighbor. In addition, Dracius’s long, meandering sentences, juxtaposing past, present, and future tenses, were particularly challenging to render into contemporary-sounding English. Perhaps the greatest challenge was to transpose the lyricism of this vivid, eloquent text into English. Using a “sound-mapping” technique, we identified and mapped sound patterns (assonance, alliteration, rhythm) to maintain the music of the original text while staying as close as possible to the author’s meaning. For example, notice the preponderance of the sound “p” (underlying Rehvana’s emotional and physical discomfort in the bar) in the French text: “ elle devine plaqués sur toute la surface de son corps, telle une pellicule rigide, picotante, paralysante, un cataplasme insupportable s’amalgamant à sa sueur…” We were able to honor this music in our translation, as follows: “She senses the insistent, almost tangible, glances of the seated men…even when she’s completely still—and pictures them plastered all over her skin, like a rigid film, prickly and paralyzing—an intolerable poultice mixing with her sweat…”

The following pages are part of the 10th chapter of L’autre qui danse (The Dancing Other). The novel excerpt appearing in this issue comes from Suzanne Dracius’s The Dancing Other, forthcoming in Fall 2017 from Seagull Books.

Nancy Naomi Carlson

Nancy Naomi Carlson has authored six titles (translated and non-translated), including The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper, translations of poems by Abdourahman Waberi, a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. A recipient of an NEA literature translation fellowship, as well as grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County, her translations have appeared in such journals as AGNI, APR, Crazyhorse, FIELD, Kenyon Review Online, and Prairie Schooner.

Catherine Maigret Kellogg

Catherine Maigret Kellogg was born and raised in France and moved to the U.S. almost twenty years ago. She keeps a day job in digital marketing, but literary translation is her passion. Her co-translations with Nancy Naomi Carlson have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review and The Massachusetts Review. She lives in New York City with her husband.

Suzanne Dracius

Suzanne Dracius is an award-winning writer from Martinique whom the French Minister of Culture has called “one of the great figures of Antillean letters.” Her first collection of poetry, Exquise déréliction métisse (Calazaza’s Delicious Dereliction), translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson, was published by Tupelo Press in 2015. Dracius’s poems, short stories, novels, and plays, featuring strong female protagonists, emphasize Martinique’s complex cultural history, filled with slavery, sugar cane, “métissage” (refers to the blending of two distinct elements, in either a biological or cultural sense), and erupting volcanoes. Her sophisticated language is filled with imaginative word play, Latin, slang, and Creole.