Toni Kan in Conversation with Priya Hein who says – “I wrote my novel in 5 days and 5 nights”

Priya Hein’s debut novel, Rambiel, won the 2021 Prix Jean Fanchette award. The novel was described by Nobel Laureate, Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio as bravely grasping “the complexity of ethnic relationships in Mauritius…displaying great art in the sense of shame blended with indignation and in the gaps in what is not said.” She spoke to Toni Kan on the sidelines of the Ake Festival 2023 on the motivation for writing the novel and her battle with imposter syndrome.

Toni Kan: So, tell me your name and what you do?

Priya Hein: My name is Priya Hein. I’m from Mauritius and I am a writer

TK: Okay, uhm…why do you say you’re a writer?

PH: I…it took me a very long time to come out as a writer, sorry.

TK: To come out?

General laughter

PH: Uhm, yeah, because I have this imposter syndrome, I suffer from it still and I finally started calling myself a writer when I published my debut novel ‘Riambel’, but before that I ade been published. I have been writing these children books, it started when my children were small and even then, I, I, I didn’t really call myself a writer but yeah, I think now is time (Laughing)

TK: So it was your first book that made you realise you were a writer?

PH: No. Its just… I was just uncomfortable with it because I didn’t feel like I was a proper writer. I was writing for children. I was, uhm, how can I say it, felt like: “What did I have to bring as a writer when there are already so many great writers out there?” I just felt so…insignificant

(General laughter)

PH: And now that I have a novel, I’m like ooh, maybe it’s time.

TK: So how many books do you have now?

PH: How many books? A novel? This is my first


TK: Your first one, this is your debut?

PH: Yes, yes.

TK: Riambel

PH: Exactly

TK: Good, good.

PH: Rambiel is a little village in south of Mauritius

TK: Ooh, it’s a real place?

PH: It’s a real place, yeah and when you will visit Mauritius you will find it, hopefully

TK: I should go there, yeah?

PH: Yes, definitely because it is so different from the other…

TK: Areas, yeah?

PH: In Mauritius

TK: Islands, yeah. So, are you a full time writer?

PH: Pardon?

TK: Are you a full time writer?

PH: Now I am. I write

TK: That’s all you do?

PH: For the moment, yes.

TK: Hm. So, uhm. (General laughter) If you want to write a novel or a short story, right?

PH: Mhm

TK: What is the trigger? What is the prompt? What makes you write a book? What made you write this?

PH: Uh… the brutal murder of Goerge Floyd was the trigger

TK: For this?

PH: For this, yeah

TK: How does that…what does that have to do with Mauritius?

PH: Exactly, uhm. I was living in Germany, at the time, twenty years and… when this happened we were shocked, the whole world, outraged and people were protesting on the streets, manifesting and…speaking about this and these awful things that were happening and I was in Germany at the time and I remember thinking about, you know, thinking about how we don’t talk about this things enough and I was hearing disturbing..

TK: Stories?

PH:…discussions, stories, comments that shocked me. How they were talking and where I was, was a very conservative environment, society and I was the only minority and I was hearing very disturbing things like, oh, yeah, ‘All lives matter’ which is the right wing.

TK: Yeah?

PH: As you know, and when I dared to speak about the racism I had been facing with, I was told “it’s not racism”; I was oversensitive and as a woman, as an immigrant woman I should basically, uhm, accept it. I was silenced and I felt very angry, outraged, disturbed and shocked by the comments that I was hearing but…basically, they just didn’t want to know and I was told that it is not racism and I was thinking how can you tell me that? How can you tell me what to feel? This…there’s something very wrong

TK: With this, yeah

PH: It’s very wrong. And I thought well if I can’t talk about it at least, maybe, I can write about it and that triggered this book and I wrote it during ‘Black Lives Matter’…

TK: Yeah

PH: During the movement. So I locked myself, for five days and five nights because I was compelled, absolutely compelled, to write this book. Fuelled by anger, fueled by all these emotions that were going through me and I had to write something, something raw, something unfiltered and it was…for me, for myself, to channel these emotions as an outlet and after these five days and five nights, I was absolutely exhausted.

TK: Five days?

PH: Yes, five days, five nights, the first draft.

TK: Yeah.

PH: I… I

TK: Poured it out?

PH: Poured it out as you say, it came pouring out and the character’s called Noemi, and her name says No.

TK: Ohhh

PH: Nomei, No emi, No!

TK: Okay

PH: And it’s a way to protest

TK: Yeah

PH: So it was my way of protesting and I protest in the way that in, in the writing, the writing is not conventional one bit. Its…saying, enough of conforming, and it’s okay to be different and to dare.

TK: So, you were in Germany for twenty years?

PH: Yes

TK: And you’re out now, back in Mauritius?

PH: I am in Mauritius now, yeah

TK: Cool. So, when you want to write, once you’ve got the prompt, you’ve got the…trigger, do you write it in the mornings, afternoons, night?

PH: Oh here it was non-stop for… because it was during the holiday season in Germany. It was during that time so I had the…

TK: So, you wrote this in Germany?

PH: I was in Germany

TK: Before you came back.

PH: Exactly, and so, I, exceptionally, could write intensively for those five days and nights.

TK: How was it received?

PH: Well, the manuscript, basically, after I wrote it… as I said, I was doing it for myself… my husband, my daughter who was fourteen at the time, read it and they encouraged me to pursue it further, they said carry on. I thought they were not being objective, obviously.

General laughter

PH: And…so I let it rest but I could see that my daughter was quite moved…

TK: What year was this?

PH: That was in 2020? Is that correct?

TK: Yeah, it happened in 2020, yeah.

PH: 2020, when was he murdered. 2020. I think

TK: Yeah.

PH: Exactly, so and then I thought, well, maybe it’s worth taking another look at it so I looked at it again, added a bit more flesh and I sent it to my cousin who’s an avid reader and he’s more objective and he said “you’ve got to submit it to this prize” and I was motivated by the president of the jury who’s Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio, who is the…

TK: Oh wow.

PH: He’s the only Mauritian to have won the Nobel Prize in literature

TK: le Clézio, yeah

PH: Exactly, so, he was the president and I thought if I submit my manuscript I would probably get a chance to meet this author that I admire because I knew that he flies to Mauritius for this event and normally participants are invited usually to the…

TK: Event

PH: Exactly, to the ceremony. So, motivated by that, I submitted it. It had to be in French because the rule said it’s gotta be in French so it was, uh, I had to have it translated very quickly and Hadia Tegali

TK: You wrote it in Germany?

PH: I wrote it in English

TK: Oh okay.

PH: And Hadia did a brilliant job translating it into French in a month because we had to meet the deadline. I know it just happened so fast, and we submitted it, and the next thing i know… I won.  Riambel won the prize

TK: Wow.

PH: So that’s how, uh, you asked me how it was received.

TK: Yeah.

PH: So the manuscript won, and then from there it was, I think, it went very quickly again with the book deals and my agent did a fantastic job as well.

TK: So the last question, right? You’re leaving here, when do you leave?

PH: When am I leaving Nigeria? I leave on the 26th, no 27th. I can’t remember anymore

TK: So, at the airport somebody looks at you and says “Ah, Priya, I saw you at ake festival, I’m eighteen years old and I wanna be a writer” what would be your advice?

PH: Read (Laughs) and write

TK: Thank you (Laughs)

PH: Read, write, read write, because it’s linked. I really think its really linked and when you’re reading think about what you like, what works for you.

TK: Yeah

PH: What the author’s done when you’re writing and write write write write anything. Thoughts, poetry, feelings, short stories, whatever and…yeah, I think that’s it, that’s the advice I would give.

TK: Thank you.

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