I wondered what home may mean and what different routes one might take to get there.
Independent publisher Giramondo, has recently released two books in their “Shorts” collection, one titled “João”, a collection of sixty-four sonnets by John Mateer, the other a short novella, “Saudade”, by Suneeta Peres da Costa an Australian born author to parents of Goan origin.
This short work consists of eleven single paragraph chapters, runs to 114 pages, and is a coming-of-age story set in Angola, a colony about to move from Portuguese rule to independence. The cultural hybridity that I recently discussed with Asian-Australian poet Adam Aitken really comes to the fore in this novella with the protagonist narrator and her family being Goan immigrants in Angola. They had fled Goa, India, after the Indian “liberation” of the state from Portugal in December 1961. From one Portuguese colony that had been “liberated” to another which is now undergoing a similar fate.
Written in the first person, the book opens with childhood memories of a young girl and the simplicity of simply observing her mother, however there is a juxtaposition of fear, with the image of the dead walking backwards shimmering on the periphery. She is safe in her mother’s presence, but as a reader you know that fear and danger is always lurking in the shadows.
Told through the innocent eyes of a child the unsettling nature of being an exile in a land where you may soon be exiled is a wonderful balance of innocence and vulnerability.
I could hear them talking in lowered voices in Kimbundu. Ifigênia had been told to speak Portuguese in my company but she often forgot and spoke Kimbundu anyway. Though I could understand only a smattering, I found Kimbundu, with its spirited rhythms, beautiful. And if it did not occur to me that they may have been talking about me, this was less because of humility than beacause it has not yet dawned on me that Kimbundu might be the language, as I might be the source, of some of their plaints and grievances. When this became evident I might find Kimbundu a cacophony, at the first sound of which I would reach for pliable beeswax to stop up my ears! (pp 15-16)
Our narrator when young refuses to speak, but occasionally sings, and the awkwardness of being a single child, adoring of her mother, is beautifully presented through personal recollections and simply crisp language.
When the soldier had gone, her mother struck Inês across the face. Susana looked away ashamed and so did some others nearby, yet no one protested against this act of cruelty and little Inês herself seemed well acquainted with it; she only folded up her legs, rocked and murmured quietly to herself. I turned over the insight – those who hurt you may be the same who otherwise claimed to protect your interests and care for you – (pp 59-60)
A tale that has elements of domestic violence, fear, infidelity, but these are matter of fact events, part of our narrator’s make-up. It is the mother-daughter relationship that is more forefront here, even in the quote above it is not the shock of a domestically violent situation that comes home to roost with our young girl narrator but more the realisation that those who love you may also hurt you.
On the morning of my Crisma my mother braided my hair with moringa from the garden. She stood back after plaiting the buds into my hair and, congratulating herself on the work of art which I, lace dress, lace veil, and wearer of her well-tended blossoms had become, said see what a pretty girl I could be. The more often she said such things, the more I resented my sex and the awkward complications of my body. I looked with envy at boys my age, kicking footballs, able to go out late and return whenever they pleased, and swearing in the street. If I were a boy, I believed, I might escape all that those blossoms and my mother’s words seemed to prefigure… (p69)
The title of the novella, Saudade, means melancholy in Portuguese and it is through melancholic eyes that our protagonist views the end of colonial rule, with an innocence of youth and of being an immigrant.
Although short, this book opened up an understanding of Portuguese rule in Angola and Goa for me, it was only through reading this work that I spent some time reading more information about the political situations in those countries/states in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is one of the beauties of reading fiction from many cultures, it expands my understanding of other diasporas, it opens my eyes to displacement and multi-culturalism from many different angles.
Congratulations have to go to Giaramondo for delving into the publication of shorter works, in the United Kingdom we have Peirene Press whose motto is “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: Literary cinema for those fatigued by film” and it is a welcome addition to Australian publishing to have a similar outlet here for smaller works, books that fit somewhere between a long short story and a novel.
A lingering work that may not answer the question of what routes need to be taken to get home, or what home may even mean – but you may need to read it to see if it does!!!