A film with universal appeal. This is what we are supposed to write. Interestingly, you do not need to look further than the little village where you grew up to write with universal scope. The more you root your story in a unique, skewed little world – of which you have extensive emotional knowledge – the more universal your story will be.
I live in Amsterdam. I lived in Paris for 10 years. I was born in Portugal and grew up there until I left at 25. These expatriations have shaped the person I am. People sometimes said that I “was bound to be French by now”, after so many years spent living in Paris. This was intended as a compliment – a compliment to my French, my adaptation skills, my having made it to such a desirable city. But the idea of “being French” didn’t make any sense to me. Identity is a complex issue; I do not want to sound simplistic, or attached to atavistic notions of national identity. Nonetheless, it is such an evidence to say that I am Portuguese and will never cease to be. My childhood was entirely Portuguese, and uni-lingual, and happy (I guess this last quality accounts for a great deal of this sense of wholeness). So although I left many years ago, I am stuck with this identity. In her essay “Nord Perdu” (1999) the Canadian writer Nancy Huston captures this condition (not a very grave one, rest assured) beautifully.
I am a Portuguese child wrapped in worldly paper. (Up on that photo with my classmates of ’86)
And I am a writer too (because I say so). What should I write about? How does my personal trajectory affect the answer to this question?
The first feature script I wrote was set in Northern Portugal, where I come from. That story never left the paper and feels now a bit outdated – social realism applied to the now weary subject of a decaying industrial town. I decided to go back to it, throwing most things away but keeping something that was always at the core of the project: industrial ruins in Northern Portugal, and a gallery of characters that speak and behave like folks over there speak and behave, something indefinable but recognizable in the blink of an eye, at least for someone who grew up over there like myself.
I want to tell this story because it feels pertinent and it feels close.
Having left the country, I did my best to be pragmatic and connect to the places where I was living, even tell stories set in those places and using the local language. But there was this permanent fog that James Wood – a Brit living in Boston – describes in his piece “On Not Going Home”: I see a familiar life: the clapboard houses, the porches, the heat-mirage hanging over the patched road (snakes of asphalt like black chewing gum), the grey cement sidewalks (signed in one place, when the cement was new, by three young siblings), the heavy maple trees (…) and I feel … nothing: some recognition, but no comprehension, no real connection, no past, despite all the years I have lived there – just a tugging distance from it all. A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack.
I want to tell a story set in Portugal because I long for home. I dream of spending time there doing research, getting my teeth into that delightfully familiar reality of language, landscape, culture. But apart from the practical problems of returning, even temporarily, there’s the fact that I have been away for a long time, and that “home” may now be as elusive as the places I ended up living in. James Wood: And then there is the same light veil thrown over everything when I go back to Britain. (…) There’s a quality of masquerade, as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits.
Still, my strongest, most determinant experiences in life did happen “back home”. Writing is always a business of using your personal scars and treasures, even when you are in year 3674 aboard a spaceship. I was delighted the other day when I came across a quote from one of William Carlos Williams’ essays compiled in the volume “Imaginations” (1970): From the shapes of men’s lives imparted by the places where they have experience, good writing springs. (…) One has to learn what the meaning of the local is, for universal purposes. The local is the only thing that is universal. (…) The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place.
“Writing local” doesn’t necessarily mean writing about where you live or where you grew up. But writing about (or in, within, from, for…) those places may be, for many writers, the best way to localize their writing and thus make it universal. Local here means particular, precise, inhabited, heart-felt. Generic is not good for art.