“One of the most innovative and dynamic writers in Brazil today.” Words Without Borders

Lúcia Bettencourt and I first met in New Haven in the late 1980s and became fast friends. Our shared adventures and collaborations have taken us to far-flung places, from New York and Rio to Bloomington and Cuiabá. Over the years, we’ve kept up conversations about a host of topics; we most often come back to the nature of creative impulses, the benefits of a change of environment, and the value of exposure to other views and lifestyles. What follows is part of our latest exchange.

KH: One of the challenges and thrills of translating your work is your versatility. Not only have you explored an array of genres – novel, novella, short story, essay, children’s books based on rhyme – but you’ve taken on a wide variety of voices: you’ve been Borges and Rimbaud, Herodias and Sisyphus; rewritten Clarice and Kafka, Machado and Manet; reimagined Lazarus and Medea… And you’ve created your own unforgettable, often surprising cast of characters: a 96% human chimpanzee, a sexually violent woman who preys on men, a desperate father who serves his family vulture for Christmas dinner… Your writing reveals you to be a voracious reader as well as a keen observer of the everyday. Inquiring and aspiring minds want to know: how and when does inspiration strike?

LB: I wish inspiration were like lightning that would strike me with mighty power, put me into a trance and my brain into a feverish boil! I can almost see this image of an active cauldron, with characters and stories popping up, just like in Dante’s Inferno. All I would do is select the raging spirits so that, instead of destroying me in their eagerness to live again – even if only the limited life of fictional characters – they would flash their possible stories for me to choose and write. Inspiration, unfortunately, doesn’t strike me. I would compare it to a garden I like to visit. I have to work hard if I want it to produce any flowers: I read a lot, not only literature, but also magazines and newspaper articles. I love to listen to people and their stories (because we’re all full of stories to tell; we live through narratives). I choose some of the seeds I believe are promising, I plant them and then I must wait until they bloom. The terrain I have is not so fertile, though. Some of those seeds never bloom, some take a long time to do so, some produce interesting flowers. Others produce only very weak seedlings, and I need to work hard, fertilise, clip and stack them, so they might become a decent little bush. Sometimes I’m lucky and a beautiful flower blooms with minimal effort. All I can tell you is that inspiration doesn’t work for me. On the contrary, I work hard for it.

Whenever one of the seeds is slow to sprout, I go out in search of other, more promising, more succulent seedlings. Maybe I shouldn’t be compared to a gardener but to a restless bird, nesting at times in a story, other times in an essay.”

The garden is a great metaphor for the creative process – the tending, the tilling, the patience and care, all sustained by the promise of (or at least potential for) beauty, colour, new growth. Do you carve out time for writing (or digging) every day? Follow a ritual or favour a particular environment?

I try, but I have a nomadic life. I like to travel, and that throws my routine. I’m also an unfaithful gardener. Whenever one of the seeds is slow to sprout, I go out in search of other, more promising, more succulent seedlings. Maybe I shouldn’t be compared to a gardener but to a restless bird, nesting at times in a story, other times in an essay, depending on the season, the position of the sun, the songs of other birds… Nevertheless, I confess that in a routine, doing daily work, preferably in the morning, I produce far more. On these constant flights, my brain is always working, but many things get lost along the way.

You’re now in Paris for a few months, taking a literature course in French. How does longer-term immersion in another language affect your use of Portuguese? Is your writing style or choice of vocabulary, for instance, influenced by where you are?

For a writer I think there’s always a kind of permeability in relation to the world, to people, to facts and to language. Writers are empathetic by nature, they try to put themselves in the Other’s place, correlate their own feelings and emotions with the feelings and emotions of those around them, walk in another’s shoes to try to cover new ground. I’ve been here in France less than a month and I’ve already picked up on the locals’ attachment to certain rules of etiquette. Entering a store or addressing someone without a lilting Bonjour! is unthinkable. A hurried Hi or Hello isn’t enough. Here you have to greet with Bonjour, wish a bonne soirée on parting, bonne journée to someone going somewhere. People take the initiative when they see someone looking at a map near a bus stop or metro exit. They offer to help, point out the way. And here they take food very seriously. I counted more than twenty types of sugar on the shelf of a modest supermarket next door to where I’m living. The variety of kinds of ham for sale is unbelievable. In Brazil, we have cooked or uncooked and we choose by brand. Here, besides brand, we have to choose the source, method of preparation, thickness of the slices – there are a lot of variables. And don’t get me going about the cheeses: I’d need a lifetime! I’ll also keep quiet on the breads and wines. But I assure you, any French person would take pleasure in explaining the cheeses, the time to cook each food, and so on. I think that’s the greatest influence acquired from immersion in the day to day. As for the language, I think French has influenced me for years, as I’ve been reading books in French since college. Proust is my favourite writer. I love his way of treating text as an expanding universe – the opposite of the conciseness preached in literary workshops. Since French and Portuguese are Latinate languages, their syntax is similar. But immersion in the French experience has allowed me, to cite just one example, to understand why the French mangent du pain and not le pain.

I’m a good listener, and through conversations with various people, of many different nationalities, ages, and sexual orientation, I could summarise their expectations about Carnival.”

Spending time away from home can be eye-opening as it affords new perspectives on your own culture, its norms, rituals, traditions. One of the things I admire about your short story ‘Fantasias’ (translated here as ‘Fantasies’) is how you relate – in great detail – a completely plausible (if heartbreaking) non-Brazilian experience of what many consider the quintessential celebration of Brazilianness. Where did the seed for this story come from?

The seed? I believe they are many. I was married to an employee of a multinational company, and had the chance to befriend many expats and their partners. I’m a good listener, and through conversations with various people, of many different nationalities, ages, and sexual orientation, I could summarise their expectations about Carnival. That helped me understand what they were looking for, what they fantasised about the ‘greatest party on earth’, as some of them referred to the samba schools parade. But I must confess that I maliciously added to the expectations of the tourist, while I degraded and simplified the makings of the parade. And, as a final touch, I used my own experience, the exhilaration I experienced the first time I paraded in the Sambódromo. Believe me, it’s unforgettable, especially if you’re in a group of friends. I recommend that everyone put it on their bucket list!

What’ve you got in the works – or garden – now?

I have so many projects I would love to pursue! An epistolary novel – but I fear readers won’t understand this dated type of correspondence. I can’t adapt it to emails or Instagram, because the letters are never answered. I’m accepting suggestions to solve this impasse. And I’m writing a travelogue of this trip, comparing it to my first visit to Paris. Age difference, experience, the fact that travelling was not a massive dislocation, and that people, in those fairy-tale times, never worried about terrorism, demonstrations, strikes, health insurance… travels in time and space. And I’d love to write a teen adventure story, with a little romance sparkling through it. The fact that Parisian restaurants serve wine to anyone who looks older than 16, and the Moulin Rouge admits guests from the age of 6 (the ticket seller said the shows are perfectly suited, “there’s only a little nudity”) are among the seeds I’ve collected here.

 

Lúcia Bettencourt is the author of the award-winning short story collections A secretária de Borges (Borges’s Secretary; Editora Record, 2006) and Linha de sombra (Shadow Line; Editora Record, 2008) and the novels O amor acontece (Love Happens; Editora Record, 2012) and O regresso: A última viagem de Rimbaud (The Return: Rimbaud’s Last Journey; Rocco, 2015). Her book-length study of the banquet in literature was recognised by the Brazilian Academy of Letters. She has published four children’s books with two others forthcoming and is a regular contributor to the Brazilian literary press.

Kim M. Hastings is a freelance translator and editor based in the US. She lived in São Paulo for several years, studied Brazilian language and literature at Brown University, and holds a PhD in Spanish and Portuguese from Yale. Her translations include Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s award-winning novel His Own Man (O punho e a renda) and short fiction published in more than a dozen print and web magazines including Words Without Borders, Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, Two Lines, Machado de Assis and stories by Marcelo Moutinho, Alberto Mussa, Nilton Resende and Ronaldo Wrobel for Bookanista.

Read Kim’s translation of Lúcia’s ‘Fantasias’

Comments

comments