Rumpus Exclusive: “Lisbon, the Truncated City”
Our love of the superfluous is helpful in better understanding ourselves. I return to a familiar spot, the little house with its zinc roofing on the outskirts of Lisbon that belonged to my maternal grandparents, to see once again the only flower I’ve ever come across in São Gens: an artificial flower ravaged by the sun. Below a certain threshold of privilege, there may not be a place for such passionate dedication to things otherwise expendable. Satisfy our basic conditions of survival, however, and our total commitment to the superfluous is what defines our humanity. The artificial rose whisks me back to a past far removed from my fascination for the unruly green verandas of Lisbon, each summoning me as I make my way through the city. With plants like that, a madwoman must live there, I think as I gaze at the chaotic gardens. The spectacle of madness displayed on these verandas is a privilege conferred by their owners’ status as citizens. A privilege of my own citizenship is my trifling fascination for such manifestations of madness and the disinterest of the other passersby. It’s as if only in our own country are we permitted to put our madness on parade without regard to the others around us, only in our own country do we have such a luxury.
My Angolan grandfather’s dashed dream of becoming a Portuguese citizen coincides with the artificial rose a neighbor lady once offered to my Grandma Maria. This rose was a sign, however indirect, that there was no room for the superfluous in Castro Pinto’s life, unlike the madwomen who turned over their verandas to their plants, since without them they found it impossible to live. Madness and full citizenship are linked, then, in a most unexpected way. The fear that a country’s culture might succumb to immigrant hands was, in all its folly, reflected in the way my Grandpa Castro sung elegiac Bakong spirituals to himself on the bus that took him to Cimov each day, fearing the curiosity of his fellow riders, that they might think he was talking to himself, mistaking him for a madman. (When I asked him why he sang, he told me he was greeting death.) Fear of being mistaken for a madman is in any event a sign of not feeling at home. I take for mad these accidental gardeners of Lisbon’s verandas, but I could simply take them for Portuguese, suspended there on the edifices in the form of parasites. The disregard I always paid my hair comes back to me as a sign that here I feel at home, just as my Angolan family in São Gens had said I would. I speak of this hair, but, without any loss of meaning or precision, I could well speak of this head.
My Grandpa Castro—a kimpovela (as if I knew how to write in Kikongo), having spoken rather than cried at birth, a man who one day would creep up on his father as the older man raised his lance and parted the sea in a village where there’s no sea to speak of—had no time for plants, though a decade of toil at Cimov had transformed his body through constant exercise, covering him in a cloak, slowly turning him into its bitter contents. Beneath his worn shirt and pants, he could well have been returning by bus from the cotton fields, my grandfather, lean and muscular, his abdomen unexpectedly chiseled. Having left at five in the morning, it would be eight at night by the time he returned to São Gens, loaded down by a cooler full of leftovers from the Cimov canteen: roasted potatoes and some stale bread. With the hands of a gardener and his nails trimmed by razor blade, my Grandpa Castro would wash my Grandma Maria’s hair, its long and silver strands, years on end, always leaving behind some shampoo that the low water pressure was no help in removing.
She would let forth cries of pain and pleasure, she’d say “Papá, gentle,” as though they were making love, while the rest of us cackled in the other room just two steps away. All this happened one August in the ’90s, in São Gens, my summer vacation. There were times, I think now, when no one would have heard them, no one would have been at home to laugh. And then they were just two old people in a slow and dangerous drama (she ran the risk of falling each time she took a bath, falling in the bath, falling as she got out of the bath), a shower head without enough pressure for so much hair, a considerable inconvenience. Maria found joy in these baths all the same, in the energetic scrubbing of her body—clothes in a washtub, and not a person who was only half-alive. At times, a mirthful laugh escaped. When my grandparents on both sides were still alive, I always thought of them as two happy couples.
My white grandmother (how might I say that without it sounding like a Brazilian soap opera?) was always asking about my hair: “Tell me, Mila, when are you going to take care of that hair?” In those years, my hair was its own persona, an alter ego there in the room. My Angolan grandmother was a black Fula woman named Maria da Luz. (Did I already mention this?) Nana, who when still a youth became chair-bound thanks to a blood clot, spent her twilight years sitting at a table, or at a window, admiring the distant mountainside that separated her from Amadora (it might as well have been Moscow), accompanying the life cycle of rabbits in a rabbit pen in her front yard whose only true residents were two old rags, making conversation with the neighbor ladies who hung the clothes out to dry with the help of lengthy wooden poles, and who was—how could she hide it?—an invalid whose story you could tell based on the places she never set foot, the Lisbon that she would never come to know, the bus that she would never take, the color of streets she never strolled, never diverting her gaze from the omnipresent Elephant Man—this same Maria da Luz swelled with pride at my hair. The Lisbon she knew was hearsay, but Lisbon is also this harmless gossip. My grandmother’s story could be the monotonous biography of an arm, a leg, which I came to know as scaly, leaden limbs.
In the summer, I’d set out early with some cousins from São Gens to run wild in the streets of Lisbon, the whole gang donning unisex tracksuits, oversize hooded sweatshirts purchased in the Praça de Espanha; we’d hit the track, listening to the Wu-Tang Clan on our Discmans, without the least idea what the lyrics were saying and imagining that the warning found on the CD cover, “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content,” meant that they were genuine, real. “Watch ya step, kid,” they warned, “protect ya neck.” I’m not being shameless when I bring up the sights my grandmother never saw: the touristic and incomplete itinerary that, for us, was Lisbon. I don’t believe Nana ever once saw a single pigeon in Rossio, or a single one of its madmen, the Tagus, the bridge, the Chiado, the Centro Colombo. Today, I think that Maria da Luz would have seen the charm in the way the clothes drying on the line danced in the wind. For her, Portugal was these clothes dancing in the wind. By the age of twelve, my cousins and I were no longer free to live in this ignorance.
The truncated city we roved traced the contours of our inner life, whose tacit course followed the shadowy gaps between subway stations, where a silent truce imposed itself among us kids, or was interrupted when the Cypress Hill album playing on our Discmans skipped each time we quickened our steps. What would be the private consequences of our amputated sense of Lisbon, of the hopes we carried in tow through the work sites along Restauradores and Colégio Militar, detours in traffic routes and on sidewalks, around exposed pipes beneath wooden slabs, around boards through whose gaps we would sneak up on construction workers, our compatriots, having lunch or washing up, of the prospect of new music megastores, as though we were flocking there to buy coffee and gloves, admire cats in the windows, drink cherry liqueur, pose with Pessoa, and not only, to the exclusion of all other aims, to lift our spirits. What if the lives of the Lisboetas were closed off to us, as ours were to them, and it was they instead who were invisible?
We waited for the construction to end without the least bit of impatience, and, after some time, it would indeed have been strange if it had ever ended, and the new metro, the new terminal, the new shopping had made the leap from promise to concrete reality, marking the dawn of a new age. Perhaps this sketch is not entirely reliable, and perhaps during those years the Baixa was not in fact a dejected construction site. Whatever the case, for us, the only thing that would last in the end was these sites. Me and my cousins, the prehistory of all the intimidation, the life of our curiosity, our common perception of never being old enough—all that’s left of these things is the never-ending work at Restauradores, which required the relocation of Bimotor, a tiny music store adjacent to the Gelataria Veneziana, to a glass structure a few feet ahead, which we took such a liking to that, construction at an end, we considered the original the simulacrum.
I don’t regret that traversing this itinerary of attractions may have left us with an incomplete idea of ourselves, or that Nana never came to know Lisbon in any depth. It would have been more just had Maria da Luz been the one to dirty her shoes with the dust on Restauradores, if she had stood in wonder before the site where the Colombo was being erected, if at the end of our outing she had gotten a McDonald’s sundae all over her face; if Maria had lived within us, a flea in our pocket as we crossed the Baixa. This meant, however, that it fell to Castro Pinto, and not the children of the house, to help Maria get around. She was the reason for his early mornings blanketed in fog, the unnamed addressee of the goodbye letter that was those years in Europe: years spent atop the hunch in his spine, in the rough hands that washed her hair, on the walk to the bus stop, which her dead leg kept her from without hope of remedy, transforming Papá’s body into the host of Maria’s twilight years. It was not in some far-flung post, in some paradise to which life in Portugal had come to lead them, that their common salvation resided, but in my grandmother’s lifeless leg, her entire European old age a redemptive impediment. Maria da Luz’s life would not be salvaged by a common, respectable existence in Portugal, but in allowing her a look into our Lisbon, where no one realized that we were all on our own, a place so clearly reflected in what memory of her remains: a construction site that was nothing more than a reminder of life, as Nietzsche wrote of his father.
Watching television one afternoon, we caught a performance by a folk music group on a program broadcast live from a small town in the countryside. As they sang, I instinctively swayed with the rhythm to Grandma Maria’s horror. “Look at you wagging your tail with the likes of them!” a cousin of mine cried and pointed at me, the clumsy Kizomba apprentice. He spent the entire summer calling me “my little Portuguese,” prompting me to turn bright red. The affectionate epithet was testament to the erroneous belief that Portugal is a place where everyone listens and dances to folk music. The caricatured notion of nationality that made it to São Gens via the television—and was countered by the course of a domestic life that, in its crudeness, made a mockery of the very ideas of caricature and nationality—later led me to the realization, in hindsight, of the gap between who we were and what was stereotype. To say that we owe our idiosyncrasies to the quill of a colonial writer would be the equivalent of casting a cynical gaze upon a moving excursion of almond-flower devotees simply because these trees flower each year. An admonishment for these faithful excursionists, returning each year to bear witness once again to the peculiarity of each almond tree, each spring, each excursion. The way others at home treated my hair was always symbolic of the confusion between affection and prejudice, and this has always been an excuse for my own shortcomings in caring for it. People at home would say I treat it the way a little Portuguese or a woman miles away from being a real Angolan would. And yet I live out my yearning for São Gens as a yearning not for the person I could never have been but for a caricature.
I ask myself what Grandma Maria would discuss with the neighbor women at the window, what they might have had to talk about. What would she think of the world seen via the television, a stream of light? How presumptuous of me to say such a thing, I think, expecting cause to feel shame. A person needs almost nothing to maintain her inner flame, a motive for joy. Life before Grandma Maria’s fall seems to have been plenty for the lessons she would later impart to me, as though she were then at her zenith following a prefatory period during which she managed to get out and about on her own, and not the other way around.
In Oeiras, before the salons, the buses, and the “boat to Cacilhas,” I was taken to see a certain Dona Mena on the third floor, an older woman of mixed heritage who cut hair out of her home, but I no longer retain any images from this time, except for a makeshift sink in the bathroom and a foot dryer in another room, the first in a long, nightmarish cycle of waiting for my hair, wound up in rollers, to take form as it dried. I arrived home with a ponytail. My photo was taken for a new green passport, where I appear with a giant gap between my front teeth. I have no memory of my mane the next day, but I no doubt exhibited it with pride. I would see Dona Mena quite frequently in the elevator: she would ask about my hair and offer advice, an external reminder of my own disillusionment. That’s how life is when we’re children: an enjambment of vaccines, diaper changes, ever-changing laps, haircuts, hands to take our hands as we cross the street, stimuli to which we respond first by screaming and later become accustomed. The shared custody of my hair expresses a human condition that our adult tantrums seek to disguise. Perhaps I ought to say that’s how it is since the time we’re children, as life often seems like a never-ending interregnum of passivity, during which we become our own people. Ointment for a chapped little bottom, advice against the suitability of new bangs or the shaving of some family member’s mustache, a bath to combat lice—perhaps these are our grown-up dramas, administered by others in an alliance of solidarity to which our assent is the only correct response.
The ponytail would fall down the same abyss where all my hairstyles fell and from which I am still capable of salvaging a ritual I would dedicate myself to over some months, years later, in which I would sleep with my hair in rollers as I waited for it to dry overnight, without any way of resting my head on the pillow. These were months of torment, filled with frequent dreams of Jesus, to whom I would appeal before falling asleep, rereading—in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures my Grandma Maria would use during Bible study with the Jehovah’s Witnesses—the verses of the most recent homily, which it had fallen to me to summarize for my Grandma Lúcia. In the morning, in front of the mirror, I would brush my still-damp curls, as though it were some game, until the effect of the curlers was negated by the attempt to craft them into a hairstyle.
Here I am before the mirror by morning, when all my efforts are cast aside and I’m taken back to a sweeter time, prior to the advance of my aesthetic frustrations into a disgust that lasts the entire day, like a moral failing, a curse. A time when botching our hair is still a trivial detail, when we have yet to play for keeps or master the art of feeling our stomachs turn at our appearance. It is the briefest of amnesties—sweet, sure, but ever so empty—so brief that we cannot even nurture the hope of cherishing its memory. This frustration with my hair remained with me as it mutated from a scarcely noticeable itch into an abrasive rash: the mutation of aesthetics into morality, of hair dryer into judge, of clumsiness into fatalism, of aborted hairstyle into guilt, damnation—of the ruthless hairdresser into psychosis. Making peace with ourselves is, I think to myself, like making peace with our ancestry, as though being at ease in our own skin were the consequence of the comfort brought by having a family. This is where the forces split—render unto aesthetics what belongs to aesthetics, to morality what belongs to morality—until, at the very next instant, we find ourselves facing the impossibility that such a separation of forces could ever take place. Realizing that we’ve become a shambles of beauty and virtue, that to expurgate it, something we are unable to do, would be to empty it of meaning—that it’s not only the winsome and remote amnesty from poorly executed childhood haircuts that is fleeting, but that this transience also defines the interval during which we imagine ourselves capable of the alchemy required to decant the elements of this mixture we have become. One day, I may even learn to tame my hair. I cannot, however, do so in another person’s skin.
The furniture at the house in São Gens came from the brothers of the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose service Grandma Maria drove to once a week, her only outing, and the time when, during the ride and in the minutes it took the brothers to put her into the car and help her back out, she glimpsed through the car window what she would come to know of the surrounding neighborhoods. The brothers wore suits on their way to bear witness, walking side by side down the street as if they weren’t about to try to approach anyone, or stopping at a street corner, at a park bench, where they would loft hopeful catcalls to passersby, waving them over with an illustrated pamphlet notable for the bunches of bananas and pineapples that leapt forth from its cover.
It was these same brothers who would bring my grandmother a measure of relief, filling her idle hours, paying her a visit, recounting an episode from other people’s lives, bringing her a tiny vase that was just right for an artificial rose, repairing her television, all with an unabated selflessness. They would emerge from a car wearing sunglasses as they sought to conceal their inherent mechanics’ air, their fingernails, dirtied at the shop, washed for service but still blackened, men seeking within themselves the manners of their clients, if just for a day. As I summon them forth here, they bring me back to the Moldavian man who for years I would see at a certain café in the evenings, dressed in a suit as he drank a glass of whiskey clutched in a hand filthy with paint. They led a double life, is what I mean to say, my Grandma Maria’s guardian angels, in their quiet rendition in which I had detected fanaticism, complete conviction that they would be among the chosen, without ever stopping to ask, “But why me, if we are so many?” It was an existence for which they found their reward on Sundays in the Kingdom Hall: a pavilion where everyone sat in beach chairs. Perhaps this was their benediction, that of being saved from skepticism. They would extend a slice of pineapple to me, these men for whom each street corner held the latent possibility of salvation, treating me like a relation separated from the flock, missing one of its teeth. To my surprise, I would find them in São Gens doing my grandmother’s nails at the living room table while she nibbled on sweet rolls that her “manicurist” had snuck for her; or me looking for a flea in the mattress in the back of the dark bedroom, on the bed where Maria slept, beneath which—as though the many years had not intervened and because there was no other space—she kept her luggage from the trip from Luanda, her baptism by flight. Irreplaceable, they would say to her, “Aren’t you a sight, all happy with your little granddaughter. She looks just like her grandma.”
Rumpus original art by Susan Ito.
Excerpted from That Hair by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida. Translated by Eric M. B. Becker. Copyright © 2020 by Djaimilia Pereira. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Tin House Books.
Eric M. B. Becker is a translator and editor of Words Without Borders. He has translated work by numerous writers from the Portuguese, including Mia Couto, and has received fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Commission, and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund.