Monthly Archives: April 2014

Local is the only universal

escolinha

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 That story never left the paper and feels now a bit outdated – social realism applied to the now weary subject of a decaying industrial town.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.

We are stories

huck

I was recently led to write an “artistic statement” in which I had to define the artist I am /am becoming. I wrote somewhere in there that “telling (and being told) stories is one of the best ways of being alive and making the best of our lives – as individuals and as communities. Stories allow us to learn about the world, question it, play and engage with it”.

I strongly believe this, but I think that my own quote about the importance of storytelling is rather bland. So I set out to find more insightful views on this matter.

The French essayist Alain Finkielkraut says the following: « L’œuvre a un lien avec le monde et nous avons besoin de ce détour pour mieux comprendre ce qu’il en est de nous dans ce monde. » The story is connected to the world; we need to take a detour through the story in order to understand where we stand in this world. (He is referring to books but I believe it is not abusive to apply it to any kind of storytelling).

For Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher who extensively contributed to narrative theory, the function of fiction is to reveal and transform our daily praxis. It reveals because it sheds light on hidden aspects of our experience; it transforms because examining life is akin to changing life. Here is the (prettier) original quote: « La fonction de la fiction [est] (…) révélante et transformante à l’égard de la pratique quotidienne; révélante, en ce sens qu’elle porte au jour des traits dissimulés, mais déjà dessinés au cœur de notre expérience praxique; transformante, en ce sens qu’une vie ainsi examinée est une vie changée. »

The French (script)writer Jean-Claude Carrière has often talked about the « storyteller » (le conteur), seeing himself as one. The storyteller is the one who provides others with words. She carries the unknown, the mystery that we as communities strive to understand. In this interview to L’Express, he details the possible links between the storyteller and her audience. Number 1 – the storyteller tells a story that the audience already knows. It’s all about form; it’s the way of telling the story that provides the insight. Number 2 – the storyteller tells a story that the audience doesn’t know. She is taking the audience into another world. Number 3 – the storyteller tells a story that she herself doesn’t know. This is what I often do with my son to get him to brush his teeth – and suddenly blue lions enter the bathroom only to be taken away by an evil sorcerer, and I’m as much in awe as he is. This is also what happens when I write a script. Number 4 – the storyteller tells a story that she herself doesn’t know to an audience that knows. Puzzling? An accurate description of the potential and potentially transforming bond between storyteller, story and audience.

Wasn’t it wonderful when we were children to read those adventure and fantasy books? And what about “The Goonies”? The impact of these narratives on the construction of the person I am is undeniable. Each of those moments spent reading or watching was an opportunity to take the world in, research and experiment the person I wanted to become. Learn about the world, about myself, go places in space and time. Projection is perhaps the word that better captures it.

As an adult, I do feel though that my relation with fiction is of a different kind. Grown-ups are still in motion, becoming themselves until they die, but well, there’s a threshold we’ve crossed, that thing called loss of innocence, which can happen in many chapters. When I see a film or read a book nowadays, I feel the closest to it when it takes me in, not out. In, deeper, deepening the vocabulary of my own imperfection and the imperfection of the world. Enriching and structuring my longing and my disenchantment.

“Books, which we mistake for consolation, only add depth to our sorrow.” (Orhan Pamuk)