TORONTO — Before they came to Toronto, they went to war in Africa.
Anthony De Sa’s uncles fought in the Portuguese army to quell nationalist forces in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique through the 1960s and 1970s.
But some brought scars from the battlefield with them when they emigrated to Canada, showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
These struggles were only acknowledged in whispered conversations among his aunts, one of whom once confided in De Sa that not a week went by without her husband waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, lashing out.
When De Sa prodded his uncles about their time at war, his queries were met with resistance or deflection, and several took their memories to the grave. So, the acclaimed author decided to find his own answers in writing “Children of the Moon,” published by Doubleday Canada this week.
It was a mission that sent the Toronto teacher-librarian across the globe, marking a departure from his previous works rooted in the Portuguese-Canadian experience, including his debut short-story collection, “Barnacle Love,” which was shortlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize, and 2013’s “Kicking the Sky.”
“There are times where you write what you know,” said De Sa, 52. “For this one, it’s really about writing about what I wanted to understand.”
“Children of the Moon” is told from a trio of interlocking perspectives, each character bearing a connection to De Sa’s own story.
There is Ezequiel, inspired by one of De Sa’s uncles, a Toronto recluse who in the throes of dementia revisits the violence he endured and perpetrated as a child soldier in Portugal-controlled Mozambique.
Amid this colonial conflict, a young Ezequiel crosses paths with Po, a Maasai woman with albinism, a genetic condition affecting the colour of the skin, hair and eyes that in Africa can carry life-threatening stigma rooted in superstitions that those who have it possess magical qualities.
The author acknowledges he has a personal stake in the plight of people with albinism. Late in life, De Sa said he learned of a relative with albinism who had been “mystified” and relegated to the periphery of his family.
“It struck me that that sense of otherness that is created either by the individual or the people closest to them is something all writers really write about,” said De Sa.
In trying to capture that “otherness,” De Sa found common cause with the novel’s third narrator, Serafim, a Brazilian journalist who struggles to shed his outsider’s gaze to faithfully tell Po’s story.
“There was some moral ambiguity,” De Sa said. “But the more I spoke to people, the more I was invited in, the more I felt compelled to tell this story as honestly as I could.”
This sense of duty drove the mild-mannered father of three to venture into parts of Mozambique normally off-limits to visitors.
De Sa brokered a deal to get into the Grande Hotel in the coastal city of Beira, once considered one of Africa’s premiere luxury destinations and now a so-called vertical slum for thousands of squatters.
He had less success reaching the peak of Mount Gorongosa, one of the novel’s key settings, having shrugged off the warnings of Canadian travel officials to find that no amount of cash could convince nearby villagers to guide him through what some had deemed “the ghost road” due to the high number of disappearances in the area.
But as he excavated his family’s buried traumas, he didn’t expect to come back with his own.
“I felt like I had been torn apart by something,” said De Sa.
“What’s tough is writing about it and trying to be really honest about it, and then trying to make sense of it all, and coming out of it OK.”
The deeper De Sa immersed himself into the painful subtext of his family’s involvement in the colonial wars, the more out of sync he felt with his life in Toronto.
“It just shifts your whole understanding of the world, and your place in it,” he said, his voice growing quieter. “I became angry. I became disconnected from my family.”
Having witnessed the devastating aftermath of war, De Sa sought help as he worked to transition back into his Toronto life, so he could be there for his wife and children.
But even with “Children of the Moon” on the shelves, De Sa said he’ll never fully shut the book on this story.
“You’re asked to relive it over and over again – when people are intrigued, when people ask questions, when people share their stories and how it moved them,” he said. “It’s an artifact that lives and breathes.”
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press