An excerpt from the novel Diego Garcia by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on 25 May 2022
Edinburgh, 2014. Two writer friends, Damaris Caleemootoo and Oliver Pablo Herzberg, escape London, the city that killed his brother. They spend their days trying to get to the library, bickering over their tanking bitcoin, failing to write or resist the sadness.
Then they meet Diego, a poet. He tells them he has taken on the name of his mother’s island in the Chagos Archipelago, which she and her community were forced to leave by British soldiers in 1973. Damaris and Oliver Pablo become obsessed with this notorious episode and the continuing resistance of the Chagossian people. They want to write in solidarity. But how to share a story that is not theirs to tell? And how to account for a loss not theirs to grieve?
A tragicomedy interrogating the powers of literature alongside the crimes of the British government, Diego Garcia is a collaborative fiction that seeks to open up possibilities for the novel, and other ways of living together.
Edinburgh, September 2014. The horror of the sky. The air thick with rain to come. We no longer drank our first coffee of the day together. It had been weeks since he’d come with a mug in each hand to her bedroom door, nudging it open with his foot. He no longer climbed onto her bed and we no longer propped ourselves up, him tucking his feet under the duvet (if she let him). No more discussing the blocks we’d read before falling asleep, no more leaning out of the window to smoke the first tube of the day, looking to see if the billboard above ScotMid had changed, to read it for signs. Mornings in the flat were still filled with the smell of coffee, which he still made, but since we no longer drank it together we’d come to associate its smell with the sadness. She waking up to it now in bed, him breathing it in as he sat with his mug at the kitchen table, staring at Diego’s bags, which were piled in the corner.
When she came into the kitchen she was already dressed, wearing that blue plaid shirt a lover had left behind. She put some post on the table, saying, Bulletins from the world of Emergency Supplies. He grabbed the pile not looking at her. Do they accept bitcoin? she said. Trading’s not going so well he said. She turned away, poured herself a coffee. She opened the fridge, the cupboards, took out a box of muesli. She said, Nothing to eat but dusty raisins. Currency… Don’t he said. Something in the way he wouldn’t look at her, something in the way he held his coffee and rubbed his forehead with the tip of his thumb. A new tiredness and sadness. She said, I’m going to eat one of the astronaut meals. This is how she referred to the freeze-dried food packs he ordered in bulk online and tried to hide from her. They’re for The Emergency he said. This is an emergency! He glanced at Diego’s bags. She put on her kindest face, laid a hand on his shoulder. Diego is gone, you know that. She raised the kitchen window, lit two tubes and held one out to him. We looked at the sky. Horizon crumbling away, plunging headlong into an abyss of fire. The billboard above ScotMid read YES: white caps, background of Saltire-blue. She said, If you’re not making us any bitcoin then we should open Diego’s bags, see if there is anything we can sell. We can’t do that! Then I will eat an astronaut meal. We watched the swift grey clouds. He’ll be back for those bags one day. Fuck the future she said, stubbing out her tube, ducking back into the kitchen – him still leaning out of the window – the billboard saying YES – but we had no vote we had no hope.
The Meadows. Same sky. Strange yellow light. People dragged about by the wind. The ends of his tracksuit bottoms frayed, trailing on the path. He was walking as fast as he could but his leg was still bad from his fall. She quickened our pace, he dragged on her arm, the wind was shaking the tops of the cherry trees. She was telling him we should get to the library because a storm was going to hit. He said, We have to find him. Then because she didn’t answer he shouted into the wind, Diego! Diego! The rain came, pouring onto the grass, onto us, bouncing – high! – off the path. We joined hands and ran, turning up Middle Meadow Walk, passing posters for the YES campaign and posters for the NO campaign, a nation strung out on fibre optic nerves. Passing the Swedish café, Sainsbury’s, Starbucks, slowing to a walk because we were soaked through, set on getting to the library – laughing now because rain gets no wetter in the end – set on getting down to our blocks and our screens because as much as we could not bear our blocks and our screens we had organized our lives around them and didn’t experience this as a contradiction.
Ever since we’d taken Diego’s bags home, we had been searching for him. Not knowing his real name, we couldn’t find him online. So we went all over the city looking for him. We tried the hostels near the Grassmarket and behind Princes Street. We tried the pubs we tried the parks. We did not try the police. We asked again at Sandy Bell’s but he’d not been back. We took the bus to Edinburgh Festival Campsite and picked our way among the tents, calling, Diego! Diego! We’ve got your bags! We called this out in English and then she called it out in Kreol. Next day she decided to speak only in Kreol. This did not lead to Diego and it did not lead to any literature that we wrote. We were disturbed by his failure to reappear, and this added strangeness to our unreal life: false sightings in the street, the confusion with Daniel. The days passed, no different than the rest. The sadness came and went. The same sadness… no, not the same, the vacancy and tedium the same but the sadness itself just what it is, always different but the same. One day her screen flashed – ‘unknown number’ – and he urged her to answer, saying, It might be him. Fuck Diego she said, He doesn’t want to know us. This produced in us a feeling of shame we couldn’t explain.
We stopped looking for Diego. We returned to the library. We sat among the stacks and read about Diego Garcia, the island where Diego’s mother had been born, the same island soldiers had forced her to leave fourteen years later, to make way for the US military base. We made it to the library the next day, and the day after that.
On the fourth day he hissed, Have you seen the US Navy website? The history section of the Diego Garcia page? Pure fuckin fiction. That there had been people living on the islands prior to the base being built; that these people, the Chagossians, had been living there for many generations – no mention of them or their forced exile on the website. Ghosted.
We found the UK Chagos Support Association website, one of the groups formed to support the Chagos community in their fight to return to their islands. We read:
The Chagos archipelago is a chain of 65 small coral islands in the Indian Ocean, about halfway between Africa and Indonesia, seven degrees south of the Equator. The largest island, Diego Garcia, covers only 17 square miles – the others are much smaller. The climate is hot and humid, and tempered by sea breezes. The soil is very fertile and the seas around the islands are rich in fish.
The islands were known to Arab seafarers in early centuries, and the first Europeans to discover them were the Portuguese, in the 16th century. They did not settle the islands but they gave Diego Garcia the name it still holds.
In 1776 a handful of French colonists were given permission by their government to develop coconut plantations in the Chagos islands on condition that they also establish a leper colony there. They brought in slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Senegal. Coconut palms and sugar cane flourished on the islands.
When British colonists took possession of the islands in 1835, after the Napoleonic Wars, one of them recorded that there was already a settled population when they arrived. The slaves were freed, became the plantation owners, and developed their own economy.
The Chagossian people evolved their own distinctive Creole language and their own culture. The social system was matriarchal – almost certainly a legacy of the leper colony, as women survive leprosy better than men.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, this unique and peaceful way of life came to an abrupt end.
In the midst of the Cold War, the United States decided it wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean to keep the USSR and China from threatening the Arabian Gulf. Suddenly the Chagos archipelago was more than just an insignificant speck on the map.
In 1966 Britain secretly leased Diego Garcia to the US for 50 years, with the option of an extension. This was done in exchange for a discount of millions of dollars on Polaris nuclear submarines – a way of concealing the payment. The US pays rent of one dollar per year. The deal was not disclosed to the US Congress, the British Parliament, or the United Nations. Until this time the Chagos islands had been part of the British colony of Mauritius, but in order to lease Diego Garcia to the US, Britain had to avoid giving the islands back to Mauritius when that country became independent in 1968. So, in 1965 the ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’, as the archipelago is now officially known, was invented for the sole purpose of setting up the base. It is the only new British colony to be established since decolonisation.
Charity shop on Forrest Road. Wet through and dripping rainwater. She skipped straight to the boutique section to put together a new outfit for him. Do the same for me she said, cosy but edgy. We exchanged outfits. When we had changed we walked with inscrutable expressions to the counter. She feeling emboldened by her new outfit, him feeling shit but relieved somehow. Before paying she passed by heirloom corner picking up a pair of eggcups in duck-egg blue, also a block with the cover torn off, and the very last umbrella in the shop. Total: £11.75.
Ace Cleaning Centre. Gentle racket of the dryers. In the drum our old wet clothes. On us, the new old clothes that smelt like the grave. He: blue checked chef’s trousers and a red-and-black flannel shirt, flecked oatmeal mountaineering socks. Her: batwing jumper in dark shimmery green, yellow flip-flops, brown fake suede skirt, bright pink anorak. The dryer came to a halt. She said, More change. Yes he said, but how? Coins you arse-hole! He dug into his pockets. We’re running low, all that shit we bought from the charity shop. Boutique she said. He took out two 20ps which she fed into the dryer. He said, Why is it me who always pays? She took out her screen, showed him an animated gif of the national debt clock in New York with the numbers ticking up. It was true that she never had any money while he sometimes did. We often argued about it. This was sad but in the end it didn’t matter all that much. It suited us both. She got to feel like a punk, he like we’d stick together – if not out of love then necessity – so that money was not for us just the ultimate abstraction but something to share between bodies. We sat on the bench opposite the row of dryers. He leaned his head on her shoulder. Rain pummelled the window. We watched our clothes turning, our trainers thudding against the drum. He said, Why did we buy those eggcups we never eat boiled eggs. She said, We never eat boiled eggs because we have no fuckin egg cups. We were silent for a while. Then he said, I don’t think I’m going to make it to the library today. She said, I miss our coffees in the morning. He went outside and stood hunched in the doorway smoking a tube. When he returned he didn’t look at her. She said, What’s wrong with you? I don’t know he said. Yes you do. You’re think- ing of leaving. No he said, I’m thinking we should go our separate ways. She said, Your plans are our plans. She paused. Except if I get that residency at Cove Park. If I get it then I’m going alone. You could visit on the weekends though. A washing machine shifted into spin cycle, the machines out of sync. He took a deep breath and said, I can’t believe you bought a Better Together umbrella! You should have tried it out in the shop. It’s bad luck to open umbrellas indoors she said. He said, You’re so superstitious! It’s only superstition to those who don’t believe she said. My mum’s grandmère died from the Evil Eye. I told you about her, the indentured labourer. Working the sugar cane fields. One night she had a fever, she cried out – she’s had the evil eye put on me! then died. Who had the evil eye put on her? Supposedly the wife of the blan who managed the plantation. My great-grandfather. Anyway, would you call her superstitious? Remember Caliban and The Witch. She took her jumper off and folded it up. She put it on his shoulder and her neck on the jumper. We didn’t speak for several minutes. His/her shoulder/neck was becoming numb. He said, But we are though, aren’t we? Yes she said, You’re Caliban and I’m the Witch. No! Better together. Fuck the union she said. Independence for Scotland, co-dependence for us. He turned his head and looked at the top of her head with his blue eyes.
We stayed sitting on the bench, quiet, unable to shift our gaze from the tumbling clothes, our trainers making that elliptical thud against the drum. The dry heat, the felted air. Outside, the trees thrashing their heads, roads running with water. A while later she lifted her head. We were right to come up here she said, England wanted us dead… no not England. London… not London. The state. The state doesn’t want us dead he said, it just doesn’t care if we are. Most of the time when the state speaks of sacrifice the state means THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME EAT YOU, that’s what Ariana Reines said she said.