Adriana Lisboa: There aren't 'great stories' but great ways to tell them

The world is an endless source of stories to be told, says celebrated Brazilian novelist Adriana Lisboa.

Al Majalla interviews one of Brazil’s greatest writers, Adriana Lisboa, who discusses her 25-year career of published novels, short stories, poetry and books for children and where she finds her inspiration.
Al Majalla interviews one of Brazil’s greatest writers, Adriana Lisboa, who discusses her 25-year career of published novels, short stories, poetry and books for children and where she finds her inspiration.

Adriana Lisboa: There aren't 'great stories' but great ways to tell them

The award-winning Brazilian novelist Adriana Lisboa has written seven well-received novels alongside short stories, essays, poetry, and books for children in her native Portuguese.

Widely translated, she has become one of her country’s best-known writers. She was once named one of the most important writers in Latin America by the highly respected Hay Festival/Bogota World Book Capital. She is also a translator of literature herself.

A former musician, Lisboa once made a living singing Brazilian music in France and has also been a writer in residence at the University of California in Berkeley as well as a visiting scholar at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies in Kyoto

Al Majalla spoke with her about her work across her 25-year literary career. This is the conversation that followed.

In your novel Symphony in White, you tell the story of an unspoken bond between two sisters living under military dictatorship in Brazil. Tell me more about it.

My intention was to establish a parallel between the terrible secrets of violence in a common, middle-class family in a rural area of Brazil and the unspeakable violence that was being perpetrated by the military dictatorship.

But that idea first came to me from the fact I had recently become a mother. My son Gabriel was born in 1998, and I wrote Symphony in White between 1998 and 2000.

I was acutely aware, in a way I had never been before, of our responsibilities when it comes to raising our children and protecting them from a world that can be hostile in so many ways. The novel also wants to discover the redeeming power of love, friendship, and art.

José Saramago is your favourite writer, and the first award you won was named after him. How did you feel about winning a prize set up to honour someone who you looked up to?

It was actually a shock at first, to be honest. I was quite young, 33 years old, and that was my second novel, so I was still tentatively trying to find my own voice.

Saramago was one of my literary heroes, and when my publisher called me to tell me I had won the prize, I really thought it was a prank.

It was a true honour to receive that award from Saramago’s hands, not just because he was – and still is – the only author writing in Portuguese to receive the Nobel Prize, but also because he truly was a man of admirable ethical standards, apart from being a great wordsmith.

As a Brazilian writer, what do you think of Paulo Coelho's literature?

Paulo Coelho first worked as a songwriter in the 1960s and composed lyrics for important Brazilian artists such as Raul Seixas. His career as a novelist only began two decades later.

He’s by far Brazil’s most well-known and translated author, of course, and has a legion of faithful fans. I have to say I’m not one of them. It’s a kind of literature that is more commercial than what I tend to admire. I like many of the lyrics he wrote in the '60s, though.

Saramago was one of my literary heroes. When my publisher called me to tell me I had won the prize, I thought it was a prank.

Adriana Lisboa, award-winning Brazilian novelist

Are there writers who did not get their deserved share of fame?

Oh, absolutely.

There are many Brazilian writers – like Machado de Assis, our greatest 'classic'; Guimarães Rosa, the author of my favourite book of all time, Grande Sertão: Veredas, a Modernist tour-de-force and others that could and should be better known in other countries.

At the same time, the list is equally huge if we consider important foreign authors who are all but completely unknown in Brazil. Sometimes, they only appear in translation if they win a Nobel. For instance, it was the case of the great poet Louise Glück.

You have written literature for children at a time when the younger generation's increased access to information through the internet has brought about notable changes.

In light of this, would you have any particular subject matter in mind that you would like to explore in writing?

I'm not really a children's book author in a broader sense.

I have written some books for kids, especially when my son was growing up,  inspired by the books I read to him and with him. By the way, the first book he ever read on his own was one of my books.

I believe what we have to always keep in mind when writing for young readers is never to try and convey our own ideas about what is right and wrong but to speak to their imagination, play with it, explore it, and leave it for them to get to their own conclusions.

Your novel Crow Blue discusses the separation from the homeland and the difference between Brazilian and American lifestyles.

After moving from Rio de Janeiro to Austin, Texas, do you feel like Vanja, the novel's main character?

Before moving to Austin in 2017, I lived in Colorado for ten years. So, I have been a Brazilian expat for almost two decades. To this day, I am still acutely — and often painfully — aware of the immigrant's experience.

Even when it's a voluntary and privileged movement like my own, I came to the US because I wanted to, not because I had to; there is always something lost when we leave our home country behind unless we're too young to really experience the process with everything it means.

Vanja, in Crow Blue, was constructed as a fictional character, but her experience has many things in common with my own. And with the experiences of other expats, I met when I first arrived in the US. She's a mosaic of things lived and observed.

Your work has been translated into several languages, including Arabic, and you also translate from English to Portuguese. How important is translation in literature, and do you discuss your work with the translator?

I truly admire the work of translators, and that's why I've decided to become one myself. Without them, there are so many authors I would never have read, from Anna Akhmatova to Rilke, from Li Po to Naguib Mahfouz, from Safo to Rumi.

I translate mostly from English into Portuguese, but I also work with the French and Spanish languages.

It's been a great honour and a challenge for me to be able to translate the fiction and poetry of authors such as Margaret Atwood, Emily Brontë, Marguerite Duras, Anne Carson, Virginia Woolf, José Lezama Lima.

As an author, I'm always excited to discuss with the translator whatever questions they might have about a book, a short story or a poem of mine that they happen to be translating.

I learn a lot in the process.

When writing for young readers, I don't impose my ideas. Instead, I speak to their imagination to get them to reach their own conclusions.

Adriana Lisboa, award-winning Brazilian novelist

After receiving the Japan Foundation fellowship, you have shown a great interest in Japanese classical literature; tell me more about that.

My doctoral studies were centred on Japanese classical poetry, more specifically, the work of 17th-century poet Basho.

We didn't have creative writing programmes in Brazilian colleges and universities, so I wrote a novel for my dissertation (with my advisor's full support).

I had done the same thing for my master's degree, which was quite controversial then. But I believe fiction writing can also be a relevant space for reflection.

Authors such as Jorge Luis Borges blended the art of fiction and the art of the essay in a magnificent way. In my case, I wanted to explore Japanese classical aesthetics (as reflected in Basho's travel diaries) and its possible meaning for the contemporary mind."

What inspires you when you write?

Daily life. What I observe. The world is an endless source of stories to be told. They don't have to look or sound grandiose.

My favourite authors are those who are able to find meaning in everyday events and convey that to us. I truly believe there aren't 'great stories' but great ways of telling stories.

What is your next project?

I just finished reviewing a manuscript for a new novel with my editor. It will come out in Brazil in 2024, when I celebrate 25 years since my first book was published. There's also a new poetry book due to come out next year which I'm still working on.

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