A White Beach

Eileen Lohka

Translated by: Anna Bogic


Artwork by Alfred Zoff

Mauritian-Canadian.

On which side of the hyphen do I stand?

 

I am a sand beach, infinitely white, like an untouched page in waiting. Each wave that caresses me bestows on me seaweed and seashells. Each wave that comes and goes shapes and reshapes me, as it wishes. With elegant ease, it erases all the previous traces, paints a new picture on my smooth skin. In the light of dawn appear its messages, these mysterious hieroglyphs, fleeting suggestions of knowledge which escapes me. The wave’s singing voice soothes my dreams with unformed words. I only hear the melody, like endless laughter, the murmur of a stream falling on smooth stones, or the bursting of champagne bubbles. I smile as the sea foam tickles me. The sun makes my sudden tears shine, but they dry up as soon as the sea recedes. 

The cadence of plosives, the absence of consonants at the end of words, the missing ‘r’ sounds all create a haven of safety and affection. Creole, language of warmth and laughter, leaves its first traces on my fine sand. Its gullies grow with the passing years and weave a shimmering tissue, iridescent and fresh as a tropical dawn. In the shelter of splendidly black basaltic rocks, I learn to hum this language, explore it, adopt it.

But, this beach, seemingly unchanged at a first glance, has already surrendered, to be moulded by unpredictable chance encounters. Time and place converge, offering me to the inevitable tide. As the receding wave polishes my surface, it spares some of my marks. The sand has simply shifted and swallowed my first impressions. When the low tide settles in, I observe my new features, grow accustomed to my small but noticeable reliefs, as I try to adapt to my new skin.

Oh, but the sea is always restless. Quickly, a new rush of waves breaks over me, covers and uncovers me. The waves offer me gifts, beautiful pearl shells, translucent swollen bubble shells, and sea urchins. I use them to inscribe messages on the basalt—as effortlessly as on my white sand. These shells from far away, from the bottom of the sea, shine and captivate. Like provocative beauty, Lamartine’s poetry, grammar rules, those grand words with fouR syllables(1) land on my shore only to vanish in an instant with the backwash of a wave. How I would love them to be mine, be part of me! But, how much work that would be! I would have to accept the help of the sea that brought them to me. Patiently, I would have to work with the sea to transform this beauty into infinitesimal sand grains, just like my thousands of sparkling particles. Only then what is other could become me. I would be different, forever into the future, but I would appear the same in the indifferent gaze of a passer-by. 

Life circumstances of a beach, this fluid zone, take me to the next chapter and a burgeoning fascination with a new treasure: a beautiful pearl, polished and perfect, cool in its nonchalant shade of pink. This pearl knows exactly where it comes from, how it is made, and who it is, and so, with this knowledge it mocks my shapeless immensity. Its smooth features and confidence in its own superiority expose my obscure heritage. The pearl is complete, one, round, perfect. And I? My countless, dispersed sand grains are at the mercy of the tide or the next cyclone. Still, as stubborn as I am, I put my sand grains to work. Turning and churning, we gradually wear the pearl down. Little by little, it is swallowed into the sand, its surface changing upon contact. We can now roll our vowels as if our mouths were full of pebbles. Shakespeare and Keats become ours just like Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand. I am eager to become as lively as the swelling sea, to whisper like the shells of Paris, to burst from the top of my moustache, so very British.

The battle inside me continues, as the fragments of my identity weigh on me. When I visit one grandmother, I keep my hands properly under the table, on my knees. When I visit my other grandmother, I rest my wrists gently on the table. I can see myself quietly rehearsing my good manners, only to confuse them once I get there. Conversation jumps from English to Creole to French, all in the same sentence, at the simple whim of the speaker. 

Sentences roll and unroll from one accent to another. Images shift insidiously, all set to spoil the hard work of my teachers so determined to have us master each language: the pure French of La France and the English of British bureaucrats.   

Even my name bears the marks of this identity battle: an English last name coupled with a French middle name. From the very beginning, I am able to trust only the melodic language of my protective nannies. Sa profeser la pa kone ki li pe dir. Mo tifi zame fer dezord.(2) After all, my little girl is always right, right? In the meantime, this little girl, between the sea and the land, is growing into a form shaped by capricious waves. Each voyage and each meeting enhance the variegation already begun. Each new addition to the beach, now covered with brooklets, seaweed and treasures, torments and foments questions. “Not quite the same, not quite the Other”. 

The sea rolls, slides, attacks, bends against my fragile effort to protect my sandcastles. Soon it will swallow me. Impossible to fight against the powerful current calling me to the high seas. Like a bottle thrown into the water, I drift, I float; from shore to shore, back and forth, the surrounding elements shape me. The Mediterranean idleness leaves a soft layer of salt and sun on the horizon, ready to rise and renew. Canada’s cold and vast lands lengthen my English vowels, while diphthongs of the Gaspésie tinge the colour of my melodic island accent and my French vowels. I hesitate between canneberge and airelle.(3)

         For the slaves, the sea was a heavy chain that held them eternal prisoners on the islands of suffering. And my imprisoning sea? It’s the Denver basin and its surrounding chain of mountains: the smell of kelp is painfully absent, and the ripples are traced by winds crushing down from mountain peaks. Reversed geography. Volcanic mountains provided shelter for fugitive black slaves and their fragile freedom, while the sea blocked any possibility of escape. I suffocate in the mountains and search for the sea-escape-siren that always kept me and mine under its spell. But, then, in exile, ex-isled, I soak up the smell of pinewood. Amerindian legends reach deep within me, echoing the rhythms of old Creole tales that adorned my childhood. This beach transplanted into the Mile-Hi City’s taiga takes on Aboriginal colours, lustering the abalones on my shore. Konper liev transforms into a raven.(4) 

And slowly, fleeting notions begin to take shape, imprint and become more distinct. The beach, once all new, untouched and infinitely white, grows clear. The passing years, like the sea, have carved their ripples and drawn new contours. They have destroyed so they could rebuild; they have whirled and obscured so they could enlighten. They blurred so they could clarify; deformed so they could form, reform, and re-form. 

At the mercy of the winds and tornadoes, of the sea and the tide, this untouched beach, this untouched page is encoded and inscribed as it is eternally renewed. I am the place where the fluid and the solid touch, in an ephemeral moment, now sea, now land. I am the place where one can find the Self in the Other, all the while searching for the Other in the Self. The secret is to give, to open myself, to accept the infinite riches of my wanderings. As always, my beach conceals all the gifts the waves have offered me. Having now become the exponential sandbank, I glide on the sea, with no return, tamed by its touch and its fury.

 

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(1) The bolded, capitalized R emphasizes the effort that each Creole-speaking islander must make to pronounce the “r” or another consonant at the end of a word.

(2) Cet enseignant ne sait pas ce qu’il dit. Ma petite fille ne cause jamais de problème!” 

T.N. The sentences are in Mauritian Creole and can be translated into English as “This teacher doesn’t know what he’s talking about. My little girl never causes any trouble!”

(3) T.N. Both words stand for cranberry. However, canneberge is used in Québec and airelle in France.

(4) T.N. Creole name for Compère Lièvre (literally, compère means accomplice, while lièvre is hare), a hero featured in Creole animal stories. In Creole tales, the hare usually assumes the role of a trickster.

Eileen Lohka

Eileen Lohka is a writer and professor of Francophone literature at the University of Calgary, Alberta. Born in Mauritius, Lohka has lived in Reunion Island, France, and the United States, before settling in Calgary. She is the author of C’était écrit (2009) and Miettes et morceaux (2005) and is the co-recipient of the prestigious Prix Jean Fanchette (2006).

Anna Bogic

Anna Bogic is a translator and a PhD candidate in women’s studies at the University of Ottawa, Ontario. She holds a master’s degree in translation from the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation and Interpretation.