Stories of the Sahara

Stories of the Sahara BY Sanmao. Translated by Mike Fu. New York: Bloomsbury. 416 pages. $28.

You can tell a lot about someone by peering at their bookshelf. “I don’t like to read,” the Taiwanese writer Sanmao grumbles when she receives booklets of traffic rules before a driving test. “What are you talking about?” her husband, José, says, gesturing at her bookcase. “Here you have books on astronomy, geography, demons and ghouls, spy romances, animals, philosophy, gardening, languages, cooking, manga, cinema, tailoring, even secret recipes in traditional Chinese medicine, magic tricks, hypnotism, dyeing clothes.” This scene, from Stories of the Sahara, a collection of short travelogues set mainly in the African desert, is Sanmao distilled: a woman limitlessly interested in the world around her, resourceful yet drawn to the mystical and fantastical, and stubbornly independent. (After waiting a few beats, she quips: “This was different. I don’t like to read things that other people assign me.”)

Sanmao was born in China in 1943, grew up in Taiwan, studied in Germany and Spain, and—before she killed herself in 1991 at the age of forty-seven—traveled to more than fifty countries. But for millions of readers, it’s the Sahara Desert she’s indelibly associated with. In the early 1970s, Sanmao moved to El Aaiún, the capital of what was then the Spanish Sahara, after reading a feature in National Geographic that seized her with a “feeling of homesickness . . . inexplicable and yet so decisive, towards that vast and unfamiliar land.” The writing she produced there, serialized in a Taiwanese newspaper and later collected in a volume published in 1976, made her a literary sensation across the Chinese-speaking world. Last year, Stories of the Sahara was translated into English for the first time.

The twenty pieces in Stories of the Sahara aren’t essays so much as yarns—wry stories about life among the native Sahrawi, or tales of high adventure peppered with cursed amulets, flying saucers, and rumors of invisible spirits known as djinni. In “Night in the Wasteland,” Sanmao and José drive off into the desert one evening to collect fossils, and José gets caught in mud as the temperature quickly drops. Fearing that José will freeze to death, Sanmao flags down a passing Jeep, fends off the group of men inside it when they threaten her, and eventually devises a way to pull José out by disassembling their own car. “I used the jack to raise the right-hand side of the car and began removing the front wheel. Faster, faster, I kept urging myself. I had to get José out while I could still move my arms and legs.”

I had imagined Sanmao to be aloof and remote, a sort of Taiwanese Joan Didion. But this is not the case, I realized with mounting delight as I made my way through the collection. Sanmao is folksy, direct, funny—a master at chronicling the provincial absurdities of desert life. “Let them throw the ticket out for a goat to chew on,” she writes at the end of “A Ladder,” in which she bests the hapless policemen who have been pursuing her for driving without a license. “I laughed victoriously and set out with my vegetable basket to the canteen at the desert corps.” In “Nice Neighbours,” goats keep crashing through the skylight into their home, and their Sahrawi neighbors use their possessions with impunity:

“Gueiga, let me ask you. Can you go around to all the neighboring women and ask what, besides my toothbrush and husband, you’re not interested in borrowing?”

She seemed to wake from a dream, hearing this. “What does your toothbrush look like?” she asked immediately.

“Get out,” I cried in agitation. “Get out.”

Sanmao whittles unnecessary details out of her stories so deftly that they take on the feel of fables or folk tales: something essential shows through.

As I read, I kept wondering why Sanmao’s persona was so magnetic. Is it simply because she was so unusual, out there in the vast and largely unpeopled desert, likely the only Taiwanese woman for miles around? Part of the draw of Stories of the Sahara is that it promises to satisfy our curiosity—what was she even doing there? But I couldn’t shake a sense of vertigo. I learned of Sanmao’s existence recently, through a teacher who had in turn learned about her from an article in the New York Times. And yet: “Of course we know who Sanmao is,” my parents told me over the phone. They grew up in Taiwan in the 1970s; they were in college when Sanmao began publishing her Saharan dispatches. One of my mom’s go-to karaoke songs is “The Olive Tree”—Sanmao wrote the lyrics. (“Don’t ask from where I have come / My home is far, far away.”) Who was this person, whose stories had traveled—across far-flung borders and multiple language barriers—from my parents’ lives into my own?

And why was she in the Sahara, anyway? Sanmao can’t or won’t say. “What attracts me to this place?” she writes. “The wide openness of the earth and sky, the hot sun, the windstorms. There’s joy in such a lonely life, there’s sorrow. I even love and hate these ignorant people. It’s so confusing! I can’t quite make sense of it myself.” But it’s revealing when she writes things like, “I wanted a taste of many different lives, sophisticated or simple, highbrow or low.” More than once, Sanmao befriends people her neighbors scorn, including a mute slave and his destitute family. “What can an education tell you about a person? What use is a degree?” she thinks disgustedly at one point. It’s not that Sanmao isn’t judgmental—she can be quite sharp—but she doesn’t care about the artificial barriers that separate us. What matters to her is a person’s core, something deep and vital.

Sanmao wants to get to the marrow of human experience, and it’s in the Sahara that she finds that limitlessness and intensity reflected back at her. “Occasionally, I’d see a little black dot moving slowly at the edge of the horizon,” she writes in a story about picking up hitchhikers. “Without fail, I’d unconsciously slow down my speeding car each time. The figure seemed so small and frail underneath the great dome of sky. My heart could never bear it.” When we read Sanmao, we get a glimpse of what it’s like to live with such uncompromising intensity of feeling.

Chelsea Leu is a writer living in New York.