História, História: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands
by Eleanor Stanford
CCLaP Books, 2013
In the recent increase in published memoirs, none in the travel genre stand out quite like Eleanor Stanford’s História, História: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands. Stanford discusses learning a new language, Kriolu, which is the “bastardized” version of Portuguese; bulimia; marital problems; loneliness; and difficulty adjusting to the cultural practices, all of which take place over a two year time period. It’s a lot to take on in an 83-page long essay of sorts, but no topic becomes more important than another. História, História felt more about avoiding life in a fog than one woman’s time in the Peace Corps.
Stanford frequently uses Kriolu and teaches the reader as she goes along, doing such a good job that it’s surprising to find a glossary in the back of the book. The ability to choose just the right word was the most noticeable feature of Stanford’s writing, even in the first paragraph in which she describes the Peace Corps volunteers landing on Cape Verde:
“We had been flying over unbroken ocean for hours, and suddenly we were descending, despite the fact that there was no land in view. Finally a tiny spit of land appeared, a thin rust-colored strip spotted with a few skeletons of plants and irregular rock formations….‘This is Cape Verde? Doesn’t Verde mean green?’ Even those who had done their research and read up on the islands were unprepared for such absolute bleakness.”
Since so much of the memoir is about Stanford’s inability to control her body, it was apropos to see the islands described in common bodily terms: skeleton, bald, spit.
Once bulimia rears its ugly head as a theme, it’s hard not to notice that even while Stanford puts words on paper, she’s trying to make the conversation disappear. Often it’s others in her life who broach the conversation, such as the native Gurete, who claims Stanford was prettier in her wedding pictures than she is presently: “Look how fat you are…So pretty.” Stanford explains, “The word for fat in Creole is forti, same as the word for strong. In Cape Verde, fleshiness does not have a negative connotation….I wasn’t immune to the standard body image woes of the American female.” Being too thin implies weak, and again Stanford works to make herself a non-presence, to lack the force to make change.
Here might be the cause for problems between Stanford and her young husband, who might or might not be tempted by Cape Verde’s cultural acceptance of men leaving their wives for girlfriends and bringing their illegitimate children into their homes. Stanford watches as locals make comments that may or may not be jokes in her presence: “[My husband] laughed when Carlitos joked about his pikena, offered to find Dan his own girlfriend in the next village. When the men looked at me, I’d laugh too, on cue. It felt more like choking. ‘Tchiga,’ I said. Enough. As though if I said it in Creole, that made it more final, more comprehensible.” Watching the struggles of Stanford, trying to voice herself, but still trying to be invisible by laughing as she is expected to.
Stanford does make the effort to help one of her female students go to America; the student is more knowledgeable that all of her peers, and sophisticated, too. In a place like America, the student, Eliane, could prosper (which we’re meant to read as “get out of this dying, God-forsaken, dusty island”). But Eliane, who is strong enough to voice herself, does not need Stanford’s help: “[Eliane] twirled a lock of hair around her pencil. ‘I love my family,’ she said. ‘I love my country.’ In two perfect English sentences, she dismantled the entire imaginary life I had constructed for her. ‘Really,’ she said, as though daring me to challenge her. ‘Believe it or not, not everyone here wants to go to America.’ Duly chastened, I turned back to the board, erasing what I’d written there, my sentences disappearing in a cloud of chalk dust.” Even when Stanford speaks with a student, her voice is silenced, as we see in the erased words on the chalkboard. You may find yourself yearning for Stanford to do something braver, louder, but that’s the thing about memoirs: you can’t change what happened.
Truly, one must pull the theme of disappearing out to hold the multiple subjects of the memoir together–even as you enjoy each scene and sentence–otherwise, you may be surprised when you turn the last page to find the acknowledgements. Stanford works to weave symbols, similes, and metaphors into her brief text, and dissecting those moments is where you get to the heart of things.