Shumona Sinha was born and grew up in Kolkata, West Bengal. In 1990 she won Bengal’s Best Young Poet award. She started learning French at the age of 22 and moved to Paris a few years later. She has since been naturalised French.

Her first novel, Fenêtre sur l’abîme, was published in 2008. Her second novel, Assommons les pauvres!, was published in 2011 and subsequently translated into German, Arabic, Italian and Hungarian, and adapted for stage in Germany and Austria. It was translated into English as Down With the Poor! by Teresa Lavender Fagan and published in 2022. Her third novel, Calcutta (2014), received the Prix du rayonnement de la langue et de la littérature françaises 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.

She has also translated and published several anthologies of contemporary French and Bengali poetry in collaboration with her former husband, the poet Lionel Ray.

In a conversation hosted by the Jaipur Literature Festival, Sinha spoke about why French is her chosen, being a politically incorrect writer, and how writing has not exactly been cathartic for her. Excerpts from the conversation:

You were born and grew up in Calcutta. You have even written in Bengali. Tell me about the moment – or the moments – that made you want to write in the French language instead.
My attraction to the French language was from the very beginning, it was love at first sight when I started learning it in Calcutta when I was 22 years old. In my early years in Paris, people from Calcutta came to my dream, and spoke, in the muffled dreamy way, in French.

I started writing a travelogue in Bengali, but it wasn’t working at all, after two or three pages I discovered that I was unconsciously thinking in French, and unconsciously translating myself from French into Bengali. Hence, I decided to write in French.

But writing in French doesn’t happen because a decision is made, it happens because I breathe the language, I live in it, I can’t think in any other language anymore. The process of writing is cerebral and physical at the same time. Words, sentences gush and flow inside you.

But as someone who was once far removed from your chosen language, is there any reason you decided it must be French in which you tell your stories?
For the above-cited reasons, also, not writing in Bengali or in English, that is avoiding something given, so obvious, and searching for the unknown, is exciting, exhilarating. Rimbaud said that the true life is absent. We made a more optimistic version of it: the true life is elsewhere. I guess my elsewhere was in the French language.

Jhumpa Lahiri, who now pretty much writes only in Italian, has often spoken about how writing in a once-foreign language has granted her certain freedoms that her birth language or English did not. Do you also feel freer when you write or speak in French?
Unlike Jhumpa Lahiri, I haven’t pursued any literary career, even less a successful one, in my native language Bengali or in English, before writing in French. I wrote a few poems and poetical prose during my adolescence and early youth, published twice in a little magazine, but I seriously started writing only in French.

Writing in French gives me extraordinary liberty and it’s on so many levels! As a woman I feel free, liberated from social patriarchal moral boundaries. The French language itself is full of linguistic possibilities, especially as I wasn’t born into it but had to explore it like an adventurer, my writing process gives me a fantastic opportunity to be experimental, to create linguistic inventiveness.

Novels written in French by Shumona Sinha.

Like your protagonist in Down With the Poor! you too used to work at OFPRA [French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons]. You lost your job because of your writing. Did you fear this might happen or was it a punishment for speaking up?
I didn’t know that OFPRA had any literary taste buds, haha! So no, I didn’t anticipate at all that they might fire me. And yes, of course, it was a punishment for speaking up. They pretended that my novel was disrespectful to the people from Bengal/Bangladesh. That’s funny because OFPRA knows that these stories are untrue, yet that’s the only kind of story OFPRA accepts from these people, and in almost 100 per cent of cases rejects their application, and if ever they tell their true stories, they are also rejected instantly. This is a hypocritical system, as I’ve exposed in my novel. So of course, they didn’t tolerate it.

It was interesting to read about Cox Bazar and Bangladeshi refugees are fully aware of how France will reject those seeking asylum unless they are disenfranchised politically. In a way, the system encourages them to fabricate their reality. What do you make of this hypocrisy?
It’s a “factory of lies”, as I’ve written in the novel. The Geneva Treaty was signed in 1951. It was for political asylum. Since then, our planet has changed. Half of Bangladesh stays under the water for months. People don’t have access to their homes, lands. How can they survive? It’s an economic and ecological migration. It should be accepted and acknowledged as it is. In the capitalist ultra-liberal system, money circulates, commodities cross the border, and only men, proletarian men cannot move if they want to change their destiny. It’s revolting.

At the very beginning of the novel, you write, “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.” I have two questions – a) Can a country with closed doors ever love its immigrants? b) What does the realisation of your efforts not bearing fruition have on the psyche of an immigrant?
Well, this is fiction, even though, we know now it’s a very realistic one. I dramatise the characters and situations in my novels…For me personally, the doors are not closed, I wouldn’t be here today if that was the case. But for the main female protagonist of my novel, I created a more vulnerable, dramatised, dark condition.

France is not a hostile country towards foreigners, otherwise, we the Others couldn’t be living there. Of course, there is a new growth of a faction of xenophobic ultranationalist force. However, the majority of the French population and the system itself are broad-minded.

I don’t consider myself an immigrant. I don’t believe in a rigid one-dimensional identity. I am Bengali, I am Indian, I am Parisian, I am French, I am a little bit Russian too as I grew up devouring Russian literature, I am from the planet Earth. Our identity is not the one made of skin, flesh and blood, but the one we create for our soul, with our dreams and hopes, imagination, passion, love and knowledge, things that have no frontiers.

Later in the book I encountered a rather fascinating sentence which has been translated into English as, “I endured hours of serious comedy.” I read “serious comedy” in two ways – the circumstances that the applicants find themselves in which force them to come up with cock-and-bull stories and, how we have let the West make rules for the rest of the world. Would you say writing these migration-centric stories helps you make sense of the world order? Or at least offer a catharsis of some sort?
Very true! It’s a very realistic novel written in poetic prose, it’s a virulent criticism of the French/European political asylum system, exposing the postcolonial misery, distress, and trauma of people from Bangladesh and Bengalis from West Bengal, who are struggling to survive, looking for a better place, a better life. To do so they have to lie, to buy made-up stories from public writers, because that’s the kind of story, of political persecution, the French/European asylum system considers, just to reject their application afterwards systematically.

These people are also exploited by their fellow countrymen, the middlemen, who make money out of the situation.

The narrator, an interpreter at the asylum office, who greatly resembles me, is torn between her integrity, her desperate anger in front of this inhuman disastrous condition of her fellow countrymen.

Writing this novel helped me better understand the world order. But it was definitely not a catharsis for me. The survival condition of these people hasn’t changed. They still live in an unbearable situation.

That’s interesting because in another paragraph in the book the refugees are described as “parasites clinging to the host body.” So would you say it is sometimes necessary for a writer to be politically incorrect?
For me as a writer, it is absolutely primordial to ignore political correctness. While writing Assommons les pauvres! I was absorbed by the text, I wasn’t looking for a critic’s appreciation, success, or popularity. I wasn’t concerned at all by any social or moral value system. As a writer I reject any binary dogmatic view, I do not try to create heroes/heroines and villains, but human beings with their flaws, their secret shadow zone, I try to capture the point of juncture between their inner darkness and the beam of light.

Is there a reason why only one of your books has been translated into English? Will the others be translated soon?
Translation into different European languages of books written in English is more frequent than the other way around. It helps when you receive one of the most prestigious literary awards in France. Even though I’ve received excellent awards, and grand press coverage in France and abroad, there are lots of writers in France.

Assommons les pauvres! was instantly translated into German, Italian, Hungarian, Arabic. Then I changed publisher – my latest books, including the new one, were all published by Gallimard, the most iconic and prestigious publisher in France. So, for my previous books, the translation process can be affected. Although my fourth novel Apatride [Stateless] has been translated into English, it’s following its due course to be published. The same goes for my other novels.

Currently, three translators are very enthusiastic to translate all my novels into English.

I’m happy to have a British and an American publisher for the same book. In India, some fantastic publishers publish translated works. If they discover my literary work, as a fellow citizen and recognised French author, thanks to you and the wonderful Jaipur Literature Festival, that would be great!

The coming years will be interesting if everything goes well.

Also read:

Shumona Sinha’s ‘Down With the Poor’ is a poetic narration of France’s modern-day refugee crisis

This conversation was hosted by the Jaipur Literature Festival. Shumona Sinha and B Jeyamohan will be in conversation with Suchitra Ramachandran at the session ‘Multilingualities: Literature Across Languages’ on February 4 at the festival.