Portuguese American Journal

Irene Marques: On women’s voices and cultural identity – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)

At the age of twenty, Irene Marques migrated from mainland Portugal to Canada and now lives in Toronto where she teaches in the English Department at Ryerson University and in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University.

A bilingual writer, educator and researcher, she has led an interesting life with many twists and turns creatively and academically. In 2007 she spent a year in South Africa on a Mellon postdoctoral fellowship conducting research related to early colonial encounters between African women and male European colonialists.

Her academic publications include the manuscripts The Works of Chin Ce: A Critical Overview, Transnational Discourses on Class, Gender and Cultural Identity and articles in international journals including African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture and Society and Research in African Literatures. She is the author of a book of short stories, three poetry collections, and a forthcoming novel.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Irene Marques speaks of her writing career and research work, of women’s voices in the academia and in literature and of migration, ethnicity and cultural identity.

You wrote an article about the lack of women’s voices in literature in Portugal, can you share the premise of that paper?

Yes, I recently wrote “Diatribe de uma Eva muda” (‘Diatribe of a Mute Eva’), published in Letras & Letras last fall. It is a piece that mixes creativity with research and it is basically a discussion of the many institutional and cultural factors, which I see as responsible for women’s invisibility in literature in Portuguese speaking countries like Portugal and Brazil, but also in many other parts of the world, including North America.

I wrote the article in Portuguese and I wanted to publish it in Portugal because I think the country’s literary elites and literary decision makers should become more aware of and conscientialized about this pressing issue. But I had a lot of difficulty publishing it there, or even getting an answer or acknowledgment of receipt from several journals I sent it to. For instance, Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideias, probably the most prestigious journal in Portugal, never replied to my submission despite the fact that I called twice and even spoke to one of the editors. I received a similar lack of response from other journals as well.

WearingGlassesOfWaterThere seems to be a shortage of female voices in the world of Portuguese-North American Literature. And, at many Luso-related panels, panelists are predominantly male. Why do you think this is?

I think the issue of the low representation of females in literature is (sadly) a universal one as I argue in my aforementioned paper. Lately, I have read several articles that point to this widespread problem which just reinforces what I already felt and knew to be true. There are some editors, reviewers and publishers who seem to recognize this problem and are starting to do something about it. See, for example, the article, “Year of Reading Women” declared for 2014.

In terms of Portuguese-North American presses, I can’t say I know a lot about what they publish as in Canada we haven’t really had any around until recently with the appearance of Fidalgo Books, and I only recently became aware of the ones in the US. But I would say that the issue is similar to what happens with other presses, mainstream presses, that are not necessarily ethnically specific.

The male is perceived as the writer par excellence and the woman, even if she sends her work to publishers with the same frequency and writes equally well, will likely encounter many institutional gender barriers as I point out in my article.

Perhaps in this case the problem would also be exacerbated by the need that the ethnicized Portuguese-North-American male writer may have to affirm himself in a landscape that also discriminates against him, and so we could be seeing a hierarchy of discrimination here.

The so called ethnic male is discriminated against by the status quo, and then also has the need (whether consciously or unconsciously) to put forward his story more than hers in order to regain some recognition and power (and the status quo is already gender biased too). This type of phenomenon of the oppressed ‘oppressing’ an “other” oppressed perceived as less than him, was very common in colonial societies too, for example, as argued by Frantz Fanon in many of his works—and some say it is still common in racialized/ethnicized groups in North America and elsewhere. So I don’t think it is farfetched to suggest this hypothesis in the context of the Portuguese-North-American presses and literary panels. And of course, I would say, without hesitation, that the Portuguese have been and are still fairly patriarchal, which would surely also explain this phenomenon. Let’s face it: We learn culturally and it is not easy to exit that learning and to think critically about it.

circularincantationWhat term do you prefer: — Portuguese North-American, Portuguese-American, Luso, Hispanic, Latino/a? Portuguese Canadian, Portuguese-Canadian?

I prefer the term Portuguese-Canadian. In Canada, multiculturalism tends to be encouraged (at least in theory) and the various ethnicities tend to openly display their cultural backgrounds at least in large cities like Toronto or Vancouver — and so we often use the hyphenated term: Indo-Canadian, French-Canadian, Greek-Canadian, Aboriginal-Canadian, English-Canadian, African-Canadian, Ethiopian-Canadian, etc. This is not to say that there is no racism or discrimination or that there aren’t groups that continue to have more privileges or that may be perceived, in certain contexts, as “more” Canadian. I must say that the term Hispanic and Latino are not terms that we would ever use in Canada to refer to the Portuguese — those are very American matters and politics!

And we would never say Portuguese-American because we are Canadians. The term Portuguese North-American also sounds like something that I would hear in Portugal and which seems to conflate Americans with Canadians and we (Canadians) would not like that either! Luso-Canadian could be a variant for Portuguese-Canadian but it is a variant used by the Portuguese themselves (amongst themselves) or by the Portuguese in Portugal, not by the other Canadians who in most cases would not understand the term Luso, I would say.

As a child and adult, have you spent much time in Portugal?

I came to Canada from continental Portugal (Beira Alta region) at the age of 20 by myself under a nanny’s restricted work permit — and so I have very strong emotional and cultural ties with the country. I have no family members in Canada: I try to go Portugal at least once a year para matar saudades, as we say in Portuguese, and because my mother is aging, and I want to see her as much as I can before she dwells into other realms of beingness. Because my formative years were spent in Portugal, my writing is very much influenced by it and not just in terms of the themes related to ways of life there, like social class, gender issues, poverty, hard work on the land, the colonial wars in Africa and the Fascist regime, etc., but also in terms of the aesthetic guiding it.

What affect did this have on your writing?

My writing tends to be lyrical, poetic and philosophical, following what we may call magic-realist methods (I use that term loosely here), which were/are common in Portugal and Continental Europe and other continents like Latin America or Africa (I have read a lot of writers from these continents).

These literary strategies, I have found, are not very well received or sufficiently nourished in English Canada and the US as has been pointed out by other writers (see, for instance, “Writers attack ‘overrated’ Anglo-American literature at Jaipur festival).  In North America, the real, linear and what I call matter-of-fact writing predominates, which I think reflects what I see as an Anglo-Saxon ethic and aesthetic—and thus what falls outside of that is often dismissed as boring or even incomprehensible.

People seem to be losing the capacity to think and write in a language that evades the confines of a society that wants to measure everything in order to control it. But when we operate strictly from that view, we actually restrict our human capacity and ability to experience, understand and expand ourselves and the world around us. By taking such a narrow ontological and epistemological posture, we end up by eating ourselves up (to use a metaphor here). I always babble and rant about this: I don’t mean to be a parrot but repetition sometimes is the only way that we may be able to put across a message we deem important: água mole em pedra dura tanto bate até que fura, as the saying goes in Portuguese (water dropping day by day wears the hardest rock away).

TransnationalDiscourseWhat areas of scholarly research interest do you have?

I have a PhD in Comparative Literature and my areas of specialization and research interest tend to be African Literatures written in Portuguese, English and French, looking at issues such as colonization, gender, race, and syncretism in postcolonial societies. I am also interested in looking at the intersections between Western, Eastern and African traditions to gauge similarities between philosophies and cultures which may seem very different but may in fact share many commonalities. I have written about this in my book Transnational Discourses on Class, Gender and Cultural Identity.

Another project that I am trying to work on is what I have named The Patriarchies of Post-colonies: The study of how patriarchies in post-colonial African societies have reshaped themselves to display elements of African (read ‘precolonial’ in terms of European and Arab colonization) traditions, some of which are highly patriarchal, with Western elements and how that may relate to the need to affirm an African identity (different from Europe) in postcolonial states — and the dangers of such posture at least for the wellbeing of women. This project aims to become a full manuscript.

At the moment I also want do study and write about the prevalence of the Anglo-Saxon ethic and aesthetic in Canadian literature (as noted above) and speak out about it so that the Canadian literary scene may be more willing to allow “otherness” in and we can then consummate Canadian multiculturalism: make it more real!

Can you describe the landscape of Portuguese writing?

I think the landscape is heavily male-oriented as pointed earlier and has always been, which has created a homosocial national identity and substantial cultural female memory loss as suggested by Hillary Owen and Cláudia Pazos Alonso in Antigone’s Daughters?: Gender, Genealogy and the Politics of Authorship in 20th-Century Portuguese Women’s Writing. An article recently published in Público titled “M de Mérito ou M de Masculino?” (M for Merit or M for Masculine?) also points out how women have been consistently absent from the public space in Portugal. Despite having high qualifications (there are more women with PhD’s PerfectUnravelingcurrently than men for instance) they are seldom seen in political panels, public conferences, and many other public space arenas that impact public opinion formation and consequently the cultural memory/identity of the country.

The  country is also going through a strenuous economic crisis and so publishing new authors becomes very difficult and we see a plethora of books that are published by public famous figures because they sell well and not because of the particular insights of their content (and I don’t mean to sound elitist). Of course, that is a phenomenon common to many countries in today’s world of celebrities, visual appeal, fast life and money making.

There are many young Portuguese contemporary writers whom I admire and who are doing very well: José Luís Peixoto, Valter Hugo Mãe, Dulce Maria Cardoso, for instance. There are writers from African countries who write in Portuguese whom I admire a lot as well, like Mia Couto, José Eduardo Agualusa, Ana Paula Tavares and Paulina Chiziane.

What drew you to literature?

I knew, ever since I learned how to read and write in that primary school of Covas do Monte, with only one room for all the grades (1-4), that words and language were my beautiful home. I think writing allows me to explore my selfhood and to come to a better understand of the world and the universe. It is also a medium to readdress wrongs and rewrite stories that were incomplete or which have misrepresented certain groups throughout history. And most importantly, in the act of writing, I am able to find wonder and awe, to surprise myself. And there is nothing like being able to surprise yourself for life to continue to make sense…

What project are you currently working on?

I recently finished a novel in Portuguese that deals with the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa and the Fascist regime and one in English that deals with those topics as well but which is at the same time a fictional autobiographical work that addresses my experience emigrating to Canada in a creative manner: It is a multifaceted oeuvre with many layers of meaning and which deals with a multitude of issues. I have a poetry collection going on, as I always do, and a couple of fiction projects that are still very embryonic and still in my notebooks.


Irene Marques holds a PhD in Comparative Literature, a Masters in French Literature, a Masters in Comparative Literature and a Bachelor of Social Work. She is a bilingual writer (English and Portuguese), who has taught African and Caribbean literatures, comparative and world literature, literary theory, writing and rhetoric and Portuguese at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and the University of Toronto and currently teaches at York and Ryerson Universities. She is the author of a short story collection, Habitando na Metáfora do Tempo: Crónicas Desejadas (Dwelling in the Metaphor of Time: Desired Chronicles), as well as the poetry collections, Wearing Glasses of Water, The Perfect Unravelling of the Spirit and The Circular Incantation: An Exercise in Loss and Findings. Her novel, My House is a Mansion is forthcoming from Leaping Lion Books Press (York University).


(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), and Only More So. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming Foundation “Money for Woman.” She also organizes the literary series Kale Soup for the Soul: Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie


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