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Nélida Piñon

Nélida Piñon: Drifting heart

For the novelist, imagination drives human history

LÉO RAMOSEven writer Nélida Piñon’s name is full of invention and imagination: it is an anagram of Daniel, her grandfather, an immigrant from Galicia who, as she says, “ventured at an early age across the Atlantic, obeying the taste for adventure and the need to settle in a land that would offer him broader horizons.” In the bargain, Nélida even gained from her ancestor a burning desire to travel, either in her words or literally. “I always wanted to be a pilgrim walking all over the world; geography never scared me,” she says.

As a child, she received two gifts from her parents: an account in a flower store in Vila Isabel, where she spent her childhood, so she could send her friends flowers as gifts and another in the neighborhood bookstore. She used the two sparingly and in 1961, she made her debut in literature with Guia – Mapa de Gabriel Arcanjo [Guide – Map of the Archangel Gabriel], where she says she won the fight she had had since she was a girl with well-behaved syntax. She studied journalism and was a teacher, but literature became her life, or vice versa. “The writer must not only create but also lend his awareness to the awareness of the readers, especially in a country like Brazil.”

She became known as a defender of human rights during the military dictatorship and later also of women’s rights. She was the first woman president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1989, in the institution’s centennial year. She has won various prizes, such as the Juan Rulfo (1995), the Menendez Pelayo (2003), the Prince of Asturias (2005) and the Jabuti (2005). Among her books those that stand out are A república dos sonhos (1984) [The Republic of Dreams], A doce canção de Caetana (1987) [Caetano’s sweet song], Vozes do deserto (2005) [Voices of the desert], O aprendiz de Homero (2008) [Homer’s apprentice] and Coração andarilho (2009) [Drifting heart]. She is writing a new book, but prefers not to talk about it. That’s fine, because in the following interview she has a lot to say about literature, creation and life.

How did literature come into your life?
It entered on a very thin thread, which was perhaps the first narrative thread of my life, my own story. I noticed that the books and pages I read, anything I absorbed in terms of paper, filled me with an extraordinary emotion. I was convinced that there was no fiction writer behind those stories, but someone who had lived those stories; they were like a diary, a memoir, and the narrator was relating what he had lived. Writers were adventurers. So I thought to myself: I want to be an adventurer; I want to have the same emotions as they had. What attracted me to literature initially was the spirit of peripeteia [sudden reversal of circumstances], a word nobody uses any more, as if human beings were not destined for great peripeteias, which is what accounts for the helpless, very passive life we now live; watching TV and looking at images that reflect our reality, because we no longer create our own reality. I wanted to be an adventurer; I used to live all the characters and I thought, “I’m going to be a writer.” I said to my parents: “I’d love” – note the spirit of the narrative – “never to sleep two nights running under the same roof.” I wanted to wander, be itinerant, a drifter. I always wanted to be a pilgrim walking all over the world; geography never scared me. That’s why I have been a reader of great stories – with a capital S – since I was small.

You said that “we live and write without a safety net”.
I believe that. It’s a huge risk. I even think that many of my acts of personal, existential audacity were apparently well informed, but I think that many of them and many of the acts of writing came from the fact that I know that writing is an exceptional risk. Suddenly, everybody’s talking about you. Everything you write, even if it’s writing fiction, gains a legitimacy that’s attributed to you. You’re the matrix of everything, so everything comes out of you; the thought is yours, [so] they can attribute some biographical feature to it. What’s more, there’s esthetic failure, which is also a risk. Another thing that is also an exceptional risk is when you realize that you made a mistake when you were writing the text; you chose the wrong path, the wrong tense, or inappropriate language. You became nervous and did not treat your text with deference right to the end; you should have done some more editing but out of laziness or ambition or haste to be applauded you published early, ahead of time. But that book needed more time, it needed to have another face, the final face that would have suited it.

What’s the search for the face of the phrase like?
I am passionate about words and I also suspect that words inspire me; since they are insidious and treacherous, they lead you into error, to vanity; you’re convinced that you’re dominating the phrase, the word, the semantics, the syntax, whatever, then suddenly it comes out all neatly organized, but it’s rubbish; it doesn’t have the slightest transcendence. Your text has to have transcendence; not one that’s cosmic, but a transcendence of your poetic vocation. I remember when I returned from my two years in Europe when I was 10 years old. My uncle Manolo and his family lived in Bahia and my parents sent me to spend my holidays there. I loved it and I said to my cousin who was the same age as me: “Serafim, take me to the red-light district; I really want to know the red-light district.” Just imagine; a good family girl like me! He was horrified. But I insisted so much that we both visited the red-light district. I thought it was marvelous, with all those hills and those women standing in the doorways. I arrived in Rio de Janeiro and decided to write a short story; the story of a male character who falls in love with a prostitute, goes after her to declare his love and look for loving retribution and she doesn’t like it; she runs away. So I write that he’s going up “the steep slope.” It was dreadful. What shocked me was not the tautology of it, but I thought to myself: “I’m not going to spend my life writing ‘steep slope’. I don’t want that; it’s so conventional, so obvious.” Anyway, it was a poetic effort on my part to seek out the mysterious and relatively obscure areas that language has to have, because otherwise it’s a literal translation of language. The effect was so devastating on me that I stopped writing short stories. It’s as if I had considered the obvious narrative and was running the risk of repeating what was being done. I decided to do poetic exercises for about four years. I sat and wrote, not obeying any plan or any project. It was as if I were a gate; the dam opened and the waters rushed out – anything that occurred to me. They were wonderful exercises and that ‘s why I have a metaphorical audacity, because I got used to saying what I wanted, without fear, without considering the consequences and without demanding benefits, which is something I still do, even today. I’m not the slightest bit afraid of the reader; readers don’t interest me. What interests me is the literature and literature is the reader. My creation process comes from a whole deep relationship I establish with life and life for me is literature too. I’m going to say that I have no watertight compartments; everything’s associated; one thing’s associated with another. I’m here with you and I’m Nélida, but I’m the writer Nélida; I’m never just Nélida on her own. I’m a writer 24 hours a day.

LEO RAMOSYou lived in Vila Isabel and spent two years in a village in Galicia: what experiences did you have with popular culture?
I’m glad you said that, because no one has ever spoken so succinctly in this way before. You notice that in my books I always pay tribute to the popular storyteller; I always make room for a story of the defeated. This is something ingrained in me since I was a child. Even today, the people I love to talk to are those who work with me. Porters tell me amazing things, not so much in the episodic sense, but they reveal to me the richness of everyone’s life, provided you have the courage to look closely into the life of another. This popular culture, this perhaps more medieval culture, is my great passion. I have the feeling that I’m at a medieval fair; I love going to the market. I feel that my imagination gets to fever-pitch. But it’s also a cultured imagination; I incorporate into it everything I know and everything that the thought offered me by way of opportunity. This popular culture really is present almost like this, to the extent of the great medieval fairs. I still believe that we’re children of the Middle Ages in many ways and perhaps it’s our more charming, more brutal side, like eating with our hands, in other words, anything that makes us immortal.

Is that why you describe literature as “geology, work on entrails”?
Somewhere there was the first layer, the first dust from which other dust came that began to mass together, forming a rock, and that’s how the world emerged. The layers fit together, because there’s a passion between them apparently; because all of a sudden these layers can give rise to a volcano, an earthquake, a tsunami. As a writer I deal with words and they have a spurious origin. Fortunately, they have not been expurgated; they came from ancient times and obeyed a need that demanded their existence; every word has adjusted to every other to provide a service, so that each one could be asked what it lacked. Literature has this geological side because it is capable of putting into practice or translating the possible human mystery that lies underneath the rocks, the mountains, the first commotions of humanity. You can imagine what human beings would have been in the midst of the chaos – and that’s why they had to invent gods so they could tell them what this was all about. Literature is not exempt from this genealogy, this birth that came from far; people want to strip this away in the name of false modernity. We have tenebrous wonders inside of us – I mean the writer – and so we have to hear the outdated voices of the past. In my opinion there’s no sociology, no history, no documental world; there’s nothing that explains the untranslatable thing we are. I think human beings are exceptionally complex and that’s why I get upset when people say that it’s “literature for the elite.” It’s so very foolish and one that expresses bad faith when they say that a writer is elite, because literature is not elite; it’s a mirror to human complexity – and I don’t know anyone more complex than we are.

Writing, then, is an act of rebellion?
Yes, because you are not miming, you don’t copy what you see; what you see is apparently a surface that expands, with volumes and shapes, but you know that this is all a lie, it’s all a fraud. Behind the shape, the volume, there’s a human universe. The mere fact that you contradict public, institutionalized and canonical dictates means you are already adopting a contrary, insubordinate and rebellious stance. It’s not a rebellion by the masses. I think that the stories that are told and are not approved in daily life are proof that what’s at stake in the human community is a huge rebellion controlled by social conventions. But the writer ignores social conventions and tells the story in its raw form, with the flesh exposed. It’s inevitable, because what you relate is not what is being seen; except then it’s already a contrary, insubordinate stance. If literature was mimetic, there would be no rebellion; you would only give the reader what is visible, in other words, what is alien to human depths. Thousands of sentences that govern Western thought would lose their raison d’être.

What’s a writer’s role in society?
What worries me more is why he writes. What is this extravagance; why does he decide to be a creator? This impresses me even more. So far society has not detached itself from the craft of narrating; all of us are always narrating. We are all prisoners of intrigue, of human intrigue. So it’s not so much that the writer reveals what he’s recounting; what happens is that the great feelings, the great human perplexities are in literature and not elsewhere. They are in this dark and luminous universe, which is simultaneously both secret and enigmatic. That’s the poetic vision translated from reality. Society, if it has the courage to look at itself, if it wants to get its hands on its depths, has to read the great texts. It’s literature that’s going to give a pale or portentous reply. Now, if barbarity prevails, if human beings are satisfied with short sentences that can be repeated en masse, then that’s the end of civilization. I think that the more you read, the more you make your way towards the great creations, the more chance you’ll have of preventing heavy regimes.

There used to be literature of social concern. What happened to it?
That’s a very good question. One of the things we could say at the outset is that the country has changed. Today, Brazil is an urban country and so the drama that used to be found in the countryside and that was so well portrayed by many of the 1930’s generation has shifted to the urban world. So, these social concerns are today dissolved in urban mythology. But there was no utopia: in Baleia, about Graciliano Ramos’ little dog, there is no utopia whatsoever. Nothing was a utopia, but a narrative located in geography and it has just persisted – some of these books persisted because they narrated, they recounted small dramas: human loneliness, despair and, by chance, they portrayed wretched scenes. But there are other scenes that are more or less wretched and that disappeared because they had no literary greatness. Because what makes literature predominate and prevail is esthetic power, the beauty of the text and the language, because to tell the story of an individual who lost his daughter and eats beans and flour with his hands unfortunately doesn’t say much, and yet you can tell a story of the haute bourgeoisie, like The Great Gatsby, which is worthy because of what it talks about and how it is said. I have the impression that what we can see in literature is a person’s country; a person is a country, or the country of a collectivity, but even the country of one person is everyone’s country. Suddenly, even with a character in a bedroom, depending on what he recounts, you can see that country. At the same time, you don’t need to see a country, the geography; you need to see the human continent; a man is a continent.

What was your time as president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters like?
I think it did me an immense good, laying aside the small glories, the huge repercussion in the Brazilian and international press. I mean with regard to me as a person. I worked eight to ten hours and I earned nothing. I said at my investiture speech: “I’m a recent Brazilian.” It began like that and I explained how recent I was, that I could not write much for Brazil, but at the same time I am justifying myself. I turn it into a game that, because I’m recent here, all through my life I had to look for a counterfeit Brazilian identity and I looked at the old Brazilians, to discover in them what distinguished them from me and this gave me freedom, an independent analysis of Brazil that perhaps someone who was from the old traditional Brazilian families could not have because they were too involved in this spider’s web. I’m not; I was a new Christian and did not suffer the horrors of having been forced to recant my faith. No. I was a recent Brazilian. When I realized, after the presidency: “I’m no longer a recent Brazilian” I embarked on all sorts of journeys in Brazil; there’s nothing in this country that I’ve not visited in my head, including the source, this cradle, one of the most important cradles of Brazilian culture, of Brazilian thought, the Portuguese Language, which is the Academy. I see the institution, our Academy, as a great Brazilian institution. I’m very impressed by how they conceived this house in such a small and poor Brazil, where only the emperor was learned. In the midst of all this comes this project for an institution that was to imitate the 400-year old French academy. I think it’s marvelous how we’ve been faithful to the stony clauses of this institution, how we were born great, and Machado and Joaquim Nabuco, and other exceptional Brazilians who passed through this house, like Rio Branco, Euclides, Rui Barbosa – marvelous heads, all “very much alive”, gravitating around this house that was so poor that it didn’t even have its own headquarters. I said in one speech: “We were born poor, but with illusions.”

LEO RAMOSCan imagination coexist with the current excess of information?
This information is going to need a little imagination, but I fear a tamed imagination. Imagination is a way for you to translate or push back the world’s frontiers. It drives everything. It reviews all encyclopedias, all human knowledge, as it goes beyond what has already been recorded. Moreover, it is capable of taking a little fragment of each human book and mixing and blending them and from this imagination comes miracles, fairylike elements. Imagination dictates what’s new; not the inaugural new, because I don’t believe in that, but the new as if it were semantics, a way to “semanticize” language. I see people so fascinated with technology, as if it can resolve the great ontological dramas, the cosmic urgencies of humans. It’s marvelous; I’m not saying it’s not, but it has nothing to do with humanism. What are we going to do with technology in the service of humanism? That’s the big question: in what way can this technology serve man – a better, more generous man, a more critical man who is capable of understanding all the passages of time, the elaborations of the language and of thought, that does not impoverish anything that has been so far been regimented. What I fear is that poverty, a hasty reflection, a quick trace in the air, will also germinate.

Can science influence creation?
I’d also say it can, because the creator’s imagination affected great scientists – Oppenheimer, Fermi, and so on. All the great scientists throughout history have always been affected by the imagination. Imagination is very much associated with intuition and intuition is heavily fueled by the imagination. Intuition is not something that’s smaller; on the contrary. In my opinion, it expresses the most advanced knowledge, because I think that all knowledge is out of sync; in five minutes everything you know is already outdated and you have to add yet more knowledge. But if you resort to intuition it dictates what you yet don’t know or think you don’t know; it updates you. People say: “Scientists discovered gunpowder through intuition.” No sir. Intuition was the last thing he knew and didn’t know he knew. Intuition is knowledge that has not yet been officialized by the owner of that knowledge. It’s the ultimate thing, an exceptional lever. I’m extremely conscious of it; sometimes it’s what dictates to me. The other day, when I was traveling, I was thinking to myself: “What’s happening in Brazil? Do people, by chance, realize that there is a profound gap between the Brazil that is barely a son of Gutenberg, that has not devoted itself to Gutenberg, to books, all these decades, these centuries, and the Brazil that now, suddenly, has books, more schools, more universities, has decided to be technological, all of that – Google, and this whole gap in our unconscious?” It’s an immense void and people do not know that we have terrible voids in this conscience of ours that generates knowledge and thinking. Few Brazilians will have managed to recover what we didn’t have, what we left behind at a given moment in time and that we almost didn’t get. Brazil has tremendous voids.

Is woman a creator?
What I always criticize is when they say “female literature” because that’s horrendous. I think there’s great literature, good literature, and being written by women; literature that can record female shades, those of a woman, just as it can also record the strong, forceful male touches in this same woman. I think that voices get confused and there may be a very strong voice in a women’s book that reveals these female perceptions. I think it’s natural that it may seem that women are not creative, because they have been discriminated against over the millennia. That’s something you keep in your heart, in your intestines, in your remote unconscious; these are the traces of your dominant nature. If you’re a strong writer, you have to be critical and ironic about what affected us as women. It’s like a black writer; in him, more so than in a woman writer, you’re even going to see the traces of the slavery he suffered and was unable to accept in any way whatsoever. There are traces of resentment, of nostalgia for a past they didn’t have, of a sensibility that dominates the mysteries of their gender or their social origin. There have been a lot of women in literature, but not as many as there could have been if they had had access to knowledge. Woman is a very recent being in culture, but this fact does not mean that she has not interfered over the centuries in the creative process, because she was the former of opinions in writers, in the men who heard her sighs, her cries, her pleasures. Woman was the mistress of the most vital feelings of humanity. In my speech when I received the Rulfo Prize I talked about demanding co-authorship with Shakespeare, Cervantes, and so on. Because if women had not supplied these great creators with the information they had about love, birth, blood running out from between their legs, about death, they could not have talked about these vital matters with which women were concerned. So, women were present in the great creations and that is why, therefore, they could very well demand co-authorship.

Do you think about death?
Physical death? You have nothing more to do; you’ve come to an end or you just can’t defend your spoils any more, that which you leave. It’s what the character by Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire says: “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Personally, I’d like our work to be not only on the bookshelves, but in people’s hands and for them to discover the filigree of the work. The only thing you can do is your work. Do your work with conviction, with courage, without fear, without dread, without commitment to small false glories, without worrying about the applause, because the most important thing is the freedom to write, at whatever cost.

What would a mini short-story say about your life?
“She was born a writer and died believing she had been a writer all her life.” The end.