Canada’s Literary Mono-Culture and its ‘Politics’ of Separation
(Scholar and Poet, Amatoritsero Ede, in conversation with Irene Marques , novelist, poet, short story writer, and Scholar)
Amatoritsero Ede: I am particularly gratified to be having this chat with someone who is, like me, a creative writer as well as a scholar. This should be very productive. I would first like you to please touch on the intersections or separations, if any, between your work as a writer and as a scholar.
Irene Marques: As a human being, generally speaking, I find it difficult to divide myself into neat separate chambers—even if our society (and here I will add that this is more of a cultural trend of North American societies) constantly tells us not to mix apples and oranges. Naturally, like the ancient Greek shoemaker, I like to see my “shoe” as one that is weaved together by a single unified creative energy, my sole and my laces working in conjunction, moving in the same direction to allow for a more wholesome walk on this great wide universe of ours. My academic interests and research do intersect with my literary ones. In both areas, I tend to explore themes related to power relations in classed, racialized, colonial, hybrid and gendered societies—and also existential questions of fulfilment and the dialectic between self, others and “otherness” (the transcendental, the non-human, the vast cosmic reality). My academic teaching and research area is primarily in the field of African Studies and Literatures and also on the intersections between African, Buddhist and Western philosophies and systems of thought. And in my creative writing, I often explore similar matters using a language that allows for more freedom and a better view, since academic language, in its stiffness and elusive but stubborn quest toward the rational (or rather, a certain type of unimaginative and short-sighted rational), can restrict access to a larger, more complete and endearing reality.
A.E.: What challenges or triumphs do you have writing in Portuguese in a Canada whose readers are largely English and some French.
I.M.: When I write in English my primary target audience is here in Canada and hopefully also those of other English speaking countries. My writing in Portuguese is published in Portugal so when I write in Portuguese my primary target audience is there and I hope I can also appeal to some audiences in other Portuguese speaking countries—and also the Portuguese speaking community here in Canada though I am yet to appeal to that community in any substantial way. That may be related to the low readership in the community and the type of writing that I do, which tends to fall outside the typical linear realist genre, despite its high “politicality”. For example, my next novel in Portuguese which is coming out in Portugal in the Spring of 2017 is of high historical content and deals with the Colonial wars in Africa, the Fascist regime, rural poverty, immigration and migration, and is written in a style that may fall within the magic realist genre—a magic realism with a heavy socio-political content. This may surprise some people but Portuguese is actually the 5th or 6th most spoken language in the world—so there is another excellent reason to write in that beautiful language!
A.E.: Do you, as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o did with Gikuyu language, write in Portuguese first and then translate your own works into English; or do you write different texts in each of both different languages? Put differently, what shapes your decision to creatively write about a subject either in English or Portuguese?
I.M.: I write different works in English and Portuguese and never do I write in one language and then translate to the other. So far—that is. My decision to write in either language is really dictated by my mood and need at the moment of writing. There are times when I need to write in Portuguese as if am assaulted by a yearning for that language, the ethic and aesthetic that it can carry. It may be a deep need to connect with my past, to recreate and recapture a reality that I no longer directly have access to or live in, link myself with my youth in Portugal, my family, the historical important events of that country that marked me and my family the most such as the Fascist regime and the Colonial Wars in the Africa. But even when I write in English I may still explore some of these issues, so in that sense, writing, whether in English or Portuguese, is a way to revisit the past but in an informed fashion since I left Portugal at the age of 20 and did not have a full understanding of its history and complexity (not to mention that we often see things better from afar…). Given that I live in Anglophone Canada, English is always (or mostly) the language “that I am in” and so naturally I write a lot in English. I tend to write more poetry in English than in Portuguese because poetry (which comes very easily to me) functions very much as a way to deal with everyday existential issues, things that affect me on a daily basis and which I need to sort out using the poetic word (medium). I consider creative language a powerful mechanism for the discovery, rediscovery, understanding and expansion of the self. It is a powerful key to illumination, enlightenment, growth…
Sometimes the choice of writing is simply linked to the sounds of the language in my head, the way it sings in my Self. There may be a word or a string of phrases that come to me in one language or the other which are calling for more—calling me to write them fully, that is, pull more meaning from them, explore them, let them speak fully until it feels that I have fully said what they needed to say, transmit to me… And so I write them out, exhaust their meaning… So often it is this auditory (internal) hearing of the language in the mind that decides—pulling me into one particular language. This speaks to the power of the sound in language: the different sounds that each language creates, its unique musicality, the aesthetic and multifaceted effect of that. For instance, in Portuguese, when writing literarily, we often use the verbs in what we term the “imperfect past”—a tense that aims at prolonging the action/events being described. These verbs (such as “amava”, “cantava”, “chorava”) have open vowels that seem to go on forever creating a very pleasant feeling of an endless time. I find that very soothing, poetic and existentially fulfilling. It induces a dwelling of sorts that makes me feel extended, travelling between timeframes or suspending the notion of present, past and future—enter a holistic sphere that is timeless. Of course, that I would also say that writing in general (and especially literary writing) in either language induces this similar feeling of wholeness or dwelling. I will also say that one language feeds the other, makes it better: knowing and writing in Portuguese enhances my literary writing in English and vice-versa. This relates to the importance of how literatures and languages actually feed off each other and constitutes a very important reason why writers should try and read in different languages, if they can, and if they can’t, they should at least read books in translation. Thus the need to do translations between languages!