No time for the ocean today, as we worked our way through Fortaleza with engagements at three educational institutions. But first, breakfast at the Hotel Luzeiros. Every morning I eat a new fruit. Guava — pale yellow skin, rosy flesh, chunky tan seeds impossible to chew. You send the whole delicious thing right on down the alimentary in hopes it travels through without commotion. Small bananas with the flavor of five bananas compressed into one velvety sweet/tart pleasure. Mango, papaya. The green lumpy fruit with a name I have not yet taken into my extraordinarily limited lexicon of Portuguese. Obrigada, I can say, the most necessary communication for a traveler: “Thank you.”
A man passes by my table in jogging shorts and t-shirt, glasses on an elastic band, carrying a whole green coconut in his hand, lifting it to drink the chilled liquid inside through a straw. Electrolytes someone says. If you are tired and hot, drink this. The man holds the nut like it’s a small baby balanced with tenderness and pride on his palm. This is what I see at breakfast with my “virginity of sight, or rather of observation” as Michaux says.
We met with faculty and students at the Universidade Estadual do Ceará, the state university in Forteleza. Most of the faculty in English here are women. Many of the English students are women — and many of them wished to come to the United States to study. Chris, Alan and I read a few pages from our work, talked about some things that matter to us as writers: soccer, stories told by parents and grandparents, places that live in memory even if they’re gone on the planet. One professor who teaches American literature asked about Hemingway and the lost generation, wondering if there was some connection between the way some writers felt after the war, that loss of hope, and our own time. Did we feel, he wanted to know, that loss of hope in our own historical moment because of concerns for the future and for the Earth?
We met with some people at the American Corner in the Biblioteca Pública Menezes Pimentel where we had a short bilingual reading and met a blind man who manages a braille reading room and collection for the blind. We took a tour of the children’s room and learned of kids who’d been molested and taken from their parents. These kids could not read but came there. We welcomed and drank tiny cups of sweetened coffee.
Later we visited the Instituto Brasilia – Estados Unidos no Ceará and met in the library with a remarkable group of students from there and from the military school. They came wearing uniforms the color of butterscotch, each with their name monogrammed in red embroidery thread on their chests. We talked about weird words, strange words or phrases, whether in Portuguese or in English. Cumbuco (a local beach; an Indian word; “95% of place names in Ceará are indigenous,” a teacher said; “Fortaleza is the exception”; everyone laughed; insandecer (to make someone crazy); obnubliada crazy (did I get that right?); Stalingrad; butterscotch; oscuro (kiss); barrel of monkeys; and rebolar, which seemed to be everyone’s favorite. It means “to shake your hips” but in this region it means “to throw something out.” How does a word make that journey? How does it do so in one place but not in another right next door?
Chris led them in writing a poem based on the words we’d all generated. One shy student (we later learned he was freshman) said he didn’t want to read his poem aloud because it was sad. With encouragement, he stood and did so. A poem called “Stalingrad” read with quiet authority that documented with perfect negative capability the sorrow of a man who had lost everything in that ravaged place. We were all silenced for a few seconds by the poem, that was genuine and spare and sad in the way of art that makes you glad to feel the solidity and beauty of sadness.
Then a student asked, if you write about Forteleza, what will you say is your favorite thing? Her face was as open with possibility as the sea.”The people.”
Alison Hawthorne Deming, Professor of Creative Writing and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona, is author of four poetry books, including Rope (Penguin 2009), and four books of nonfiction, including Writing the Sacred Into the Real and Zoologies(Milkweed 2014). She’s received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bayer Award in Science Writing and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her poems and prose have been widely anthologized, including in The Norton Book of Nature Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing.