New Internationalist

Sharp focus on Lindsey Collen

Issue 346

The Mauritius-based novelist talks to Vanessa Baird about the politics behind her latest fiction.

In 1999, immediately after completing the first draft of her novel, Mutiny, reality took over the plot from Lindsey Collen. The Mauritian prison in which she had set her story was stormed like the Bastille. Protesters, provoked by the death in custody of a much-loved pop musician, seized a forklift truck from a nearby import company and rammed it into the portal of the state-of-the-art US-designed prison, lifting it off its hinges to let all the prisoners out. What happened then had a quality almost as bizarre as Collen’s fiction itself.

As she relates: ‘The prisoners would not leave until the guards had signed them out. Then the guards themselves wanted to leave — but they were afraid to go out in their uniforms. So they put on the prisoners’ uniforms and then left!’

Born in South Africa, Lindsey Collen has lived in Mauritius since 1974, time enough to get to grips with a lively political culture that suited her own inclinations. She had herself been arrested on numerous occasions for her political activities — including anti-apartheid work. In the strangely hypnotic Mutiny she draws on both this personal experience and the current political climate in Mauritius.

The Indian Ocean island is held up by the World Bank and the IMF as a model of the success of its policies. The people beg to differ. IMF conditions, including privatization of public services, have been vigorously resisted. The Government has retaliated with draconian legal measures that abuse human rights — and these in turn have drawn more protest.

The mutinous climate, created both by young people engaged in spontaneous direct action and an organized Left that still has over 300 trade unions and 500 women’s organizations, is reflected in Mutiny through the interchanging monologues of its three main characters. They are three women, of different ages and backgrounds, who are holed up together in a prison cell made for two. Outside a cyclone is building up, cranking up tension and casting an eerie light over the cell and its inhabitants. In a novel that could just as well be a play, the women squabble, feel their way around each other, tell each other recipes for the food they are denied; and gradually confess their different stories.

One character is Juna, based on a trade-union activist friend of Collen’s who was arrested on trumped-up charges. ‘I was so angry, it came out in the book,’ says the author. Juna is in prison for ‘allegation’. This Kafkaesque touch is drawn from reality — the Mauritian authorities do now detain people for long periods of time on suspicion or ‘allegation’ alone. (Collen comments: ‘It’s quite common to hear a woman asking another in the street: ?What is your son in for?? ?Allegation,? replies the other, as though that were in itself the name of a crime.’)

The second character is Leila. Young, restless, she is accused of causing ‘effusion of blood’ from a police officer — throughout the novel such arcane language of criminal law is richly mixed with local Creole inflections. Leila reflects the rebellious, disenfranchised feelings of many young Mauritians today.

The third woman, Mama Gracienne, is a poor Creole woman from the Chagos islands. These are the islands from which inhabitants were ejected prior to Independence in 1968 so that the British could rent them off to the US for use as an air base. Gracienne’s is the most moving story, unfolding slowly but leading to a powerful emotional crescendo. While on a trip to the mainland she finds she cannot ever go home again because ‘the island is closed’. From then on things go from bad to worse, ending in the tragedy that has led her into prison accused of murdering her own daughter.

The trio’s experiences, emotions and lives weave together to make one yarn of mutiny and, ultimately, a touching solidarity. But the narrative remains strange and poetic enough for it never to appear formulaic or didactic. One feels that Collen has drawn as deeply from her dreams and unconscious as from her more conscious, political awareness.

Mutiny by Lindsey Collen (Bloomsbury ISBN 0 7475 5265 7).

Other works include: The Rape of Sita, There is a Tide and Getting Rid of It.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Sharp focus on Lindsey Collen

Leave your comment