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Where the Sidewalk Bends: Interview with Luciana Hidalgo

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

It should come as no surprise that walking and yoga—one of which propels her outside, letting her feet and thoughts wander her current city, the other which forces her to slow down, turn inward, and put her “constant circulation of ideas” on hold—are of equal importance to Luciana Hidalgo’s creative process. The Brazilian writer, journalist, and essayist frequently explores opposing forces in her work.  A two-time winner of Brazil’s most prestigious writing award, the Jabuti Prize, Hidalgo holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the State University of Rio de Janeiro and a Post-Doctorate from New Sorbonne University-Paris III, dividing her time between Brazil and France, where she is completing her new novel, Rio-Paris-Rio. The following interview was conducted over email.

Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren: Where do you like to work? Can you describe your workspace?

Luciana Hidalgo: I always write at home, wherever I am: in Rio, Paris, or Teresópolis. I can’t write even one sentence in a public space, yet it’s in public spaces that I’m at my most creative (a paradox). This is how I work: I wake up, have breakfast, go to my computer and write for, at most, four hours a day. I eat lunch and then I usually go out for a walk. I’m a real walker.  And during these strolls, I observe. What we call reality inspires me greatly, the people on the street, the gestures, the characters. So I keep writing, mentally, without jotting anything down until I return home. Many times, during my walks, phrases come to me that are better than the ones I wrote that morning. So this is how it goes, I walk and rewrite, always keeping the book in mind, without giving in to the temptation to write anything down. If I don’t manage to memorize a phrase in order to add it to the book later, I assume it’s because the phrase isn’t good enough, it doesn’t pack a punch, it’s dispensable.

RMC: Is it easier for you to write your books in France or Brazil? Why?

LH: Good question! I think that France is a calmer place to write, as there are fewer invitations to go to lectures, conferences, external commitments. However, there is the incantatory appeal of Paris itself, that city where I wander for hours and hours. But that’s fine, since walking is part of my creative process, after all, and maybe it’s the most obvious way to keep words circulating. Moreover, cities are very important to my novels: in O passeador (The Walker), the character Afonso wanders around the Rio de Janeiro of 1904; in Rio-Paris-Rio (the novel I’m working on now) a group of Brazilians go into exile in Paris and there are lots of allusions to the Parisian landscape. I wrote The Walker in Rio and during that time I fell into the temptation of revisiting certain streets that the character would walk along (it was fun). In the case of Rio-Paris-Rio, which takes place mostly in Paris, I am going to write a good part of the book there, based on my own wanderings. There is one big absence in Paris: the Portuguese language. But, as Fernando Pessoa put it so well, “my country is my language,” so, wherever I am, Portuguese is in me.

RMC: You speak at least two languages, Portuguese and French, but you only write in Portuguese, right? Do you think that the French language and French literature have a big influence on the style or the structure of your Portuguese prose? How so?

LH: I speak Portuguese, English, and French, but I spent the majority of my life in Brazil, working and writing in Portuguese. I spent three months in the United States, doing an exchange program, and I lived in Paris twice, for longer periods of time (two years). Now the idea is to go between Rio and Paris (the title of my new book isn’t random!). Speaking several languages gives us elasticity while we’re creating, it’s as if it expands the limits of our own language beyond the signifier and the signified.  However, the most important thing in this process is the fact that speaking a foreign language distances us from our first language. And when we return to our first language, it feels like we understand it better. It’s like returning from a foreign country and seeing our own country, our city, with new eyes, more removed, more critical, and, above all, more creative. So yes, I think that English as much as French influences my prose in Portuguese, above all permitting me to have a foreign gaze in relation to Portuguese. The act of writing only benefits from that diversity of registers.

RMC: In addition to being a novelist, you’re a journalist and essayist. Why are you interested in auto-fiction more than traditional genres? What’s the relationship between the experimental nature of content and form in your books?

LH: Authors that put their personal stories into their novels, Henry Miller and Jean Genet for example, assuming their identities, without the need for masks, have always interested me. When I read Lima Barreto’s work (while I was writing my doctoral thesis, which resulted in the book Literatura da urgência—Lima Barreto no domínio da loucura, Literature of Urgency—Lima Barreto Approaching Madness), I noted that he was already writing auto-fiction in Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was a very bold atitude, one which earned him intense criticism from the most important names in Brazilian intellectual circles. Their criticism didn’t allow for that kind of promiscuity between work and life, but in this case the insults went even further: Lima Barreto was a mulato born to humble circumstances, his father went crazy, so, to bring up subjects like those, drawn from his less than glamorous life, was unsettling to a Brazilian society still very Europeanized, Frenchified, that was trying to impose ideas of modern, cosmopolitan society by pushing the poorest part of the population (the majority of whom were black) out of their bourgeouis field of vision. In this regard, Lima’s forward-looking auto-fiction was a political act, and it’s that type of autofictional act I enjoy: the kind that goes beyond narcissism and raises questions that are simultaneously personal and universal. It’s what I call useful narcissism.

RMC: When did you start practicing yoga? How does your yoga practice feed your artistic practice?

LH: I started practicing yoga at seventeen, when endless ideas started circulating and I didn’t know how to express them yet. So I was tense, intense, and I didn’t know how to deal with this. I went to my first class with that initial, pragmatic aim, simply to relax. And afterwards I went to deepen my practice, meditating, reading various texts about it, so I carry all of that early study with me, and I still practice today, though on my own. I don’t like to be bogged down by the excess of ideas and imagination that are characteristic of me—and, I think, of all creative types. So I learned how to be in control, which is still hard at times. The basic idea of meditation is perfect: not to think, or better yet, not to give so much weight to thoughts, so that they weaken and lose their importance. And, paradoxically, sometimes it’s at that neutral moment, that stopping point, that creativity is strongest. More than once, an idea has come out of detachment, not from cities, or countries, but from myself.

RMC: Does your interest in physical health have any connection to your preoccupation with mental health? What is your attraction to the historical figures of visual artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário (Arthur Bispo do Rosario – O senhor do labirinto, Arthur Bispo do Rosario—The Master of Labyrinth, 1996) and writer Lima Barreto, both of whom spent time in an asylum due to madness?

LH: I’ve always been really intense, living with that constant circulation of ideas, images, and maybe on an unconscious level, encountering the madness of Arthur Bispo do Rosário, I started to question the limit between sanity and insanity. Bispo was a man who was considered normal, with a job, a past, etc., until he had a vision with seven angels who presented him to the Creator (so he was thought to be a type of messiah). Upon his arrival at the asylum, the vision was diagnosed as delirium. And it was from there that he created his monumental work, almost a thousand pieces (embroideries, objects, banners) esteemed in the international art market after his death, but that he made to present to God on Judgment Day. Bispo’s trajectory challenges the limits of art, creation, madness, and faith, fundamental questions for me even now. Lima Barreto, while he never received a psychiatric diagnosis, also existed at the threshold of the real and fictional, lucidity and alcoholism (which was what brought him to the asylum). They’re very different stories, but Lima Barreto also never stopped challenging the established order, denouncing the hypocrisies of his society at that time and being, because of that, marginalized and seen as mad.

RMC: Can you talk a little bit about the concept of literature of urgency?

LH: The concept refers to literature that is necessary, of an urgent nature, created to escape a given situation. I call it limitation-narrative, for being current writing about a limitation-situation the author experienced. It’s an extreme writing, that functions as an element of transcendence in everyday life that would kill the writer if he was denied the right to the literary experience. Literature of urgency refers to a state that impels the subject toward risk, to the brink of death, whether due to madness, terminal illness, incarceration, or other extreme experiences. This is the case with Diário do hospício (Hospice Diary), written by Lima Barreto during his hospitalization, or of the prolific writings by Antonin Artaud during his nine years in a French asylum, or even Hervé Guibert in Cytomégalovirus (Cytomegalovirus) (the hospitalization diary of the French author, who transformed the experience of a hospitalized HIV positive patient into a work of literature). In these cases, the act of writing fortified a threatened subjectivity running up against a limitation-situation. Some of these writers have an undeniable aesthetic quality, too.

RMC: What’s the premise of your next book? Can you describe the Brazilian community that spent the military dictatorship in exile in Paris? What was the relationship between Brazil and France during that time?

LH: Rio-Paris-Rio, as the title suggests, is a round-trip journey of a group of young people between Rio and Paris during the civil military dictatorship. It’s a book about exile and about being a foreigner, politics and affection, solitude and youth. Or: how History interferes, conforms, deforms the micro-histories of individuals engaged with the collective. I describe the daily life of a group of people in exile, both compulsory and voluntary, each one tied to politics in a different way. Maria is a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, exiled in Paris at her father’s insistence, which takes her away from the horror of the dictatorship and of her genealogy (her grandfather is one of the generals involved in Brazil’s military coup). Arthur is a young freedom fighter, who wants to be a hero expatriated to wander the world, traveling to every continent, except returning to America. The two meet in Paris, torn between May 1968’s explosion of freedom and the total repression that followed Institutional Act Number 5 in December of that same year in Brazil. It’s fiction that questions the limits between left and right, militancy and attachment, individual and collective.

RMC: As an editor and journalist of Prosa & Verso, O Globo, and other carioca journals, what was the most important and memorable story of your career?

LH: Even today, the most extraordinary story I ever covered, without a doubt, was that of Arthur Bispo do Rosario, so extraordinary that it couldn’t fit into one article, I had to write a whole book.

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

LH: At the risk of sounding self-referential, I think the story of Arthur Bispo do Rosario (whose works have already been exhibited in American museums), described in my book Arthur Bispo do Rosario—The Master of Labyrinth (ed. Rocco), urgently needs to be translated, given the originality of the biography. It’s the kind of real story that transcends all the limits of fiction.

Translated from the Portuguese by Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren.

Published Apr 17, 2014   Copyright 2014 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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