Tīfaifai and Translation: Piecing ‘Nadia’ from Chantal Spitz’s Cartes postales

By | 1 September 2023

In her 2006 collection of essays and poetry Pensées insolentes et inutiles, the pillar of francophone Oceanian literature that is Tahitian author Chantal T Spitz ruminates on the purpose of her writing: ‘This isn’t an autobiography but it now seems to me that my experience and that of many others could constitute the tifaifai1 of our fragmentations for an alternative writing-reading of our story.’2 Spitz, a foundational figure in the literary community of Mā’ohi Nui/French Polynesia, is most widely recognised for her first novel, the first published novel written by a Mā’ohi writer: L’île des rêves écrasés (published in 1991 and translated into English by Jean Anderson as Island of Shattered Dreams in 2007). In the three decades since this story was published, francophone Oceania – specifically Mā’ohi Nui/French Polynesia and Kanaky/New Caledonia – have experienced a veritable renaissance of autochthonous literary production. Throughout her career, Spitz has helped increase the visibility of writing from across her community, making space, as she says, for her experience and that of many others to tell their story, their history.

Implicit in this opening excerpt from Spitz’s work is the reality that she articulates explicitly elsewhere: that Mā’ohi stories have long been told from the outside and that the ontological violence of separating the story from its community is an aspect of European colonisation that is ongoing. What Spitz proposes, however, is that the literary work of her community constitute a tīfaifai: a patchwork quilt that is at once a means of artistic expression and tool of social exchange. The colorful appliqué cloths are, as Tahitian scholar Kareva Mateata-Allain explains, ‘a major artistic symbol of the island cultures … {and} an integral symbol of Ma’ohi cultural production.’3 These quilts are given as gifts to commemorate important life events and can be found in many forms throughout Mā’ohi Nui.

While Spitz has used this metaphor to describe many writers contributing to a unified if diverse project, her own writing reflects the intricate vibrancy of the tīfaifai as well. Her literary work uses a distinctive texture of writing; without punctuation or traditional capitalisation, Spitz structures her stories in a poetic prose that echoes the region’s long oral tradition of literary creation. In the same way, Spitz puts particular emphasis on the voice that comes through in her work, often weaving the individual perspectives of her characters in a pattern that performs the story she tells as much as articulating it in words. This method of literary performance is particularly central to her 2015 collection of short stories, Cartes postales.

Cartes postales (‘postcards’) is a slim volume comprised of seven stories that take place on the island of Tahiti. The stories are nominally unconnected to each other apart from their common setting, but they are thematically aligned in the picture of violence and despair. They paint an island largely seen elsewhere as an earthly paradise. The violence experienced by the characters in this collection – at once extreme and everyday – is striking in the contrast it presents to the picture-perfect postcards evoked by the collection’s title. As with so much of Spitz’s work, her most powerful intervention is performed, not explicit, an argument articulated not in the linguistic shallows of direct address but in the depths of readerly experience. The reader discovers her intervention as a consequence of their close reading.

The translator’s job, then, is to maintain this intervention from the depths while shifting the idiom of the shallows to make the story linguistically accessible to a wider audience. In my own translations from this collection, I have sought to maintain the careful patchwork of Spitz’s striking tīfaifai, a work of contrast and relationality that pieces together a complex tableau. I present here a reading of one story – ‘Nadia’ – from this collection.4

The second story of the collection, ‘Nadia,’ opens with a vision of Tahiti, grotesque where the historic exoticisation of Polynesia has taught us to expect paradise.

the swarm of flies shivers the smell of carrion that churns the air
choking the fifth-floor residents of the apartment building that’s gone to seed in this
neighbourhood crushed by heat by noise by dust
chipped walls rutted road broken up sidewalk
a stone’s throw from the waterfront newly arranged for cruise goers
who occasionally descend on the town like a settlement of twittering birds
in pursuit of the last noble savage from the last earthly paradise
a heavy slimy murky scent that stills the air stops the breath stiffens the mind
making the unthinkable palpable
human rot
unseen death
lonely decay

From this initial image, we are introduced (though no introduction or other contextualisation appears) to the eponymous protagonist of the story. Nadia is engaged in promoting Tahitian vanilla in a trade show in Paris when she meets Mathieu who is promoting the black pearl trade, and their romance promises her vast new horizons in Tahiti. This shift in perspective is unmarked within Spitz’s text apart from a subtle line break and the use of first-person pronouns.

I meet Mathieu at the Paris agricultural convention
he’s a black pearl trader
I hand out leaflets on French Polynesia’s brown gold
Tahitian vanilla the best in the world they say
his voice wraps me in a muggy torpor
as he blooms my imagination with the exoticism bursting from the stand’s photos and videos
he is my first and last love giving scope to my changeability
my life takes off
so beautiful you could die he promises me
sun sand sex
I’m not sorry as I leave my drabness for the end of the earth and he for a vast horizon
draped in unknown scents unheard music infinite futures
waiting for me with flower necklaces and two pearls
me the black one you the white one together for better he says with a kiss
bungalow on stilts champagne candlelit dinner over the water
perfect night
  1. According to the Tahitian Academy (Fare vāna’a/Académie tahitienne), the correct spelling of this word is as it appears in the title and unquoted text of this piece: tīfaifai. I have maintained the spelling without diacritics in quoted text and italicised my own use of the word. I follow this same approach in using the term Mā’ohi.
  2. Chantal T. Spitz, ‘constant exil,’ Pensées insolentes et inutiles, Papeete : Te ite, 2006, 9-18, 18. ‘Ce n’est pas une auto-biographie mais il me semble aujourd’hui que mon expérience pourrait composer avec de nombreuses autres le tifaifai de nos fragmentations pour une écriture-lecture alternative de notre histoire.’ Translation my own.
  3. Kareva Mateata-Allain, ‘‘Métissage and migration through the metaphor of the va’a, or canoe: intellectual cross-fertilisation of Ma’ohi literature within an Oceanic context.’ International Journal of Francophone Studies, Vol. 11 no. 4, 2008, 601-621, 618.
  4. The full translated text of ‘Nadia’ is represented here in italics, though I have segmented the story with my own readerly interventions in normal typeface. Translation is my own, with thanks to Jeffrey Zuckerman for his invaluable feedback. Original text: Chantal T. Spitz. Cartes postales: nouvelles. Papeete: Au Vent des Îles, 2015.
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