I stood under the flicker of the fluorescent lights, transfixed, unable to move. In front of me, the display of fruit shimmered, otherworldly: oranges the size of softballs, lacquer-shiny apples. I picked up a kiwi, then put it down. I wandered, slightly stunned, through the aisles of bright jars and boxes. Finally I stepped out through the magic doors, empty-handed.
When I returned from two years serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I felt raw, hesitant, unmoored by the simplest things: the grocery store; a simple and impersonal transaction at the bank or the post office; turning on the tap and having water pour forth.
I peppered my conversation with words in Cape Verdean Creole, and listened to sappy Cape Verdean pop music, and felt nostalgic and vaguely tragic.
Soon (though perhaps not soon enough for my family and friends), this moony phase passed. But as I cast about for what to do next with my life, Cape Verde’s landscape and people and the intensity of my experiences there haunted me.
I didn’t quite understand why I had nearly stopped eating while I was there; why my marriage had been pushed almost to the breaking point; why after two years I still felt a simultaneous excitement and dread at the thought of facing a classroom of 40 ninth grade English students. I imagined these struggles in some way reflected in the geography and culture where they had arisen, but the connection was still unclear to me, blurred as bruma seca season, when dust had obscured the sky. I needed clarity, and the only way I knew to seek clarity was to write.
At the same time, when I mentioned Cape Verde to anyone, I was greeted with a blank stare. I was jealous of Peace Corps volunteers I knew who had served in Central America, or Russia, or on the African continent. The ideas people had of these places may have been distorted or false or based on stereotypes, but at least they had heard of them.
If I had often felt lonely or misunderstood during my stint abroad, when I returned, it seemed I was once more cast adrift.
I wanted others to feel the dry dust of the harmattan winds, to taste the earthy corn grit of djagacida, to understand the history and resonances behind the beautiful, mournful ballads.
In writing the book–a process which ended up taking almost 15 years–I want to say I found some of the clarity I had been looking for. But maybe it was simply that 15 years of living led me to cultivate more compassion for the 22-year-old girl with an eating disorder, or to see that the struggles my young marriage endured had both everything and nothing to do with our immersion in Cape Verdean culture.
Maybe it wasn’t clarity that I needed, though. Maybe it was simply to tell my story, dust-obscured, deep-throated wail that it was. What I’d wanted all along was to put the island where I’d lived for two years on a common map.
You can find more information on my book Historia Historia, at cclapcenter.com/historia.