Shenaz Patel is from Mauritius, an island country off the coast of the African mainland. Many Americans probably couldn’t place the country on a map; some might not even know its name.
“People often ask me, ‘Where is Mauritius?’ and I feel like I should be walking with a map in my pocket to point out to them,” Patel laughs.
The island played a role in the War for Independence as a harbor for French ships to dock at before coming to America, and it plays an essential role in U.S. foreign policy now.
“The United States have established one of the main military bases in the world, which is called the base Diego Garcia. For example, all of the bombings going on, on Iraq and Afghanistan these last years, have been coming from Diego Garcia.”
Patel is here with more than 30 other writers from around the world for a ten-week residency at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Patel’s novel, Le silence des Chagos, tells the story of the population that was evicted from the island to make room for the military base, and the struggle of Mauritius to gain sovereignty over the islands and the Chagossians still fighting to return to their home.
“I wanted to understand how these people lived through that. I can just ask people to stop for just one minute with us right now and think about: What if they traveled to another country and then when they want to come back to Iowa, they’re told, ‘There’s no plane, you’re not coming back, your country is closed.’ That’s what happened with the Chagossians.”
While Patel is also a journalist, she decided to explore the story through fiction.
“Literature is life to me. It’s only life bigger, more intense.”
Her next goal is to have that literature educate people in other countries.
“I would really like to have that novel, Le silence des Chagos, translated in English, because I think it’s important that people from Great Britain and America get to learn about that story, the story of these people.”
In this hour of River to River, Ben Kieffer talks with Patel about her work.
Also in this program:
- Christopher Merrill, Director of the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa
- Shenaz Patel, novelist from Mauritius
- Hensli Rahn Solorzano, musician and fiction writer from Venezuela, currently living in Germany
- Tetyana Troitskaya, poet and novelist from Ukraine
- Khaled Alkhamissi, fiction and non-fiction writer from Egypt