Q&A with Fita Magazine
01. What motivated you to become a writer? Did the spark for writing grow stronger after completing your PhD thesis "Inseparability" in the Program in Literary Theory? Additionally, do you believe that writing is something that writers do out of necessity, because it is intrinsic to their body, because it is inseparable from their purpose as individuals?
Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida: I decided to study literature at University when I was 18, because I had the aspiration to become a writer. I spent my teenage years writing frantically. Once at university, I forgot that desire, and I would only remember it after finishing my studies, at the age of 30. It took a great deal of suffering to remind me that, before I entered university, I was already a person. Writing is, in my case, a visceral need and a source of tremendous pleasure: if I don't write, I either go crazy or die of boredom.
02. Esse Cabelo (That Hair) — your debut autofiction novel — has been praised for its vivid portrayal of the experience of Black women. Can you speak to the challenges and opportunities of writing from this perspective?
DPA: Esse cabelo is an exercise around the experience of reading a family photo album, in which I play with various literary and photographic references. At the same time, the book was written when I was beginning to question my ancestry for the first time. I was interested in writing from the point of view of a black girl's inner life — and seeing where that would lead me, and what it would look like. I was not used to finding black girls searching for themselves in the books I spent my days reading — Philosophy works from the past and the present — and I really did not know what that would sound like in Portuguese. In that sense, Esse Cabelo was an experiment in surprise: I found my way while I was doing it, without any particular guiding principle other than pleasure and tenacity.
03. Your writing often explores themes of identity, race, and gender. In Esse Cabelo (That Hair), Mila's memories revolve around the transnational feeling, a constant tension of feeling both European and African, and the questions she faces in reconciling those identities. How has your experience born in Luanda and growing up in the Lisbon suburbs influenced your writing on these topics?
DPA: If I hadn't always inhabited that limbo — between cultures, between ethnicities, between continents — I probably wouldn't have written Esse Cabelo, or any of my books. Everything I write comes from the fact that I never really had a country. Today I learned to own that very insecure position with a mixture of pride and peace. My country coincides with my family: the man that I love and my books.
04. Your writing often engages with history, both personal and political. In Luanda, Lisbon, Paradise you explore the complex history and ongoing relationship between Portugal and Angola, two countries that share a colonial past. Through the daily life of Cartola, Glória, Aquiles and Pepe we revolve in a crossroad between the welcome of the Portuguese, the surprising friendships, the misery of survival in the city - all for the medical treatment of Cartola's son — that is the harsh reality of many families in Lisbon. How do you balance the desire to bear witness to injustice with the need to move forward and envision a better future for immigrants? Can writing also be a form of collage of wounds, can it be a political manifesto, ultimately contribute to a large conversation around colonialism in contemporary literature?
DPA: My only way to bear witness to injustice is to find honest ways to do it in writing. I believe that my books have been enlarging and diversifying the catalog of stories and characters in the literature of my language — to the benefit of all readers, but especially to those who have been historically underrepresented. My aspirations are immense and very modest. I like to imagine a dusty place in the future where a black girl who reads Portuguese will come across a very old copy of one of my books and find a place for her in it. And I like to imagine that while writing I am in conversation with authors from the past, some of whom would not recognize my right to write, let alone to publish my books.
Being a black female writer in my idiom today is to find myself in a position of privilege compared to generations of writers of my color, in my idiom. In some very important sense, I carry the responsibility of this privilege. Perhaps a black writer in my language cannot yet afford to refuse that responsibility. And I interpret that responsibility by trying to be absolutely true both to myself and to my caracthers.
05. Your novel As Telefones (The Telephones) explores the story of mother and daughter, a single family who stay in touch through phone calls in between Angola and Portugal. What inspired you to use this particular style of writing, and how do you see it contributing to the broader themes of the novel?
DPA: Most migrant mothers and daughters have WhatsApp as their main form of contact, through which they exchange daily prayers, advices, complaints, sorrows, joys, photos. While bringing them closer, those exchanges are also the basis of their estrangement. They make up little discursive conventions and conversational patterns as they go along: their own set of silences, references, allusions and half-truths. This idiosyncratic, parallactic, form of discourse I call a telephonic parole. In As Telefones, I was interested in playing with ways to explore this language, which is usually neglected in serious literary novels.
06. Your latest novel Ferry carries the wounds of a couple struggling with infertility, who long to bring to life the daughter they desire, named Mariana. Despite Vera falling into a deep depression and Albano experiencing heartfelt desolation, they love each other deeply. Where did you find the sincerity to write about the sense of belonging? We recall here their genuinely warm reunion with the ocean, but also the hollow words that friends and family leave behind.
DPA: To write Ferry, I heard many love stories, from people around me: very old couples, recently separated partners, people who never found love, happy or sad love stories from past and present generations. Vera and Albano are a collage made from love stories I know very well. I think the fact that I am not cynical about love helped me to write the book the way I wrote it.
07. Both A Visão das Plantas (Vision of the Plants) and Ferry feature significant themes related to gardening, whether it's the Captain Celestino's exploration of the natural world in the former or Albano's care of the garden in the house where Vera is recovering in the latter. How do you see these themes relating to each other and contributing to the broader themes of your writing, particularly around the idea of healing and growth?
DPA: I have a bookish interest in plants. I was a volunteer at the Lisbon Botanical Garden for some years and have been reading about gardens for a long time. This interest started as an intimate appeal to be around trees that I understood to be a compensation for the fact that I never had much contact with the countryside, which is a very common lapse in the life of many migrants. My sentimental landscape was always urban, but, at a certain moment, I started to feel the desire to know the names of plants and a desire to be around them. I think I lent some of my characters a fixation for gardens as a place of self-obscuration for that reason.
08. Your work has been translated into multiple languages, including English, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Danish, Arabic, Mandarin, to name a few. How do you approach writing in Portuguese with the knowledge that your letters will be read by audiences around the world?
DPA: To see my books translated has cemented my respect for the wonderful work of translation — my translators are co-authors of my books in their languages. At the same time, I never write in Portuguese with an eye on the fact that my books will be translated: (at least for now) I only dream and write in Portuguese.
09. Throughout your career, you have been collaborating with multiple visual artists and you are now writing for the stage and film. This year, you are writing for the director Zia Soares the Diptych: Pérola Sem Rapariga and As Telefones; and you are writing Pêndulo (Pendulum), with director Marco Martins. This is something we are very curious about. How does your approach to writing for theater and cinema differ from your approach to writing prose? What can readers look forward to from you in the future?
DPA: Writing for the stage has been an education in listening and working with others, since I am used to write alone and writing a novel is the loneliest job there is. I have been enjoying deeply to learn that no one ever does anything alone, which is something that have been making me reconsider what I think about the job of a writer. Sometimes it is hard to understand the way in which a single book — as a theatre or opera production — is a work of many hands other than mine. Two plays in which I collaborated will premiere soon: Pêndulo, with director Marco Martins, and Pérola Sem Rapariga, which I am writing for stage director Zia Soares (with Filipa Bossuet and Sara Fonseca da Graça). I have three new books coming up: one is an short essay which will first appear in Brazil, the other is a collaboration with artist Isabel Baraona, and perhaps next year or in 2025 a new novel-essay, on which I have been working since 2021.
10. As an accomplished writer with several critically acclaimed works to your name and the recipient of multiple awards including the Prémio de Ensaísmo serrote Instituto Moreira Salles 2013, Prémio Fundação Inês de Castro 2018, Prémio Fundação Eça de Queiroz 2019, and Prémio Oceanos 2019 and 2020; what advice or lessons would you offer to young writers who aspire to follow in your footsteps and create impactful literature?
DPA: My advice would be: “Write for the pleasure of it, and don’t share what you write with no one until it’s done!”