Weary and defeated, I collapse onto the damp floor of my cell and think about those people who swarmed the seas like repellent jellyfish and heaved themselves up onto foreign shores.

They were interviewed in half-hidden, half-open offices on the outskirts of the city. It was my job, and that of many others, to interpret their stories from one language to another, from the language of the petitioner to that of the host country. Stories filled with tears, bitter and cruel, winter stories, dirty rain and muddy streets, stories of monsoons so interminable that it seemed the sky would come crashing down.

I never imagined the path would be so short, that there could be a path, a shortcut, between the interview rooms and the damp cell in the police station where since yesterday I have been sketching my own family tree, the lines of my thoughts and my wanderings, the combinations of time and space, to justify my course and reconstruct the scene; so people will understand my sudden urge to strike the man, one of those immigrants, with a wine bottle.

A shiver runs up my spine. I’m afraid of myself. The woman who grabbed the bottle without looking at it, raised it up, felt its weight as she gripped it tighter so it wouldn’t slip from her hand then aimed at his head, black with hatred, mouth frothing with insults, and struck him.

A few months earlier, I had slammed the door in my boyfriend’s face, as well as that of the office where I was working. It was a year of break-ups, of scarcity, of a lack of everything. I was living in a state of exasperation and confusion. The city seemed closed to me; its huge green, wooden openwork doors with metal doorknobs polished and darkened over time were heavy once again, no longer moving beneath my hand. Sometimes, my entire body pushing, I tried to open them as if I were attempting to bring up a sunken boat. It was agonizing to see closed doors in a city, in a country I loved, when I had put so much effort into opening them.

A dream is a precocious memory. A dream is that desire which makes us travel miles, cross borders, seas and oceans.”

Then I had been hired to work as an interpreter and the language gymnastics began. There, all men looked alike. They had fled the land of clay swallowed by the black bay, their only viaticum the tale of migrating people. The weary slurring of their voices penetrated my summer days, slow and lazy, and everything blended together and was mixed in my head which for a long time had been able to erase the memory of poverty. Their stories were like stories. No difference at all. Except for a few details, dates and names, accents and scars. It was as if a single Story were being told by hundreds of people, and the mythology had become the truth. A single tale and many crimes: rapes, murders, assaults, political and religious persecution. They were unfortunate tusi-talas, unwilling tusi-talas. I listened to their stories composed of choppy, cut-off, expectorated sentences. They memorized them and regurgitated them in front of the computer screen. Human rights do not mean the right to escape poverty. In any case, you didn’t have the right to utter the word poverty. You needed a more noble reason, one that would justify political asylum. Neither poverty nor avenging nature that had devastated their land could justify their exile, their mad hope for survival. No law allowed them to enter here in this European country if they didn’t have political, or even religious reasons, if they didn’t demonstrate the serious consequences of persecution. So they had to hide, forget, unlearn the truth and invent another one; the tales of migrating peoples; with broken wings, filthy, stinking feathers; with dreams as sad as the rags on their backs.

A dream is a precocious memory. A dream is that desire which makes us travel miles, cross borders, seas and oceans; one that projects on the grey curtain of the brain the spatter of colors and the shades of another life. And people swarm the sea like repellent jellyfish and heave themselves up onto foreign shores.

from Down with the Poor! (Les Fugitives, £12.99)


Shumona Sinha is a poet and novelist who grew up in Calcutta and is now naturalised French and based in Paris. In 1990 she won Bengal’s best young poet award. Her first novel, Fenêtre sur l’abîme, was published in 2008. Her second, Assommons les pauvres!, now translated as Down With the Poor!, won the Prix Populiste 2011 and the Prix Valéry-Larbaud 2012. Her third novel, Calcutta (2014), received the Prix du rayonnement de la langue et de la literature françaises awarded by the Académie française and the Grand Prix du Roman of the Société des gens de lettres. Her most recent novel, Le testament russe, was published in March 2020 by Éditions Gallimard. Down with the Poor!, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, is published in paperback by Les Fugitives.
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Author portrait © Francesca Mantovani

Teresa Lavender Fagan is an American translator based in Chicago. She has translated over forty published works of non-fiction and fiction by authors including Mircea Eliade, Hédi Kaddour, Vénus Khoury-Ghata and Nobel Laureate in Literature Jean-Marie LeClézio.