A previously unpublished interview with Ana Luísa Amaral

A previously unpublished interview with Ana Luísa Amaral

The week of the reopening of the University of Porto Shop, now with a new concept and renovated spaces – with a special section just for the U.Porto Press – we remember Ana Luísa Amaral through an interview she gave to the University Press last August, about a year before her death.
We also remember her legacy to the U.Porto Press, namely her book Pela Liberdade: Respirações (published in English under the title A Breath of Freedom), which set the tone for this conversation.

Ana Luísa Amaral, former researcher and professor at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Porto and renowned Portuguese writer and poet, needs no introduction. Even so, in the interview that follows you can get to know a little more about the work and convictions of this major figure of contemporary literature, in her own words.

How was this work born? What were the motivations behind it?

In early 2019 a colleague at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Professor Gaspar Martins Pereira, reached out, asking me whether I could write a poem on freedom for the opening of a congress they were organising – “The Construction of Liberties”. The congress should have taken place in May 2020. In 2020, he got in touch with me again to let me know that the congress had been postponed to November 2020. In other words, what was supposed to be a congress with many participants (both from Portugal and abroad) turned into a much smaller congress, due to the evolution of the pandemic and the measures taken by the Government in response.
At the time, I had a series of poems on issues related to freedom, although I was composing a long poem – Dissidências: das Respirações (Dissidences: from the Breaths). In the meantime, Professor Fátima Vieira [Vice-Rector of the University of Porto for Culture and Museums and lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities] contacted me to tell me that she had spoken to our colleague and that they were thinking of publishing my poem in a kind of libretto (because I had said it was a long poem). And I, instead of giving them the long poem, gave them five unpublished poems which dealt with the theme of freedom, each one in its own way.

In what way does freedom “breathe” through these poems?

In very different ways. Besides which, freedom has already answered to so many names! It has already been depicted in so many ways… As a woman, naked from the waist up, or half naked, holding a flag…
I think that what we call freedom – and the will to be free – exists in what we, all species, have at our core. Which is the will to live, deep down… it is the will to live! Freedom is a lot of things. But when we think of the desire for freedom, we only think of human beings, not of other beings. Freedom is inside everything living on this planet. It is in a fish, for example, as it flails about on the end of a fishing rod. Why? Because it wants to be free!
All these poems are about freedom.

The first has to do with us. It’s about Portugal. It’s about our collective national past and our present. “At our backs / The masts // Ahead of us / The monsters”. The monsters that appear to us, whether they are economic monsters or this lifeless monster called “Covid” that needs a host to live. It also has to do with the matter of dreaming in the last bit: “And on the wall / The stars”.

“The colours of servitude” is, of course, about freedom. These two poems deal with race, with class. As well as the absence of freedom and the reproduction of the mechanisms of oppression by the dominant classes in Brazil, in this case.
These poems were written on a plane, on a journey between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and this really happened. She really did get on the plane and go straight to the front row, “the blonde woman, her handbag, / like her, of the softest skin. // Ahead of her, equally young, / her elegant, pleasing husband / with his pale cosmopolitan eyes. // Behind them, waiting to board, / their maid, almost a girl herself, / wearing an embroidered white cap / and carrying a child / pressed to her bosom”. It is a poem that tries to reflect on learning about these mechanisms of oppression, through a child.

“Landscape with two horses” is also about the absence of freedom and about another kind of oppression: the one that we humans arrogantly exercise over those who have less power than we do. In this case horses, which here are compared to black people and women. And these instruments of torture, as stated – “not to mention the bit, or snaffle, / similar to that placed in the mouths of women / who disobeyed,” – this is something that was really done in the 16th century. In the 16th/17th centuries there was a figure, the shrew, which was a woman who disobeyed her husband and who talked too much… above all, a rebellious figure who did not conform to the psycho-socio-sexual norms imposed on women. In other words, women should be modest, they should be obedient, they should “erase themselves” for their husbands, and these women did not do this. There were punishments in place for these women. This figure was legislated. A bridle-bit would be placed in their mouths and they would be led through town, as an example to other women. These bridles were similar to those used on slaves: bridle-bits or bridoons were also used on slaves because many of them tried to poison themselves; they didn’t want to live as slaves! This was done until slavery ended and it was horrific! And these animals [the horses], which “make no fuss, show no disrespect”, which meekly obey, are themselves a metaphor for freedom, too.
All these poems thus thematize docile bodies; bodies that are violated.

“On Freedom: A learner’s guide”, also; in essence, it is about the mechanisms of domestication. As with women. “Learn from my cat / the sound of freedom: / being somewhere when you want to be / and when you don’t not being there”. But on the other hand, where is her freedom? When I say “But how is that, when the walls / are closed and the nights spent meowing / are a utopia? / Only up on the roof can she smell / the smell / of true // time”.
It represents the cat, but also us in the midst of this pandemic, as for us “nights spent meowing”, nights of freedom have become a utopia! And “nights spent meowing” are the norm, after all. This is what is normal for a cat. Just as it is normal for a human being to embrace another human being.

Whereas “The Battle” is playful… It’s an allegory about the struggle for power. Feminism is only hinted at here. The trousseau that the girl doesn’t want… books are threatened, that is, knowledge is threatened by domesticity, as if it were impossible for domesticity and wisdom to exist at the same time… And this may lead us again to the question of women and the bridle-bits in their mouths… Because if we push the figure of the shrew to the extreme, we encounter the witch. Witches were knowledgeable women; women who possessed knowledge (e.g. of herbs, on how to prepare treatments…). Women and wisdom together were condemned for many centuries. Women should not have wisdom. “The Battle” is primarily the struggle between the domestic domain and the public domain, with books belonging to the public domain. Or to the political domain, because it is the domain of knowledge. Indeed, knowledge is power. It’s a play on how democracy is built. And it’s very ironic because it’s the internal struggles. “Now, the problem wasn’t / the invader, but the internal divisions, / the seething hatreds // Now, what mattered / was to survive, / to be a book”. And not “to be free”. “To be a book” would amount to “being free”.

PELA LIBERDADE: RESPIRAÇÕES and A BREATH OF FREEDOM (english edition) were published by the U.Porto Press. (Photo: U.Porto Press)

To what extent might these poems contribute to reflection, and action, on today’s injustices and restrictions on freedom?

All art is in some way an excrescence; it is surplus. For instance, a symphony cannot be used to build a piece of furniture, a house, or a bed… but we need symphonies, poems, beauty, artworks… We human beings can turn the apparently useless into the absolutely necessary. But it isn’t! It is absolutely necessary because it is useless, in other words, because it belongs to the realm of the impalpable, the symbolic. And we need the symbolic, the ritual, things that give us structure, beyond the clothes we put on our backs, the food we eat, the sleep we need to stay healthy. In this sense, any artistic expression, if it is true, and if it is genuine, can help a human being to open up to the world and thus to feel freer.

In the specific case of these poems, the very theme of A Breath of Freedom directs the readers in some way towards two questions: towards the link between freedom and tyranny, or barbarism, and towards breathing as a double movement: breathing in and breathing out. The movement of breathing in is linked to creativity, but in our times it is also linked to that terrible and traumatic event, the murder of the black man [George Floyd] in the United States, who repeated for eight minutes “I can’t breathe!”.  And the breaths are these too!… I would like the people who read these poems to think about these questions…

What are the issues of society today that concern you most?

Fear… hatred… boastfulness… Boastfulness can also be applied to the issue of social networks; the arrogance of thinking that we dominate everything… And, in the end, a “bug” [Covid-19] that is not even a bug; a being that is not even a being! A virus! Completely dominated us. Hatred is a much more complex issue: something that is in the social epidermis and is linked to arrogance because it is also about supremacy. The hatred that is linked to fear… it is the fear of the other whom I do not know and whom I have learnt to think of, through my upbringing, as a threat. Whether because [the other] is black – and black people should stay in their place – or because he is gay, or because [the other] is a woman and has too many rights.

Ignorance as well. Only ignorance can explain why it is said, for example, that black people are less intelligent than white people. There is no other reason! Only ignorance can explain the claim that there is no evolution of species. Only ignorance explains why people believe in Flat Earth Theory.
Hatred is cultivated within this climate of arrogance and fear. And the extreme far-right forces are taking advantage of this. They are clearly taking advantage of this. Of fear. Fear of the immigrant, on his way; the black man, who is not white like me, and who will take my job; the gypsy, who is on welfare; fear of the refugee… This is how Brexit won in England! With the argument that they had to leave the European Union, because “foreigners are coming here to take jobs away from the English, from our people!…”

If you were asked to select one of these poems as a harbinger of freedom, which would you choose?

Perhaps… “Landscape with two horses”. Because it speaks of species, of race, of gender and of colonisation.

“They stand side by side,
in the square opposite the church,
in the kind of heat that sets the world quivering
on the horizon,
and with the river almost in front of them:
a mirage

They stand side by side,
smeared with dust, heads bowed,
joined by the lopsided yoke, the cart propped against the wall,
but ready to be attached to their bodies

That’s what they’ve become: old friends,
pressed up against each other despite the heat,
an unspoken alliance?

Harnesses, halters, all of which resemble
instruments of mild torture,
not to mention the bit, or snaffle,
similar to that placed in the mouths of women
who disobeyed,

but that was a long time ago,
at least four centuries,
or not unlike the device used
to cover the mouths of slaves,
so that they wouldn’t poison themselves,
because they refused to live as
and that was almost yesterday, in the last century

But the horses make no fuss, show no disrespect,
they don’t rebel or try to take poison,
if the sharp bit wounds them, bites
gums, tongue, bone

They simply stand there, next to each other,
heads drooping,
waiting for the whip
that will arrive later on, along with the cart,
ready to serve human
needs, commerce

And that is the most perfect
of colonisations”

Photo by Ana Luísa Amaral: Egidio Santos/University of Porto

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