Dispatches

Biking Around with Ondjaki

Hàn Fúsēn

Just decide what happens and worry about the rest later

After his talk at the Vancouver Writers Festival last fall, the Angolan writer Ondjaki—considered one of the great writers of magical realism today—stepped offstage and joined the audience shuffling toward the exit.

I turned to Ondjaki and gave him a nod. He stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “Obrigado, for being here.”

I thanked him for bringing up his grandmother, who was 13 years old, in the discussion on stage. He had remarked that in his childhood his grandmother loved to recount her past to him. Now that he was forty-two, he had joked, his back was starting to hurt from carrying the weight of her stories. “It reminded me of my own nainai,” I said. “She spun tales in idle air.”

The crowd stopped moving. Ondjaki and I were among a troop of silver-haired people. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry to leave.

“By the way,” Ondjaki said. “I’m Ndalu.”

I shook his hand a second time. I introduced myself with my English name. “So Ondjaki is your pen name?” I asked.

“You don’t have another name?” he said.

I explained that my other name, Hàn Fúsēn, hampers introductions. The tones—the first, falling; the second, rising; the third, held high and flat—determine half the meaning. “English names are adopted easily here,” I said.

“Ndalu is not easy,” Ondjaki said. “But it will be easy for me to call you Hàn.”

At the door, Ondjaki put on red wool gloves. I told him he was lucky to be in Vancouver at this time—no rain, clear skies. It was forecasted to last one more day. “That’s a rare treat for October,” I said.

“Wouldn’t you like to show me your city?” Ondjaki said. He had not yet ventured far from the festival site, Granville Island, an artisan shopping and entertainment district, jammed with colourful market stalls, artist studios, galleries, street performers, that one place that sells hammocks, and a ton of seagulls.

I was caught off guard. I hadn’t entertained the idea of wandering around town with a writer of magical realism. He could better spend his time with some of the prominent writers who had gathered in Vancouver for the festival. I imagined him sitting down for brunch with Esi Edugyan, laughing together at how his name is often mistaken for Ondaatje here, or roaming Gastown with Patrick deWitt in search of a Brooklynesque coffee shop, both fighting hangovers, uninterested in the red-brick storefronts.

But Ondjaki had no plans for the next day. So we made arrangements to meet around noon, plenty of time before his interview with Eleanor Wachtel for Writers & Company in the evening.

The air was crisp the next day, but I felt warm in the sun. Ondjaki and I were standing at a bike share station on the seawall of False Creek, looking across the water at the Vancouver skyline.

“I would like to ride towards the big ball,” Ondjaki said.

He was pointing to Science World, a shiny dome built for Expo 86 that now houses a science centre. I punched in the code to release a bike for him. I handed him the accompanying helmet. “It’s sort of mandatory,” I said.

“Rawi warned me about this at breakfast,” Ondjaki said.

“Rawi?” I said.

“Rawi,” he said. “Rawi and Madeleine. You must know Madeleine.”

I realized he was referring to the authors Rawi Hage and Madeleine Thien. I joked that I do know Madeleine. I come face to face with her each time I cross Broadway on Main Street. I explained that there’s a photo of her on a lamppost there, part of a public library project that highlights local authors. The first time I saw the photo the notion of immortality had come to mind, but then I continued up the block to buy parsley and canned herring. Ondjaki dropped his helmet into the basket on the front of the bike. He pushed off the kickstand, wobbled a little, and pedalled toward Science World. He swerved right and continued for another six blocks up a slope in the neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant. Ondjaki docked his bike at another bike share station. He took off his gloves and winter coat. He still had on a sweater and a thick scarf. He wiped down his forehead.

We walked through the neigh

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Hàn Fúsēn

Hàn Fúsēn works in municipal public engagement. He studied political science and human geography at the University of British Columbia. He lives in Vancouver. Read his piece "Little Trouble In Chinatown."

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