115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Closed Eyelid: Plotting Human Rights in Shenaz Patel’s The Silence of the Chagossians

Coralie de Mazancourt, UCLA

The documentary fiction The Silence of the Chagossians by Shenaz Patel gives visibility to a little known episode of history, that of the displacement of the Chagossians from their native island. By enacting struggles around modes of seeing and knowing, the text makes the human rights of the Chagossians more legible.


Whether its primacy is asserted or critiqued, vision is traditionally associated with knowing in Western cultures. The field of postcolonial studies has generated approaches that have allowed for decentering the hegemonic gaze and pluralizing ways of seeing and knowing (Brozgal). Yet, despite the rich possibilities opened up by the field, postcolonial texts are frequently read through a narrow critical lens. The focus is often on how the postcolonial subject overturns the gaze; the ways in which postcolonial texts complicate modes of knowing receive little attention. My paper examines such practices in Shenaz Patel’s Le Silence des Chagos (The Silence of the Chagossians). In 1968 Mauritius was coerced to relinquish part of its territory in exchange for its independence. The Chagossians were expelled from their native island and relocated to Mauritius in order for the U.S. to build a military base there. Patel’s documentary fiction foregrounds the marginalization of the Chagossians in Mauritius and the movement they formed to reclaim their rights. The text documents a little known episode of history and complements the activism of the Chagossians (Lionnet). By giving us access to the subjectivity of the Chagossians, the text makes their human rights more legible (Slaughter). My paper argues that the text makes the human rights of the Chagossians more legible by enacting struggles around modes of seeing and knowing.

I first probe the obstacles encountered by the protagonist in his quest for knowledge and his attempts to uncover his past. As he questions his mother, Désiré meets resistance that he senses but cannot name. He comes to equate this resistance with a closed eyelid. The closed eyelid generates meaning that requires other ways of knowing, such as affect (Sharpe). I claim that the leitmotiv of the eyelid that runs throughout the text stands for Désiré’s affective way of knowing his past. The closed eyelid suggests that affect elicits and resists language (Jameson). Though the text provides access to the subjectivity of the characters, it also stresses the inaccessibility of these subjectivities.

I then read the leitmotiv of the eyelid as a rhetorical device that points toward the text’s commentary on its own meaning making-activity. I demonstrate that meaning-making activity for both Désiré and the text takes the form of plotting. By calling attention to the leitmotiv, the text highlights its formal coherence; the text is crafted and plotted. In claiming his right to know his past, Désiré is claiming the right to plot or write his life. I conclude that the text underlines the human right to see, sense, know and plot one’s life.