Suneeta Peres da Costa
New South Books
In 1497–1499 – during the early heyday of the Portuguese empire – Vasco da Gama led a voyage from Portugal, via existing colonial outposts in West Africa, around the southern tip of Africa, across the Indian Ocean to land on the Malabar Coast of western India and finally, Goa. This discovery of a sea route from Europe to India opened the way for Portugal’s colonial expansion into India and southeast Asia. It would also force unlikely connections between far-flung places, such as Angola and Goa, which are the dual settings of a new novella by Sydney writer Suneeta Peres da Costa.
Saudade is the second novel by Peres da Costa, who was born in Australia to parents of Goan origin. The short, yet powerfully evocative and imaginative, story is set in Portuguese Angola nearly five centuries after da Gama’s fateful voyage and follows a young girl, Maria, who was born in Angola to Goan parents. It charts her journey to adulthood and her search for belonging in a colonial nation on the cusp of collapse.
Although the fall of the Portuguese empire and the Angolan War of Independence frames the first-person narrative, the political situation is not explicitly drawn out and the reader, along with Maria, experiences the events through passing references to the “FNLA” (National Liberation Front of Angola), whispers of violence in the cotton fields and a sudden influx of Portuguese soldiers to the capital. Just as the Portuguese empire is fading, Maria is trying to make sense of her place in the world and is searching for her own sense of belonging.
She has difficulty relating to her mother who clings longingly to her Goan heritage. She teaches Maria to apply kohl to her eyes and Maria is haunted by a Hindu story recounted to her at an early age about how the dead walk with their feet facing backwards. Maria’s withdrawn and often disapproving father is marked by his complicity in the horrors committed by the colonial administration, and this complicity begins to seep into family life as Maria grows old enough to understand: “Papa was in his own way sickened by so many secrets he was keeping, and we were increasingly hostage to his moods, to his silences and sudden outbursts”.
The Portuguese word saudade – a sentimental tone often evoked by Portuguese folk music and literature – refers to a nostalgic or melancholy sense of longing for lost things. In an interview, Peres da Costa has explained that, “the saudade of this title is about this migration and homelessness – the condition of diasporic homelessness or exile and the haunting of that particular inflection.” Although Maria has never known anywhere but Angola as her home, the rootlessness and perpetual un-belonging that pervades her young life beautifully embodies the way that colonialism creates “orphans of empire”.
Wandering around the capital city, she recognises that the grid, even down to its street names, is a carbon copy of Lisbon – something which must have filled the early settlers with wistful joy – yet Maria struggles to see it as anything other than a “terra incognita which I hesitate to call home”. We see Maria coming to terms with her physical appearance (gazing in the mirror, comparing herself to the family portraits of “distant strangers with dark skin like [her] own”) as part of her grappling with racial and political identity. At school she describes a colonial explorer as an “invader” and her Portuguese teacher reprimands her harshly, declaring that he was in fact responsible for “cultivating [her own] loinclothed and mud-thatched and blue-godded people”. Following Maria from childhood to adolescence, we understand that this haunting feeling of homelessness is not easily, or in fact ever, overcome.
Settler Australians would do well to ruminate, as Peres da Costa has elsewhere in her writing, on our own identity as coloniser, as invader and as “orphans of empire”. Instead of turning towards racialised and ahistorical appeals to a supposed deep rooted Australian identity, which usually deny Indigenous Australian occupation, we might consider that the settler experience of identity might always be one that is accompanied by a pain of unbelonging.