Little Star of Bela Lua: Stories from Brazil (P.S.) by Luana Monteiro. Harper Perennial Paperback, 2006, $13.95, 256 pages.
A luminous fish appears in an impoverished village like a sign from God and proceeds to perform questionable miracles on its foolish, desperate citizens. A guitar-strumming rhymester triumphs over her male opponents in the competitive folk art of the repente only to find herself ensnared in a romantic trap of her own making. A handsome, sexually conflicted priest must confront the uneasy space between spiritual rapture and the greed of man. Welcome to the rich, textured world of northern Brazil, teeming with scheming families, conniving politicians, magical creatures, loyal and disloyal friends. Little Star of Bela Lua announces the debut of a whimsical yet wise writer.
WHAT THE REVIEWERS SAY:
Publishers Weekly : A novella and three short stories make up Monteiro's lyrical debut, set in provincial Brazil and imbued with miracle and magic. The charismatic title character of "Antonio De Juvita," a mama's boy and sure-bet mayoral candidate, abandons his political career for the military after his opponent blames him for the fire that destroyed his pharmacy. In "Curado," a middle-aged doctor risks his wife's wrath to care for a defecating turkey (a gift from a patient), sworn to protect all living creatures ever since he amazingly survived a venomous snake bite as a youth. In "The Whirling Dove," oversexed Cloé indulges in compulsive infidelity until she finds God and develops "eyes or rather, heart, for one man" alone: Jesus. The title novella begins with a miraculous fish that cures the blind and the handicapped, and ends with Uriel, a 124-year-old man who drank the waters the fish inhabited and may be doomed to live forever. The colorful chaos of Brazilian streets, the mystical witnessings of believers, and the energy of a passionate people enliven Monteiro's vibrant pages.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
During the school year, Luana Monteiro works as a bilingual resource specialist for the public schools in Madison, Wisconsin. Even though the schools were closed for summer break at the time of my call, Ms. Monteiro was just saying goodbye to two students who had come to spend the day with her. "Another teacher and I sometimes pick up students and take them to the library or to the zoo or something." When school is in session, Monteiro sometimes works in classrooms with students as they learn English, but, she says, "I also work outside of the classroom with parents and the students' families. It's a great job for a writer, because I don't have to do a lot of preparation beforehand."
Ms. Monteiro's own childhood experiences make her especially qualified to work with second-language learners and their families.
"I was born in Recife, in the northeast region of Brazil. Most of that region is semi-arid, but there's a strip of coastal tropical land there. The northeast is a very hard place to live, especially once you get away from the big urban areas and into the little towns. At the same time, much culture is preserved there. There's a lot of music, a lot of writing, a lot of art in general. And, there are a lot of stories. People are great storytellers there.
"More than a talent for writing, I think I just have a talent for listening. That's all it takes. If you're sitting next to someone on a bus and you strike up a conversation, before you know it, they'll be telling you some amazing story. For a writer, it's really rich in that way."
"What were your days like as a child?"
"I was brought up by a working mom. My father and mother separated when I was very young. We lived in a nice part of town that was close to the beach, so I spent most of my childhood playing in the ocean. Recife gets its name from the coral reefs. When the tide is down, the reefs come out and then there are all these tropical pools. I would wake up early and do whatever homework I had to do and then go to the beach. After school, I'd return to the beach at night. It was idyllic."
"What a childhood. It sounds like paradise."
"Well, the first ten years were, and then I came to Florida. Then, things changed a little."
"Was it shocking to make the transition?"
"The language was a big shock. I arrived in Florida and then went to school two days later. The teachers knew I was from Brazil, but then they tried to speak to me in Spanish. I didn't know any Spanish, and I felt bad. I was afraid they would think I was a fraud."
"How long did it take before you started to pick up English?"
"After about four months, I started getting it, but I had studied a little bit in school in Brazil, so that made it easier. And also, I had made friends by that time. It wasn't a hard transition, but there was a period that was difficult.
"Actually, the hardest part for me was leaving this woman behind. My mother was working all the time and there was this woman working in our house who had worked for our family. She had worked for my grandparents and she had raised my mom, and then she was raising my brother and me. She was the one who cooked and was always there. If I was afraid at night it was her room I went to. She was the one who went to the beach with me. So, leaving her was really, really hard."
"What was her name?"
"Josefa. She's the person I dedicated the book to."
"What did she think of the book?"
"She's barely literate in Portuguese, and she doesn't understand English at all. But she's also a wonderful storyteller and a very happy, funny person. When I told her I was dedicating the book to her, she said, 'Why are you doing this? Your mother is going to be furious with me.'