Sanmao, what a voice! What a storyteller! What an open heart and mind! English readers are so fortunate that this grand book has, at last, been translated. This book kept coming up in book reviews across a broad spectrum of publications so I suggested it as a purchase at my library. When it came in, I was first in line for it. So glad.
Sanmao was, well, everything. She was a writer, an artist, an intellectual, a philosopher, a wanderer. Born in China, she was well educated and well traveled, with an insatiable curiosity. She had lived in many places and, in the early 1970’s, followed an interior and unnameable desire to live in the western Sahara, what was then know as the Spanish Sahara. This book is the result of following that desire. The stories range from humorous to heartbreaking, from gorgeous to horrifying, describing both the cultural and political climate of the time. And of course, the desert, which drew her there in the first place. Passages, such as the following, describe so beautifully the way it spoke to her –
The desert in the morning looked like it had been washed clean, the sky a crystal blue without a thread of cloud. Soft dunes spread out as far as the eye could see. During moments like these, the sand always made me think of the body of a gigantic sleeping woman, almost seeming to rise and fall as if it were breathing lightly. Such quiet serenity and profound beauty inspired an emotion close to pain.
Her love and compassion for the people who dwell there is obvious. She embraced all she met with an open heart, both Spaniard and Sahwari, and always spoke her mind, standing up for those she felt were slighted by cultural mores. She was fearless. And very, very funny. While she ventured to the Sahara with Jose, who would become her husband, she spent much time there alone, due to the nature of his work. She explored the desert, curated deep friendships with people from all corners, and spoke out against injustice when she perceived it.
Here, another passage that struck me deeply –
“The Sahara is so beautiful,” Yasmin said, sweeping both hands into the sky in a casually elegant gesture. She was praising her land as always…Through the magic of her raised hands, the world around us became full of poetic sighs, threading into the whole of my heart…This land demonstrates its majesty and tenderness only to those who love it. And that love is quietly reciprocated in the eternity of its land and sky, a serene promise and assurance, a wish for your future generations to be born in its embrace.
A singular voice and very readable writing style, very conversational, the book was difficult to put down once I found its heart. Which didn’t take long. It reads like a grand adventure, even when describing daily life. Additionally, it exposed me to the history of a corner of the world I knew next to nothing about. Reading Sanmao, meeting Sanmao, was pure pleasure.