Finding a book from São Tomé and Príncipe was not easy. Unlike Angola and Mozambique, whose literature is openly distributed in Portugal, this small archipelago has not yet produced popular novelists like Pepetela, Mia Couto and Ondjaki, and I think that makes all the difference, because it’s writers like those who can carry the rest of literature on their shoulders. São Tomé and Príncipe, from my investigations, is mostly a country of poets, and we all know how popular they are. My best bet was Conceição Lima (b. 1961), a woman poet who perhaps is its most internationally-known writer, and deservedly so. She was born on the island of São Tomé, studied journalism in Portugal and received a degree in literature from King's College in London, where she also lives. She’s a journalist, writes for newspapers and magazines, has also worked for radio and television and currently works at the BBC. She came of age after her country’s independence and started writing poetry in her teens, during the revolutionary period. Her poetry works as a historical repository of the atrocities that afflicted the archipelago – colonialism, slavery, massacres – but being a post-independence writer, she’s also critical of the revolution’s failures to give body to its ideals. Her first book was published in 2004 and she has three poetry books to her name. I’ve culled a few from each.
From O Útero da Casa (2004):
I want myself awake
If I return to the uterus’ house
To grope the daytime penumbra
Of the walls
Reliving in the fingers’ skin the softness
Of the underground days
The bygone moments
I believe in this amplitude
Of beach perhaps or of desert
I believe in the insomnia that bends
This theatre of shadows
And if I wonder
It’s to explain to you
Pain river fury waterfall of fury
For the rain dallies and the obô saddens
I don’t resent the death of the baobab trees
The Square widowed with talk and smiling fingers
A basalt step emerges from the sea
And in the dance of the ivies I re-inhabit
My melancholy castle
Made of hard planks and bobs.
SHOW ME THE MOON’S BLOOD
Show me the moon’s blood
Now that the dead lie
Show me the moon’s blood
Now that the beach has spat
The sea’s sickness
And the rocks’ disgust
Petrify the screams I did not hear
Show me the blood
The blood and the moon’s veins
When the severed tongues
In Fernão Dias in the month of February.
That was a very concrete reference in the last verse. I had to look it up. On February 3, 1953, hundreds of Santomeans died in a historic uprising. The governor, a Portuguese, needed workers for plantations and constructions, and sent the authorities to arrest people on spurious charges of vagrancy to justify putting them at work under forced labour, at no cost for the state. The population rebelled and the governor authorised a bloody reprisal that became known as the Batepá Massacre. A thousand Santomeans were butchered by the authorities, with the bulk of the crimes happening on the small coastal village of Fernão Dias. This date is considered a precursor of the 1961 colonial war and is a national holiday.
From A Dolorosa Raiz do Micondó (2006):
He who in the stars’ rotation
And the oracles of the wise
Sought his law and commandment,
Reason, acquiescence, foundation
He who from the living held the spear and fate
He who from the throne of dead men came
He whom the voice of the tribe anointed
Called king, with power invested
To cloth, to mirrors, to beads
To greed, avidity, trifles
The doors of the court he opened
His kingdom of people he depleted.
THE WITCH’S LEGEND
San Malanzo was old, very old.
San Malanzo was poor, very poor.
She had no children, no grandchildren
No nephews, no sons-in-law
Not even cousins or step-children
She was very poor and very old
Very old and very poor she was.
She was old, she was poor San Malanzo
Poor and very old
Old and very poor
She was old and poor
She was poor and old
While the machete’s edge
Moved over the trapped fear
The world stretched an eyelid –
And when the camera’s eye
Gutted at last the silence
A methodical wind storm had reddened
Forever waters and fields.
Which organize the universe’s chaos
Initiated the urgency of reports
And the statistics of skeletons.
Rwanda still counts the skulls of its children.
From O País de Akendenguê (2011):
CATACLYSM AND SONGS
Happy whatever remains of me, after me
If just one of my sung songs
Lives beyond he who now sings inside me.
From the hecatomb however I would not save
A single one of the songs I sang and sing.
From oblivion’s entrails
I’d rather steal children’s laughter
And the age of proverbs.
So to the future ones
I could offer intact the enigma of light.
The ships return
Loaded with cities and distance
The crickets fall asleep.
A child listens to the concavity of a seashell.
Perhaps it’s time for another voyage.
In the bow, for sure, the route’s decision
Here alchemies are created
Slow hymns sewn into lacerations
Quiet the dead.
There are caves and fire birds
Sprouts of troublesome errands.
The hard craft of tilling patience.
The art of the voyage happens
So much learning at the helm, and amends…
That’s when the eye imitates the island’s example
And every sea bursts in the veranda.
Unfortunately this is all I have from São Tomé and Príncipe. Next we’ll move to Cape Verde.