“The Woman Who Stole the Rain” by Teolinda Gersão

*Short Story Monday is a weekly feature run by The Book Mine Set*

(Today’s short fiction is from the Words without Borders September 2007 issue:  Our Sonnets from the Portuguese)

The Woman Who Stole the Rain, is a study of contrasts in setting, emotion and tone.  The narrator is in Lisbon on a two-day business visit.  Her “(five-star) hotel had been overbooked, and the room already paid for by (her) agency was occupied by someone else”.  So she’s offered the presidential suite, “a sumptuous apartment which could easily have accommodated an entire entourage”.  By all accounts, the suite is the very epitome of “luxury, good taste and comfort”.  On her last day there, as she is packing to leave, she hears two black maids cleaning the other bedroom next to hers.  She stops to eavesdrop on their conversation, which is presented as an italicized story within the overall narration.  One maid tells a gripping, tense-filled tale of a drought-stricken village in Africa.  A witch doctor is called and he confirms the villagers’ suspicion: that the drought is caused by a woman whose

“husband had left her a long time before, and then her son had died and she had wept so much that her body had dried up, her eyes had dried up, she had turned into a withered trunk, bent toward the earth. She had become like a wild animal, she didn’t speak any more, she moaned and sometimes, at night, she screamed.”

The woman’s grief had stolen the rain.  It’s clear that she must die.  And she is killed, but it’s the manner of her killing that startles.  Her grief and loneliness are used against her; she is betrayed by a society that in its inability to console, cannot tolerate her company. Or is it the land that cannot bear her grief?  The maid concludes her tale and they all return to their previous activities.  The narrator leaves the suite, checks out of the hotel and boards her flight home.

“There was something about that whole story which had left me feeling slightly on edge, something about that whole incredible female conversation which I had, for some irrational reason, stopped to listen to, I, who never eavesdrop on conversations, least of all on women’s conversations… I had spent two days in Lisbon and, for the price of a standard room, I had, I told myself, occupied an improbably large suite; it must have had fifteen rooms, as well as vast balconies and a bath the size of a swimming pool. And then, suddenly, I had opened one of the doors and found, in the next room, a piece of Africa, perfectly intact, like an area of virgin jungle. For seven minutes, exactly seven minutes, I had been lost in the jungle.”

As I read over the quotation above, it suddenly occurs to me that the narrator could be male. Like this very minute.  That would be perfectly okay; the gender does not alter the story.  Except perhaps I detect a slight note of condescension in the above quote when the narrator talks about “women’s conversations”, which in and of itself does not imply that the narrator is male.  I’m finding that I’m likely to think that a narrator is female in the absence of any gender markers.  Interesting. A reference thing or an inner voice issue, perhaps?

Anyway, I like the story.  I thought the opening description of the suite could have been shortened but perhaps that was also necessary in order to set up the contrast in settings.  Which brings me to the only negative in the story for me; the African jungle imagery.  There are many types of villages in Africa. There are villages by the coast, villages in plains and savannahs, nomadic villages in deserts, villages on hills and mountain ranges,  and villages within urban areas. So I’m puzzled by this “piece of Africa, perfectly intact, like an area of virgin jungle”.  It’s a very romantic notion of Africa; an Africa untainted and spoiled by first contact.  Certainly, it’s an Africa where one would be hard pressed to locate a presidential suite with a swimming-pool-size jaccuzzi.  As if.  I think it is lazy and easy for the writer to use the jungle imagery.  Easy in the sense that it is a handy stereotype. Using jungle just wraps the African setting into a nice tidy package.  And lazy, because   the author, Teolinda Gersão  has spent a lot of time in Mozambique and should really not resort to this stereotype.

The translation by Margaret Jull Costa is superb as ever.

From Words without Borders:

“Teolinda Gersão’s first novel, O Silencio [The Silence], published in 1981, was awarded the PEN Club prize for fiction and was named “book of the year,” and was later named one of the one hundred best Portuguese books of the twentieth century. She was shortlisted for the European Prize for the Novel for Aristeion. She lived for two years in São Paulo and for some time in Mozambique, the setting for her novel of 1997 A Árvore das Palavras [The Tree of Words].”

I’m going to explore more fiction by Teolinda Gersão.

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  1. kinna, by reading the story you can tell the character is male, he shaves at a certain point of the short story. Additionally, I read the Spanish version and since in Spanish articles differ for male and female (example: el vs. la) it was pretty clear. Thanks for posting this!


  2. Please Read “The Reader” by Teolinda Gersão – Great short story about modern urban life-published in Metamorphosis, smith college.


  3. Thank you Kinna and Caroline, and thanks to you all for reading and commenting on my story!
    You are right, I have a wizard translator, Margaret Jull Costa. I´m very very lucky indeed!
    I liked your comments. Just two details: Yes,the narrator is a man – although, as Kinna says, the gender does not alter the story .About “jungle” : What would you suggest? would for example, “virgin forest” be better? (The use of “jungle” was not derogatory in mine or Margaret´s intention.) The Word Tree, a novel set in Mozambique, is now being sent by my agent to an American publisher. I would appreciate very much if you could read it and let me and Margaret know if any word seems to you derogatory or in some way inappropriate. In that case, would you give us your suggestions? Of course, Margaret always has the final decision, but we are both always pleased to hear from our readers.
    Thank you very much indeed!


    • Oh my goodness! Thanks so much for coming by and leaving a comment! I’m truly honoured that both you and Margaret Jull Costa have visited this blog. You know, I don’t think that there is any getting around the “jungle” word. In fact, “virgin forest” would seem forced. It does illustrate and set up the contrast in settings as you intended. No worries. I would love, love to read your novel. So I will get in touch by email. Thanks again.


  4. Isabel Feo Rodrigues and I recently published an article about Lusophone African women writers, in which we lament the problem of finding their writings in English translation (though we can read the Portuguese, we’d love for these women to have a wider audience!). In our article we discuss two works in greater depth, by Paulina Chiziane (Mozambique) and by Dina Salustio (Cape Verde):
    Isabel Fêo P. B. Rodrigues and Kathleen Sheldon, “Cape Verdean and Mozambican Women’s Literature: Liberating the National and Seizing the Intimate,” African Studies Review 53, 3 (December 2010): 77-99.
    I’ve heard of Teresa Gersao, but haven’t read this story, thanks for the reference.


  5. Kinna, amazing you should have picked up on the jungle thang!But I’m going to look for, and read this story which sounded so enticingly edgy, by way of your review. That is, until everybody, including you, got lost in the jungle. You really are cool, aren’t ya!


    • Yeah, we kinda got lost in the jungle there! But really, it a good story. And it does what short stories do best; completely take over your work in the shortest of time and space. As for the coolness, one can only try! Thanks for visiting and for your kind words.


    • I’m not surprised at all that you haven’t heard of her. I’ve come to believe that the system works really hard to hide the women writers of translated fiction. I only found her while doing research on a translator. Words without Borders do a great job illuminating the spaces which these women occupy.


  6. That does seem like a really lazy stereotype. Funny when I read the quote I thought “huh, odd…” then you pointed it out! I looked up the authors books and it seems ‘Silence’ isn’t easily available online but the newest title is. I’ve added to my wish list… and am hoping it is lazy stereotype free if I get to it.


    • I first come across her name doing research on my post on Margaret Jull Costa. I find my knowledge of Portuguese women writers quite lacking in depth compared to that of the male writers. So I’m glad that I found her. I’ve also added her book to my wishlist. Plus, to have Jull Costa as one’s translator is a strong advantage in my book.


    • The format is quit commonplace in real life; eavesdropping on a conversation. But this is the first time that I seen it used to such effect in fiction. The narrator talks about strange things that happen in the “strange” city of Lisbon. It’s easy to see the out-of-body experience with the African setting. However, the luxurious accommodation, which the narrator is not used too, also appears strange and other worldly. Read the story :)


  7. I am saddened that society is actually impatient and calous, I dare say. That we fail to grieve with those who are less fortuante. Now, it seems so old fashioned to even weep openly at funerals, except of course when you hire the dirge singers. The story of the old woman is gripping; and it is remniscent of what happens in Ghana; hanging the mantle of witchcraft on the poor and the less fortunate. I do agree wiht Kinna, that the word ‘jungle’ is derogatory. In the Ga language, jungle reads as ‘koo’. And if we say somebody is ‘koseenyo’, then we are saying that the person is backward, from the bush. But then, Teolida Gersao is not a Ga!! Perhaps, the actual meanign was lost in the translation.
    However, on the brighter side, the authour describes the Africa as perfectly intact, unspoiled and untainted, (virgin) and when you juxtapose that with the luxury of the presidential suite, then what we have is decadence or decay. Good imagery.


    • Celestine, give this a read when you can. The story set in Africa has an interesting ending. Perhaps, the meaning is lost in translation. I know, the imagery is wonderful and I could feel the stillness in the room as the maid recounted the tale. Actually, it’s brilliant! I hope your boys are well and not giving much headache!


  8. This does appeal & the way the contrast is highlighted the height of luxury contrasting with the drought stricken narrative of the overheard conversation brings into sharper relief,
    Ps. just recently finished Nii Ayikwei Parkes debut novel & enjoyed that.


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