NEA Literature Fellowships

Tony D'Souza

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel Sogbo's Wife

The first time I noticed Mariam was in her hut. Her husband was visiting the village from Abidjan, and like all visitors, what he wanted to do before anything else was meet the white man. His name was Sogbo, and he was nice enough. He worked in a plastics factory in the city's Adjamé quarter, punching out durable cups and bowls from a press. I didn't ask him about his life in the city, because I knew what it was like and didn't want to make him lie: He lived in a squalid shantytown like all village men there did. Here now, he'd brought soap and a new pagne for his wife, held his small son on his knee as he watched me eat the plantain foutou and peanut sauce that he'd had his wife prepare to honor me. In the corner, his wife undid her top wrap in the lamplight, smoothed shea butter from a jar over her chest and breasts with her hands.

"You won't get sick and die if you eat black men's food?" Sogbo said. "The white men in Abidjan, they eat 'falafel.' They eat this thing, 'cheeseburger.' Don't you need to eat those things not to die?"

"Two and a half years now," I said, whisking a glob of that great treat through the peanut sauce, popping it in my mouth. "Still alive."

"And you sleep in a hut? On a mat?"

"Sometimes I sleep in my fields. When I'm hunting agouti, I don't sleep at all."

"Hey!" he said, shaking his head. "You hunt the agouti?"

His wife snorted from the corner. Though she was deep in the shadows, the lamplight shone on her moistened skin. She rubbed her arms with the butter, said, "Don't pester him with questions, Sogbo. It's you who are the stranger here. They call him Uao-fa because he kills so many francolins. Don't ask him what he eats, where he sleeps. He plays in the forest with the witch doctor." She looked into my eyes in a hard way as she said this. Why had I never noticed her before? "Look at how he speaks our language. Look at how he eats our food. How can he be white? He takes off his skin and hangs it up at night. He's black underneath. He's a sorcerer."

"Hey?" Sogbo said and seemed confused.

I said, "The zipper's on my back."

He looked at me a moment, then bounced his son on his knee, smiled. "You even joke like we do."

I ate, sucked the thick sauce from my fingers as I did. I looked at the wife, and she at me. Her presence was all over me. Her skin was black and supple with the shea butter. Her breasts were pendulous with milk. We'd both worked hard in the fields that day and were tired in a way that her husband wasn't. I said to her, "Sogbo's wife, you've pounded the foutou as smooth as cream."

"I thank you, friend of my husband's. I thought of you as I pounded it."

"The sauce is as rich as honey."

"It was with thoughts of you that I mixed it."

"Sogbo's wife, I have eaten it all."

"I will rise now and prepare more, friend of my husband's."

"Tomorrow I will eat it, my friend's wife."

"As you say, Adama white man. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I shall think of you again."

Sogbo looked at his wife, at me, like he was trying to decipher this exchange, which I was, too. The wife looked down at her hands, rubbed the shea butter into her shins. Sogbo said to me, "You are satisfied, Adama?"

"For now."

"You are welcome," he said and smiled.

Tony D'Souza was born and raised in Chicago and currently lives in Sarasota, Florida. He earned Masters degrees in writing from Hollins University and the University of Notre Dame, and served three years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, where he was a rural AIDS educator.

Tony's internationally award winning fiction has appeared in magazines and journals such as The New Yorker, Tin House, Stand, The Literary Review, The Black Warrior Review, Iron Horse, and many others, and is forthcoming in McSweeney's and Playboy. In 2000, he was chosen by Writers of the Americas as one of seven young fiction writers to represent the United States at the first US-Cuban writers' conference since the Revolution, held in Havana. His first novel, Whiteman (Harcourt), chronicles the daily struggles of an African village during a time of war, as well as the increasing psychic and cultural isolation of the lone foreign relief worker who lives in it.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

The NEA award will allow me to study Portugese and explore my Goan ancestry in a further attempt to understand the roots of European exploitation and trafficing in black Africans, leading to a novel of the first caravels cruising the slave coasts.