An out-of-the-box thinker, writer, editor and translator believes in daring to be different for the social good.
paulo da costa’s new book, The Midwife of Torment & Other Stories, is with Guernica Editions, an Ontario publisher specializing in world literature. Their motto, “No Borders No Limits,” is an apt summation of da costa’s work. He brings an international, multicultural background and vision to a genre that pushes readers into strange and sometimes uncomfortable territory. Through his lens, we can expand our ideas about ourselves and our place in the larger, magical connectivity of the world.
Even the way he lowercases his name is meant to expand our thinking. He is, he explains, disrupting “naming patterns” which reflect human self-importance in an effort to promote the equality of creation.
da costa comes from a culture of storytelling. Born in Angola, he spent the first five years of his life in a country that, at the time, didn’t have television. Those early years focused on play—either with others or within his imagination—meant he became, at a young age, accustomed to creating his own universe.
paulo da costa (Photograph by Tony Bounsall)
After his family moved back to Portugal, he grew up in Vale de Cambra, a small village where the family home went back several centuries, and everyone knew them. While valuing tradition and the role of strong roots, da costa also quickly learned the limitations of understanding the world from a single perspective. “Reading became my raft,” he tells me, sitting in the sun among the fruit trees of his Fernwood garden—his home the brightly-coloured anomaly in a row of neutrals. As a child, he says, his world was opened up by books like Marco Polo, and “I realized my tiny village was a mote in the universe, and that the possibilities of being were so much vaster.”
Those myriad “possibilities of being” are precisely what The Midwife of Torment is all about. In a series of 60 very short stories—most under 1000 words, one as short as a two-line sentence—da costa offers a literary potluck of flavours and styles: from the whimsical to the tragic; the contemporary and domestic to the speculative and tech-oriented. Some are beautiful, simple stories that pull us out of our own busy time into small villages. Others invite us into the voice and consciousness of other creatures: cougars, fish—even trees.
While the tone and style shifts, sometimes jarringly, from story to story, it’s not inconsistency or lack of coherence. Rather, that diversity is the point and strength of the book, and of da costa’s worldview. “My approach requires a certain courage from readers,” he says.
Often, the stories contain a surprise: What we initially think is happening isn’t so at all, and the plot takes sudden left turns. For instance, a seeming stalker turns out to have quite unexpected intentions; characters in a painting decide they no longer want to please the viewer; and a tree tells us, “As I sat idle, the entire Forest arrived.”
In this book of brief, imaginative leaps—which da costa describes as a combination of “zen simplicity and rich dessert”—relationships between people, other creatures, and events stand out in ways we have not seen before.
To da costa, reading is very like travelling, and you won’t grow if you simply see your own universe repeated. To expand our experience, one of da costa’s goals is to make us think philosophically. “My stories are often questions,” he says, recalling that the most important people in his life were the ones who opened the window of “what if?”
As a parent of young children (aged two and five) and as a writer, da costa hopes to do the same. Every story is a quick push of the reset button of what we know. He makes us aware of the invisible forces and webs that shape us, within and without, with stories as potent as a lightning strike or as gentle as the silvery shake of olive leaves.
Written over approximately 20 years, this series of short pieces is also a way of capturing da costa’s prolific creativity, which he sees as both an extension of who he is in the world, and a challenge to all of us. “I don’t separate creativity, in a professional aspect, from living,” he says. “Every moment I live and breathe, I’m making connections.” Ultimately, he sees that sense of connectivity as integral to how we take care of each other and the land. “When you’re not connected,” he notes passionately, “your caretaking is not the same.”
In that sense, the book has not just a philosophical but a political aspect, as it proposes other ways of seeing, being, and organizing. Energetic and optimistic, he says: “We have to have dialogue and friction in order to keep things moving,” whether in literature or in politics. “We can overcome with our imagination, with stories.”
da costa’s work is therefore very much connected to hope, although in this book he stretches himself into some darker corners than his previous collections. These include The Scent of a Lie, which won the 2003 Commonwealth First Book Prize for the Canada-Caribbean Region and the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize; and The Green and Purple Skin of the World. In The Midwife of Torment he consciously wanted to feel the minds of people in different kinds of pain as a means of gaining entry into greater empathy—another kind of connectivity he hopes to promote.
da costa’s shifts and twists don’t feel gimmicky. Rather, he disrupts and forces you to confront the expectations and assumptions you’ve silently generated as you went along. They put me in mind of the by turns meditative and turn-you-upside-down short works of Kafka, Victoria’s own John Gould, and Yasunari Kawabata (collected in the perfectly-titled Palm-of-the-Hand Stories).
The narrator in his story “The God of Shadows” says, “What you feel as you read my words will say everything about what you did not know about yourself.” That is the starting point for opening up to seeing and understanding that which is beyond borders, daring to live creatively and connected in a way that is perhaps beyond conventional limits. And so da costa’s story sends the reader off with good advice: “So long, and be brave.”
Writer and editor Amy Reiswig felt instantly connected to the book’s message, as its epigraph—”Those who don't believe in magic will never find it”—was read at her vaudevillian wedding last year.
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