These pieces—collected by writer Oona Patrick and published by editor Elizabeth Hodges—will shock the reader. The authors are all from Portugal or Brazil, ready to speak to a North American audience hungry for voices originating in other languages, especially when the work is fearless about the global perceptions of women.
These inventive, nervy, fiercely blunt writers recognize that disturbing times call for a literature that personalizes disturbance even while railing against it. They reject the confinement of traditional narratives. You won’t find bucolic niceties or sentimental aspirations here. No romantic escapism. Absent are tales about an agonizing search for a beloved. The socially-imposed prettification of motherhood itself is rejected. A screaming child might turn into “…a machine that generated pure evil,” and birth is anchored in blood. As the iconic writer Maria Teresa Horta states, art must come now “…without heroes or tears.”
What’s here instead? Some sex. Lots of crime. Especially the kind that goes unpunished. The kind a king or businessperson wields like a divine right. Crimes against the earth. Alexandra Lucas Coelho wades into the poisoned waters where crustaceans get birthed in soda cans and sea-dragons embrace the detritus of cotton swabs. She opens the door to a slaughterhouse and urges us to enter.
Crimes abound against the body throughout this Lusa album of prose and poetry. (“Lusitania” was the old Roman word for Portugal, and “Luso/Lusa” is a cultural identifier.) We’ve backslid into needing to assert once again that women have a right to destinies that include their own flesh, and only a certain fury will suffice. Acutely haunting is the description from Laura Assis that if you’re a woman, you must reacquaint yourself with “…the shaky syntax/of your own skin,” just as Laura Liuzzi issues a chant-like warning about being reduced to “…half voice/part soul/part breath.” How in the world are women supposed to press onward, individually and collectively, after so much expenditure just to rally one’s own actual being? As Matilde Campilho declares with sarcastic irony, “I still don’t know how to make a poem but at least I know how to fold laundry.” Anyone deciding that this is throwback feminism will be in for a treat as her work swerves toward images jettisoned from an imagination that includes black fish, an almond tree, and humor about one being able to leave a baseball game and upon return…it is still going on. Same for a life. Same for laundry.
Same for eating. Raquel Nobre Guerra’s poem declares that the proper way to “eat a poet in society/is to split him in two with an iron spoon,” and she draws to a crescendo of a “scything rage” because “the meal’s forecast is that you starve…”
This brings us to politics, and to the body as political. Maria Teresa Horta may caution us against exalting heroes, but she is one to me and to countless women. She and two collaborators—they became the “Three Marias”—were jailed during the fascist regime for their Novas Cartas Portuguesas, a book that celebrates female sexuality and spirituality and just about everything concerning the right of women to have desires and to dare wish for freedom. In these Springhouse selections, she declares, “At first I wrote/in brief mutterings,” but those bloomed into a life abundant with novels, poems, and journalism. She has put not only her mind but also herself on the line, as a political activist and someone profoundly generous to other writers, because she embodies the notion that words have power. They are not simply the generating of thought and air; they are as tactile as a limb. In a similar way, Conceição Evaristo wants to bite and chew words, to tear them with her teeth, and she writes of hunger, blood, and the constant motion required of women. Meanwhile Rosa Alice Branco states, “I am thirsty. I seek a convincing/representation of fresh water.” Note that she doesn’t ask for water itself to slake her need, but for its representation, perhaps because of a greater longing for the value or the “thingness” of the thing. The desire to translate reality into concrete essentials, or art, is more unquenchable.
Here too, directly and explicitly political beyond the body and into how history and art are made and remembered, is the striking and famous essay “Diatribe of a Mute Eve” with Irene Marques taking on, expansively, the lack of notice of women in the Lusophone literary world. With imagery not dissimilar from Raquel Nobre Guerra’s, Marques goes beyond a mere protest-song and evokes blatant hunger of a violent stripe, in which women writers desperate for nourishment are left either to eat their young or be killed themselves. Writers who can give birth with their bodies are more hollowed out—starving—by virtue of a double-act of creative birthing as well. (My own note is that any list of Lusophone or Brazilian best that omits Clarice Lispector is suspect to begin with.) This essay concludes with a striking surprise: An invitation by the writer to hear from others—“a signal, a letter.”
Readers of the marvelous Now and at the Hour of Our Deaths by Susana Moreira Marques will know of her poetic and pungent inquiry into the ways humans absorb histories and landscapes, that none of us is as independent as we might imagine (or hope). In that elegant book, she captures without sentimentality but with a petit-point of sentiments the final days of elderly people dying in a northern rural village (of Trás-os-Montes) that is itself vanishing, receding past memories and into the earth itself. In her essay here about “How To Write the Revolution,” she puzzles how something that occurred before her own birth—namely, Portugal’s overthrow of its dictator in 1974—can be absorbed as a living part of herself so that it exists in a manner she can convey. And she goes a little beyond that—and asks how to absorb someone else so deeply that it alters even our speaking. We become more fully known to ourselves only if we let others into us with their unknown dimensions. The poems of Margarida Vale de Gato mention similar yearnings, because she was also “not there/when the first man got to the moon,” and she missed the revolution too. Her fast-paced, poured-forth style has a similar desire to understand where direct experience shapes us and when a reach beyond our own confines is in fact a type of vivid, active partaking too. When is something trespass, when is it homage and enlightened continuance? Speaking of Maria Teresa Horta, Gato offers this honest declarative: “…I came very late/to spying in the garden/from which she made a gown…”
But strength exists is in the recognizing of universals and building upon what or who came before. Women cannot go it alone because no one can, but women in particular need to share what Marques calls signals, collective voices that grow into larger sound. That half the human race needs to more strongly address a cohesion of mind, body, spirit, and soul has produced a literature about disconnection or, perhaps worse, a landscape upon which women in particular are asked to trust, without question, common unseen mechanisms—physical, social, emotional. Isabela Santos’s comparison of depression to an elevator with no stop button, for instance, suggests that we routinely accept that this machinery operates with a calculus that keeps us safe, because of course it “knows not/to let (us)/slice ourselves in two.” But that very abdication—allowing a box to decide what constitutes peril for us—is in itself a peril, robbing us of a chance to decide when emergency strikes. And thereby—we are in fact sliced in two. Repeated stabbing of buttons is pointless. Raquel Nobre Guerra’s cry about poets being split in two seems an uncannily echoic reply.
A new mythology, based in corporeal fate, is being forged by these authors, and few are as daring as Hélia Correia in mixing animal and human impulses. When an abusive, wanton man is urged by Death—a thin, Nordic-resembling woman with an ash-grey braid—to strangle an old man about to commit suicide, he hesitates but succumbs with delight to this call to power. He is not punished, and this confirms the illusion of his mastery over existence. (As if melding that to a startling echo, Rosa Alice Branco declares in her own work, “I rock your terrors with my hands on your throat.”)
One interpretation is that a failure to recognize the inevitability of death is to claim a divinity that allows such a man to step over other bodies and ascend, chosen and alone. What better excuse for disdaining any links to a human community? Maria Teresa Horta tells us that the reaping of raptures arises from the courage to go into the self, but writing also exists as a conjoining with others.
There is therefore strength in absorbing the work of these prominent writers as a bonded whole, a gesture of increasing the volume of women’s voices. I count Hélia as a longtime friend. I immediately remember a visit with my husband to Nazaré, where an apricot sun glazed fishing nets on the beach as she and her partner Jaime Rocha, and a group of their friends, told tales about the fascist regime. As for Maria Teresa Horta, when my second book, Mariana, was published in Portugal, she was extraordinarily generous. Her Novas Cartas was largely inspired by a Portuguese nun who also happened to be the subject of my novel, and she wrote an editorial that was my welcome mat to the fellowship of Portuguese authors. I’m a native Californian with a father from the Azores, and my first novel was championed by Adelaide Batista, an Azorean novelist, poet, and professor, now deceased, and her husband, Vamberto Freitas. It was in the Azores, and the mostly Azorean-Luso-Lusa community of California, that I was repeatedly thanked for opening whatever doors I’d inadvertently stumbled through.
What occurred in that era, however—now over twenty-five years ago—was that gratitude came mostly from young women who hadn’t fully realized they too could have a life of artistic expression, and begrudging comments or outright objections to my presumption that I had any right to succeed came mostly from men. I was once asked by an American student at a conference (not in a Luso setting) to intercede so one of the male writers would stop sexually harassing her. He was invited back the following year; I was not. It feels important to state these things, in part because a few years ago at a conference in Lisbon, Oona Patrick asked a panel why so few women were published or prominent in the Luso-American world. I was the only woman on a panel of about five or six. I didn’t answer adequately. I’ve been supported by men—but I wish I’d voiced some of the pain and exasperation I’ve known, the extra demand that I offer proof of myself, the lament that the larger landscape still features men as the gatekeepers. The truth remains a version of the current aphorism that women repeat things and say them more loudly because they are not heard, whereas men repeat things or say them more loudly because they are not being obeyed.
In response, I’ll offer Alice Sant’anna’s marvelous—dare I suggest hopeful—poem in which an unseen female piano player hits the proper sharp chords, but with a lightness to keep “sparrows/suspended in flight.” That the piano player is nameless and unseen infuriates. And yet her talent is lifting creatures that already hail from the air. Reflecting on my past experience, I can state that young men now go out of their way to express thanks if I’ve served as a model and mentor, and it doesn’t occur to them to do any less than treat women as equals.
Let me give the last word to one of the brilliant writers in this issue—a mandate to dive in, to let the world mark us, to feel literature bodily so that reading is never again exclusively an exercise of the mind. Rosa Alice Branco once again: “Life scratches at our heels./Take off your shoes…”