Adriana Lisboa’s ‘In This Very Same World’—an unflinching response to FGM—provoked a strong reaction from The Missing Slate’s readers, and the latest instalment in our Poet of the Month series features Adriana in conversation with Jacob Silkstone. Moving from a discussion of her own work to an overview of the current generation of Brazilian writers, Adriana Lisboa discusses the feminist debate around FGM, the importance of trying to see ‘the other’, and whether or not there should be ‘forbidden subjects’ in poetry.
There’s a lot to admire in the way that you address your subject so directly: there’s no attempt to wrap reality in poeticisms, and yet ‘In This Very Same World’ still culminates in one of the most powerful images I’ve read in a long, long time. (There’s an echo of the eye-slicing scene from Un Chien Andalou, and I wondered whether that was deliberate?) Do you think that it’s always advisable to approach a difficult (perhaps distressing) subject with a pared-down, less elaborate style of writing? Did you make a conscious effort to confront the subject directly?
Echoing Un Chien Andalou was not intentional, but who knows which references come uninvitedly (and unconsciously) to our creative process? I did make an effort, though, to confront the subject directly. Almost as if it were already eloquent enough in itself, and any poetry written about it could be too much. What I also tried to do was to rarefy the images in the end, so the very physical, tangible reality described in the first verses would almost disappear— as it probably does, more often than not, when someone reads about it in the newspaper and two minutes later is already thinking of something else.
I’m not really part of the debate. What moved me to write this poem was not the idea of some role I had to play or some protest I had to make. I was not really trying to accomplish anything in this sense. I had read about this specific girl in an article, and was so moved by her story that I went on and wrote the poem— more or less in the same way that I wrote, last week, a poem dedicated to Hanna Lalango, the sixteen year-old Ethiopian girl who was kidnapped, gang raped for days, and eventually died.
I do think we need to be cautious when writing about realities other than our own: how far we can go; how much we understand and how much we don’t (and never will). But our own strangeness is already a valid subject and viewpoint. I don’t think there are “forbidden subjects”: I believe what happens to one human being concerns every single other human being, and empathy doesn’t need to ask permission to manifest. The space of poetry is a space of awe and reflection (in the sense of manifestation and consideration), it’s a space where we can multiply our question marks, rather than look for answers. In this sense, I don’t think it really matters if I’m a Brazilian writing about a girl in Somalia or Ethiopia. We write poems, songs, and stories in order to be able, I guess, to live with our own perplexity, fear, confusion, love. And share it with others.
We’ve already mentioned poems set in Somalia and Ethiopia: in geographical terms, there’s an impressive breadth to your work (I notice that your story in Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists is linked to Rishikesh). Does that belief that “what happens to one human being concerns every single other human being” lie behind the internationalism of your writing? Now that you’re based in the US, I wonder what you make of Horace Engdahl’s statement that “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.”
I have other works of fiction partly set in Japan and Vietnam: to try and see the other (country, race, age group, species) is crucial for me, for my work, even when the other lacks any apparent glamour, even if they seem to be plain and boring. I’m thinking of Canadian author Alice Munro’s amazing stories, and the level of empathy she achieves. That’s what matters to me, at the end of the day. How we all respond to love, loss, sadness, joy. Now I am more than a little suspicious of generalizations, of stereotypes, and Mr. Engdahl’s statement might be too simplistic, and somewhat arrogant. It is true that the US can be an insular country in various ways— books in translation account for about 3% of everything that is published here, and this number includes fiction and nonfiction. There is work to be done. I’ve lived in the US for eight years now, but write in Portuguese, publish my books first in Brazil, and then see what happens in terms of being translated (or not translated) here. The tiny space dedicated to literature in translation in this country can be very frustrating. On the other hand, the US has great fiction writers and poets (Cormac McCarthy, W.S. Merwin, Louise Glück, and so many others) who are not merely speakers of an ignorant and self-centered nation, as Mr. Engdahl’s statement seems to imply.
My two genres are definitely long prose (novels) and poetry. I think that every single short story I’ve ever written was commissioned. I don’t usually think in terms of short prose. And the books I wrote for children are all from the time when my son was a child (he’s sixteen now), and I read to him a lot, so I was really influenced by all those wonderful, colorful books. The tricky thing when it comes to writing for children is to avoid trying to convey any sort of message. In my opinion, authors should speak to their creativity only. That’s already quite a challenge.
You mentioned the rather notorious 3% figure, and the sad fact that “The tiny space dedicated to literature in translation… can be very frustrating.” Of the many, many Brazilian writers (novelists or poets) who have yet to be translated into English, which would you recommend to an international audience (and why)? We could extend that question to include writers whose work has appeared in English but—for one reason or another—hasn’t yet reached a wide audience.
From the Brazilian writers that have yet to be translated into English I would definitely mention poet Mariana Ianelli and fictionists Adriana Lunardi, Claudia Lage and André de Leones. These are writers who go far beyond the narrow idea of a “Brazilian identity” and experiment with a broader literary experience. They establish a dialogue with the visual arts (Ianelli, Lunardi); history, women’s rights and race issues (Lage); philosophy and pop music (Leones). Among the authors that have already appeared in English, I would recommend Luiz Ruffato, whose original work portrays mainly the daily lives of the working class in the megalopolis of São Paulo; Michel Laub, who writes beautifully constructed coming-of-age novels and often deals with Judaism; and Patricia Melo, who writes crime fiction. Modernist poet Manuel Bandeira is one of our classics and one of my favorites (if not my favorite), and a name that needs to be discovered abroad. And of course the breathtaking work of João Guimarães Rosa, our James Joyce, and the author of what is for me the greatest work ever written in the Portuguese Language – ‘Grande Sertão: Veredas’ (translated into English as ‘The Devil to Pay in the Backlands’, and currently undergoing a much needed new translation by Alison Entrekin).