Ask a Local with José Pinto de Sá: Maputo, Mozambique

With JOSÉ PINTO DE SÁ, translated by Jethro Soutar

José is a contributor to our Luso portfolio coming out in the fall issue.

maputo ask a local

Your name: José Pinto de Sá

Current city or town: Maputo, Mozambique

How long have you lived here: Seventy years, albeit with periods spent abroad as a political refugee or for family reasons

Three words to describe the climate: Tropical, hot and humid

Best time of year to visit? Between May and July, when the humidity and rainfall drops considerably and the average temperature is about 20 degrees Celsius, with a few daily fluctuations

1) The most striking physical features of this city/town are . . .

The light and the sea breeze. The city is built on a red sandstone headland that sticks out, at an average height of 80 meters, into Delagoa Bay, where five rivers from the savannah reach the sea. Up the coast to the east are beaches as far as the eye can see, while to the south the bay is home to an important port, one that is vital to southern Africa’s hinterland. Opposite the city, across the bay, are the Katembe lowlands, now connected to Maputo by the largest suspension bridge in Africa.

2) Historical context in broad strokes and the moments in which you feel this history . . .

Like hermit crabs, different inhabitants have occupied the conch shell of Maputo since the Portuguese first built the city in the late nineteenth century. Back then, the colonists lived in the Cement neighborhoods on the upper side overlooking the bay, in streets bordered by crimson acacias and jacarandas and with pretty houses surrounded by gardens. The black population, meanwhile, inhabited the Reeds,” living in huts made from reeds and sheet metal, with no roads, or electricity, or drinking water, or sewage, or garbage collection etc… After 45 years of independence, this shocking state of affairs has barely changed. A scandalously rich black elite now occupies the Cement, while ordinary Matupenses live in poverty in periphery neighborhoods that grow exponentially due to a rural exodus caused by war. The Maputo metropolitan area has a population of around three million people and the vast majority live in these periphery neighborhoods.

3) Local political debates frequently seem to center on . . . 

The most recent government corruption scandals. The degree of corruption is ridiculously high at every level of Mozambican society, from cabinet ministers to police patrols. The other hot topic is the worsening political-military situation in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. The region, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the southern hemisphere, has suffered a number of terrorist attacks from alleged Islamist insurgents since 2017. The conflict, which has already caused over a thousand deaths and the displacement of 250,000 people, is well on its way to degenerating into a large-scale war and the government is clearly incapable of containing the situation.

4) Local/regional vocabulary or food?

The day-to-day lingo of Maputo is a mixture of Portuguese (the country’s official language), English (the language of business and a by-product of having a powerful neighbor in South Africa) and two Bantu languages, XiRonga and XiChangana, which are both spoken in the south of Mozambique. This linguistic variety, allied to the harmonious co-existence, in ethnic and religious terms, of Africans, Asians and Europeans, gives the city a heavy sense of Indian Ocean cosmopolitism.

5) The stereotype of the people who live here and what this stereotype misses . . .

Resilience is perhaps the easiest characteristic to attribute to Maputenses given the manifold difficulties they make do with and overcome simply to survive. Mozambique is 180th out of 189 on the United Nations Human Development Index. From precarious housing in shanty towns that flood whenever it rains to public transport that treats them like cattle, life is not easy for most citizens of Maputo. To keep on smiling after all the years of colonial oppression and the successive wars, droughts, floods and epidemics that have plagued the country since independence, shows that we Maputenses are possessed of immense stoicism and an undefeatable sense of humor.


José Pinto de Sá is a Mozambican writer, playwright and journalist. His short stories have been published in Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, France, Belgium and, now, the United States.

Jethro Soutar is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. He has a particular focus on works from Africa and has translated novels from Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde. He is also editor of Dedalus Africa and a co-founder of Ragpicker Press. Originally from Sheffield in the UK, he now lives in Lisbon, Portugal.

Photo by José Pinto de Sá.

Ask a Local with José Pinto de Sá: Maputo, Mozambique

Free Expression Under Tyranny: an Interview with Colette Bahna

Translated from the Arabic by Raed Rafei.

Pharaohs, Distorted Body Parts, and Eclectic Symbolism 

From her home in Syria, Colette Bahna has been producing short stories, novels, plays, television scripts, and journalism since the 1980s. Despite the raging war in her home country, Bahna remains tenaciously attached to staying there. 

Bahna’s writing is infused with symbolism: ancient Egyptian history, biblical stories, and folk tales all allow her to write about life under despotism. With dark and piercing irony, she manages to go beyond the confines of the Syrian experience to compose timeless stories about injustice, tyranny, freedom, and love. 

Lebanese journalist, translator, and filmmaker Raed Rafei spoke with Bahna about her short story و/Waw, which appears in Issue No.17 of The Common; interconnectedness in her texts; writing during times of oppression; and her decision to remain in Syria.


Free Expression Under Tyranny: an Interview with Colette Bahna

Writers on Writing: Blessing Ofia-Inyinya Nwodo

10th anniversary logoThis interview is the first in a new series, Writers on Writing, which focuses on craft and process. The series is part of The Common‘s 10th anniversary celebration.

Read Nwodo’s dispatch, “The Capital of God’s Own State.


Blessing Ofia-Inyinya Nwodo headshotBlessing Ofia-Inyinya Nwodo studied Adult Education/ English language at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where she earned the “Best Female Writer” award. Her short story “Vaginismus” was featured in Erotic Africa: The Sex Anthology by Brittle Paper and she was awarded the Highly Rated prize in the Nigerian Travel Story competition organized by Travel Next Door in 2016. 



Writers on Writing: Blessing Ofia-Inyinya Nwodo

Jesmyn Ward on writing honest novels with good titles, inhabiting ghosts, and learning to love Faulkner


Image of Jesmyn Ward

On February 29, 2020, Jesmyn Ward visited Amherst College to headline LitFest and host a masterclass with students. The below interview is adapted from her public conversation with The Common’s Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker.

Jesmyn Ward reading the opening of Sing, Unburied, Sing.

[JA]: I think what comes through so clearly in that passage are all of the details of that property and all the norms of the community. So I want you to just tell us a little bit more about this place you’ve created, Bois Sauvage. Tell us what this place is like, and why it’s a fictional place, because it is very much inspired by your home.

[JW]: When I came up with the idea of creating a fictional town that’s based on my hometown, one of the reasons I wanted to do so was because I felt like the place where I’m from is so small that it would be harder to write about if I didn’t transform it. Sometimes I feel like the Bois Sauvage that I write about is this idealized version of my hometown, and not my hometown. Even though Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in 2016-2017, I feel like Bois Sauvage is the idealized version of DeLisle, my hometown, from maybe in the 1980s when I was a child, when it was even more rural than it is now. Both DeLisle and Bois Sauvage are small rural places where community is very important, where families have been living for generations, because everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s history. I think part of what I’m trying to communicate or explore in Bois Sauvage is this idea of community and what community looks like in a place like that, and how a community can help its people survive in very specific, particular ways. I think I am also trying to convey the beauty of that area and that region.

Jesmyn Ward on writing honest novels with good titles, inhabiting ghosts, and learning to love Faulkner

Ask a Local with Anika Fajardo: Minneapolis, Minnesota



Name: Anika Fajardo

Current city or town: Minneapolis, Minnesota

  1. The most striking physical features of this city/town are . . .

Minneapolis is known as the “city of lakes” because of the five large bodies of water nestled in among the city blocks of houses and small businesses. The lakes give the city a vacation feel during the summer. You can go to the beach, bike and walk, and eat ice cream.

Ask a Local with Anika Fajardo: Minneapolis, Minnesota

How Much History Can Hurt: An Interview with Emma Copley Eisenberg


The Third Rainbow Girl is not an easy book to categorize; nor is it always an easy book to read, but it’s certainly worthy of the latter. The book tells the story of a crime committed in Pocahontas County West Virginia in 1980, which was known as the Rainbow Murders. Two women, Vicky Durian and Nancy Santomero, were found dead from gunshot wounds in a remote corner of the county. The girls, along with their friend, Elizabeth Johndrow, had hitchhiked toward Pocahontas County to attend the Rainbow Gathering, an annual, weeklong meeting that celebrates peace and harmony. Johndrow decided not to go at the last minute. Because of where the bodies were found, as well as narratives describing the men of the town as violent and unfriendly to outsiders, many suspected that the crimes had been committed by a local. Nine men from the county were embroiled in the case, and one, Jacob Beard, was eventually charged and imprisoned for the murder, despite the 1984 confession of serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin.

Years later, Emma Copley Eisenberg moved to Pocahontas County to work for AmeriCorps VISTA as a volunteer at a nonprofit designed to empower girls. She spent a year working with girls during the day and drinking and playing bluegrass with local men at night. “I felt ruined by my time in Pocahontas County—no place would ever be so good,” Eisenberg writes. But like every story told in the book, this one is not so simple. “I felt harmed,” Eisenberg writes, “and also that I had harmed others with my weakness and my silence and my actions, and I didn’t know how to make those two feelings stay together. Every time I grasped one of them, the other seemed to fade away.” It was at a writing group in Pocahontas County that Eisenberg first heard the story of the Rainbow Murders, and that her story and the story of the crimes first became intertwined. In The Third Rainbow Girl, Eisenberg unpacks the complex history of the region, and how this history affected the treatment of the crimes and the resulting communal trauma.

The Common’s former Wood Fellow Julia Pike spoke by phone with Eisenberg about memory, positionality, reading and writing about Appalachia, and how we love a place through writing.

: I’d love to start by talking about your short story “Forty-Four Thousand Pounds,” which was published in The Common’s Issue 15. The story has multiple parts—in one, the protagonist, Kendra, is in her father’s truck as he drives across the country, in another, years later, Kendra tells her friend/ girlfriend Carla that she’s leaving their hometown, and in yet another, furthest in the future, Kendra bikes around Philadelphia. I’m interested in the way the story handles time and memory, and curious about why you chose to tell it in this particular way.

How Much History Can Hurt: An Interview with Emma Copley Eisenberg

Living the Bright Words: A Conversation with Eco-poet Kimberly Burwick


In times of stress and challenge, I find myself returning to the work of a handful of poets—writers like Wendell Berry, Carolyn Forché, Aracelis Girmay, W.S. Merwin—poets who do not ignore our planet’s struggles, but instead move through them, transforming worry by turning it into lyric, songs that call us toward our higher selves. Poet Kimberly Burwick is also on my shortlist, though you may not yet be familiar with her work, as she is a writer who shies away from the public spotlight. Burwick has spent her time simply getting the work done, quietly publishing brilliant lyric after brilliant lyric, books that for me become my teachers in the work of difficult reconciliation and earned hope. Or, as poet Kaveh Akbar writes, “Burwick’s singular ear is matched only by her singular spirit.”

Kimberly Burwick’s fifth collection of poems, Brightword, is recently out from Carnegie Mellon University Press.


RGH: Let’s begin with your title. BRIGHTWORD. For most of your readers, that word is an alluring, if strange or new, concept. But lovers of poetry may recognize it as a reference. Can you tell us a bit about where “brightword” comes from and what it means to you?

KB: The title comes directly from a line by Paul Celan: “Near, in the aorta’s-arch, / in the bright blood: / the brightword.” I had been writing a series of poems dealing with my young son’s aortic condition, paying painfully close attention to the articulation of his breath, his body. Oddly enough, he was paying closer, if not meticulous, attention to the environment. Suddenly, he was leading me through the brightness and newness of language in snow, in crushed beetles, dust, sap…in everything. I loved how it all seemed smashed together, which is why I wanted “bright and word” to also be banded as one. Plus, I liked saying it aloud. As if it also had motion. I mean, when you speak it, it sounds like “bightward“. It calmed me down, actually. As if we had some kind of direction: a plan for his heart. A plan for the environment.


RGH: Do you mind sharing with readers the terms of your son’s condition?

KB: Levi—who is now eight years old—has a bicuspid aortic valve (meaning the valve regulating blood flow from the heart has only two leaflets, or cusps, instead of three), which is actually quite common. The problem in his case is that it is causing his ascending aorta to enlarge significantly. It’s sort of like a balloon. Too much pressure upon it and it will burst. But there are no symptoms. There won’t ever be. A doctor once told me, “The first symptom is death.” That’s quite a sentence to metabolize. So we live by numbers, by Z-scores and yearly measurements. There’s a surgical option, but that comes with serious risks as well. There’s medicine that may or may not help. So we let him be a kid, without bubble-wrap. An amazing human being who loves the world more than anyone I’ve known. He keeps us present.

Living the Bright Words: A Conversation with Eco-poet Kimberly Burwick

Dream Logic: An Interview with Joseph O’Neill


Joseph O Neill

Joseph O’Neill is an Irish and Turkish writer who grew up in the Netherlands, practiced law in England, and now lives in New York City while teaching at Bard College. His novel Netherland won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and was praised by President Obama. O’Neill’s novel The Dog was nominated for the 2014 Booker Prize. He is known for  sentences that are both precise and extravagant, that build on each other to undulating and dazzling effect. His work is founded on a bedrock sense of humor, and a healthy sense of the absurd is never far away. And yet his novels and stories are never merely funny; they are also rich excavations of character and observations of modern life. This keen eye, alongside evident empathy and wit are on display in his first collection of short stories, Good Trouble, which was released in 2019 and has been called “an essential book, full of unexpected bursts of meaning and beauty.” This conversation is adapted from O’Neill’s visit to Amherst College this winter.

Dream Logic: An Interview with Joseph O’Neill

Poetry-Making as Empathy Play: An Interview with Oliver de la Paz


Headshot of Oliver de la PazOliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, including his latest book, The Boy in the Labyrinth (University of Akron Press, 2019). His work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Common, The Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest. He is a founding member of Kundiman and now serves as co-chair of Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.

Cameron Finch spoke with Oliver about mythic metaphors, the problem with story problems, empathy in the digital era, and the role of poetry in the endless exploration of ourselves.

Poetry-Making as Empathy Play: An Interview with Oliver de la Paz

Ask a Local: Glenn Diaz, Manila, The Philippines


Manila streets

Plaza Lacson in Sta Cruz, Manila. Photo by Glenn Diaz

Name: Glenn Diaz

Current city or town: Manila, The Philippines

How long have you lived here: 30 years

Three words to describe the climate: Hot, humid, often-dystopic

Best time of year to visit? Probably beginning October, when the amihan (trade winds) arrives, to March just before the onset of summer.

Ask a Local: Glenn Diaz, Manila, The Philippines