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An implosive exilic geography

I read Esse Cabelo (That Hair) (2015), the first novel by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida – that “unexpected story of a coarse hair” – after a Brazilian colleague, a literature professor, turned to me asking what I thought about the novel, as she was considering the possibility of doing post-doctoral studies on a (possible) black authorship Portuguese literature, seeking, by means of a comparative studies bias (in comparison with Brazilian black authorship writing), to analyse this literature’s production and flow processes in both countries.

I read it and told her – trying to avoid mentioning the primary issue of her approach, that maybe we were before an essay type of writing where a novel’s tone prevails, considering the way the author turns its reflections into storytelling, in this specific case, the author’s life experience of dealing with a “course and unmanageable” hair – that we were, most likely, before a novel with an autobiographical intent.

This is so because in Luanda, Lisboa, Paraíso (2018) the author goes back to telling – (hers?) even if (re)invented – life story: a father (Cartola de Sousa, now in the place of “grandfather Castro”) travelling from Luanda to Lisbon in 1984 with the purpose of monitoring his younger son’s, Aquiles, handicapped left heel’s treatment, and staying – just like grandfather Castro and his son – at Pensão Covilhã, in Lisbon.

Becoming a textbook case of the exiled condition, both immigrants and representing a minority, the main characters, father and son, start treading a path leading them to the intricacies of this triple condition, where they keep track of the effects of an asymmetrical reality and of the consequences of a monolithic and teleological perspective on identity, always running counter to the huntingtonian theory of “civilizations clash” and what are considered “universal values”.

What is interesting, in this case, is the relationship of Pepe, the Galician, with Cartola, two souls on the verge of remoteness, be it cultural, ethnical or regarding nationality (Angolan, Portuguese or Galician/Spanish) – a relationship where there is a hint of homosexuality, something which made Aquiles feel ashamedly sad, realizing (or thinking he had realized) that the two men had crossed a boundary. 

Also interesting is the fact that the turning points in the life of father and son in Lisbon (mainly that of the father, the preferred narrative focus) correspond to two fires: the first one “asphyxiating  Mizé da Assunção and her nine months’ son” made them move from Pensão Covilhã to a hovel in a courtyard by the end of a narrow road in Paraíso, on the way to Caneças”, a time when Pepe enters their lives and the tough life of black immigrants begins, “under the protection of the haze corresponding to their existence without documents”, a time when, in order to survive, they need to work in construction independently of what their academic qualifications or their profession in their homeland are; the second one, when the hovel in Quinta do Paraíso catches fire and father and son lose everything, moving into Pepe’s shack, to the rear of the tavern – Pepe was the only one they could count on in a land which had become a desert concerning emotions, especially among the both of them: “Only that useless guy without redeeming virtues, trampled by and eaten by the war’s poison was witness to his face lit by friendship when he got close to them and woke them up because it was daytime.” It seems that after that the two of them present themselves to each other – and are presented to us – as exiled regarding their own existence.  “Without understanding why they had become unable to cry, why the memory of their homeland had disappeared from their heart, why they didn’t make up their minds to go back and why they didn’t complain”.  

However, before that, the two had already gone through a process of exilic transformation – two representative moments of that transformation are exemplified by Cartola’s behaviour, when Aquiles is still in a hospital bed: “Aquiles’s father wanted to vomit Luanda, but he still couldn’t do it, he still had to get rid of his first life, but it was still withstanding him; he wanted to move on, but he was still the same man”, while “still at the hospital, Aquiles [had] stopped felling Angolan”.

Within this context, the term exilience comes to my mind as a translation for the neologism suggested by Alexis Nouss in La Condition de l’Exilé (2015), a word defining “the existential core of all the experiences of migrant individuals” and referring to subjectivity processes and memory’s tasks as elements participating in the individual’s identity constructions, cutting across generations and sociocultural groups.

These problematics – unveiled by exilience, built on two cornerstones, concrete circumstances and consciousness – help to explain unique space and time conditions (regarding each individual, since the exilic process of Cartola isn’t similar to that of Aquiles), at the same time they generate a dynamics of multiple belonging – which do not fit into the framework of any social-economic analysis usually put forward by the approaches considering poor black foreigners in Portugal, those which are systematically called immigrants (as opposed to the term expatriate assigned to European, white people, in Africa, living there also for economic reasons).

These are issues which make up paths so that the Future can always be reshaped and rewritten from new perspectives: both from the political-ideological point of view (for example, considering the binomial colonial/post-colonial) and from the socio-psico-cultural one, under which an “exilic identity” (Julie Lussier) unfolds, like we mentioned before, an “exilic identity” which has been forged within a precarious otherness (black people without paperwork, daily paid manual labourers).

Consequently, “From the village of Quinzau to Lisbon, with a clandestine household in Paraiso, and a stay in Luanda” could be the overview of this new novel of Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida. In 2015, as well as now (2018), what the author presents to us is an embodiment of historical contradictions, starting from the staging of a Past constantly haunting the Present – literally speaking: playing the role of a ghost in a game of absences and memoire emergencies which intersect events and question the interpretations taken from them.

And this theme runs across the childhood of Cartola in the village of Guinzau, the relationship with the father, the trip to Luanda 50 years ago, the marriage to Glória, the nursing job as Dr. Barbosa da Cunha in Moçâmedes helper, the birth of the children, Glórias’ disease, the trip to Lisbon: it is a dialectic past, interfering with his perspectives of the Present, becoming a fundamental element as the story unfolds – something emphasized by storyline’s dynamic structure, in a to-and-fro time movement, with a mix of flash-backs and predictions (as we can read in the beginning of chapter VI: “The first surgery of Aquiles went as bad as the other three which would follow”),  and bound up narrative sequences.

And if we consider literature – and mainly the novel, in its dimension of “in-process genre” and reflection upon the social conditioning of man (George Lukacs) – it becomes meaningful, within the reading process, as a possibility of interpreting and questioning the world, to write about a silent existence – as the one black people in Portugal have, whether they are immigrant or black Portuguese people (usually called second generation African people) – what Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida writes can be understood as a powerful transformation tool regarding the Portuguese human landscape. With it, the painful fragments of a history made up of frustrations and disappointments (as the one on the basis of the unfoundness of Dr. Barbosa da Cunha), of ruptures and withdrawals (as the one existing among father and son) and of ambiguous felling (as those Cartola has towards his sick wife) are not erased, instead they are reunited in a healing coexistence.

And a history written in total hopelessness tone: “In Portugal, his [Cartola’s] residence permit was the citizenship of the dead. After the great fire, there wasn’t much left of the city where he came from, once called Luanda, and besides that, this city was still very far away”. The history of Cartola, Aquiles, Pepe, Glória and Iuri is a means of understanding the experience of the marginalised (black, poor and dispossessed immigrants) in its full extent as meaningless lives, full of silencing, which take hold of a space which is historically constructed by and for the centre voices).

Those are the resilient voices (although they might sound beaten, as those of Iuri, Pepe and Cartola, who, at different levels, fall apart) which, under the pen of Djaimilia Pereira de Alemida, invade the privileged space of literature, creating a dialogue between politics, ethics and aesthetics and are intertwined as a resistance symphony, beyond the intensification of differences, logical consequences of the colonial and neoliberal ideology. 

Luanda, Lisboa, Paraíso, by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida (Companhia das Letras, 2018)

Article originally published in Público.

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