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Adriana Lisboa

The author of Azul Corvo (Crow Blue) discusses writing female characters and dictatorship memory from a transnational perspective


For Adriana Lisboa, feminism and politics are not an intentional part of her literary project. And yet, while exploring affective relationships, journeys, and personal transformation, the contemporary novelist writes narratives driven by independent female characters that explore the political contexts of Brazil and the United States. One of her books, Azul Corvo (Crow Blue), published in 2014, follows a young teenage girl who travels from Brazil to Colorado alone. Displaced from her home, culture, and language, she meets a former member of the armed guerilla resistance during Brazil’s military dictatorship, who provides a new lens on her country of origin. In this interview, Lisboa speaks to Artememoria about the relationship between politics and the personal and how writing gender and dictatorship has changed in recent decades, all in the context of her uniquely transnational perspective.

Artememoria: Can you speak to the experience of writing so many independent female characters in Azul Corvo? Was focusing on female characters one of ideas behind the book, or did that dimension of the work arise as you were writing?

Adriana Lisboa: Ever since I published my first novel twenty years ago, the question of female characters was always central for me. Not necessarily in the sense of me championing a cause, because it was never a political project. I started writing female characters because of my own experiences as a woman. I don’t write auto-fiction and I don’t intend to, but I do think that my experience of motherhood, of the relationship between mother and child, is very interesting to explore in fiction. The question of female autonomy is also very present, perhaps because I grew up at a moment when my family transitioned from women who were not autonomous to women who managed to become autonomous. That stays with me. In a sense, I am always creating a single mother or a daughter who travels alone to another country. There is some sort of cry for independence in almost all of my novels, but effective relationships rather than a specific political goal are what interests me in fiction.

Artememoria: Those relationships are certainly interesting, also in terms of the different historical moments you explore in your novels. Many of your books are contemporary, but Azul Corvo has a plot that spans across generations. Do you think that the characters in that novel reflect a specific moment for feminism?

Lisboa: That’s interesting, because I was born in 1970. I grew up and spent my teen and adult years in a generation that didn’t discuss feminism very much. It’s as though my generation – and I mean that concept of generation in a very narrow sense – saw feminism as something that had already happened, which was incorrect, of course. When I published Sinfonia em Branco (Symphony in White), which in my opinion is my most feminist novel, that dimension of the text was hardly discussed. Beatriz Rezende, a critic who explores feminism in literature, was one of the few people who did comment on it, but other critics did not read the book from that lens.

Feminism and the memory of dictatorship can actually both be explored simultaneously. When I started writing and publishing books, both were seen as issues of the past. There was an idea that we needed to turn the page and begin a new generation. And now, we suddenly saw the world turn upside down as so many countries in the world regressed, perhaps following the path of the United States. I think that Trump’s election opened up a Pandora’s box, and we saw other leaders come to power since. However, the issues of feminism and historical memory have returned to the spotlight after remaining buried and hushed for so many years

It’s interesting to see how so many women writers define themselves as feminists today. If you go on Mídia Ninja and read the columns, almost all of the female writers begin by saying they are feminists. Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have happened. Brazilian women who were intellectuals, writers, and artists didn’t define themselves as feminists, maybe because it would have sounded a bit passé if they had. “What is that woman doing? Does she think she’s in 1960?” it was a different time. Suddenly, this topic becomes prominent in a very affirmative way. That is a change that I’ve seen over my twenty-year career. Feminism has returned and assumed a central role, alongside historical memory, especially in terms of dictatorship memory. It’s as though our context has demanded that shift.

Artememoria: Yes, there is certainly an immediate relevance to the historical memory of the dictatorship in the present moment. Interestingly, though, you wrote Azul Corvo at a moment when its relevance wasn’t immediately apparent, when it wasn’t a popular topic. Why did you choose to make one character a former member of the guerilla resistance when you were writing the book?

Lisboa: Azul Corvo was the first novel I wrote after having moved to the United States. It was my first experience as an immigrant while I was a writer. I had lived outside of Brazil as a teenager, but I of course wasn’t writing professionally at that point. The novel was a milestone in my personal trajectory. It marked the moment in which I arrived in a new country and saw everything through the eyes of someone who understands almost nothing and who, at the same time, looks back in an effort to understand what is no longer their everyday reality. It was a limbo of sorts, and that’s why I made the narrator, Vanja, a teenager. I think of adolescence as a kind of limbo between childhood and adulthood, a gray zone, a bit undefined.

Since Vanja looks back to the country she left behind, I wanted her to have a dialogue with another character who could explain what that country was. She might not have really understood Brazil, just as a lot of people from her generation didn’t. That was the case for me. I went to school in the 1970s and 1980s. So much of my official education happened under the dictatorship. We learned very little in terms of critical thinking. We didn’t have philosophy classes and, because of censorship, the national history that we were taught was very constrained and scripted. Vanja is heir to all of that. When she arrives in a new place and looks back to see what exactly she had left behind, she needs a kind of translator, you could say. That’s Fernando, who is the polar opposite of not knowing. He’s a character who had physically been there, who knows about everything, who even knows more than he’d have wanted to know. He was so involved that he ends up isolating himself, fleeing in the name of self-preservation.

For me, writing about that period was a way of settling the score with myself, with my own education, and with the way I had been raised. I am from a middle class family, one that wasn’t a family of activists against the system, even though it was by no means right-wing. I studied in a Catholic school in Rio de Janeiro. When I started thinking about Azul Corvo and how I would return to that time in history, I realized that the guerilla movement in Araguaia was almost a myth. It was rarely discussed, badly explored, and history books hardly discussed that specific guerilla movement. Because of the lack of references to Araguaia, especially in fiction, I decided to go back to that particular moment in the past, which was something that happened right around the time I was born, in fact.

Artememoria: A few issues you bring up here are actually key to the question of how to build collective memory. You learned about something you did not directly experience, even though you were in the country. It is a memory, but it is a bit distant. That notion is especially present in Vanja’s character. She’s young enough to experience “post-memory” – memory that is passed down from earlier generations. When you wrote this kind of distanced memory, how did you go about researching the topic in order to represent it?

Lisboa: I was lucky enough to meet a journalist named Taís Morais, who wrote a book that was an essential reference for me. She and Eumano Silva wrote Operação Araguaia (Operation Araguaia), which launched right at the moment I began writing Azul Corvo. It’s a historical book, a nonfiction investigation, but it reads like a novel. It has a kind of journalistic rendering of events that is very detailed and very well done. It’s an account of what the guerilla movement was, how it started, and what happened afterwards. Taís Morais had access to all of the files that the military had released up until that point. I sought Taís out, we chatted and sent some messages back and forth, and I ended up basing one of my characters on a real person. He was someone who didn’t leave Brazil, but ran away, deserting the guerillas, and to this day doesn’t want to discuss what happened because of deeply engrained fear. I think these things are always complex, and I tried to make that appear in my construction of Fernando, too, a character who escapes to save his own skin, but who leaves a lot behind in the process. He leaves behind his ideological commitment, his ethics, and love. Taís read Azul Corvo after I had written it to see if I had rendered the period well.

Artememoria: Let’s return to a topic that you mentioned earlier. You said that the book is centered on a kind of limbo, an in-between. Another closely related theme is the question of a search for identity. Almost every character seems to be searching for something, sometimes something that disappeared, and often that search is very specific, personal, and internal. How do these individual searches tied to identity relate to the more political dimensions of the book, such as dictatorship and feminism? 

Lisboa: I think that political life and personal life can only be separated in the abstract. How is it possible to be apolitical? People say that they don’t like to talk politics, but how can you not exist in the world? Everything that happens politically relates to each of us on the most miniscule level of our lives. A decision in Washington affects health care, which affects if people can go to the doctor, buy medicine, and take care of their family. There isn’t that distance that so often seems to exist, as though our personal issues were somehow in opposition to a political collective.

The searches my characters embark on are very personal, as you said. These searches are fundamentally seeking a place, not necessarily a geographical place, but rather an affective place. A home in the sense of affection, not romantic affection but that of family and close friends. The characters are seeking that place, and everything in this world is relevant to their search for identity. It’s as though the macro, or the collective, and the micro, or the individual, are always in exchange, constantly communicating across a porous border.

Artememoria: The search for this abstract, affective place is set in a geographical in-between, in the immigrant experience to a new country. As an author, you also occupy that limbo between Brazil and the United States. Do you look to Brazil or the United States when you write novels that are set between the two countries? What are your literary influences for writing these transnational novels?

Lisboa: That’s a question that has always been difficult for me to answer, since for every project I don’t know whether it is my choice of reading that came first, influencing my literary project, or if it is the project that influences the reading.

But this idea of spatial displacement has been with me for many years and began with my novel Rakushisha (Hut of Fallen Persimmons). The starting point of the novel is a trip that the poet Basho took through Japan 400 years ago. I found Basho’s travel diaries from when he traveled by foot through Japan. The diaries are beautiful and I got very interested in fictionally working the diaries into a book. Rakushisha is about a trip to Japan, and ever since, the theme of displacement has been with me, growing more profound in every novel. The first novel on this theme is simply about a trip to Japan in search of the poet’s memory. Azul Corvo came next, and it’s another trip, but one that involves the theme of migration, the question of what it means to be an immigrant when you are in a comfortable situation versus when you don’t have the legal permission to be where you are. It also involves a journey to the past, that act of looking back towards the historical past of the country that was left behind.

Influences come from the most unexpected sources, you know? Reading a Japanese poet from 400 years ago generated ideas that I have explored for twelve years. Voyages and migration are very important themes for me in increasingly sophisticated ways. In my new novel, I even talk about animal migration: the living body of either human or animal that moves and what that means, what that represents.

Artememoria: How does the current political context in the United States influence your approach to the theme of immigration?

Lisboa: I see migration as a consequence of certain issues that maybe don’t seem so urgent. For example, issues related to ecology are being ignored, as well as actively dismantled, by the current administration. Once again, we know that there are huge repercussions throughout the world. Climate change and the effects of climate change will likely result in groups of people who have to leave their home countries because of natural disasters. Once again, we see how certain political decisions have personal consequences at an individual scale. And this is a global problem, not something limited to the US or Brazil.

Another issue tied to living in the United States is seeing the US ordering or carrying out wars under completely pro forma justifications and then watching as refugees that these wars have generated try to reach Europe, simply in order to live. They want to get to a place where they can have the basic minimum of existence. All of this used to be very circumstantial, but the events are becoming epidemic rather than endemic. They’re no longer issues that relate to a specific society, to a country. Now, they relate to the entire world. I have been reflecting on the question of migration in that sense, and exploring how our presence and decisions as humans on the planet don’t only affect us, but other species: there are a variety of animal species that will also suffer the consequences of our decisions.

Artememoria: Your work traverses borders – between countries, languages, species. However, not everyone looks across borders in the same way. While many people in Brazil look towards the United States as a result of global, imperialistic power structures, few people in the United States look towards Brazil. When they do, it is often because of a very specific situation, like the Rio 2016 Olympics. In this context, when you write books that move between Brazil and the US, how do North American readers receive the content about Brazil?

Lisboa: It’s usually a big surprise for readers. Generally speaking, people in the US don’t read very much translated literature. Brazil is very distant. It might conjure up some associations, maybe people think a bit about nature or about the violence that gets on the news. The elections last year were very peripheral in terms of news coverage here. There are some news outlets that covered it, like Democracy Now! and Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who consistently speaks about Brazil, but mainstream media, highly educated people, and people who could be considered leftists didn’t really grasp what was going on.

When Azul Corvo came out, I had the chance to do some readings. When I wasn’t in academic environments with people who already studied these issues, readers were really surprised. They said, oh my god, there was a communist guerilla movement in the Amazon rainforest? That’s so exotic. Everything was taken as a bit surreal, supernatural. Brazil is far into the periphery, especially in terms of our literature.

Artememoria: Zooming out, how do you see the role of memory in your overall work?

Lisboa: Lately I’ve been reading about the Buddhist concept of time, which differs from the concept in western philosophy. In the west, time is a continuum. Past reaches the present and the present evolves into the future. In certain eastern philosophies such as Buddhism, time is only the present. Past and future exist only as components of that present. There isn’t anything that you could call the past or anything that you could call the future without recognizing that these two concepts are contingent on the present.

I have always tried to work with the idea of memory in what I write. Because it is a component of the present, memory is a way of giving body and substance to the present. In that sense, my characters are who they are and do what they do because of a past, because of memory, a kind of memory that is relevant to their present-day lives.

Adriana Lisboa is a writer from Rio de Janeiro who publishes fiction, poetry, short stories, and books for children. Her novel Sinfonia em branco (Symphony in White) won the José Saramago Award, and her novel Azul Corvo (Crow Blue) was chosen as a book of the year by The Independent. A widely translated author, Lisboa has work published in over twenty countries, and her poems and short stories have appeared in a range of publications including Modern Poetry in Translation, Asymptote Journal, and Granta. Lisboa received her PhD in Comparative Literature at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and has been a visiting scholar at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, at the University of Texas at Austin, and at the University of New Mexico, as well as writer in residence at the University of California Berkeley. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.