Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Ana Paula Tavares' Poetry

Ana Paula Tavares was born in the Huíla province, in Angola, in 1952, during the colonial era. More specifically, she was born in its capital, Lubango. Huíla was the home of her people, the Nyaneka-Nkhumbi, shepherds who subsist on their cattle, namely oxen. Due to the oxen’s importance there’s the annual procession of the Sacred Ox, a tradition claimed to be descended from the Egyptian god Apis; I only bring up this ethnographic curiosity because one of Paula Tavares’ book of poems opens exactly with an invocation of the ox:

Ox, ox,
Genuine ox,
guide my voice
Between sound and silence

Her poetry is deeply entwined with the traditions she grew up in. “To the Nyaneka society I owe poetry, music,” she says in an interview. She’s also a spiritual poet, concerned with the condition of women Angolan society, although she sees her poetry as feminine, not feminist. Frequently she mixes her ethnographic interest (she’s also an anthropologist) with her meditations about women, as the poem “Girl” shows:

The ox they’ll trade me for grows with me
They tied the plank to my back
Daughter of Tembo
I tend the maize

I carry around my back the heavy bracelets
Of the days that have passed…
I’m from the ox’s clan.

From my ancestors I kept patience
The desert’s deep slumber,
the lack of limits…

From the mixture of ox and tree
proximity to the sea.

Daughter of Huco
With his first wife
A sacred cow granted me
The favour of its fertile teats.

Paula Tavares completed her history course in Portugal, where she currently lives, and she’s written books on anthropology and the history of Angola and is deeply involved in Angolan cultural activities.

Her career as a poet began after the independence war. She published her first collection of poems in 1985, Ritos de Passagem (Rites of Passage), published by the Angolan Writers’ Union. In 2007 it was reprinted in Portugal with illustrations by Luandino Vieira. Due to the sensuality and frank descriptions of the female body and female sexuality, she was accused of writing pornography:


On the moon’s white lake
I washed my first blood
To the moon’s white lake
I’d return every month
To wash
My eternal blood
On each new moon

On the moon’s white lake
I mixed my blood
And white clay
And made the cup
Where I drink
The bitter water from my unquenchable thirst
The honey of clear days
In this lake I deposit
My reserve of dreams to take

Her fame has risen, though, and she’s Angola’s leading female poet. Paula Tavares has also written chronicles for the radio and co-written a novel with the Portuguese novelist Manuel Jorge Marmelo. But she’s mostly known for her poetic work. She’s published about four collections so far, the most recent dating from 2007. I think poetry lovers would like her. Her poems are delicate, concise and synaesthetic. She writes of love, death, tradition, war, nature, and the human body, in a serene voice that hides grief.

She’s practically unknown, like all African writers writing in Portuguese. The average reader seldom remembers African literature exists, but if he must grudgingly acknowledge it, it’s always with the proviso that all African literature is written in English and that it was inaugurated by Chinua Achebe in 1958. (Remember, Egypt is not African because it’s an Arab country and Naguib Mahfouz wasn’t already writing novels in the 1930s). Still Paula Tavares doesn’t seem very upset about her lack of fame. When questioned if she’s a universal writer, she replied, “No. Who am I? The world is vast and strange.” Like all good writers, she’s interested in what’s around her. “Angola hurts in me every day, it cheers me in the same way.” But like Tolstoy said, if you want to be universal, start by writing about your village. So I guess she’s on the right path.


“You tell me bitter words
Like fruits…”


Loved one, why do you return
with death in your eyes
and no sandals
as if an other inhabited you
in a time
all time

Loved one, where did you lose your metal tongue
the one of signs and proverbs
with my name written on it

            Where did you leave your voice
            soft as grass and velvet
            sown with stars

Loved one, my love,
what returned of you
is your shadow
split in half
it is one before you
bitter words
like fruits


  1. Thank you - a beautiful introduction to a poet I'd never heard of before. If you can recommend any contemporary literature from some of the Portuguese speaking African countries for my list at A Year of Reading the World ( I'd be very grateful for your thoughts.

    1. Londonchoirgirl, hello. Thanks for the kind words.

      I have made a list of Portguese-language African literature available in English, if you want to give it a look:

      I admire what you're doing, reading one book from every country. That's amazing! Good luck with it.