Estelle Coppolani, translated by Vasantha Sambamurti
The Missing Island
I’ve often observed, when leaning over a world map, the absence of my island. My eye enacted the volatile path of exit from the bay of Marseille, descending the huge continent to the Mascarene Islands. There, while Mauritius appeared prominent, as if stretched towards the Indian subcontinent I’d heard so much about, I did not find La Réunion. The anonymous maps (I thought) perpetuated a blue imprint, with no particular trace or indication of my birthplace. My family was absent from the map, drowned somewhere in the ocean, just like the language we shared, which schoolbooks spoke of only with disdain.
This experience recurred a great number of times in different countries, cities. Later, when abroad, I’d be asked at school or at the youth hostel to point to the piece of land on which I was born, the piece which did not appear. I would point to an imaginary place in Southeast Africa.
It was not merely my imagination which made me link this absence to the archives’ inclination of revealing only what they saw worthy of merit. Even if the Grand Island of Madagascar could not be diminished on the planisphere, a certain Malagasy presence had indeed been diminished by the invisibility of La Réunion. I often called to mind the hidden Bourbon where marronnage took the form of kingdoms, memories of which were scattered across the mountains: the cirque of Tsilaosa, Anchaing Peak, the Tapcal forest. The punishment of disappearance was thus amplified tenfold; neither the Malagasy, nor any of the African, Asian, and European ridges forming the Reunionese people appeared on this particular world map. When the waters absorbed the missing island, parts of the continent’s history were also erased.
It is true, however, that this absence also marked, with increasing evidence, the possibility of becoming a phantom in the shape of the ancestors. If I was not mapped, if the world records did not acknowledge my birth or the course of my genealogy, then I could take up any residence in pure anonymity. As a non-affiliate, it was possible for me to claim a sort of absolute territorial virginity, or, conversely, to inhabit any land, without yearning for the hinterland. In truth, my relationship with territories was a mystery. The earthly realm offered itself to me with a rare dual quality of visibility and invisibility. No one knew my ravines, nor the names of my peaks. The crossroads I approached did not murmur their names easily. The eroded landscapes had turned their forced silence into a conservatory of secrets. This peak or that forest delivered a part of its mystery with a Malagasy consonance. Memories were closed like protective gates. If I saw, sometimes, a piece of memory detaching itself from the trunk of a jackfruit tree or from the roots of a banyan, it’s because I was, myself, a ubiquitous spirit, a nomadic soul. Promised, perhaps to wander, I said to myself, while contemplating this ocean said to be of the Indies.