Diego Garcia addresses the problem of telling a story that begs telling when it is not the writer’s own. In 1968, a request by the United States to the British government for a naval base in the Indian Ocean resulted in the forced removal of nearly one thousand residents of Diego Garcia, an island in the Chagos Archipelago that was once part of the British Colony of Mauritius. Descended from plantation workers who for several generations developed their own culture and economy, the Chagossian people were removed to foreign lands, while allowed only their bags, to make room for the base. Before leaving, as a final insult, their dogs were gassed to death in front of them for logistical reasons. At their new locations, where they were predictably marginalized and bereft of home and familiarity, many suffered a heartache so severe that it commonly caused death. It became known in Mauritian Kreol as sagren, derived from the French chagrin. Translation of such a culturally unique concept is difficult without the provision of context, of the surrounding story. Diego Garcia shares such a story, reconciling its own existence through its form, and the process of writing it.
The novel passes through a prism of perspectives, not the least of which is its shared authorship. The two fictional main characters, Damaris and Oliver, who also serve as the authors’ doubles, are living in the aftermath of the suicide of Oliver’s brother David, a fleeting but luminous character who brought them together before sealing their connection through the shared experience of his suicide. Now in Edinburgh, they share a flat where they rise daily for coffee, cigarettes, and cardamom buns before trips to the bookstore or library, with a pie or pasta thrown in and maybe some pints later on. Everything is shared: their expenses, what they are reading, doing, thinking, smoking—almost as if they are one. Though their increasingly precarious finances and shared creative blocks are not trivial, what matters to the book’s overarching structure is the way their experience acts as a lens through which the rest of the novel is seen, and the importance of acknowledging that lens.
The arguably more novelistic sections that make up the bulk of the book are characterized by an initially strange, intersubjective point of view. On a couple occasions, it splits entirely, with either main character’s third-person perspective taking one side of the page. But the rest presents what at first is something of a gymnastic event. The two characters, referred to as he and she, share textual space with a we, which at first suggests at least three people present. In one moment, he and she discuss lunch plans and smoke—making it clear they are the only two in the scene. The sentence, “It was at that moment of ignition that we first laid eyes on Diego,” appears and makes it unambiguously clear there have only ever been the two. He and she are never referred to as they, only as we. For the reader, in this revelation, a sort of ghost is created, a third perspective, a third persona that is not distanced, but complicit, forming a chimera of shared experience. The ghost here could of course be seen as a stand-in for David’s lingering presence and, as later revealed, the ghosting of peoples erased by the offices of power.
On the day the titular character is first encountered, financial stress and the looming ghost of David are at least temporarily displaced by the entrance of Diego Garcia, whose Mauritian accent is overheard by Damaris. Her family coincidentally hails from the region, and the familiarity beckons her closer. Diego Garcia—not his real name but one he bestowed upon himself in homage of his homeland—is encumbered with several pieces of luggage stuffed in part with knockoff cigarettes and painkillers. A brief friendship with the two writers is cut short by his sudden and unexplained disappearance. What they/we are left with, along with his luggage that was mysteriously abandoned at a local pub, is an insatiable curiosity to research all materials related to his island and its people.
Though very much not the same, the stories of the Chagossians, of David, and of Damaris’s own history, share enough of a resonance to be absorbed by her creative appetites, resulting in a short story that takes the form of a fictional interview convolving them all. Included in full, the story brings with it an underlying disturbance. The knowledge of its source material generates a nagging note of exploitation, and its own form of erasure. This glimpse into the creative sausage factory, though a double-layered fiction, is highly affecting for evoking themes of tragedy and loss, while at the same time unsettling as it unfolds and exposes the real stakes and stakeholders of storytelling. Though well-intended, Damaris’s source material has been swallowed to serve her purposes and smash her creative block. This method also shows that one can still be moved by a story that colonizes representation. This demonstration couriers a deeper understanding of the power of structure, one that cannot be arrived at through description or exposition. It pushes the prescriptive “show, don’t tell” into a deeper level of feeling by choreographing a dance between shared trauma, relation, and difference, with a fair amount of Glissant’s views on opacity and relation trumpeting from afar. In the absence of transparency, it is through feeling, through aesthetic experience in a shifted point of view, that one exposes the limitations of conventional structure and can reach understanding in the absence of direct experience.
This abnegation of the power to conceal that is so typically afforded to fiction extends to the lengthy bibliography included at the end. The novel is studded with quotes and references to such luminaries as Fred Moten, Silvia Federici, and Theodor Adorno, whose Minima Moralia (1951) makes numerous appearances throughout. This is fitting given Adorno’s acknowledgment in his observations of what is and is not possible in life in general. In the book’s epigram, Fred Moten implores some “dumb motherfucker” to understand that even those seemingly unaffected by inequity are in fact slowly succumbing to it. Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (2004) is mentioned in passing but is an apt reference regarding the conditions that create injustice, specifically connecting the witch hunt and patriarchy to the primitive accumulation of capital, whether it is in seventeenth century New England or twentieth century sub-Saharan Africa. Along with numerous texts and documentaries about the forced removal of Diego Garcia’s people that are consumed by the characters (including the US Navy website that ghosts the island’s former inhabitants), this intertextual web threading the story through conversations and reflections by the central characters doesn’t provide the answer to the novel’s overarching question, so much as suggest a way of looking, of looking into, and engaging an issue from all angles and modes of thinking. According to the authors, the book is “still being written”: It is alive, as are its concomitant subjects and themes. This is in some sense true of any text, though here that quality is forefronted, practically beckoning the reader to chase down these titles and participate in the dialogues into which they extend.
Diego Garcia addresses human erasure, using as its center point an island whose complex history is encoded into its very name, one given by Portuguese explorers, though the island was long known by Arab seafarers. Along with this flirtation with fiction, the naming of anything is political, evidenced by the eponymous character whose name is “what he chose to go by.” This political gesture unifies a human subject with an embodied origin, almost as a manifestation of positionality: We are real, we are a people, we are not ghosts. Semiotically, the signifier and signified are nearly indistinguishable. Fictional though the character is, as the human embodiment of the island, Diego Garcia points to the agony of all who have been displaced, whose tragedies and emotional lives are very real, individually complex, and enmeshed in the world at large. The novel’s structure tests and blurs the binary of fact and fiction while also pointing to the way both interact and influence reality. Facts go unheeded or denied, and fiction deletes truth, but also people, the lives of whom should transcend such abstract questions altogether, and yet don’t in practice, at least not when power is at stake. Perhaps it’s not so much that Diego Garcia blurs the boundary of fact and fiction, so much as it exposes and tests our reliance on that distinction.
Reuben Merringer is an LA-based artist, writer, and educator. His work explores liminality through novel processes that investigate the material nature of language and image. He teaches at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.
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