After the Last Ship, by Audrey Fernandes-Satar


This book, published in 2014, is a poetic and highly polemical autobiography of the journey of the writer’s family from Goa in India to Mozambique, and ultimately, to Australia. It is not straight memoir, not is it pure theory. It combines personal, poetic reflections with history, theory of diaspora and identity, and art. The fact that it weaves theory with the personal story in words and pictures and that it is published by an academic publisher puts it in that hybrid category of auto-ethnography, and may mean that its audience is limited to those interested in a theoretical approach to the personal. Yet, if you just read the personal passages and look at the wonderful images of the author’s art work, it is a moving and original narrative that allows the reader into the very heart of the experience of displacement, dispossession, loss, alienation, and also of hope, survival and healing. All are mediated by a strong, courageous celebration of identity born out of loss of identity, and protest against the fascist, patriarchal values and actions of the Portuguese government and their colonial policies.

I have written a couple of posts about this book; see I will not review it, as I was its editor. I am close enough to the story to know the pain and labour of the author in producing it. I celebrate its publication, and hope it will get the readership it deserves.

A recurring theme is the grief of separation from the writer’s grandmother, who remained  behind in India. Here is a short poetic passage that takes us into the visceral, sensual moments of love and belonging, refracted through the mirror of separation and loss:

The Kala Pani

She turned to me

I knew that look in her eyes

Resolute, full of wisdom

You must go

She said

You must go

This is the last ship…

I never touched her again

Embraced her again

Or saw her again

Or laid my head on her lap again

On her sari

Or smelt her again

Or laid my head on her sari

Her lap

The smoke of fresh chapatis on her clothes…

But the smell of coffee lingers

Sem retorno

Repetition and sensual imagery of food, smells, textures, tastes, and the recurring motif of Kala Pani, the black ocean that forever separated the little girl and her family from their origins and history, bind this loosely constructed narrative together. Living in Mozambique, which was under Portuguese rule, was not easy, especially after India reclaimed Goa from Portuguese control. Audrey’s family, like many other Goans living in Mozambique, still under Portuguese rule, were vilified as being apatrida, stateless,  employed in menial jobs, and condemned to live in houses on the outer fringes of town, infested with rats, without standard amenities. Despite everything, she did well in school; but getting there and back required all her courage. There were streets she and her sisters were not allowed to go, as people of colour:

The shouting of abuse went on most days. The rantings of their abuse insinuated that they knew who we were, and that we were in some way inferior to them and as such, they could enact their power and drive us off the street. They were entitled to this. This was a war raging against us. We were children on our way to school. White Men, Women and Children enacted this senseless war against us. We were powerless, thrown into it by the way we looked, the colour of our bodies.

Strong images in her art work are hands and feet; worn by hard work and by endless walking:

I look at the soil on my feet black red many grains

Between lands

There is a place it’s not the same I grasp my stick of charred charcoal

The one I am used to draw with

Between lands

There is a place where I am still not ready to say goodbye to her my grandmother and walk past the gangplank

There is a place soil on my feet black red many grains

We could stay here between lands there is a place

Between lands

We could stay.

Audrey and her family now live in Australia, have done so for many years; she is an accomplished artist, has a PhD (this book is developed from her thesis) and researches questions of colour, race, diaspora, identity.  This book is her achievement, testimony to her survival and triumph, living between lands, in a place where she can stay. These are issues we need to reflect on, as our country’s policy makers talk of border protection and utter warlike words against the desperate people who seek a place of refuge.



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