Natasha Soobramanien & Luke Williams’s Diego Garcia

Orit Gat

The USS Saratoga (CV-60) moored at the British Naval Base on Diego Garcia, 1987. Photo by U.S. Navy. Licensed under Creative Commons 1.0.

July 1, 2022
Fitzcarraldo Editions

The narrator of Diego Garcia, a novel written collaboratively by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams, is sometimes a he, sometimes a she, always a we. When its two speakers, Oliver and Damaris, are not together, the narrative can fracture into separate columns. They live in Edinburgh. It’s 2014. “We” walk to the library; “he” makes coffee in the morning; “she” loves the cardamom buns at the Swedish café. The city is a backdrop to their conversations about Theodor Adorno and James Baldwin, the Velvet Underground, writing, and money; they discuss their debts in numbers, their credit scores in terms of unavailable futures. On the streets are posters for the Scottish Independence referendum.

Their life feels detached until one day they meet Diego. Diego is Chagossian, from the community exiled to Mauritius and the Seychelles by the British government between 1967 and 1973 so that the island of Diego Garcia could be turned into a US military base. Diego—the name he adopted in acknowledgement of his lost homeland—meets them one night for a drink. They never see Diego again, but before he leaves he tells Damaris his life story: how he grew up in Mauritius and ended up undocumented in the UK. Damaris is British of Mauritian descent; the two speak Creole (they say Kreol) together. His life is interwoven with stories she vaguely knows, from a landscape to which she is related as well: meeting Diego prompts her and Oliver to dig into the story of Diego Garcia.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Diego Garcia is fiction: not only because its characters’ biographies draw on the authors’ own, but because its world is built from such rich reference and research. The book weaves together descriptions of artworks by artists such as Kader Attia and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, discussions on Fred Moten, and legal documents related to the dispute over the sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago, of which Diego Garcia is a part. Damaris goes on a residency to Cove Park, on the west coast of Scotland, and writes a short story in which the protagonist is Diego’s sister Rose, who describes her own life and relationship to her lost homeland of Chagos, and recounts how Diego’s life and ultimate death doubled that loss, severing her connection to her past. When Oliver visits Damaris there, they watch Michel Daëron’s documentary Chagos ou la mémoire des îles [Unforgotten Islands] (2011), which includes an interview with the lawyer who represented the Chagossian cause at the International Court of Justice: “I would have liked to see the Chagos archipelago as something other than the pile of files on my desk. […] I would have liked to give it shape in order for us to talk about it better in the hushed arena of the courtroom.”

“To give it shape.” Above all, Diego Garcia is an attempt at giving shape to something—it is a compound account of loss. Chagossians use the word sagren to refer to their sorrow over leaving their home—“this heartbreak […] was killing Chagossians in exile.” It’s impossible to hear this word and not feel its impact. Once felt, experienced, or recognized as such, loss takes hold. That person, that place, that part of you is missing. Sagren, the way it kills you, is redescribed and reassessed throughout the book. It echoes the distress of English chagrin, or the sorrow and grief that the French word chagrin connotes, and yet it feels untranslatable. It’s not that the term or its use is slippery, just that it is so contextual.

Diego Garcia is constantly asking questions about other people’s lives. How much of a story is shared between people? Rose is chasing a loose, unavailable image of a missing homeland, just as Oliver and Damaris are chasing memories—brief, fleeing, intimate—of Oliver’s brother and Damaris’s friend Daniel, who died a few years earlier. The book continually approximates one fictional life for another (one loss for another). Loss, which feels so personal, is a common and communal experience, such that its exploration can also be a form of empathy: a way of asserting that these human experiences are shared. Zadie Smith writes that “We have found fiction wanting in myriad ways but rarely paused to wonder, or recall, what we once wanted from it.”1 What did we want from fiction? She cites a poem by Emily Dickinson in which the poet admits to measuring every grief she meets to see if it weighs as much as hers. Smith wants to believe that her writing offers proof “that our griefs were not entirely unrelated.”

The collaborative writing practice of Soobramanien and Williams—which draws on their lives, interests, research, and friendship, in which every line is both of them at once—suggests that we reconsider what fiction was and is. They reflect on what it means to tell someone else’s “not unrelated” grief, and how that story might become part of your own. Soobramanien is British of Mauritian descent and Williams Scottish. In a section of email correspondence at the end of the novel, Damaris expresses anxiety about writing in Rose’s voice in her short story: she describes reading Lindsey Colleen’s novel Mutiny (2001), in which Colleen, a white South African, writes from the point of view of a Chagossian woman of color. But, Damaris points out, Colleen’s writing is the result of lifelong political commitment to Chagos. Does that give her the authority to write from another perspective? Simply to worry about who gets to speak on behalf of whom does not resolve the issue. Instead, this book attempts a new way of speaking and being: a practice of closeness, warmth, and friendship. Not a solution, but a method. We all hold a place for other people’s stories, and in doing so, remind ourselves: stories are collective enterprises.

Natasha Soobramanien & Luke Williams’s Diego Garcia is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the United Kingdom and Semiotext(e) in the United States.


Zadie Smith, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” The New York Review of Books, October 24, 2019,

Colonialism & Imperialism
Fiction, Collaboration, Global South

Orit Gat is a writer based in London. She is a contributing editor at The White Review and Art Papers.

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