Review: Eleanor Stanford’s História, História
Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
Review by Maggie Desmond-O’Brien
What exactly possesses a couple to drop everything and join the Peace Corps just after college and marriage, taking nothing but eighty pounds of luggage apiece? On this, author Eleanor Stanford keeps us in the dark, but in her gorgeous memoir of her two years in the Cape Verde Islands with her husband as young volunteers in the Peace Corps, she illuminates so much else: a country, a city, a village, herself. In Kriolu, the language of Cape Verde, the words for history and story are one and the same; in the tradition of the very best memoirs, História, História blends truth with deft storytelling worthy of any novel.
Stanford’s história begins on a plane, descending over the Atlantic onto the rocky island of Sal. “Even those who had done their research and read up on the islands were unprepared for such absolute bleakness,” writes Stanford. Desert island is frequently a misnomer, but in the case of the Cape Verde Islands—where the collective average annual rainfall is less than ten inches a year and vegetation is scarce—it’s an accurate title for the landscape. Stanford smartly blends the emotional arc of the story with research that is incorporated thoroughly into the narrative without lumps of info dumping—when the Portuguese discovered the islands in 1456, they were uninhabited: “It was the Portuguese who called [them] into existence with their breath, giving them the names of saints and elements.”
It’s partially this barren setting that gives Stanford’s memoir such a unique feel; hardly your typical lush story of self-discovery. It’s also her simple, luminous prose. “We spent eight hours a day in a cinderblock school building that held heat like a secret,” she writes of Peace Corps training in the capitol city of Praia. The tension is palpable as friendships and rivalries develop between volunteers, all of whom will be scattered to remote corners of Cape Verde to teach English in schools.
It soon becomes clear that História, História is not your typical white woman’s memoir of time spent in a developing country. The natives do not teach Stanford a staggering new lesson about life; this is more a tale of moralities clashing than merging. Stanford and her husband receive their posting on the southern island of Fogo, where the Kriolu is more African-derived and natives are darker-skinned and casually insulted by their northern neighbors; racism is rampant on the islands, especially between north and south. “In some ways I feel disingenuous when I tell people I lived in West Africa for two years,” writes Stanford, who later goes on to share the story of a black volunteer from Trinidad who said he felt closer to Africa in Harlem than in Cape Verde.
Stanford’s marriage predictably begins to dissolve but, in the end, it is the growing specter of her eating disorder that makes História, História such a riveting read. Were it not for Stanford’s wisdom and self-awareness, the reader would want to slap the entitled, younger Ellie, going for endless runs and shoving her fingers down her throat after the meals that her Cape Verdean neighbors put down in front of her at the end of a long day of teaching. She describes the experience thusly: “Hunger is not endemic in Cape Verde. It is not Sudan or Congo; children with swollen bellies and hair discolored from malnutrition are not a common sight. The kids are well fed and beautiful, their skin dusky, their eyes flashing. It was only me, with this strange first-world affliction that would not let me eat.”
The mentally ill in Cape Verde, we are told, have their place; one moving passage speaks of a woman named Maria, who slept on the beach where the fishermen tie up their boats:
“Early in the morning, when the fishermen picked their way down the stone steps to their boats, they stepped over her body curled against the lee of rock. The boats were named for wives and mothers, who in turn bore the monikers of saints and virtues: Helena, Mercedes, Esperança. Maria would never have a boat named for her. She was her own vessel, stripped, unfinished, full of cracks.”
Stanford writes of endless loneliness surrounded by people in the rural village of Ribeira Filipe, consuming her allotted fifteen books within the first two months on the islands, of her endless creeping doubts that her husband was unfaithful in a culture where it is expected that men cheat on their wives. It’s hard not to sympathize with this woman, just as it’s hard to truly like her as she fights with her impoverished Cape Verdean neighbors over frying pans: how strange that we are able to see ourselves in her experience as in a warped mirror, in which we are just as poorly equipped to love ourselves in suburban America as we are in a third-world country.
História, História captivates. It speaks to truths that go beyond ourselves; the truths of love, marriage, friendship, and strange lands. The women Stanford meets in Cape Verde are at once foreign and familiar; from Gustinha, mother figure and hired help, to Nunena, who patiently informs her that “[y]our husband’s girlfriend is your rival,” to gifted student Eliane, whom she dreams of sending to the United States on scholarship. It is a memoir of both pain and delight, of dreams both soured and realized. Sometimes one place can be very much like another. Stanford is a master, and História, História is a memoir not to be missed.
Eleanor Stanford is the author of The Book of Sleep (Carnegie Mellon Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, The Iowa Review, The Georgia Review, and many other journals. She served in the Peace Corps in Cape Verde from 1998-2000. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and three sons.
Maggie Desmond-O’Brien collects good words the way some people collect stamps or coins. Some of her favorites are “ubiquitous” and “plateau.” She is a sporadic columnist at Recess Magazine, and her work is forthcoming this year in Necessary Fiction and decomP. She lives in Minnesota.