The Chat with Anthony De Sa

76494_de_sa_anthony_Photo Credit Laura Bombier
TREVOR-CORKUM-cropped_small

We continue our summer edition of The Chat in conversation with Toronto writer Anthony De Sa. His new novel, Children of the Moon, takes us back to twentieth-century Tanzania and Mozambique and tells the stories of Pó and Zeca, whose lives intertwine in the shadow of war.

Anthony De Sa grew up in Toronto’s Portuguese community. His first book, Barnacle Love, was critically acclaimed and became a finalist for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2009 Toronto Book Award. Anthony’s novel, Kicking the Sky, was set in 1977, the year a twelve-year-old shoeshine boy named Emanuel Jacques was brutally murdered in Toronto. Anthony graduated from University of Toronto and did his post-graduate work at Queen’s University. He attended The Humber School for Writers and Ryerson University. He lives in Toronto with his wife and three boys.
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THE CHAT WITH ANTHONY DE SA

Trevor Corkum: Anthony, your novel explores the lives of several characters with albinism in eastern Africa, as well as the brutal human trauma of the colonial war in Mozambique. When and how did the novel arrive for you?

Anthony De Sa: My uncle fought in Guinea from 1966–69. Military service was mandatory and he was only 19 years old. He came back a broken man. As a young boy my parents warned me not to talk about it; it was too difficult for my uncle and memory had become his ghost. But when I got older I began to ask him to share his stories. Too often, after I pressed him into an agitated state, he would simply get up and leave the room. Whatever he saw—whatever he had participated in—became an impenetrable force he could not shake. He was relegated to a world of some form of PTSD, in many ways feeling betrayed and alone.

When I first thought of exploring his story through fiction, I knew that the novel required a modern context in which I could bridge time to a forgotten war. I knew something was missing from the narrative and I didn’t want the story that was unfolding to turn into the cliché war story. That’s when I stumbled across an article in National Geographic about the plight of people with albinism (PWAs) in Tanzania. When I read of the present-day horror of what was being done to these people—murder, torture, grave-robbing—all to be sold as a magical commodity to healers, I knew that I could meld this novel into something that explores the fragility of what it is to be human through memory.

TC: Why was it important for you to tell this particular story?

ADS: I approached this work with a passionate need to better understand my world as opposed to that often-used trope, "write what you know." I grew up in the early seventies hearing about the Vietnam War. Western media was obsessed with that particular conflict and I began, even as a young boy, to question what happened in those Portuguese colonies: what exactly were my uncles subjected to? Was it fear that forced my grandparents to emigrate to Canada? At what cost?
What began as a personal journey to uncover information about my own family history, trying to make sense of those gaping holes of family members who refused to discuss their involvement in Portugal’s colonial wars, turned into this story, at least in its earliest incarnation. It wasn’t until I realized that the atrocities against persons with albinism was barely on the radar that I knew I could do my small part through fiction in bringing their current circumstance to light.

It wasn’t until I realized that the atrocities against persons with albinism was barely on the radar that I knew I could do my small part through fiction in bringing their current circumstance to light.

I contacted Peter Ash, CEO of Under the Same Sun, an organization that works tirelessly to protect PWAs and educate others about albinism in the hopes of dispelling myths and fears surrounding these people. I convinced him to take me to Tanzania with him—to work and learn. I argued that the medium of fiction could become a powerful conduit and reach a whole new audience.

TC: The amount of historical detail—from the haunting details of the Grande Hotel to missionary life in colonial Africa—is impressive. Can you briefly walk us through the main research challenges involved in writing the book?

ADS: When I began researching the new book, I was impressed with how much information was out there. The worldwide web opens itself to fiction writers. But something was missing. I knew if I expected my readers to buy into this world I was recreating that I owed them (and me) something far richer. I needed to visit Tanzania, to talk to many of the people with albinism and see the fear and uncertainty in their eyes. I had so many questions and I don’t think I ever asked a single one. I listened to their stories. Some of the children were too scarred to talk. Silence was their comfort. I sat with them, worked with them, learned so much about them and about me.

I then needed to travel to Mozambique and South Africa. The archives in Maputo held a treasure trove of information and images rarely seen in the media or on our computer screens. I spent a week in Gorongosa National Park, near the foothill of Mount Gorongosa. It is place that is sacred, widely believed as God’s Eden. But the guerilla group, RENAMO, had set up a base on the mountain and no generous offer to villagers to help me climb its peak was accepted. Even after a long and brutal civil war people understood fear.

In Beira I visited the Grande Hotel. A journalist in the city managed to get me in to walk its stripped hallways, to marvel at its former glory still recognizable amidst the heaps of garbage and shit and decay. Over 2,500 squatters live there with no running water or electricity. I needed to see it, be there, if I was to write about it convincingly. There were some frightening moments and perhaps I’ll be able to speak about them one day with clarity and greater understanding.

Fiction is perverse by its very nature. As a writer, I have the opportunity to allow my creative ideas to move beyond what I know. I gave myself permission to colour outside the lines, if you will. But if I was going to set my novel in this particular time and in these very real places which were so different from the places I could identify with, I felt a responsibility to see and feel and taste and smell and hear stories that were so important to these people. They became important to me.

If I was going to set my novel in this particular time and in these very real places which were so different from the places I could identify with, I felt a responsibility to see and feel and taste and smell and hear stories that were so important to these people.

TC: There are such beautiful and wrenching parallels between the hardships and joys faces by Pó and Ezequiel, and the slow intertwining of their lives is so exquisitely drawn. How difficult was it to inhabit and describe the lives of characters so different from your own?

ADS: It was difficult at first. I wanted to be free to write characters that were unlike me. But I also understood that it came with great responsibility and humility. I had to open myself to the idea that the world was an aesthetic object. And trespassing into otherness is, I think, the basis of a writer’s work. I had to be sensitive to these characters. I had no interest in peddling stereotypes and tried to stay away from generalizations. I floundered at times. Ultimately, I knew that if I was ever going to finish Children of the Moon, complete it in a way that I always intended, then I had to bring to the writing the same thoughts and feelings that I had brought to my previous books. How do others think and feel? How does that inform their behaviour? The idea is to create empathy by offering different ways of seeing. I just hope I’ve done that.

TC: What historical lessons or knowledge do you most hope readers take away from Children of the Moon?

ADS: I hope readers learn more about what I refer to as the forgotten wars. Humanity pays a price when we turn a blind eye to difficult events that are happening far from our own realities. I also hope Children of the Moon raises the profile of people with albinism and their daily struggle to survive.  

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Excerpt from Children of the Moon

Standing in the shadow of my balcony, I look beyond the hotel grounds to where the brown mouth of the Buzi River meets the Beira harbour, then out, out towards the open sea.

“I was born near the mountain of two peaks. White men called it Kilimanjaro.”

Serafi sits in a chair in my room and listens to my words. He is a journalist from Brazil, sent here, to Beira, to record my story for National Geographic. I know very little about him, except that I am comforted by the scritch-scratch of his pencil on paper and the crinkles around his eyes.

“My people, the Maasai, have always called that place Oldoinyo Oibor—White Mountain. They say the snowy peak, Kibo, is the house where all gods live.”

“Do you believe in God?” Serafim asks.

“There are no gods left. They have been driven off the mountain. If they ever were there.”

I turn slightly because I am curious to see his reaction. His face is down, looking at his hand move his pencil over paper. He is fifty—a solid man, his body strong and straight, his once-compact frame still visible under a layer of fat. His hair, the colour of warm sand, is parted on the side. Grease tames it into waves. His brown eyes are set close together and flat above his small nose, made smaller by his bushy moustache. He needs a shave.

Serafim adjusts himself on the chair, the same chair he has been sitting on during this past week, ever since he arrived. He sat patiently, interviewing those I had invited to speak to him. They were mostly women and children, the men unwilling to trust an outsider and reluctant to share their stories of fear with another man.

Serafim clears his throat. He pinches the cigarette that rests in the ashtray and draws in the smoke. It comes out his nose in two streams that slow, then curl together.

“Is that why you are here? Looking for gods?” It is too late to soften the edges of my words, but I know he does not care whether I believe in God. That’s not why he’s here.

In the past, journalists like Serafi had travelled great distances to meet me. They talked of the bigger world and how it was hungry to hear of my work. They brought food and school supplies for the children, and so I welcomed them. They promised my story would help end the threat faced by people like me. Their letters were thin and tilted forward as if they were being pushed from behind. I call them scribblers, because I once allowed myself to love a man who scribbled down his thoughts.

“I’ve startled you,” Serafim says, packing his things. “I guess today’s interview didn’t get off to a very good start.” I hear his satchel snap shut.

I adjust my eyeglasses. When I turn around, to lean against the balcony railing, Serafi is already standing near the door, his bag slung across one shoulder and pressed flat against his thigh. He moves to drop his cigarette in the hallway, but catches himself, and instead bends down to douse it in a small puddle by the wall. His hands are always clean. His nails trimmed. He tucks the cigarette butt into his pocket. This man cares about the world.

“I can come back tomorrow. Or Sunday, if you like. When you have more time. If you’ll allow me, that is.”

I catch his scent—warm clove and curing tobacco. I close my eyes and my toes clench. I loosen my shawl. “Let me speak.”

“Please,” Serafim says, and there is such urgency in his voice that I want to weep.

“There is nothing worse in this world than to be silenced,” I say, and Serafim’s body relaxes against the door jamb. “Except, perhaps, being forgotten.”

Reprinted with permission of Penguin Random House Canada.

July 9, 2019
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