Colonialism in a photograph?

    The photo here is one in my repertoire of family photos. It was taken about in the front yard of my grandparents’ home in Madagascar, where they have lived for most of their lives. It features my dad, eight of his siblings, my uncle’s wife, my great-grandmother, my first cousin, and my little sister. Like Esther does with the photos in Matalon’s novel, I can look at this picture as it relates to colonialism and my family relationships.

Looking at this photo, I see a dichotomy between the people on the left, and the people on the right. The people on the left, in the shade, are wearing very westernized clothing. My uncle is wearing Nike shoes, and several people are wearing coats. I think the coats are significant because it was not cold in the least. The coldest it might have been during that day is probably in the 90s. Coats like that are useful in Europe, but why wear them on an African island? The people on the right give off a more typically African vibe with their more traditional clothing and, though you can’t see it, my great-grandmother’s braided hairstyle. At the center of the photo is my little sister, who stands out because of her relatively fair features and elevated position due to being held up by my uncle. Knowing that in Madagascar, much like in Northern Africa, French colonialists attempted to rid Malagasy people of their culture and replace it with French culture, the set-up of this photo is suddenly interesting.

The issue of language in Matalon’s novel is a particularly interesting one for me. I am especially struck by the scene early in the novel when Uncle Sicourelle speaks Arabic, his native language, to Esther, “forcing an intimacy with a world that has never been mine.” (p. 16) Yet, Esther happily speaks French, the language of oppression in colonialized Africa. Growing up in Madagascar in the aftermath of French colonialism, my father and his siblings were taught to speak French. They were physically reprimanded if they spoke Malagasy, their native language, at school. French was the correct, prestigious language. My dad laughs about how he and his friends would switch from French to Malagasy, sometimes mid-conversation, as soon as they left the school property.

When I interact with that side of my family, we speak French together. I literally do not understand a single word of Malagasy. Not only does that limit the capabilities of intimacy, I am now realizing that my main way of communicating with them is through a language that symbolizes their oppression! What does that say about our relationship?  

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