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Where the Sidewalk Bends: Interview with Adriana Lisboa

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

A novelist, poet, and short story writer, Adriana Lisboa’s works include the novels Symphony in White (winner of the José Saramago Prize), Crow Blue (named one of the best books of the year by The Independent), and Hanoi (one of O Globo’s best books of the year), the poetry collection Parte da paisagem, and some children’s books. She has had her books published in more than fifteen countries. Lisboa studied music and literature, and has worked as a musician, teacher, and translator. She was also a researcher at the International Reseach Center for Japanese Studies, in Kyoto, and a writer-in-resident at UC Berkeley. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Lisboa now lives in Colorado. Our interview was conducted over email last month.


Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren: What does your writing space look like?

Adriana Lisboa: I work in my bedroom. I have an old mirrored desk with my laptop, and I try to keep my space uncluttered. I have good light and a lot of silence, two things that seem to be important for me to work.

RMC: Do you play any instruments?

AL: I was a musician and a music teacher for a decade, but haven’t played seriously since my late twenties. My very first job was at eighteen, singing Brazilian music in France. I had studied classical guitar before that, and went to music school afterwards—I have a BFA in flute. A few years ago I bought a new acoustic guitar and decided I would play again—but it hasn’t really happened.

RMC: Do you ever listen to music while you work?

AL: When I write, I prefer silence. When I paint, I always listen to music (what kind of music really depends on what kind of atmosphere I want to create—it can go from jazz to classical to samba to rock).

RMC: You’ve written novels, short stories, poems, and children’s books. Have you focused on different genres during different periods of your life, or do you usually work on projects in multiple genres at once? What do you find yourself most drawn to at this point in your life?

AL: Among those genres, I think the only one linked to a specific period of my life is children’s books. I wrote a few books for children when my son was a child—I was perhaps inspired by what I read to him. Now he’s sixteen, though.

I think what I like the best is poetry. I have written poetry since I was nine (even though my very first book of poems only came out last year). Novels are a way to develop a long-term relationship, so to speak—with your characters, your story, the places you’re imagining. It’s dealing with time and space in a broad way, and knowing you will be part of that specific fictional universe for a few years. Poetry, on the other hand, is like taking snapshots.

Regarding short stories, I never really thought they were my genre—almost all of the ones I wrote were commissioned. Only recently did I start to develop a new approach to short prose as an author, I can’t really explain why. I’m actually writing a book of short stories now, and my new novel is on hold.

Usually I need to concentrate on a specific project. A poem, however, can be a one-day project (or a one-morning project)!

RMC: What other languages do you know? 

AL: Besides Portuguese, I also speak English, French (I have lived in the US since 2007, and also lived in France in the past), Spanish, some Italian, and some German.

RMC: Have you ever written in another language? If so, why, and how do you think your style or subject matter changed?

AL: I have written a few things in English—especially poems. As the syntax changes, so does my thinking. I am convinced I’m not the same author in Portuguese and English. For some time I felt like doing with English what Samuel Beckett did with French—switching to a language you don’t know as well as your mother tongue, in order to simplify your text. But then the close contact with English in my daily life started to show in the way I write Portuguese, and I like the results—a text that is more direct and precise. I still write mainly in Portuguese, because it feels more natural, but I like the influence the English language has on my Portuguese.

RMC: How do you think the writing worlds differ between the US and Brazil? Are there any points of similarity?

AL: I’m in a very peculiar place now, actually, because being a US resident for more than eight years I’m not really part of the literary world in Brazil anymore. Which is good! There is a lot of gossip and competition going on there, and I really, really enjoy being away from it. At the same time, being a Brazilian author who writes in Portuguese, I’m not part of the literary world in the US either. Which I also like. No expectations.

RMC: Tell me about your connection to Japan and the influence of Buddhism on your work. 

AL: I was interested in Japanese classical poetry and culture for many years. I went to Kyoto with a fellowship from the Japan Foundation, studied Japanese for a while (I’m not fluent, though), and wrote two books inspired by this experience—the novel Hut of Fallen Persimmons (in Brazil, it’s titled Rakushisha) and a collection for young readers, Japanese Popular Tales (Contos populares japoneses).

This interest started with the poetry of Basho, which has a close connection with Zen Buddhism. I also trained in Zen meditation.

Buddhism—which I have studied and practiced for fifteen years now, being currently more involved with the Tibetan tradition—has a deep impact on the way I live and work. Concepts like the emptiness and no-self of all things that can sound really difficult to grasp from an intellectual point of view, open themselves up to you through the practice of meditation, and really become a new way of perceiving things. All is really contingent and mostly unpredictable—we all know that, of course, but we don’t live accordingly. These are notions that I like to explore in my prose and my poetry, as well as a sort of unbiased empathy for my characters, whoever they are.

RMC: What was the most challenging book you ever translated from English into Portuguese, and why? What was the most enjoyable?

AL: The most challenging was probably the only book of poetry I have ever translated—Margaret Atwood’s The Door—precisely because it was poetry. On the other hand, it was the most enjoyable one, too. Her poems are magnificent.

RMC: Did you read books in translation growing up? Do you remember any that were particularly influential?

AL: I read mostly Brazilian authors when I was growing up. One author in particular was very important for me: Lygia Bojunga Nunes, who later won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the most important prizes in the world for children’s books authors. I only started reading books in translation later on.

RMC: Can you tell us a little bit about your current, or upcoming, projects?

AL: I’m working on a new volume of poetry—about halfway through—and also on short stories.

RMC: What is your favorite Brazilian book that hasn’t been translated into English yet?

AL: I don’t think Lygia Bojunga Nunes’s masterpiece, A corda bamba, was ever translated into English… it should be, right away!

Published Feb 5, 2015   Copyright 2015 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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