This is what I’ve learned about fado since two recently published books have taken hold of me—Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel A Brief History of Yes and Karen Green’s memoir Bough Down. Fado is a Portuguese musical genre whose name derives from the Latin fatum, destiny or fate. It is associated with the Portuguese word soudade, which has no equivalent in English, but is often translated as longing or nostalgia. Fado is the beautiful Cristina Branco barely visible on a dark stage, her head back and eyes closed for nearly an entire concert. Fado is the unbearable repetition of metal guitar strings in slow acceleration as you wait for Amália Rodrigues to take the stage in a crepe gown. She lifts her arms and begins to sing at the age of sixty-seven like a child seeking to keep away the dark.
Traditionally, the fadist inhabits as their subject lost love, singing with open emotion about the wounds we too have but could not imagine sharing in public: how we were not loved in return, how we fantasize about suicide or revenge. And so it is most obviously that A Brief History of Yes and Bough Down evoke fado—A Brief History explicitly so—in that both take as their starting point women succumbing to the near madness that can follow doomed love. In A Brief History, the forty-year-old Maria is cast away by her lover because he fails to identify with the weight of her melancholy and her drive to explore childhood suffering. Maria sees their relationship as an opportunity for the two of them to come together and heal, whereas her lover wants only “a playful and happy girl to sleep with and to love.” In Bough Down, on the other hand, Green is left abandoned and traumatized by her husband when he commits suicide.
In some ways it may seem unjust—even inappropriate—to consider in parallel Marcom’s fictional exploration of loss and Green’s real-life experience, except that the books bear many uncanny similarities. In both books, the authors spiral around the traumatic experience and sound loss’s undulating waves of absence and presence, of disbelief and surrender, of sorrow and anger, of sense and senselessness. In the fado tradition, both authors disclose—in style, as well as content—the shocking acts and feelings we typically keep to ourselves when we grieve. But also in the fadist tradition—where musicians perform in spaces so dark they can barely be seen—both authors speak from the territory of grief in a way that leaves much concealed.