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.'
"Even now, when I return to visit Brazil, I don't stay with my father or with my family. I stay with her."
"How did you end up in Madison?"
"I got an academic assistantship that allowed me to go to graduate school and get my MFA while working part-time. It was ideal, because it gave me time to write as well."
"How was that first winter?"
"It was so difficult. But, it was also almost mystical in a way. You hear about the cold and you hear about snow, but until you experience it, you don't realize how powerful it is. If you're outside for more than a half hour without proper clothing, you can die.
"My first year I was a typical student. I didn't have a car, and I didn't really have any money, so I was taking the bus. I didn't know how to dress, so I would put on a T-shirt and then just put a jacket on over it. My feet would freeze, and I didn't wear a hat or gloves."
"You said people in Brazil are marvelous storytellers. Is that where your stories come from?"
"Most of the stories in my book are ones I heard growing up, or on trips back to Brazil after I moved here. The Antonio De Juvita story came from a child's birthday party. While all the children were outside playing, the adults were sitting around indoors. One of the guys started telling a story about this guy named Antonio De Juvita, who lived in this little town and was running for office and was accused of burning down his opponent's business. It was a wonderful story, and I couldn't let it pass."
I tell Luana that another of her short stories, "Curado," is a favorite of mine because I am terrified of snakes and it involves a man who was cured from a snakebite as a child and has been sworn to protect snakes for the remainder of his life.
"My father is a very good storyteller, too. That story is his, and a lot of it is true. A snake bit him while he was chasing his horse. He woke up and the curandero (healer) was standing over him with a pair of dark sunglasses on. The curandero said, 'You are a curado now. You can never kill a snake for as long as you live."
"Your writing sounds like the work of a much older person. Are you an old soul?"
"Growing up I was always very interested in older people. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and her friends, and I always seemed to gravitate toward people who were much older than me.
"I also have certain spiritual beliefs, and I believe that the human soul is in a long process of evolution. I suppose I feel like I've been here many times before."
"Why is it that many Latin American writers choose magical realism as the genre for their tale telling?"
"In Latin America they believe in magic and the supernatural in the same way that we believe in bacteria and black holes. Gabriel García Marquez put it well once. He said, 'Everything I write is rooted in truth. The only problem is that Latin American truth represents the wildest imagination.'
"On top of that, in Brazil we have a mixture of Catholicism, African spiritualism, and the native Brazilian traditions. It's as if people of one faith pray to the gods of the other faiths just so that they have all their bases covered."
"In other interviews you've said that you are a very disciplined person. You wake at 4:00 in the morning and meditate for an hour, then you write from 5:00 to 7:00, then you go to work. Do you leave your stories at home, or do you carry them with you throughout the day?"
"A lot of times I do take the story to work with me. I'll take a paper or a book to write in, and if something pops into my head, I'll write it down for later. That's one of the reasons I like the discipline of writing in the morning. That way the story is always there and it's always fresh in my mind. Much writing takes place when you aren't in front of the computer."
"What have the students in school made of your book and the fact that you have been in People magazine?"
"Kids think that books are just written by some ungodly being. They wonder why authors keep writing them, anyway. Some kids think that books proliferate on their own. So, when my book came out and the other teachers told the kids that I had written it, they wouldn't believe it. One kid looked at the picture and said, 'Oh, that's not her.'
"But, they were very interested. One amazing thing that started happening was that kids started writing their own stories and showing them to me. And these kids have very interesting stories. For instance, one kid is a Berber from Morocco. That's very different from a Moroccan who speaks Arabic. Normally, he was the kind of kid that would just whine and whine if asked to pick up a pencil and copy something from the board, but then he wrote down ten pages of his own story and turned it in to me."
I comment to Ms. Monteiro that her district is fortunate to have a published author who is also a second-language learner, who is also a teacher. Then, I wonder about teachers who do not have her background. "What do regular classroom teachers need to know and be able to do to best support students who are just learning English and are in the school system?"
"I don't think a lot of teachers realize that some students sound like they know more language than they really do. They have playground English but not content-area English. It's a matter of being more patient with those kids. Also, allowing people like me to come take students out of the classroom and work with them one on one. Some teachers feel like students use people who do my job as a sort of crutch and that we're holding them back instead of helping them. For some, it quickly becomes a political issue. They think, 'You are here, you should be speaking English right now.'"
I query Ms. Monteiro about her students. "Where are they from, originally?"
"Here in Madison, there is a huge Latino population. The vast majority of them are from Mexico. Initially, agriculture drew them, but then it became one of those places where people from one area settled and then told their friends and family back home about it. There are a lot of families from Puebla here. Now, most of them no longer work in agriculture. Instead, they have jobs in the community.
"A lot of these families come here illegally. The kids go through this very dramatic and frightening crossing experience. For instance, the little girls that I had with me here today are just 5 and 11 years old. They had such a hard trip. They had scars on their legs. I don't think teachers realize what these children have been through.
"It's a taboo subject. Kids don't talk about it much at home, and they certainly never talk about it at school. But, they will talk with me one on one."
"The students are sure lucky to have you."
"I don't know. I always think I could be doing so much more."