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Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

We Are Made of Memories: A Conversation with Mia Couto

May 2, 2013 | by

350px-Mia_CoutoBorn in 1955 in Mozambique, to Portuguese immigrants, Mia Couto is widely considered one of the foremost wielders of the Portuguese language. He has written more than twenty books that have been translated into at least as many languages, and those translated into English since 1990 have garnered him a dedicated Anglophone following. Although Couto’s fiction varies widely, he frequently deals with Mozambique’s civil war, which erupted in 1977, two years after he turned twenty and his nation gained its independence from Portugal. His recurrent use in his work of surreal effects has led many critics to liken his fiction to Latin America’s magical realism, a label at which he bristles.

The Tuner of Silences, brought into English by Couto’s longtime translator David Brookshaw and published this year by Biblioasis, tells the story of Vítalico, a father who has dragged his children to an abandoned Mozambican nature preserve after the horrifying death of his wife. As Couto explores the nature of Vítalico’s regime and its eventual collapse, he delves into frequent obsessions: the construction of identity and the role that memory and language play in that process.

Recently, over e-mail, I discussed Tuner, influences, labels, and the curious provenance of Couto’s first name in our e-mail correspondence.

You’ve mentioned the Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira and the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa as two influences on your understanding of the Portuguese language. What sorts of cultural influences from within Mozambique have you drawn from?

I usually refer to Luandino and Guimarães Rosa as those who inspired me most, but the most important influences on my writing come from those I can’t identify, persons that populated my childhood, my hometown in the Indian ocean, the neighborhood where I was born and where I started to dream about other places and other lives. So, ironically, the main source of inspiration of my writing came from the nonwriting world. Oral culture is still dominant in Mozambique, and the ability to convert reality into stories is still very alive here, even in the urban areas. Storytelling is not exclusively a skill of the griots—the common citizen shares this capacity, telling stories not just with words but with their whole body, using dance and songs and poetry as a unique language. Read More »

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Maji Moto

June 27, 2012 | by

 

May 2011, Durham, North Carolina. It is late spring and the rain comes heavy in this old tobacco town. Rivulets carve tiny tributaries into the Durham Triassic Basin. Soaking up the water, the red clay swells, and then offers up an overture of honeysuckle blossoms and sugar snap peas for the upcoming symphony of tomatoes and sweet corn.

In October of 2008, I traveled to another basin, a former Pleistocene lake in Kenya. In Amboseli, my intention was to study the evolution of mate choice and fertility signals in a population of wild baboons for my dissertation research. I was working with the Amboseli Baboon Research Project, an ongoing project that began more than four decades ago. Since the time that Kenya became free of British colonial rule, when the Amboseli basin was thick with rhinoceros, researchers from the United States have been following the daily lives of the baboons in Amboseli. The births of infant male Suede, born in November of 2008, and his younger brother Saa, born in August of 2010, were like bookends on my time in Amboseli. Sorghum, their lean and lanky mother, has a coat that seems dusted with ochre undertones like the deep red soil of Amboseli, and the clay from the Triassic basin. She is high-ranking and she certainly knows it. Born into a lineage of great fortune, she is the daughter of Sera, who was the daughter of Sana, who was the daughter of Safi, who was the daughter of Spot, who was the daughter of Alto, who was one of the first adult females to be identified in Amboseli by Jeanne and Stuart Altmann in 1969.

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The Difference Between Me and Ann Beattie

June 21, 2012 | by

© Bob Adelman.

I remember reading my first Ann Beattie story. I was sitting in my dorm room on a loft bed with a hard mattress. This was in North Carolina, at night. The dorm was a big stone structure with crenelated battlements that made me dream of castles. My room overlooked the main quad, and I often heard boozy students in the background, college kids stumbling from the buses as they made their way across the lawn and back to their rooms. I was reading from a paperback copy of Park City. I don’t recall much else. I was probably in sweats and an old tee that smelled like pot, lying on my bed, legs crossed with Beattie’s book upright on my chest. Since it was late, I had likely already eaten dinner—gluey pasta and mozzarella sticks delivered in foil pans. Maybe the door was locked. But what I do remember is this: the soft shiver that gathered at the back of my neck as I flipped through the final pages of “The Burning House” and, in the end, chilled me to my core.

After that first story, I kept reading. Aside from admiring her effortless, cool prose, I was drawn to Beattie’s gay characters. They were everywhere—“The Burning House,” “The Cinderella Waltz,” “Gravity”—and they were so different from the kinds of gay characters I was used to reading about. None of them were dying of AIDS or getting beat up or coming out to their parents. Instead, they drank Galliano by the bottle and ashed their joints in unusual places—a boiling pot of sauce, for instance. The same could be said for the other characters who populated Beattie’s fiction. Their problems were so … ordinary.

But if you lined me and Beattie’s characters up, I’d stick out like a sore thumb. Here’s the difference: Beattie’s boys and girls are Greenwich, Connecticut; I’m just a kid from Columbus, Ohio. They’re post-Woodstock; I’m post-Britney. Even though I’ve traveled with parents as far as Rome and the Red Sea, we don’t have a mountain home in Vermont. We don’t have friends who own an art gallery in SoHo.

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Staff Picks: Genet’s Maids, Hockey, and Vivaldi

April 13, 2012 | by

I recently took out a subscription to National Geographic. I haven’t really looked at the magazine since childhood, and with the very first issue I received a couple months ago, I couldn’t believe I’d been away so long. NatGeo’s known for its photography for a reason: the imagery in these stunning, often unearthly shots seems tangible. My favorite so far is a portfolio by Phyllis Galembo of African and Haitian ritual costumes. These are a long way from your typical African masks. “Just putting one on,” says one art historian, “is a charged event.” —Nicole Rudick

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—the NHL postseason! Grantland's Katie Baker, making predictions for the opening series of the Stanley Cup playoffs, picks Tupac’s “Hit 'Em Up“ as the representative song for the first-round “hatefest“ between the Penguins and Flyers (which, for those unfamiliar with current hockey events, is a perfect fit). —Natalie Jacoby

Dinners for Beginners, written in 1937 and out now from Persephone, is “for people who know nothing about cooking. At the same time, it is intended for all those—whether they can cook or not—who appreciate good food and like to entertain their friends, but cannot afford to spend more than a strictly limited amount of money on housekeeping … The authors have tried to write a cookery book that EXPLAINS EVERYTHING. No knowledge is taken for granted. The beginner is not expected to know by the light of nature how to make gravy, sauces, or pastry; she is told when the lid of a saucepan or fireproof dish ought to be on when it should be off.” —Sadie Stein

This weekend I am checking out a new production of The Maids, Jean-Paul Sartre’s alleged “favorite play ever.” Loosely based on the Papin sisters, French servant girls who brutally murdered their employer in 1933, Maids was penned by notorious thief-turned-playwright Jean Genet. Get a taste of the sadomasochistic weirdness in this clip from the 1974 film adaptation. Running through Sunday. —Allison Bulger

Vivaldi’s “Spring” while reading The Clouds by William Carlos Williams. An unlikely pair, I admit, but it works: Williams’s images of the forever changing clouds marching across the sky, set to the whimsy and flux of Vivaldi’s classic, which captures so perfectly the feeling of this season—inherently a march of change. Try it. —Elizabeth Nelson

Hard as it might be to choose a favorite Dick Cavett interview, I always find myself returning to his talks with movie stars and directors. From the rambunctious episode with Peter Falk, Ben Gazarra, and John Cassavetes to erudite study with Jean-Luc Godard to the relaxed reminiscences of Katharine Hepburn, there's never a dull moment. —Josh Anderson

The Met’s production of La Traviata is live in HD this Saturday. I can’t wait! —S. S.

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Kevin Young on ‘Ardency’

February 15, 2011 | by

Photograph by Kate Tuttle.

In Ardency, the poet Kevin Young chronicles the experiences of fifty-three Africans who mutinied aboard the Amistad slave ship in 1839. After killing two of their Spanish captors, they sailed up the coast of the United States, only to be intercepted by a naval brig and thrown in a Connecticut jail. Their case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the earlier court’s decision: because the international slave trade had been abolished, the men and women aboard the Amistad were not legally slaves and thus had been illegally captured. They were entitled to use force to secure their freedom. The Amistad mutiny would be one of the many events that gave the abolitionist movement traction leading up to the Civil War. In this book, Young conjures their voices in letters, poems, and songs, documenting their violent capture and eventual return to Africa in 1842. Young has tangled with the complexities of American history in his six previous collections, including For the Confederate Dead and Dear Darkness. He recently edited the anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing and is finishing The Gray Album, a nonfiction work about music and history, forthcoming from Graywolf next year.

You spent twenty years working on Ardency. What originally drew you to the story of the Amistad?

I stumbled on letters the Amistad prisoners wrote from jail. I was struck by their poignancy and how the prisoners spoke in this new language of English. But I was struck by what the letters didn’t say, what was permitted of them to say, and, then, what they did mange to say because of or despite those limits.

What was so great about working on this book was that no one knew about it. I didn’t know if I was ever going to do anything with it, but I knew that there was this story I wanted to learn more about. Also, I knew that I wanted to write in the voice of Cinque, who led the rebellion, but wasn’t ready to write in his voice yet.

There are many strangely beautiful phrases in the letters—“be my dear benefactory,” “Cold catch us all the time,” “I am your perfect stranger”—that have the urgency of someone really trying to master the language.

Master is an interesting verb. They had masters who bought them in Cuba and forged documents giving them new identities saying they were born in Cuba. Though he international slave trade was illegal, you could still purchase slaves who were born into slavery. So they were learning English to become free, but there is a sense in the letters that they are trying to free themselves from English.

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