Lucy Popescu

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Review – The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão

Posted by lucypopescu on January 20, 2011

Before reading Teolinda Gersão’s vivid evocation of a girl’s coming-of-age in Africa, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, I knew little about the history of Mozambique, its Portuguese colonisers, the crushing poverty and its fight for independence.

The daughter of Portuguese parents, Gita is growing up in the sprawling, chaotic port, Lourenço Marques, as the capital of Mozambique was known until 1976. For Gita, life revolves around her adoring father Laureano and black housekeeper Lóia. She is at pains to avoid her seamstress mother, Amélia, whose crushing sense of disappointment weighs heavily on them all. An unwilling immigrant, Amélia travelled from a rural village in Portugal to Africa in response to Laureano’s newspaper advertisement for a young bride.

Gita’s joy in simple pleasures is infectious: “Everything in the back yard danced: the broad leaves of a banana tree, the flowers and leaves of the Hibiscus, the still tender branches of the jacaranda, the blades of grass that grew like weeds…”

Her sense of wonder is in sharp contrast to Amélia’s relentless dissatisfaction. Not content with their modest wealth, especially when compared to those living in the shanty towns, Amélia craves the lifestyle of Mozambique’s rich with their servants, chauffeur-driven cars and expensive clothes. Gersão perfectly captures these two distinct voices — the tart despair of Amélia and youthful exuberance of Gita.

Amélia is doomed to remain forever an outsider looking in. The impossibility of her aspirations is revealed when she enters one of many shops aimed at the Portuguese elite: “You could live without jewellery or perfume. In that climate, gloves and furs were quite superfluous, a luxury that could only be shown off on very rare occasions. But that was precisely what attracted her, it was why she had gone into that shop. She had wanted the superfluous, the luxurious, what was reserved for the few.”

This desire to possess what is so blatantly unnecessary in a country battling with poverty is heartbreaking. Inevitably, Amélia’s growing disillusionment and the decisions she takes taint her husband and daughter.

Gersão’s achievement is to use the personal stories of one family to shed light on Mozambique’s troubled past and the immigrant experience in Africa.

It is indicative of the dire state of foreign fiction in this country that despite being translated into eleven languages, The Word Tree is only the first of Gersão’s twelve novels to be published in English, thanks to Dedalus’s new Africa series. Hopefully, other will swiftly follow. After a two-year campaign, Arts Council England recently restored its regular funding of this tiny, literary powerhouse, allowing them to continue to publish new literary fiction in translation and offer readers a window into other worlds.

Tr Margaret Jull Costa

Dedalus, £9.99

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One Response to “Review – The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão”

  1. M. .H. pereira said

    Teolinda Gersão was my teacher at university, she was just starting her teching career and she has always been that sweet, calm, lady that she appears to be and still is. I lived in Mozambique and spent my childhood and youth (with just a break of 4 years when I came to Portugal to study at Lisbon university), and part of my adulthood in that country So, the book “The word tree” had a special meaning to me because the author manages to portray the places, streets, lifestyles, customs, habits, feelings, way of thinking with such detail, accuracy and truth that it made me be carried back many years to my own life there. IT is amazing for, as far as I know, Teolinda wasn’t born there nor was she one of the colonists (she probably went there because her husband might have been sent to fight the “colonial war”)and yet, she seems to know in depth the social and political reality of the country. There is just one inaccuracy when she mentions “Sta Catarina Island” instead of “Sta Carolina” (also known as “Paradise Island” by the South African and Rhodesian tourists arriving every week by plane to the airfield of Vilanculos, and is one of the islands of the Bazaruto Archipleago, today a luxury holiday resort). And I know this well because my father was the accountant of the entrepreneur who was exploiting those places for tourism and I spent my childhood in that region. I would like to tell this to Teolinda Gersão myself , but I didn’t have the opportunity as, unfortunately, I couldn’t attend an interview/talk she gave at a Library near my house.

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