In ‘A Stranger at My Table’ which was launched at the ongoing Goa Arts and Literature Festival (GALF) at
The International Centre Goa, Dona Paula, Norwegian author Ivo de Figueiredo traces his estranged father’s Goan and East African roots and family history
Ivo de Figueiredo grew up identifying himself solely with his Norwegian culture. The son of a Norwegian mother and a Goan father who divorced when he was still a young boy, Figueiredo had no interest in his father’s family background, given their sour
However, as he hit his mid-forties, he began to feel an urge to know what happened between them. “So I started my journey into his life, and it was crazy. It felt like I had discovered a hidden door in the house of my childhood, and when I opened that door, the whole world came tumbling out. So I wrote a book. I’m a writer, what else is there to do?” admits the author.
His memoir ‘A Stranger at My Table’, which was released at GALF 2019, navigates a difficult search for the origins of his estranged father, which opens a door to a family history spanning four continents, five centuries and the rise and fall of two empires.
Having emigrated from the Portuguese colony of Goa to British East Africa, and later to the West, his father’s ancestors were Indians with European ways and values—trusted servants of the imperial powers. But in postcolonial times they became homeless, redundant, caught between the age of empires and the age of nations.
The book tells the story of a family unwittingly tied to two European empires, which paid the price for their downfall, weathering revolution and many forms of prejudice. Much of the book takes place in East Africa, in Pemba, Zanzibar, Tanzania and Kenya. As he began on this journey however, Figueiredo recalls that having not seen his father in years, he didn’t have the courage to visit him in Spain, where he lived.
“So instead I travelled in his life. I went to East Africa, then to Goa. I collected letters and photographs and visited my uncles and aunts in the US,” he says. But at some point he realised that he couldn’t escape the physical encounter. “I went to see him in Spain, and from there the story becomes quite dramatic… But it changed me, I got rid of my demons, and achieved a reconciliation with him,” he says.
Figueiredo also admits that while there is a tendency for people not to preserve old documents, pictures, etc, especially when they move from one country to another, he was lucky as interestingly his dad had kept everything neatly sorted. “Why I don’t know, that’s one of the mysteries I’m trying to solve,” he says.
He was also nervous about getting his family’s approval for this book. But in the end, he says, they embraced the book. “I would never have published the book without my mother’s approval, as she was the victim of my father’s abuse. And I got her approval,” he says. His main ethical consideration, however, was regarding his father. “There is no denial that I have exposed his life, and he can’t defend himself as he began suffering from dementia before the book was finished. I have tried to handle this dilemma the best way I could, but there will always be an element of cognitive dissonance with these kinds of memoirs. Ethically it doesn’t add up. But I’m taking care of him now, paying my debt,” he says.
Talking about his first experience of Goa, which was some years ago, he reveals that he “expected to wake up from some sort of dream of the ‘Golden Goa’ that my family had conserved, as so many expats”. He says: “My great grandfather emigrated from Saligao to Pemba around 1900, and settled in Pemba and Zanzibar. He went back, of course, but dad’s generation had only a vague idea of Goan life. Their Goa was ‘Goa dourado’, not ‘Goa indica’. But what happened when I came to Goa, was that I didn’t wake up, or rather it was like I was walking in and out of myths and reality.” In the book, he adds, he has tried to give an honest account of how it is to experience a place that is a dream to some people, and hard reality to others.
His interaction with other families that have similar stories of odysseys from Goa to Africa and then elsewhere, also helped. “Comparing the life of the Goans that stayed on, and those who left, was a real eye-opener – much in the same way as in Goa itself,” he says, adding that his family story, like so many Goan expat-stories, is all about staying or leaving or living in between. “In East Africa what struck me the most was how life after the colonial breakdown differed between classes. The higher you go on the social ladder, the more likely you would be to miss the good old empire. On the other end, I met a couple where he was high caste, and she from a low caste. They were grateful to Karume, the dictator of Zanzibar, because if it wasn’t for him, they could never have married!” he reveals.
Having previously penned biographies of Norwegian playwright and theatre director, Henrik Ibsen and painter Edvard Munch, he states that writing his own family story wasn’t all that different. “When you write about yourself and people close to you, you still have to conceive them as characters, like you would in a novel. You need to create a distance to make the believable and interesting, even if you, of course, stay true to the sources and facts,” he says. “This book is not my diary, not me just pouring my heart out. It’s literature.”
But at the same time, he admits there were struggles while putting it together. “This book is an impossible project. I wanted to write about the smallest of things, about the lives of a handful of people, about myself and my own inner life, and at the same time encompass the large structures of society, the rise and fall of empires, the grinding wheels of history, and see how the latter shapes and moulds the life of the small people,” he says. The only way to do that, he says, is by combining one’s own subjective narrative with an ethos built on honesty, transparency and a critical and self-critical attitude. “There are more questions than truths in this book. My only hope is that my search reflects the search of other people and families,”