"Who knows where Mayotte is?" Poet Nassuf Djailani stands behind the microphone, smiling. No one in the audience can answer his question. "That's just what I suspected", he says. "This book is going to change that." He holds up a copy of the anthology Invitation to a Voyage that he just introduced. This book, compiled by the South African poet Stephen Gray, contains the best French poetry from the African islands in the Indian Ocean. For this volume, poems from Madagascar, Mauritius and Reunion, but also from the much less well known Comoros islands and the tiny Mayotte, Djailani's homeland, have been translated into English for the first time.
With a loud voice, occasionally stomping on the ground to emphasize his words, Djailani recites his poem from the anthology: "O my land!/ forever separated from your Comorian sisters/ at the base of the Indian calabash/ a shining crescent." The literature from his native region has always been like a neglected stepchild, Djailani explains after the presentation. "At school it was drilled into us that we were French. We read Victor Hugo, Baudelaire and Sartre, while our own writers were not even published. There has never been any place for our own voice, so we don’t know who we are."
Djailani believes that of all the islands, 'his' Mayotte may suffer the biggest identity crisis. When the rest of the Comoros islands gained their independence in 1974, Mayotte remained French territory. "We use euros, we eat camembert; you might almost forget that we are part of Africa. And it looks as if Africa has forgotten us. We're just a speck on the periphery, an afterthought." Thus, his presence at the Africa Poetry Festival means a lot to Djailani. "The islands in the Indian Ocean are primarily regarded as good vacation destinations. Planes full of tourists even come from South Africa. Yes, we have white tropical beaches, beautiful nature and sun, but we also have a story, a literature in which we attempt to process our past and try to discover who we are. I now live and work in France. No one in France knows where my birthplace is, even though Mayotte is a French province. Recently I took out an atlas to show someone where my island is situated. It was a French atlas with a large map of the whole world. Mayotte wasn't even on it."
Invitation to a Voyage was published by Protea Boekhuis. Poetry Africa is supported by the DOEN Foundation, The Hivos Culture Fund and the Dutch Embassy in South Africa.