I am often asked when I became a writer, and I have taken to not rushing my answer. A character from one of my stories would say that the difference between African wise men and European wise men is that the former are the last to provide answers. The truth is, the question does merit a pause for thought, not only to think of an answer, but also to think about the nature of the question itself. As Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa, my dear Mestre Rosa, would say: God may tarry, but He will surely come. In my own case, God has not arrived yet.
Most of the time the question is flawed. There is no such thing as the moment we become something. No one becomes a writer as if they were fulfilling some irreversible destiny. The verb to be is more accurate in these matters: you can’t become a writer, you are one.
Yet none of these considerations ever satisfy the curiosity of those who ask me when I became a writer. So I have given up working round the question’s misconceptions. Now I reply, and make up a new explanation each time.
I was about six years old. My parents announced our trip to Gorongosa National Park as follows: ‘We’re going to see the animals’. It was a promise, a gift, aware as they were of my passion for animals. At the time, the world I knew was very small: my neighbourhood was as big as the universe. And so my eyes were more open and available, in search of everything.
It was a long journey; this was the early 1960s and the roads in Sofala, in central Mozambique, demanded courage and patience. It was the sense of adventure that made it worthwhile. And so I settled into the backseat of the old car, fighting with my two brothers over who got to sit by the window.
We entered the park and travelled a short distance when, all of a sudden, a pair of lions appeared out of nowhere. Our car stopped. The big cats stood one metre away. You could hear them breathing, even with the windows closed. And there they were, parading like divine beings from another time, a time I knew only from the stories my parents told us at night.
The sight shattered something inside me. And not just because of its imposing grandeur, but because I realized that I did not know how to see. To watch, a certain type of silence is needed, almost a devotion; in order to see you need a prior, acknowledged blindness.
But what most amazed me would only happen later. I was at the empty camp, right in the middle of Gorongosa, in the heart of the Urema River Valley. The park occupies a vast flood plain that was drawn over the so-called Great Rift, the fracture which splits the African continent. After the ocean, this is the oldest thing man can witness.
I asked my father to stop the car:
Let’s stop here, I want to see.
Want to see what?
I did not know how to explain it. I was at a loss for words. In the lions, I had been gazing at life. In that landscape I was seeing, for the first time, the infinity of the world. Not that the landscape was making me small, smaller than I already was. I no longer had a size. The stopped car, my brothers complaining that there was ‘nothing to see’.
Just a bit longer, I pleaded.
But a bit longer would never be enough. Time was not what I lacked. What I lacked was a sense of self.
My parents’ stories, too, made me a writer. Not the stories themselves, which I do not remember. What I remember, as clearly as if they were standing here before me, is the passion my mother and father put into the telling. They summoned ancient voices, channelled the longing they felt for their homeland and made those absent voices return. It was a sort of mass, a sacred moment.
Like all those who emigrate, my parents started a family as if it were a country. Like all emigrants, they told stories. But these were not just stories. They were ships, they were journeys, they were return trips home. My parents needed to live in the nowhere land between the place they had nearly lost and the one they had nearly won. They lived in the stories they told. That is where they went, at the end of the day, they sat on the edge of my bed and made up stories.
This was not just storytelling, it was performance. They pretended they were the grandparents we had never met, the aunts, uncles and cousins on the other side of the world. They created a sense of eternity, borne out of the shared word.
The voices I heard in my childhood are the voices I come back to. They have clung to me, unfinished and eternal. I am the child of emigrants, but I am also the child of their stories.
My childhood home was a place of many voices. Throughout my childhood and adolescence we lived in a colonial house, built on pillars with a front staircase leading onto a veranda that wrapped around nearly the entire building.
I am from a time when we had streets and we had squares and public walkways. And the sand road was all ours. We invented yards, football stadiums, universes, all without time or scale. My neighbourhood was its own private homeland; and is still the only one I feel I truly belong to.
My whole childhood was spent running between two territories: the house and the street. The walls of the house did not close off space; they were open borders. Only the displeased sigh of my mother separated the outdoors from in.
I remember two parts: the kitchen and the veranda. With everything else – the sitting rooms, the bedrooms, the hallways – there remains no intimacy or history. Those were constructed, functional spaces, used only in passing, while the kitchen and the veranda were natural, eternal and sacred spaces.
First, the veranda. The veranda was where our house was liveliest, where it was closest to being part of the universe. In that world of contrasts between races, languages and cultures, the veranda was where the house and the street made conversation, where neighbours became family and strangers became familiar.
The veranda was a street inside our home. And that was where I watched my father shaking his poems with his hands as if drying the ink, my mother chiding him, complaining there were more useful things to do. The veranda was where we were allowed laziness and wonderment, because schoolwork was done indoors, in that other space.
I would do my schoolwork seated on the kitchen floor. Every afternoon, the same ritual: I would play in the street until I was called in to study. Dejected, I would cross the yard in my bare feet, where a huge, old mango tree spread its branches. Then I would creep slowly across the back patio, where dishes and clothes were washed and sheets hung out to dry. I remember walking across that yard as if it all belonged to the mango tree, as if the space had been made to hold its shadows.
My annoyance did not last long, because being in the kitchen was as much a delight as playing in the street. Women milled around a large wooden table, placed in the centre, sometimes stepping on my hands and stumbling over my notebooks. I watched their long skirts billowing like curtains.
They spoke quietly, in whispers. They murmured, told secrets, traded mysteries. And in that secluded spot they could conjure up the sanctity of a temple. What was prepared there was more alchemy than labour. It was not something that was done, it happened.
I remember one other time that left a deep impression on me. I was about nine years old when a primary school teacher interrupted the lesson to read something he had written. It was an essay, and he wrote it not as homework but as a simple exercise, writing for the sake of writing.
The first wave of bewilderment came as soon as he explained what he was doing. We the students were the ones supposed to be writing essays. We were the ones who read them aloud, and it was his place to correct us. Why was this grown man subjecting himself to a reversal of roles? Why had he decided to do something only done by those still learning?
I remember it like it was yesterday: the teacher was a very tall, serious man, and he went up to the lectern holding, in his trembling fingers, a school notebook. And it was as if he had turned into a fragile little boy in the middle of exams. He looked like a flagpole, alone and unprotected.
Then he announced the essay’s title, a surprise, as it seemed almost childish. The teacher was going to talk about his mother’s hands. We wondered why an adult (and especially one of such authority) would share something so sentimental with us. But what I heard prompted much more than bewilderment: he spoke of his mother as I might speak of my own. I had also known those same hands, marked by work, wrinkled by life’s hardships, ignorant of any cosmetic balm.
The essay ended without artifice or literary device. It was simple, and I can quote it almost by heart: this is what I want to tell you, Mother, to tell you how proud I am of your calloused hands, to tell you I only remember the affection in their gestures. There was something profoundly true in his essay that set it apart from the ones in our textbooks. No moral conclusion stood out, affixed to a great proclamation like a raised flag. It was not a lecture, it was a lesson, and we were learning, without knowing we were learning. It set off a strange revelation in me about the power of writing, and how the written word can encompass feeling.
Is there a moment when we become writers? Perhaps there are many, even if they may only be accessible through writing itself.
Or perhaps one becomes a writer by looking at the world as if for the first time, and discovering something in it still waiting to be unveiled.
The above memoir was first published in Granta Portugal 4: África (Africa).
Photograph courtesy of Bart Wursten