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French author Shumona Sinha visits campus

| Monday, September 15, 2014

WEB_shumona sinha_9-16-2014Sam Coughlin | The Observer
When we hear the word “immigrant,” we perhaps think of our ancestors coming to Ellis Island from Ireland, people crossing the U.S.-Mexican border daily or even just foreigners in general. In the U.S., we have a fairly narrow view of what immigration is like, especially in terms of the entire world. In my French class titled “Making It,” taught by Professor Alison Rice, we have been studying immigration in France by reading a capturing yet dark novel by Shumona Sinha titled “Assommons les Pauvres!” (roughly translated, “knock out the poor”). The semi-autobiographical story is titled after a poem by Baudelaire, and the plotline follows the life of a fictional version of Sinha herself — an immigrant from India now living in France and working as a translator for fellow immigrants seeking asylum from the terrors of their country.

As an Indian woman living in France, she is extremely marginalized and encounters several instances of harassment based on race and sex. Working as a translator, the narrator listens to testimonies from a largely male population of immigrants, piecing together their broken French and judging their stories accordingly. The refugees often twist the truth, as most of them have purchased false documents to appear more legitimate and be accepted into the country. Through these stories, we learn about the life of a refugee, coming from a place full of terrorism, violence and political corruption, hoping to start fresh in the “city of lights” that is Europe.

During class Monday, we were lucky enough to have Shumona Sinha come speak about her life, the writing process and the storyline of this novel. Although the entire question and answer session was in French, I will attempt to channel Sinha herself and translate to the best of my abilities.

The first question addressed the broad topic of translation itself. Sinha recognized that when she first began translating, she was overconfident, never doubting that she captured the meaning of each word; however, now she feels much more humbled and realizes she cannot always do justice to the original work, especially when translating literature. She said that translation is very delicate because “like a turtle carrying a shell, each word carries different meanings on its back.”

From the conversation, I picked up at least four languages that Sinha speaks —French, English, Russian and her maternal language, Bengali. She decided to move to France and write in French because of the freedom it allowed her. Sinha said that there were some things she just could not say in her maternal language due to the conservative status of India. In French, she could speak openly about topics such as sexuality because of the space between the countries and languages. She went on to explain that her novel is a romance, but not in the traditional sense; it is a love story between Sinha and the French language.

Another overarching topic in “Assommons les Pauvres!” that was pulled from Sinha’s life is the racism and judgment she feels being an immigrant in France. She recalled an instance when she was in a cab in Paris where the driver saw her in the rearview mirror, heard her speak and asked where her accent was from. He made her feel unwelcome in her own city, based solely on the fact that she has a different color skin and a slight accent that the driver ironically thought was American (this is Sinha’s first time ever coming to the United States). Even on the “metro” (the Parisian subway), she and fellow immigrants receive sideways glances and even derogatory comments because of their background. Here in America, we are guaranteed to have a variety of backgrounds when getting on a New York subway, for example; Sinha sees that Indians in America, whether immigrants or citizens, are very privileged and can belong to the upper class, with jobs in law, medicine and business, where in France this would be nearly unheard of.   Sinha has been through many unique experiences in her life that we in America are, in general, unfamiliar with; I was very intrigued to hear these first-hand accounts and to meet a prize-winning author in such a personal setting.

If you are interested in learning more about immigration, poverty and Sinha, she will be hosting a talk titled Literature and Activism: The Challenges of Representing the Impoverished Immigrant Other on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in DeBartolo Hall 131, thanks to the Department of Romance Languages and Literature.

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About Maddie Daly

A senior English and French major in love with Paris, cooking and fashion, currently residing in Chicago.

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