How did you get your start in creative writing? How have your creative process and the subject matter of your writing changed since publishing A casa dos outros in 2009?
I began writing when I was very young, when I was still a schoolboy, but I published my first book relatively late, at the age of forty. During all this time, however, I never doubted myself as a writer (I considered myself writer who simply hadn’t authored any books), and it was perhaps exactly this belief that kept me from quitting. Between A casa dos outros in 2009 and Histórias naturais in 2016, I believe I began to better understand how important it is to be free of the trappings of literary genres and to explore the possibilities of each text without adhering so stringently to protocol or classification. That, to me, is one task of the writer: to pursue things that lie outside of established models, or that at least resist them, even if the final result might come to be associated with a tradition. In terms of themes, I’ve always enjoyed exploring various areas of knowledge, and my narratives touch on history, science, religion, and math. The deliberately encyclopedic nature of Histórias naturais, to me, highlights this aspect of my fiction.
Your work encompasses various genres and styles, from realist fiction narrated in the third person to much shorter stories without linearity or setting and plots that unfold according to a logic peculiar to the narrator. You describe this type of narration as “oblique realism.” Can you discuss this narratology a bit? Do you know of other writers who experiment in this way with perspective and dislocation? How would you describe the reaction to these shorter stories, especially in the academic community?
This narrative and thematic diversity emerges, as I said above, from the freedom that comes with and the interest I have in distending the writing, liberating it from preconceived forms. Although the majority of readers and even critics refer to my writing as “stories,” I prefer to use the term “fictions,” which is broader and more versatile, to refer to them. The term “story” seems to me tied to notions of plot and character, and I find this perspective inadequate for describing works that are more elastic, less obvious, that diverge from editorial parameters. What I understand as literature could be a story, but it could also be a simple note, a comment, a scene. Finding an unusual point of view from which to view an object, moving the reader out of their comfort zone—this is what compels me to write. It must also be said that I’m not referring to the kinds of fantastical universes in which the work of Cortázar or Borges, for example, is set. No, what I refer to as “strange” or “extraordinary” is visible to us: a palpable, plausible reality, however improbable. Perceiving it might require one to alter their way of seeing, to activate their imagination. This way of observing is what I call “oblique realism.” If there are other writers who work within a similar framework, I can’t say. What I can say is that, as a reader, I enjoy what Lydia Davis, Gonçalo Tavares, and J. M. Coetzee, for example, do. I like the versatility and unpredictability of the literature they create.
In “Of the Vulnerability of Objects,” the main character’s rumination over apparently arbitrary objects is used to evoke a large amount of pathos. How important is it for you to bridge formal experiments with human themes?
This is a really good question, because it allows me consider how when we write about smaller themes, about subaltern characters or places of little interest, when we try to think about what might be active or lucid in objects, and how the vibrations that come from them is part of our own human vitality, we’re actually stimulating a powerful affective and micro-affective circuit. It’s a discrete—but no less powerful—political realm in which objects are mobilized. This type of literature also has the merit of lending to the more conventional political field a more lateral perspective, a slanted view, outside of the tired status quo. The intelligence of a thing has a direct relationship with our own intelligence. This is what we see in “Of the Vulnerability of Objects.” Ordinary events, lost in memory or to history, can be recovered with our attention, and this junction modifies the maps we already know. This is what I wanted to explore in “On the Pen and the Sword.” This small abyss between a thing and the knowledge of a thing, the gap where a word and a culture still haven’t been established, is the gap to we should look for. I always think of the foreigner who’s still learning a new language, or of the translator that—like a child learning to speak—goes feeling about for the texture of a language. There we find the freshest springs for literature.
What is the collaboration with Heath Wing (and other translators) like as they attempt to render the complexities of oblique realism into other languages?
We speak a lot during the translation process. Whenever there’s a question, Heath writes to me, and we schedule a talk via Skype. We go back and forth over the details, and he finds some solution. My concern tends to be more with the rhythm of the text, with how it flows, and with the vocabulary. In my texts, especially the shorter ones, rhythm is fundamental, and each word is hand chosen. There’s an elasticity and a breath that constitute the text. There are cases, for example, where the text runs just a paragraph long and should be read in single breath, and this can be a bit difficult to maintain in English, but Heath finds a way.
In “Borderline”—a more traditional story in terms of structure and narration—the setting plays a very important role. If we also consider the literary history of Minas Gerais, and even the title of your most recent book (Brief cartography of places of no interest), to what extent do you identify as a “mineiro writer”?
I don’t find any meaning in that expression—“mineiro writer”—to explain or identify my work. My being mineiro is, to me, just a question of geography, of where I was born, and not a question of style or tradition. Of course, the city or the country where a writer lives does have some kind of impact on their work, as well as on their body, on what they read, and on their life experiences. The state I was born in has produced immense writers, and this is something to be proud of, but it doesn’t mean there’s any inherent aesthetic connection or literary commonality. Traditions are invented, imaginary connections that are broken and re-established with time. If I were to place myself in some tradition, I think I’d find more counterparts outside of rather than within my country. But it’s not for me to make that evaluation. As for “Borderline,” it’s worth commenting that when Heath was translating this piece, he disclosed to me that the story felt familiar to him, because it reminded him of the kinds of borders that are very common where he was born, in Texas. This was one of the reasons we ended up choosing to include the story in our submission for the anthology.
What other projects are you working on?
At the moment I’m involved in the writing of a novel, a complex novel that’s requiring a lot of work and that has to do with the advent of the internet and with the visceral transformation we’re going through in terms of how we read and write, and how this new technological regime interferes with our affective relations, and individual and social memory. At the same time, without my having planned on it, another book has started to emerge, one that moves between fiction and essay by way of notes. Perhaps the two will be born together.
Translated from Portuguese by Noah Perales-Estoesta