Black Cake, Turtle Soup, and Other Dilemmas by Gloria Blizzard is a powerful and deeply personal collection that uses traditional narrative essays, hybrid structures, and the tools of poetry to negotiate the complexities of culture, geography, and language in an international diasporic quest. These essays of wayfinding accompany anyone exploring issues of belonging — to a family, a neighbourhood, a group, or a country. Here, the small is profound, the intimate universal; the questions are all relevant and the answers of our times require simultaneous multiple perspectives. Pre-order at your favourite retailer now.
“… the strangest people in the world are those people recognized beneath one’s senses, by one’s soul — the people utterly indispensable for one’s journey.”
— James Baldwin, Just Above My Head
One day, without notice to myself, or lessons of any kind, suddenly, I could swim. I was seven. It was as if a memory of some internal amniotic instructions had arisen within me. That day, I went to a party in the hills at the home of a very rich person, or rather the party of a child with parents who had a grand Trinidad mountainside home. I remember that among the clatter and the laughter and the splashing around of the other girls, I calmly entered the slight chill of blue chlorinated water, floated, and then paddled, head held high above the surface. I was fully at ease with myself, immersed and comfortable, pleased and smiling. Within a year or so, after my parents provided formal swimming lessons, I had joined a competitive swim team, swam my first mile, and saved my baby brother from drowning.
This might be a story of grace. It might be a story of saving others and being saved over and over again — by a shadow, an essence, a person, a scenario. It might be a story of the power of water. It might be a story of how water holds, intertwined, cross-continental memories, or how it activates a dormant seed of emotion. Or it might just be a story of amniotic instructions in an oft-repeated first breath. Life, it seems, is a sequence of near-drownings, rising to the surface, and falling again.
I first heard Cesária Évora’s voice in my twenties and, as I was already lost, decided that I was from wherever her voice originated. I could hear within it the sea, sadness, longing, and joy and I wanted to be in the company of such things. I wanted to linger and swim within her lustrous voice. I may not have liked her if I’d known her, but I did love her. Knowing nothing of its tumultuous history, for a time I wanted to be Cabo Verdean, to belong to a place that could produce such wondrous sounds.
Years later, on a winter night in 2003, I made my way down to Massey Hall on Victoria Street to hear Cesária Évora sing. I was on my own that night, as no one in my then circle of friends knew who she was. I’d made such a mistake before, not going to see Oscar Peterson one November because no one would come with me. I imagined I’d catch him on the next tour. I was not going to miss Cesária, because of weather, lack of a sidekick, or any other reason. I climbed the steep stairs to my seat in the balcony, sat on the hard chair there, and leaned forward, toward the stage. Next to me was a woman from St. Catharines who had driven to Toronto that afternoon for the concert. No one in her world knew who Cesária was either, and regardless, she’d driven for two hours, compelled to be here.
Cesária had surrounded herself with the best musicians, and I could tell that she was exacting as they watched her with great attention. I felt she would have heard any error and would have stopped proceedings to fix it.
On the tour to support the album Voz d’Amor, Antonio Domingos Gomes Fernandes played the soprano sax. I recognize where the weight sits in the phrase in his lilting syntax. It sits well within me, like the kaiso phrasing imbibed in my childhood surroundings in Trinidad. The violin and saxophone played like waves falling and tumbling skillfully over and past each other, overlapping like dancers that touch and then dive playfully away. Notes like countless streaming fingertips caressed my ears. The elegant band also included the melodic and harmonic density of two guitars, piano, cavaquinho, and bass.
The band would have started the night without the singer, playing “Nutridinha,” a word that translates roughly as “a fine woman.” And then, the diva would have arrived. She would have worn a long dress, walked to centre stage in her side-to-side gait, barefoot. A stagehand would have given her the microphone.
She would have sung some more coladeras. Mostly, she would have sung mornas, the song tradition that holds longing, regret, sadness, and sodade, a word that is barely translatable into English that holds both bitterness and sweet, joy, and the missing of those who have travelled far away.
Next to me during the concert, the woman from St. Catharines fed me mints when my throat started to tickle and I coughed. It was a beautiful moment of comfort, as my mother used to carry the same spherical white candy. Now a stranger fed them to me at a Cesária Évora concert. I was in a kind of heaven as I swam within the voice, such lustrous music and care.
“Nha cancera ka tem medida,” my fatigue is immesasurable, sings Évora.
For a time, Évora, tired of working and sharing her genius and still not making enough to buy food or a home for her family, suffered deep depression. For ten years, she did not sing regularly. Later, while she was in France, a Paris-based Cabo Verdean brought her out into the spotlight. Like most of us, her life has contained a cycle of near-drownings and salvation.
Gloria Blizzard is an award-winning writer and poet, and a Black Canadian woman of multiple heritages. Her work explores spaces where music, dance, spirit, and culture collide. She lives in Toronto. Learn more here.