Lídia Jorge (1946–) is one of the writers who best represents Portugal’s post-revolutionary generation. Her books (fiction, children’s literature, essays, and poetry) have been translated into more than twenty languages and published in several countries. She has received various national and international literary prizes, including the 2020 FIL Literary Award for Romance Languages, one of Latin America’s most distinguished awards. On April 4th, 2022, the day of the inauguration of the Lídia Jorge Chair at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the author gave the following interview with Margara Russotto and Patrícia Martinho Ferreira.
Margara Russotto (MR): Since your first publication, O Dia dos Prodígios (1980), Portugal’s social and political history has been a recurrent theme in your work. What turning points have marked your work? Have there been significant changes?
Lídia Jorge (LJ): There is some continuity and naturally, some deviation. Some of us write within a certain historical and social context, while others create different worlds. As an author, I am among those who have built their narrative around the end of empires. In my case, the Portuguese empire’s longevity made its collapse particularly traumatic, especially as this coincided with the end of a colonial war that lasted over a decade and upended many lives. My generation interpreted this moment and observed the revolution of April 25th, 1974, historically known as the Carnation Revolution, which not only allowed the war to end but also granted us a democracy. You could say a new society began that day, but also a new era in Portuguese literature.
MR: And in your case, where do you place yourself in terms of being an active observer and a writer who has coped with that change?
LJ: As a writer I feel like I am a creator of marginal lives, or, more appropriately, a kind of witness of time passing. In terms of social change, the fact that Portugal became part of Europe after the revolution put a lot of stress on a country that had held on to too many archaic beliefs, and the rapid path it had to take highlighted deep conflicts within Portuguese society. It took a stoic effort on the part of the population. In situations like these, ontological concerns become more acute. I am part of the group of writers who made this social and historical change literally visible, but from the inner worlds of characters, through transformed individual views. If I had to create an epigraph that encompasses the whole of what I’ve written so far, I would say: These books are about a time when the idea of Empire expired, and a free society emerged.
MR: However, there are turning points.
LJ: Yes, of course I considered other perspectives, such as the transformation of the family and the role of women, how they faced changes in Portugal and changes in Europe and globally. During the 1960s, one in three Portuguese women was illiterate, which says a lot about a society. Despite this history of little education and the upholding of outdated beliefs, many Portuguese women demonstrated that they wanted to be free and that they wanted to be masters of themselves. Others, perhaps many others, remained prisoners of difficult legacies. I don’t want to confuse these sociological aspects of Portuguese life with literature, but even so, I can’t fail to mention that this is a theme to which female Portuguese writers have dedicated thousands of pages. It’s impossible to be indifferent to the disenfranchised members of a society in which the trauma and the legacy of oppression is more acutely felt by women. Writing is a bloodstream that goes from body to body.
Patrícia Martinho Ferreira (PMF): Several of your female characters seem to be equipped with a particular clarity about what is going on in the world. They often set history straight or find a different way of recounting it or maintain an ironic distance from the versions broadcast by men. Could you speak to the role and significance of female characters in your work?
LJ: The woman’s point of view needs to be authentic. When a writer follows the perspective of women, she knows she’s writing from a place of historical accuracy. Because women, like men, are beings from society and from history. By giving them their own point of view, you enrich History with a capital “H” and write the part that was missing. It also means writing about one’s feelings, anxieties, and desires, and searching for meaning. Eva Lopo from my novel The Murmuring Coast understands the war in Africa in a way that the male characters in works by António Lobo Antunes or João de Melo don’t. The same could be said for the widow’s narrative about the revolution in Charlie 8. Her viewpoint reveals, I think, another dimension of the event that would not emerge otherwise.
Writers seek, through a multiplicity of voices, to achieve knowledge that distances the text from a single point of view. Each female character offers a new angle of observation on the world. It doesn’t matter if her voice gets ensnared in the plot’s web, what matters is that her voice is triumphant, that she understands the triumph of her valid and insightful perspective.
PMF: Eva Lopo in The Murmuring Coast (1988), Ana Maria Machado in Os Memoráveis (2014), and especially Milene from The Wind Whistling in the Cranes (2002) are defeated figures or at least diminished ones. However, they still transmit a feeling of glory . . .
LJ: I like these kinds of figures being defined as defeated but not mediocre. My female characters could, contradictorily, be considered great at losing. I don’t feel inclined to write about powerful women; I prefer characters with a demystifying gaze. They might be victims, they might interpret sacrificial acts, they might want to exchange their lives for the sake of their loved ones, or for a cause, like the old woman, Ana Mata, in The Wind Whistling in the Cranes, who offers her life to the sea in a primitive, superstitious attitude, for the sake of her own. I do this not deliberately but because writing draws me to these people, because from them I glean the knowledge I crave. When I am creating these characters, I don’t conceive of them as victims, though they may appear that way to most. They simply pass through instruments of definition that grant them the power to win in life. This is very important because it redeems something that women keep hidden, the idea of a generous and absolute offer that hasn’t been sufficiently written.
MR: How do fictional lives relate to the real conditions of women’s lives in Portugal?
LJ: Literature challenges the logic of the world. Portraying lives and recounting one’s battles in a way that differs from reality promotes hope and freedom. This is the great challenge of the art of poetic language and narrative. In Portugal, a minority of girls and women have become autonomous and compete equally with men. Most continue living in a subdued state, they suffer from violence, are unable to publicly defend themselves, and are still underestimated as citizens. Therefore, there is a discrepancy between those who manage to overcome a certain cultural and educational threshold and the others, who remain in a fragile state. I think that many female Portuguese writers sometimes directly, but more often indirectly, write books that emphasize and inspire a spirit of disobedience in the majority group that has not yet reached freedom and in adults who are still trying to find their own voice. Art works with subjectivity, but in the end, it also affects economic and sociological structures.
Consider that Portugal was a poor country and that the memory of doing without takes a long time to get over. The memory of hunger causes timidity and quashes opposition. This society still harbors many hidden traumas. Everything seems harmonious from afar, but if we scratch the surface, we will see that tears are flowing underneath. Literature has this role of tearing apart, of laying bare what has been hidden.
MR: To complement the previous question, what is your opinion on Portuguese/transnational feminist movements and their struggles in different sectors of society? How did feminism influence (or not influence) you as a novelist?
LJ: In the 1970s, Portugal had a very strong feminist movement. There were women who took on feminism with great vigor and saw it as a reaffirming, activist, political option. I belong to a generation that benefitted from that struggle. I inherited that, and I am indebted to it, but I am a different kind of feminist. Above all, I defend the point of view of women as authors, and this implies strengthening feminist claims. On the other hand, I find myself with the struggle for women’s dignity when it comes to social issues. I fight for them to get justice, but the space from which I assert my claim is writing. In other words, I assume that my books are built around the feminine: I have no doubt, then, that they can’t help but be feminist. During the past several decades, one of the most important struggles has been the right to the voluntary termination of pregnancy. It was difficult, and I struggled mightily for women’s freedom to choose. Women should have the right to decide what happens to their own bodies.
MR: Getting back to literature . . . could you tell us about the authors and works that helped form your vision of the world and your poetic tendencies?
LJ: I started writing very early, kids’ stuff, but at the beginning of my childhood I discovered a book that affected me so much that it pushed me to write more as an adult. That book was Nada by the fabulous Catalan writer Carmen Laforet. It is a narrative built around a young woman who describes the trauma of Spanish society one year after the civil war without referring directly to the conflict. What affected me deeply was the way the plot was expressed through the psychological interiority of the characters. I learned something from it that I still use today. The other book that really affected me and that I read around the same period and that is still with me today is William Faulkner’s The Old Man. In college, I read mainly French post-WWII writers, the existentialists and the nouveau roman authors, but I felt like that writing was sophisticated and too distant from my life experience. I wasn’t interested in formal, philosophical parables—I needed models that would reflect the realities of the brutal life I had known in the countryside in the south of my country, where salvation came from the wonder of nature. The great primitive human passions, such as betrayal and revenge, were tremendous there. I had witnessed poverty and injustice, murder, people’s lives snuffed out by the weight of destiny, the cruel exercise of discretionary power by the haves over the have-nots, and I was looking for contemporary books that could teach me how to write about these human follies. Suddenly, I read that little book by Faulkner in a Europa-América pocket edition and got very excited. I thought that I could write about the brutality of the world I came from. There was a model. A little later, when I started reading Latin American authors, I realized that there were great contemporary writers who not only spoke of life’s hardships but also managed to transform them through their writing. Pedro Páramo was a revelation. In 1980, I published O Dia dos Prodígios, and with that first book, I felt I was well on my way.
PMF: As an internationally recognized and celebrated author, where do you place yourself within the canon of Portuguese literature?
LJ: That is a difficult question to answer. Allow me to place myself within the concentrated space that is Portuguese literature written by women. I can highlight three stages in the twentieth century. In the first one, around the 1950s, women sought to make a mark with their civic identities so that they could be recognized for their own individual voices. During that time, these authors reclaimed a space for women. The best example is Agustina Bessa Luís, but I would also highlight authors like Isabel da Nóbrega or Maria Judite de Carvalho. These authors wrote about the struggle for recognition of female characters whose voices deserved attention and visibility. They described their spaces of power and said We exist; we are important and here is our writing.
In the 1970s, however, the great revolution took place. The three Marias (Maria Velho da Costa, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Isabel Barreno) were undoubtedly an example of unique combativeness and creativity, and each day that goes by they are even more valued. They brought the semantics of female desire to the literary sphere. They found the right words to say we feel in a different way, exposing themselves erotically and reaffirming the divergences between women and men. The Three Marias created a sort of erotic alphabet of desire and subversion that was granted them. They challenged Freud’s view of woman as a castrated man, feeling envious of the male sex. They are completely anti-Freudian voices. When the Novas Cartas Portuguesas that they authored were published in 1973, the regime went after them, and they were going to be tried as criminals when the Carnation Revolution happened!
Finally, we can speak of another, different generation that was heir and debtor to the one that preceded it, and in which the militarism that had characterized previous female writers was diminished. I am referring to Teolinda Gersão, Hélia Correia, and Luísa Costa Gomes, and I include myself as well. This slightly younger group was concerned with addressing the civilizational, political, and cultural change that had taken place around the revolution. If the first stage had been about the role of women in the family, and the second about personal subjectivity and sexuality, the women of my generation, of the eighties, wanted to have an impact on history by highlighting the female point of view without concessions. Of course, this is a poor summary, the reality is much more nuanced.
PMF: Let’s talk about your most recent novel, Estuário (2019), which addresses themes such as war and displacement. There is a character, Edmundo Galeano, who copies The Iliad word for word. What can Homer’s verses tell us in today’s super-modern and highly technological world?
LJ: In terms of the meaning of this book, I’d like to point out that this character, Edmundo Galeano, loses part of his right hand on a humanitarian mission in Dadaab, at the largest refugee camp in Kenya. When he returns, instead of doing physical therapy, he decides to use writing as a form of exercise. He copies The Iliad because this epic poem ends with two assassinations—Hector kills Patroclus and is killed by Achilles—in other words, a chain of vengeance is unleashed in the characters’ efforts to seize power. The great lesson is that it is completely pointless to fight because no one wins, everyone loses because they all die. What Edmundo Galeano is trying to say is that modern poetry books announce the end of humanity, that is, they warn us of a danger that lives within us and can destroy us.
PMF: Much of your work addresses Portugal’s colonial legacy, and in interviews you’ve commented on the feeling that some people have of nostalgia for a lost empire. Do you think this feeling of nostalgia is shared by all the countries that were hegemonic at a given moment in history? Why do you write about the Portuguese experience in Africa and the African presence in Portugal?
LJ: I think the colonial legacy is dangerous in Portugal and elsewhere because it implies a trauma that has not been overcome. It’s one thing to propose sociological theories that say this has been overcome, it’s another thing to see what has truly happened in these communities. Behaviors hailing from the colonial period still vigorously endure. It’s good to remember, from a literary standpoint, that Europe only started denouncing racism and colonialism with Joseph Conrad’s 1899 book Heart of Darkness, and then with T. E. Lawrence’s book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And only in 1992 did Sven Lindqvist publish “Exterminate All the Brutes,” which looks to Conrad to reveal how the Holocaust was a rehearsal for colonialism.
Today this issue is key, and it should continue to be so as long as the past comes back and the wound remains unhealed. European society continues to be colonialist, and it is very difficult to dismantle that mentality. I believe the dominant literary issue for the twenty-first century will be colonialism and racism, which are harder to overcome mainly because the voices of the victims remain to be heard. Resentment is a profound impulse that cannot be controlled rationally. There is a desire in Europe to move beyond the horrors of the past, but the descendants of oppressed populations don’t have that view, and rightly so, because they are working to find their heroes and to legitimize their voices. It is amid this whirlwind of conflicting views that we find ourselves.
MR: How do you view contemporary Portuguese literature? Can you share a few interesting or promising names?
LJ: I follow what is being written today as much as I can, and I think that this new generation is doing a good job of facing the challenges of creating good literature. It’s also important to say that each of these young writers offers their own approach. I can highlight, for example, Bruno Vieira do Amaral, Ana Margarida de Carvalho, Gonçalo M. Tavares, Valter Hugo Mãe, Inês Pedrosa, Patrícia Reis, João Tordo. And in terms of touching on postcolonial themes, I can mention Dulce Maria Cardoso, Isabela Figueiredo, and Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida, all of whom bring a new perspective that complements that of my generation. These writers denounce the viewpoint of Europeans who returned to Portugal from Africa, they talk, for instance, about colonial resentment and racism, and offer a first-person perspective not only on the experience of those living under the Portuguese empire, but also on the legacy of colonialism and the difficulty of reintegration in postcolonial Portuguese society.
MR: This question is unavoidable. Can you tell us a little about the pandemic and how it affected your writing? How did you experience this long period of fear and isolation?
LJ: The vision of the world changed because the notion of global vulnerability became clear. I had just published O Estuário, which is precisely about that vulnerability, and suddenly, with the pandemic, we realized that there was no author of evil: instead, evil was in nature. We were fighting something without knowing what it was, and I think that our blindness of not knowing how to face this evil affected us all. In my case, the impact was especially great because my mother died from Covid practically at the beginning of the pandemic. It is difficult for me to have clarity about what happened because it was very painful for me, and I still haven’t grieved. At that time, I had a book in my hands, and I started to write another because I felt that what was written before could no longer be written. This idea of vulnerability and the closeness of death inspired me to write something that was light but also profound . . . I still haven’t finished it, and I don’t even know if I can. It’s a hybrid book between fiction, a form of bearing witness, and poetry. It’s a more personal book, one about the last year of a woman’s life.
PMF: Were you asked to write a lot during the pandemic?
LJ: Yes, a lot. I was asked to write various think pieces about the moment we were living through, about how the world would end up. I wrote thirteen columns with the idea that this traumatic experience was so strong that we could become better people, that the Earth was one, that there would be more closeness and brotherhood. For the first time, we were a global village, and this gave me a much bigger feeling of closeness. However, that changed in February. I recently published a column to express my deep disappointment. I thought that the utopia of my generation had been reborn with the drama of the pandemic and that a transformation was finally on the horizon. What is happening in Ukraine right now is horrible and goes against all those hopes. I don’t know why, but I’m remembering a line from a Wim Wenders film in which one of the characters, an invented poet named Homer, says at one point, “I think the world might be ending but I’ll keep on narrating . . .” Perhaps language can postpone the end.
Lídia Jorge is one of the most representative writers of the post-revolution generation in Portugal. She was born in 1946 in Algarve, has a degree in Romanic Philology from Lisbon University, and spent years as a secondary high school teacher in both Angola and Mozambique during the last period of the Portuguese Colonial War in Africa. Her first novel, O Dia dos Prodígios (The Day of Prodigies) is now thought to represent the beginning of a new phase in modern Portuguese literature. Jorge has published several other novels and anthologies, which have been published in Brazil and translated into Spanish, French, English, German, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Swedish, and other languages, and has received various literary prizes. In 2006, she was awarded Germany’s first International Albatroz Literature Prize by the Günter Grass Foundation.
Copyright © 2022 by Margara Rusotto and Patrícia Martinho Ferreira. Translation copyright © Tanya Pérez-Brennan.