Letter to My Ghost Kingdom
– Nonfiction by Teo Chesney –
First Place Winner of the Dreamers 2022 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest
I hope you and our people are doing well. I write to you from my dining room table in New Orleans. I write because it is that time of year again – summer – when being adopted and the mystery of my lineage are hardest to ignore. My birthday is coming soon, but now the sentiment of celebrating another year older is dwarfed by the fact that I was born.
Occasionally, while overhearing coworkers talking about pregnancy or giving birth, I am rudely reminded that a stork did not drop me on my parents’ door. Suddenly, I must reconcile that there are two people I have not met and without whom I would not exist. With a churning in my stomach, I remember that I grew and made a home inside of another person for nine months.
On a brief and unrelated note, would you mind if I refer to you as B. for the remainder of this letter?
Sometimes B., my life exists in my mind like mythology. As if I were conjured into this world: I didn’t exist, and then I did. I wish I knew what you know about who I am and how I came to be. My early life is pieced together orally through stories that change and bend and swell with each retelling. I only have a few half-remembered stories my parents recited to me as a child about how I was a strong baby who did a half push-up at a visit to the doctors in Brazil and how I didn’t mind napping through a late dinner.
When my birth month begins, a switch flips, and I experience a heightened sense of being human, being born, and having two people who fucked and made me. The June of my 23rd birthday, buzzed with the familiar gravitational pull towards my beginnings. For the first time, I fixated on lineage beyond my biological parents, which I still occasionally forget I have. At the time, I imagined grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and siblings, and I still thirst for our shared history. I know you know who they are and what they created, but I don’t, and so I imagine.
I imagine that perhaps I am related to the famous artist Djanira da Motta e Silva, who captures the essence of you with the most intricate two-dimensional art I have ever seen. She and I were born under the same stars exactly 82 years apart, and because of that, we share the muses of summer and of nature and creativity.
I am lured to Djanira’s art because she was self-taught and because the focus of her art was observing customs and preserving daily rites of passage in rural and agrarian settings. She was devoted to capturing Brazil’s essence, which she argued could only be found in the lives of the commons, the celebrations of the people, and in the natural splendor of Brazil. Djanira chronicled the stories of people and culture on canvas, woodcuts, and engravings. I chronicle my stories of being without Brazil’s people, culture, and natural splendor on the page. Our art fits together in a crude puzzle of what it means to be Brazilian.
In her effervescent art, color palettes shift from vivid greens and yellows of the landscape into harsh reds and browns and greys. Skies are no longer made with open and continuous strokes; instead, they are broken up into sterile and geometric grids. The dancing is gone. There are no more saints, no traces of Afro-Brazilian spirituality. The pace and passion of our people vanish. Her subjects become demolition cranes, trains, planes, and people working in Brazil’s lime mines.
I also trust her with her depictions of your heart B. because of the critical conversations surrounding her work. As a self-taught, poor, woman much of the immediate response from the art world claimed her art was “primitive,” “folklorist,” and “naïve.” Her response was, “I may be, but my painting is not.” She did not change her art to gain more favor from the artistic elite or even make more money. She knew that most of Brazil’s beauty came from Folklore, from the forest, from the Orixás.
Eventually, the tides shifted, and Djanira became posthumously revered. She became known as Brazil’s documentalist, the chronicler of rites, and the painter of customs. That is always how it is with those who have a keen sense of observation and strong critiques of cultural importance. No one will listen while the passion and the talent still beat within. People are so lazy. All the while small, brilliant works, forged in the masses slip like grains of sand through our fingers. Do you ever think about that? I mourn for the words of nobodies who had vital lessons or exceptional stories to tell, but they died, and their words were never found.
Staying cool in the AC at work, I think about how similar the oppressive New Orleans sun is to your sun. I take joy in the mossy pastel shotgun homes that fill Mid-City and the Marigny because they resemble some of the Favelas in your towns. My memories of you are recycled images from photos – the few I captured when my family visited in 2016. These memories play in my head like a slideshow: cityscapes transition into rolling fields lined with shrubby beige brush and trash; in a zoo, the jaguar gazes, or glares at me from behind grimy fences; thin horses and dogs roam on the outskirts of towns and kicking up small plumes of dust as they wander languidly.
From these severed memories I propagate new—false memories, ones that never were but allow me to wonder and construct new components of a self I have not awakened. On our two connecting flights to visit you, and in sparse moments of privacy, I often daydreamt of running away from my vacationing family once we arrived. In many daydreams—
I would walk miles on the dusty roads until reaching a small ranch to find an older gentleman with sun baked into the cracks of his skin like rich leather discolored over many years. In broken Portuguese, I ask for work. Pointing to his small herd of horses and ponies, I’d mumble, “Amo cavalos. Eu conheço suas almas.” I love horses. I know their souls. He’d smile and lead me behind the little complex of main favelas to even smaller buildings made of clay and wood with metal sheeting for rooves.
After settling, his son arrives. I am shocked to see that he is dressed for a desk job. “Dinner is ready in twenty minutes. There is an outdoor shower behind your bunk.” I say thank you, take a frigid shower in my briefs, and hang them on a tree branch outside my glassless window. Over the next few days, I am taught the language of the Brazilian horse world. I am nervous because I haven’t ridden consistently in a couple years. Other men working on the farm laugh at me as I try to tack up their horse in a cart harness. Over time I learn the ropes, impress them with my emotional connection and bodily communication with the horses. After a year, the old man asks me if I want to stay indefinitely. By now, he is like an uncle or young grandfather figure. I agree, and he presents me with my own horse, a young stallion, just barely four.
I act as an older brother to the old man’s young son and daughter, drive the cart into town and sell our produce. I blend into their family and the tribe.
Another symptom of my summer cravings for you and your culture B. is that I start listening to my playlists of your music and watching movies made about you—even the ones I don’t like—just to experience the prosody of Portuguese. Intermittently, I need the language to ring through me, like a tuning fork, even if I understand little. And I fight a palpable and perpetual fear that I will fall out of tune with you—become tone-deaf to your pitch.
My favorite of your songs, “Águas de Março” or “Waters of March,” is sung by the famous artists Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim. It was composed by Jobim in 1972 after visiting his family ranch, which had been battered by the seasonal storms. This version is my favorite because the grace is mirrored in the duetting voices of Elis and Antonio.
In 2001, the Folha de S. Paulo, a São Paulo newspaper, carried out a poll with over 200 participating musicians and voted “Águas de Março” to be the all-time best Brazilian song. Countless musicians have reimagined the song because the lyrics have a universalizing admiration for nature and the nature of life. To me, the “Waters of March” sounds and behaves more like a poem than a song. Each sentence begins with “it’s the ____ ” or “A ____”. I am lulled by how the song moves through disconnected collages of the essence of spring. The song is spring, the song is life, and it structurally mimics the way our brains catalog what we love and how we live:
A truckload of bricks in the soft morning light,
the shot of a gun, in the dead of night.
A mile, a must, a thrust, a bump.
It’s a girl, it’s a rhyme, it’s the cold, it’s the mumps.
The plan of the house, the body in bed,
the car that got stuck, it’s the mud, it’s the mud.
A float, adrift, a flight, a wing,
a hawk, a quail, the promise of spring.
And the riverbank talks of the waters of march.
It’s the promise of life. It’s the joy in your heart.
The song is like a siren inviting me to become part of your literature and art. It would be remarkable, challenging, and deeply satisfying to translate my own work into Portuguese. If only I had that command over your language, had grown up knowing these words. If only I could write with two minds and access two vocabularies.
As a writer, I have considered applying for a grant or fellowship that will send me to you B., to live for an extended period to learn and write and live. It is truthfully an unlikely dream, at least during my graduate years. I am hoping that someday I will have the opportunity. These fantasies of you surge softly but urgently through my bones when I close my eyes, tugging on the invisible tether between my mother country and me—
I wake from loud tings of rain droplets on the metal roof above me. The dog has taken to sleeping at my feet. He is not bothered by the racket, but he lifts a lazy head when I slip on my sandals and wanders into the open kitchen with me. The house is pregnant with the petrichor of springtime. Host mother left for the city to see her sister this morning, and I can hear host father rustling in his bedroom. I find myself sitting on the front steps in the earliest hours of morning rain, thinking of Elis Regina. The slightest chill from the rain’s breeze slips away as I sip my coffee sweetened with condensed milk. I smile and think of home. My hands wrap firmly around the mug. I would eat condensed milk by the spoonful in my childhood, thinking perhaps it was a remnant of a flavor bridge connecting me to what my birth mother may have eaten while carrying me.
Our neighbors wander by and wave at me, smiling. The village is small, and I have met most of our closest neighbors in the evenings at our community feast. These occasions are exactly what I wanted from Brazil, exactly how I wanted to belong. People bring plates and plates of food. There are always many types of smoked meat, rice dishes, and my favorite pao de queijo. Music booms from the doorway; people are laughing and spinning and dancing. The host dog slips from one group to the next, stealing from plates and dodging worn-out flip flops hurled in his direction. I drink and eat and drink and receive many laughs as I try to dance like my Brazilian family and friends. By the end, we putter around sluggishly, our bellies full of beer and meat, our feet sore and dusty from dancing. I recline on the doorsteps watching as night takes over the sky and the little yellow lights dim in the windows of other people’s homes.
The following afternoon I have taken up a spot under a tall and crooked palm tree. The air is sharp and saccharine, and a thin layer of smog drifts through town from the nearest sugarcane mill. Macuniama, the stray tortoiseshell cat I found stuck under some debris in the abandoned gas station, winds himself around my legs in figure eight. I can feel his hair sticking to my damp skin.
Thiago, my host cousin, has offered to work on my Portuguese and then help translate some of my writing with me today. I am eager to begin since my Portuguese lessons with my host mom have been largely unsuccessful. She speaks quickly, and her accent is thick with the tang from her childhood in Santa Catarina. She quickly becomes frustrated with me as I try to “unmuddle” her words and separate phrases she threads into one.
On the other hand, Thiago grew up in Rio de Janeiro’s urban center and spoke English by high school. His accent is minimal and one that would resemble the Brazilians featured in movies. I have also found better luck retaining the language when translating my previous words, syntax and discovering how my speech does or doesn’t fit into Portuguese linguistic patterns. Thiago is also the only queer person I have met so far, and though we have talked little about the subject, I have noticed that the unspoken comfortability between us has increased steadily since.
“Oi Boa tarde Téo! Tudo bem? Vejo que você ainda tem aquele gatinho seguindo você. Você está pronto para traduzir um homenzinho português?”
Thiago says, dropping his Portuguese-to- English and English-to Portuguese dictionary in front of me. I like that he calls me little man despite my insecurities about not being validated as a trans man in Brazil, but I also didn’t expect to find someone who was unflinchingly accepting. He is also excited to see my work eventually published when I return to the states. He says he can’t wait to be in a book.
“Sim Thiago, I am hoping to finish the first draft of—”
“Ahh sim! Sim Thaigo. Espero terminar o primeiro rascunho de Cane Fields até o final desta semana.”
By the end of the day, we had revised ten pages with some trouble. There was an argument over some words that lost their connotation when translated into Portuguese. The work was rewarding and as the day came to an end, Skye-Blue-Pink light filtered through the palms above, and warm shadows flickered over the annotated pages before me. I flipped through pages of my work, my thoughts, and marveled that they were finally in the language that my brain was meant to speak. A new door had been unlocked, and I finally and eagerly entered.
It has been five years and a week since my one and only trip to you, and my physiological alarm has been tripped. I can barely get through a class without googling a way to go back. B., I know that I am not the only adoptee that feels this way about their mother country and their life that never was. But in general, it feels taboo to critique adoption on a larger scale.
About a year ago, I read All You Can Ever Know, a memoir by Nicole Chung. She was adopted in America, but her birth family was Korean immigrants. Chung grew up as the shining miracle, god’s gift to her parents, who could not conceive. Reading this book was the first moment in literature and life where I watched someone struggle with the impossible burden to have a seraphim-like title placed upon us.
In addition to the typical bullying in early childhood, Chung articulated what it felt to be something special to her parents. She also dared to share how it was impossible to forget that she was other.’ She expressed how it felt to be stranded from her culture and mother tongue, and wondered about her biological family’s lives. It was even more relieving to read her grapple with the moral repercussions of adoption as a concept. I had not known anyone before this moment who openly challenged adoption.
Like Chung, I don’t know if I could ever wholeheartedly endorse adoption. Especially transracial adoptions. How do you feel, B. since you see the children who need to be adopted and aren’t? You see the poverty, the assault, and other scenarios that lead to the decision to place children up for adoption. How do you feel when your children are taken or saved or spared and assimilated into another culture? How do you feel when we forget you?
Of course, I think that adoptees’ lives are often improved in critical ways. But from our side of the equation, there is no way to measure the value of what that child can lose in terms of cultural practices, a sense of belonging, and group identity. I also hate having to justify these losses to people, to readers, occasionally to myself. I always hope that people know that I am intelligent enough to have a nuanced perception of adoption.
But that is what most people want, B. They want to be made to feel good. They want me to clear the cultural conscience before entertaining criticism. Those who agree often express discomfort from the gate and contradict their criticisms with phrases like “But it still saves so many lives” or “it is a beautiful thing though…”.
More than anything, B., the rotten tooth of adoption is this idea of the lucky brown child who was saved from certain poverty and starvation and other inconceivable acts of violence. Though my life with you may have boiled down to one or several of those experiences, no child should grow up trying to calculate the debt they owe to save and punish themselves for not being what they should be. For many years I resisted being grateful for my life, even in the specific lavishness that I received from my upper-middle-class upbringing. I felt trapped. I blamed my parents for choosing me because I craved the things that I lost in becoming their child. I was grateful enough, however, that I knew my parents didn’t deserve the hurt I inflicted upon them.
My only solutions to this unending and raw dilemma were: causing my parents to suffer, punishing myself, or escapism—the lattermost being the most enjoyable form. From my internal conflict of being adopted, I became a storyteller.
About the Author – Teo Chesney
Téo Chesney is currently enjoying their work as a writing coach at Delgado Community College. They are a recent graduate of The University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop, with a focus in nonfiction writing where they served as the associate nonfiction editor of Bayou Magazine. Téo was adopted from Brazil as an infant and raised in southern Vermont. Growing up in New England and coming out as transmasculine significantly changed how they consider the self and writing. They have published works of fiction in Crab Fat Magazine and Paragon Journal, and poetry in the St. Lawrence University Magazine, The Laurentian Magazine, and Tiny Seeds Journal. Most recently, Téo published an essay to HerStry Magazine and Blog. Téo is currently residing in New Orleans with their partner and mischievous cat, Kitsune.
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**This story by Teo Chesney received First Place in the 2022 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place & Home Contest.
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