Friendly Dockings: On Khal Torabully’s “Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude”

October 16, 2021   •   By Andrea Jurjević

Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude

Khal Torabully

AN ACCLAIMED MAURITIAN POET, Khal Torabully has been widely lauded for his collection Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude. “Coolitude” is a term he coined to reclaim the dated pejorative “coolie,” which was used to refer to unskilled indentured workers in Mauritius. Cargo Hold of Stars dives into “coolie” reality, their journey and identity, while emphasizing their shared experience.

Torabully’s book is an inspired tribute to a people taken from their homes in India, China, and other Asian communities and forced into labor. The poems stand out for their lyrical richness and spiritual depth: the experience of exile is interwoven with a desire for reconciliation. The poems are written in a French infused with Mauritian Creole, Old Scandinavian, Old French, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Urdu, and various neologisms. First published in 1992 by Azalées Éditions, a Francophone press in Réunion in the Indian Ocean, Cale d’étoiles: Coolitude received the Prix Jean Fanchette. The masterful English translation is by Nancy Naomi Carlson, a celebrated poet in her own right.

Mauritius is a small volcanic island in the southwestern Indian Ocean, about 1,200 miles off the coast of East Africa. It was brought to Europe’s attention in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, though the first marks were left by the Dutch when, in 1598, they brought slaves from Madagascar to fell the ebony forest and work tobacco and sugar cane plantations. By 1715, Mauritius was in the hands of the French, who significantly increased the slave population. In 1810, the British took control, and 25 years later, Mauritius was the last place in the British colonies to abolish slavery. In need of new plantation labor, the British government selected Mauritius as the first site for “the great experiment,” using Asian contract workers to replace the recently emancipated African slaves. Between 1834 and 1923, half a million indentured immigrants — mostly from India — were transported throughout the British Empire. After the practice was abolished, many remained and made Mauritius, which only 200 years earlier had no human population, the most culturally diverse island in the Indian Ocean.

Cargo Hold of Stars is a love song to the voyage of the indentured workers. The volume is divided into three parts: The Book of Métissage, The Book of the Journey, and The Book of Departure. Torabully draws on shared history to reconstruct and validate a diverse Mauritian identity. Consider the opening of “Pages from a Ship’s Missing Registry,” where the poet invokes his heritage:

Coolitude to lay the first stone of my memory among all memories,
my language among all tongues, my share of the unknown
that numerous bodies and numerous stories have lodged over
time in my genes and my islands.

While heavy with themes of exile and trauma, the poems are buoyed by a spiritual richness and a linguistic playfulness. The Book of the Journey, for example, opens with an epigraph from the Rig Veda, the ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns: “My roots are in the Waters of the ocean.” The Book of Departure, on the other hand, opens with the following lines by R. E. Hart: “And the sweetness of vedic times / Is still alive in me.” These poems carry an understanding that all life is connected. Their philosophical depth and their chant-like cadence call to mind Sanskrit ślokas. The theme of voyage is reflected in the vibrant language, the original French enriched with the workers’ native languages in a manner that undermines the trauma.

Motri, I grasped you so tight with all my guts
that catora canoodled carail
and my soul seeded the last coral reef. [1]

The voyage is conjured visually: stanzas are separated with large blank spaces, frequently splitting the page in half, as if to depict the separation of the immigrant workers from their home countries. The language is also rich with sensual oceanic imagery. Words such as “sea,” “flesh,” “waves,” “blood,” and “stars” appear most frequently. Consider the visual and spiritual interplay in the lines written “For the Castaways of the Ker Anna”: “I call for the corpus of coral / and the sea fell into a shell. Salaam.” The oceanic imagery conjures a sense of reverence fueled by the dreams shared by the voyagers, a complex mood captured in “To a Coolie”:

Carry my metaphor; I touched the sea
before the waves deceived me.
Carry my dream; I saw it all
without opening eyes of salt.
Carry my soul; I met death
but never ever died again.
Carry my silence; none of these words
belong to you
and I meld Indian words
with language from Saint-Malo.
At my Mozambican prow
a mélange of peppered dreams
is the aim of my human flesh.

The collection rests on the principle of opposition; it is, as the poet tells us, “a song of rooting as much as a song of uprooting.” The ships carrying indentured workers become vessels with a “cargo hold of stars.” The poet refers to his ancestors as “transplants of light.” At the metaphorical helm, Torabully refuses to allow this journey — the story of his people — to be reduced to notions of “uprooting” and “rapine,” “scuttling and plundering,” and instead makes it about “friendly dockings.” The poems move gracefully from trauma to transcendence.

Khal Torabully’s visual, musical, and linguistic virtuosity comes through in Nancy Naomi Carlson’s wonderful translation. The flow and weave between languages and neologisms is rendered with dexterity and ease, and with true aesthetic force. Cargo Hold of Stars: Coolitude celebrates diversity and the beauty of resilience. Even those unfamiliar with the cultural heritage of Mauritius will not only enjoy the collection but will feel expanded by it.

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Andrea Jurjević is the author of Small Crimes (2017) and Nightcall (2021). Her translations from Croatian include Olja Savičević’s Mamasafari (2018) and Marko Pogačar’s Dead Letter Office (2020).

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[1] Thanks to a nifty glossary at the end of the book, we learn that motri is an Indian word that means a large bundle (possessions or bedding) and that catora is a utensil for eating while carail is a cooking utensil.