“Seven women in a room. Prisoners of society, imprisoned by the male gaze — the gaze of the Other — prisoners of custom, prisoners of costume, of mores, of tradition.” These are the first translated lines of Quraishiyah Durbarry’s novel, Féminin pluriel. It offers a rich world constructed by one Mauritian woman’s rotating perspective, both humorous and pensive, on her seven close friends, each navigating the heterosexual male gaze, their personal relationships, and familial and marital expectations that often force them to compromise their own dreams. This text is concerned with reclaiming their voices and placing them in conversation with French grammar to showcase the text’s central ethos: feminine plurality, a dually grammatical and figurative definition of a mythic “feminine” that is often weaponized to the detriment of women’s sexuality and independence.
The section “MOI” or “ME” was a particularly special one for me to translate. Here, our narrator finally turns her critical gaze on herself, mulling her place in the social and relational milieu of her friendships’ fraught femininity. She less readily identifies herself as part of the group than on its outskirts; an outsider looking in, a “spectator” unable to fully integrate with the lives of others who, at once, seem all too real, and all too distant, just like actors on a screen. While translating, my main aim was to capture the duality, and persistence of that anguish — a consciousness that’s haunted her lifelong. “Where was I in all this?” The narrator asks, perhaps to her own detriment. The answer will never be enough; her dissatisfaction ensures that the question is continually reiterated. She often summons metaphor to make sense of her feeling of otherness, a move that demonstrates her desire to bridge the aspirations of her imagination and manifest them in reality: “I’m in the midst of a stormy sea and I have to swim to land. I don’t know how to swim, not yet.”
The metaphor of swimming, becomes potent in the context of the character’s conceptualization of her friends as simple fish in an aquarium. But, as she points out, “I’m also in this aquarium.” Like them, one source of her pain is love, the loss of which resulted in the loss of herself: “I had erased myself for someone else.” As the narrator often stresses, without a man in her life, a woman is viewed as incomplete. The narrator’s act of articulating herself fulfills her practice of resisting this social narrative. While aware of the risk of speaking her truth, she refuses the silence imposed upon her. As she says: “I wanted to make my life an act of rebellion, like the kind I’d read about for so long.”
Many thanks to Sheela Jhowry for her thoughtful read of this draft, and Estelle Coppolani for theirs, during which they detected that the author’s original quoting of “Ne me quitte pas” was a reference to a song of the same name by Jacques Brel (the translation has been altered accordingly to reflect this). For this insight and many, many others, I’m grateful.
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