Mjusi, the Flying Lizard

(Third part in the Character Problems series)

My second novel, Desert Jewel, was about Milenda, an African princess and her love, Jaali, a man from the Northern lands. I wanted to include Africa as a setting because—well, because I lived there for many years and I loved it. A children’s author I love, Nancy Farmer, set a lot of her middle grade stories in Africa and I always wanted to do the same. My Africa is half-real, half made-up.

But back to the characters. Even though Milenda and Jaali are from different ethnic groups, that is not what the story is about. The story is about two strong young people who against all odds meet and fall in love. Two people who want to change the world but don’t know how. Two young lovers who find themselves the center of something dangerous and much bigger than themselves.

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Both Milenda and Jaali were carved out of the idea that nothing is ever the way it seems and that everybody, no matter who they are, carry pain of one kind or another inside their hearts.

Milenda is privileged and sheltered and yet, she is not spoiled or blind to the injustices around her. She wants to change her society, she wants to make it better to all who suffer due to her world’s ways and beliefs.

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Jaali is poor and has suffered unimaginable pain as a slave. However, he is not bitter or angry at the world. He is forgiving and kind.  He loves with all his heart and soul. In the words of Sid, the sloth from “Ice Age”, Milenda and Jaali complete each other. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist!)

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But the one character who started it all is Milenda’s sidekick, Mjusi. Mjusi is not a human. He is a flying lizard, or a mini-dragon if you prefer. He doesn’t speak, but he plays an important part in the story. He is not just lonely Milenda’s only friend but also the one character that helps the story move forward, the comic relief when we need to laugh, the available shoulder when we need to cry.

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Which comes to show that often the sidekicks are as important as the main characters. Mjusi, like Marcy, will have his story—or at least more of his story—told in the near future. There may be a few surprises about his origins and I’m certain he will surprise me yet again!

Photo credits: Look by Schmiegel

Phlegm, blood, and bile…oh my!

Never felt so happy to be a twenty-first century woman as after a visit to the Hugh Mercer Apothecary in Fredericksburg, Virginia and being dipped into bits and pieces of colonial medical trivia. It was terrifying to listen to the “nurse” explain how teeth were extracted against the background of giant jars of the biggest living, wriggling leeches I have ever seen.

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As much as I am always fascinated by the “olden times” I can’t imagine having to live in a time when the doctors coated pills with soap and thought the best way to cure you from just about any serious illness was to make you poop, vomit, sweat and bleed from every orifice—sometimes all at the same time.

Medicine in colonial times was a hit or miss. Many of the herbs and roots they used are still pretty common today and—for the most part—beneficial. However, others like cutting you with tiny little blades and allowing the wounds to open themselves to…well, just about anything, is just crazy scary. It’s a miracle anyone survived to tell the tale.

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Even then there were the charlatans—according to our friendly nurse, that included anyone of French descent—and the real trained professionals. If you saw a charlatan to extract a rotten tooth, for example, and he extracted the wrong one by mistake, you were up the creek with no paddle; you would have just lost a good tooth and kept the one that hurt. However, if a real doctor extracted the wrong tooth, he would gladly extract the correct one for free. This was done with no anesthesia and some funky looking tools, so I think I would keep the nasty ivory and say, the hell with it!

As for issues of the lungs, our good doctor would surely prescribe smoking. Tobacco was the miracle cure for a lot of things. It could be smoked or shoved up your nose for equally beneficial results. I bet there are a lot of tobacco companies that would love a rebirth of these healthy concepts.

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So the next time you feel a little under the weather instead of spending your money in modern medicine just take a laxative—a lot of it—and stay close to your bathroom. Better yet, combine it with a generous dose of ipecac and that should solve all your problems.

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Fourth of July Giggles (or Chuckles)

A fellow writer posted a seriously amusing short piece on the NaNoWriMo facebook page and I just thought it was too good not to be shared. So with his kind permission, here it is (I gave it a title because I’m a little OCD about that–I hope  you don’t mind):

A Fourth Re-Enactment

by Joseph Kennedy

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“Kids, it’s July 4th. You know what to do.”

“Fill the bathtub, and dump the tea in there.”

“Yep. Let’s get on with it.”

“Dad, you know mom gets pissed when we do this.”

“Recognizing our heritage is important. I’ll make it up to her.”

“The tea party took place in December. How about we leave her the ginseng?”

“All the tea.”

“It’s from Korea!”

“Okay. But then we’re adding the English muffins. Run down to the kitchen and get them.”

“Mom’s in the Kitchen with your six pack of Samuel Smith’s, a bottle opener, and standing next to the sink. She said it’s your move.”

“Damn. Okay kids. The Tea party is off.”

“Dad, the founding fathers wouldn’t have given in so easily.”

“Sam Adams had his own brewery.”

Travelling in Time

I just came back from the past. Okay. Not really, but as close as anyone ever could. I spent a few days in Colonial Williamsburg. I go there quite often and I am always wondering when will the magic fade. It hasn’t yet. As soon as I set foot in the cobbled sidewalks of that reconstructed historical town, I am immediately transported to another time. A simpler, yet complex time in history when America was still a baby country, trying out its legs and learning to walk on its own.

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This is a place where the past mingles with the present and where it is clear to anyone paying attention how things change and yet stay the same throughout time. Sitting on a bench a colonial couple–obviously gentry by the clothes and the richly decorated parasol the lady is carrying–converses with a modern couple in jeans. A colonial woman walks down the street with a twenty-first century mug of coffee in her hand. A couple of tourists cross paths with a group of militia men heading to a drill.

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I have a dream of one day sitting under my favorite tree in Williamsburg, a giant with branches that reach into the ground as if trying to hold on to reality, and write.Hard to explain that yearning to my husband, who is not a writer and does not feel the magic of that place like I do. So I don’t explain and I don’t ask. But one day I will sit under those old branches and write while shadows of the past come into focus only to fade away around me.

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As I walked down King St, for the last time this visit, I snap a shot of the young man scribbling away by the Post Office and the soldier playing the penny whistle. I stare with wanderlust at one of the many taverns in town and the little shops peppering the street.

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My time in this time capsule is over this time, but I will be back. I wonder if they would hire me as a cast member and allow me to live onsite… Until next time, Williamsburg, I bid you farewell.

A Song for Cape Verde

If you follow my blog (and I know I’ve been very neglectful of it in recent weeks) you know I have been a traveler all my life. Not by choice, mind you. Life just always took me on journeys I probably would never go on should it be left up to me. I’m not very adventurous and as an introvert as much as I love visiting new places and seeing new things I need something or someone to push me in that direction.

When I was about seven years old I lived in a small Atlantic African island called Sal in the Cape Verdean archipelago. Literally translated Sal means salt and there is a very good reason why that island bears this name. It’s been a long time so I cannot speak for the island as it is today. However, back then Sal was a small arid island that survived off the sea salt mines and lobsters. It never rained, there was not much to eat besides lobster and goats were about the only livestock that could survive the harsh environment.

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I was not too happy there at first because I was a minority of epic proportions. I was a white skinny girl in an island of dark-skinned people but, even worse, I was a poor white girl in a place where the only other two white girls my age were the daughters of officers. I was stuck between two worlds. The black girls hated me because I was white and the white girls hated me because I was poor. I won over the local girls by showing them I was almost as poor as they were, lived among them in a house with no electricity (eventually we were upgraded to a house with electricity, but not much more) and no running water and—brace yourselves—by telling jokes. Yes, I became a regular comedian as a survival strategy. I stole my “material” from my father’s old comedy records (by the great late Portuguese comedian Raul Solnado) and put on a daily show every day during recess. I can’t say I made a lot of friends, but at least I was able to get along with the other girls in school (not the white girls though. They truly hated my guts).

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Raul Solnado

Like most places where I lived in the great continent of Africa, Cape Verde holds a special place in my heart. There is something magical about Africa. We, the expatriates that lived there, used to say it was something in the water; once you drank it you could never remove Africa from your heart. For me one of the most magical things about Cape Verde (besides the wealth of lobster, which I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner) was the music. Cape Verde were originally uninhabited islands discovered by Portuguese explorers and later populated with a mixture of Portuguese settlers and African slaves. Because of its geographic location and history, the islands developed a very unique culture and language. Creole (which I spoke once), a mix of Portuguese and African dialects, is the language spoken on the islands. Just like the language, the music also reflects the influence of both Portuguese and African traditional music. The coladeira is a fast dancing tune that sounds a little like a merengue; the morna is a slow, poignant, warm and sensual dance .

Coladeira                                                                             Morna

Thanks to my parents who loved music and dancing, I was exposed to all of Cape Verdean dances and by the time I left the island I was moving my hips just as well as the other local girls and their music was forever enshrined in my soul. I went back years later as a young adult to enjoy their beautiful isolated beaches for a few days. But nothing can describe the plight and harsh beauty of the islands better than the song Regresso by the great Cape Verdean singer Cesária Evora and later sang by the equally great Brasilian singer Alcione. I hope you have the chance to listen to it and enjoy it. Even if you don’t understand the words, the music says everything. Here’s a song for Cape Verde.

Regresso as sang by Alcione

The Power of Language

This morning sitting in my usual booth at Panera enjoying a book and coffee, here they come; I call them the German ladies club. I am not sure whether they are family or just friends that share a common language and culture. I listen to them for a while. It’s good practice for me considering I haven’t spoken German in over 20 years.  I understand maybe 30% of the conversation and that’s not bad all things considered.

From amidst all that German there are many words and phrases uttered in English. I hear “tornado watch” and “slight chance” sandwiched between German words. I smile. It’s always interesting to listen (or participate) in conversations between bilingual people. There is something weird about how our “wires” are connected. They often “shorten” and out comes a mash-up of words in different languages. Fascinating how a bilingual person can switch between codes without even thinking about it.

I speak (read and write) a few languages. Some of them have fallen into disuse since I haven’t really had the chance or need to use them in years but there are three in particular I use frequently; Portuguese (my native language), English, and Spanish. I have caught myself often speaking in the “wrong” language; meaning, speaking in Portuguese with English speakers and English with Portuguese speakers for example. In the brain of a true bilingual different languages or dialects become almost one. Because our brains can process all of them in similar, if not the same way, the “wires” get crossed sometimes and the wrong language comes out. One day while talking to the secretary in the school where I work and to a Spanish speaking parent,  I caught myself translating what the parent had told me into Portuguese instead of English. The total look of confusion in the secretary’s face was what made me realize what I was doing. My brain didn’t register the difference. We had a good laugh and she still reminds me of this incident once in a while. When I go home to visit  my mom, and especially when I bring my kids and husband (who do not  speak Portuguese), it’s pretty common for me to start speaking in English to my mom and Portuguese to my kids.

Bilingualism gives you a unique perspective into language. You begin “understanding” languages you know nothing about for instances. When I took a class in linguistics I was amazed on how easy it was for me to make sense of languages I had never learned as long as I knew just a few basic rules. Speaking more than one language is like owning your own Rosetta stone, a code-breaker of sorts that will serve you well throughout a lifetime and foster better understanding of other people and other cultures.

I come from a country where the learning of foreign languages is highly valued and encouraged. Everybody starts learning another language while still in elementary school. It always bewilders me that there are people in the US who are for English-only. Why? Doesn’t that foster cultural isolation? So many cultural strife comes from miscommunication. I always believed that people from different cultures would get along a little better if they could have a basic understanding of each other’s languages. How many times have I heard people be suspicious, sometimes angry, because someone is speaking in a language they don’t understand? The tendency is to immediately assume “they are bad-mouthing” you.  I really hope that one day soon everybody in the US will learn a second language starting in elementary school and become, if not bilingual, at least more knowledgeable of how other languages work. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Going backwards

Funny (or tragic, depending on how you choose to look at it) how very good things often result in terrible things. A couple blogs ago I wrote about how romance literature was becoming crass and – in my opinion- disrespectful to women. I heard from much younger friends who believe that the use of vulgar language and acceptance of certain sexual acts in romance novels has more to do with women taking charge than reflecting any kind of disrespect toward them. I respectfully disagree.

When I talk to the younger American generation, I am always amazed by what they accept as “normal” or –in this case –romantic. I think the problem is that in the US women have been “liberated” a lot longer than in other parts of the world. By liberated, I mean that in spite of all the obstacles that females still today encounter these roadblocks pale by comparison with what women have to face elsewhere. I am not even talking about the countries where females are worth nothing and treated worse than cattle. I am instead focusing on my own native country and how my experiences growing up female shaped these ideas I have today.

Until I was ten years old, I lived in a country ruled by a fascist government that controlled every aspect of society. There was no freedom of speech and censorship had impeded some of the progress that was felt in the rest of Europe from reaching us. Not that I minded, being a child at the time. Women were seen the same way that they were seen in other parts of the western world. Quite a few were in the workforce but mostly as secretaries, teachers, and hairdressers. But there was, at least, a certain amount of respect for the “fair sex”. When I turned ten there was a political coup and the government was overthrown by the military in a bloodless revolution. The buzz word after that was freedom. Unfortunately, this was an occasion when something good (the turn into a more democratic society where individual liberties were respected) spawned something really bad.

The concept of freedom in the hands of a predominantly patriarch society (and after years of tight controls) quickly translated into sexual freedom- and not the good kind. Very soon, you could not walk out of your house without being exposed to pictures of naked women, legs spread out or amidst a sexual act. These pictures were literally everywhere. No parent could protect their children from them. They were in the streets, in stores, on TV, in movies… This created a culture of record-low disrespect for women. By the time I was 13, I could not walk down the street without being assailed by vulgar comments and be propositioned by males of all ages. I couldn’t take the train to go to school without being groped and rubbed against. I ceased to be a girl and became a sexual object with no free-will. At the time I didn’t realize this was wrong. I didn’t like it but it was the only way I knew. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how I (and most of all girls back then) had been in a way abused by society at large.

Don’t get me wrong, in spite of these terrible conditions there were perfectly respectful men and most parents managed to somehow raise strong women who took charge of their lives and who still managed to love themselves. However, I cannot accept the type of disrespectful relationships that are portrayed in these so-called romances as normal or desirable and I do believe that we are doing a terrible disservice to the women of the future. By accepting- no, devouring disrespect both in literature and/or movies aren’t we giving the new generation of women the wrong message?

So yes, I find a lot of what’s going on in the romance world (either written or viewed) offensive. It makes me feel as if all the struggles of the women before me were in vain for we are now, not only going back to the world that I grew up in but a world where this lack of disrespect is being endorsed by women as much as men. I am glad I don’t have daughters because I don’t like where we are headed.