The paradox doesn’t escape me: I was born and bred in Mozambique, known as the homeland of poets, and yet for a long time I didn’t consider myself up to the task of truly appreciating poetry in all its depth.
This belief was first challenged in early 2017 with the launch of an independent press, Cavalo do Mar, which has published eighteen titles thus far, including the work of the three poets here, whose works haunted me and set me on this ambitious quest of translating Mozambican voices into English.
My introduction to Mbate Pedro’s Vácuos (Voids), the fourth book in Cavalo do Mar’s poetry series The Sons of the Wind, occurred one warm evening in March 2017 when I found myself sitting in one of the fifty or so plastic garden chairs lined up across the backyard of the Natural History Museum of my hometown of Maputo. I was distracted by memories of my childhood wanderings through the museum with my younger siblings when I suddenly noticed that the place was packed with rows and rows of people standing behind me. I had been to book launches before and was expecting to see about thirty people in attendance, so I was surprised by this growing crowd and rushed to buy a copy of the book sold at a corner table. The cover seized my attention, the title in red over a black pencil drawing of people in a bottle, set against a soft beige textured cover.
I didn’t know what to expect, since this was my first time attending a poetry book launch. I had met Mbate Pedro a couple of times at cultural events and was pleased to see how many people showed up to support his writing.
The book was introduced by António Cabrita, a contemporary poet and one of Pedro’s friends and mentors, who presented a selection of paintings and songs that dialogued with Voids. Pedro’s poems are fluid and light, and also boundless, making it hard to determine where they start or end, whether we are reading a hundred micro-verses or five long poems. Death, love, the city, and poetry itself inspire this collection that evokes a sense of arriving too late via wordplay and experiments with form. The audience squealed with delight at the sultry voice of Vanessa Riambau, a Brazilian writer and one of Mbate’s many friends, whose singing lent a melodic element to Mbate’s poems about love, death, and loss. Then Horácio Guiamba, donning a maxi dress and an apron, twirled around, knocking into walls and stairs, “the furled poetic fabric that switches the body on.”
I left in a daze, the high-pitched trill of Mbate’s mother’s ululating—known in Mozambique as nkulunguana—still echoing in my ears, and I delved into Voids.
That evening put Cavalo do Mar on my radar, and I quickly sought out Des(d)enhos (De(s)igns), the fifth volume in the Sons of the Wind collection. I bought it at a pop-up presale, my curiosity piqued by the biography of its author, Hélder Faife, a fellow architect and writer. I was intrigued by the title: De(s)igns, Child’s Play for Grown-ups, and the brown textured cover with what seemed to be doodles on it. It is a seemingly weightless book, composed of short poems and childish drawings that Hélder’s four daughters traced all over his walls, his work, his manuscripts and even his passport. I devoured the verses and couldn’t help but begin to translate the poems first into Italian and then into English. I selected three of my favorites—“Punctuation,” “Hopscotch,” and “Sea”—for starters and spent the next couple of weeks tweaking at and polishing my initial translations.
De(s)igns was launched at a beautiful recital in April, where I surprised Hélder with my translations. I was delighted by the dramatized reading, which included hopscotching girls who turned Faife’s “butterflying” into a kuduro song. For this selection in Words Without Borders, I’ve chosen the title poem, in addition to “Punctuation” and “The End,” all of them shot through with a playful tone that at once celebrates life and explores its dilemmas.
During the winter of that same year, Rogério Manjate—an actor, theater director, and filmmaker born in Maputo in 1972—made his debut in Cavalo do Mar collection. A 2002 story collection had earned him the TDM Literary Prize, and the two poems that appear in this issue were published as part of his 2017 collection Cicatriz Encarnada (The Scar Incarnate), a finalist for the Glória de Sant’anna Prize for Poetry.
At the launch of Cicatriz encarnada, he had us all, his readers, seeing red, in a good way. The event included dramatized reading, a recital, and a conversation with Manjate. His acting background exercised enormous influence on the collection, which, more than poems act as something of a stage script at the same time they are an ode to his neighborhood of Malanga, in Maputo. Written over twenty years, Manjate gives life to a maze of tin roofs, reed fences, and walls riddled with holes, ideal for the prying, curious eyes of men-children. He marries to verse the songs and tears of girls wetting hanging their capulanas out to dry, vibrant red against the squalor and hunger of the early days of Mozambique’s independence. A world completely foreign to me, someone raised on the second floor of an urban high-rise, with its stacked clothes lines, where the red dye of an evening dress once dripped and stained the white shirt of my only school uniform.
The selection here is proposed not as a definitive list of the major Mozambican poets working today but rather a jumping-off point, a gesture toward the diversity of themes and styles to be found in the contemporary literature of Mozambique. It is, above all, an invitation to further reading.
“Mozambique, A Land of Poets” © Sandra Tamele. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.