By Millicent Borges Accardi
Writer João Melo was born in Luanda, Angola. His work has been translated into English, French, German, Arabic, and Chinese. A jack of all trades, he has had a wide variety of jobs including writer, press correspondent, journalist, communication consultant and professor. Besides Angola, he has lived in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Lisbon (Portugal), and Houston (Texas). Currently, he is finishing up his first novel, that will be launched in Portuguese at the end of 2021. His short fiction has appeared in Words Without Borders, Catamaran Literary Reader, Chicago Quarterly Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Olongo Africa, and Shallow Tales Magazine. In 2009, he was awarded the 2009 Angola Arts and Culture National Prize in the literature category.
His poetry books include; Definição (1985); Fabulema (1986); Poemas Angolanos (1989); A Luz Mínima (2004); Todas as Palavras (2006); Novos Poemas de Amor (2009); Cântico da Terra e dos Homens (2010); Amor (2015); Polis, Poesis (2016). His published short stories include: Imitação de Sartre e Simone de Beauvoir (1998); Filhos da Pátria (2001); O Dia em que o Pato Donald comeu pela primeira vez a Margarida (2006); O Homem Que Não Tira o Palito da Boca (2009); Os Marginais e outros contos (2013); O Dia em que Charles Bossangwa chegou à América (2020).
In this interview with Millicent Borges Accardi, João Melo speaks of his journey from colonial Angola to citizen of the world and Lusophone writer. The interview was conducted in a bilingual Portuguese-English setting, facilitated by Luisa Alvim.
Q: You are from Angola. How has that shaped your creative work?
A: The places to which we belong, as well as the historical background in which we exist and the experiences we have lived, be they individual or collective, always leave their mark on the tales we tell—even when we try to escape them…
As you know, Angola is an African country that, having been colonized for five centuries, achieved independence about 46 years ago. Angolan post-independence history is also full of salient facts, such as the external invasions it faced, the civil war that it endured, the failed attempt at imposition of socialism, the advent of democracy, among others. The fact that I am an Angolan, and that I have lived the greater part of my life in Angola, is indelibly imprinted in my literature. Besides, I come from a family of nationalists, some members of which, such as my father, were active participants in the History of my country.
I, myself, was involved until recently in Angolan politics, a perch that allowed me to observe how the Establishment functions. Thus, this experience allows me to criticize the way the political system works and the behavior of the Angolan elites, which I have mostly treated in my fiction. On the other hand, Angola, as the history of the Atlantic proves, is a country connected to the world since many centuries, and Angolans contributed to the creation of several other nations including the United States (did you know that there are vestiges of the Angolan presence in Jamestown?).
Additionally, and finally, humanity is currently experiencing a globalization process which Angola cannot escape. Therefore, my “international” experience, so to speak, which no human being can avoid nowadays is also reflected in my literature. However, I must say that our experiences, as extraordinary as they may be, aren’t enough to make literature happen. As we know, Literature is Language. As such, I endeavor both in my poetry and my fiction to produce literature above all. But not “neutral” literature, something I don’t absolutely believe in.
Q: Can you describe your childhood in Angola?
A: I had a normal childhood, albeit the historical circumstances of the environment into which I was born and raised. My father, who was persecuted by the Portuguese colonial authorities, left us when I was six years old to join the nationalists who fought with arms for the independence of Angola.
For some time, my brother and I lived with our mother at her parents’ house where our uncles also lived. Two of them were also nationalists while simultaneously being themselves writers and artists. These uncles of mine were very present in my life, except during the periods they spent in Portuguese prisons. These experiences could not but shape me in different ways.
Later, my mother re-married and we went to live in a neighborhood, mostly inhabited by government employees, where I resided until the age of 15. My step-father, who was a learned and well-read man, even if strict, also contributed to my love of reading. Consequently, I can say that as a child I was always surrounded by books and cultural references in general.
On the other hand, I also remember the hushed conversations that the older people (uncles, cousins, etc.) would have about the political situation in Angola, at the time still under the yoke of the Portuguese. When I reached adolescence, the same type of conversations also started happening amongst us young ones as we attended the secondary education schools. I find it curious that these reminiscences are coming back to me, with perfect clarity and frequency.
Q: When and how did you first start writing?
A: I started writing in 1970 when I was 15 years old. Poetry, of course. It all happened after I took a train trip to Luanda, the capital, and the city of Malanje, about 400 kilometers northwest bound, where I went to spend my first vacation with my paternal grandmother. I really don’t have a rational explanation for this—the truth is that the landscapes I traveled through during this trip really made such an impression on me that when I returned home, I started to write non-stop. Luckily for my readers, all that I wrote at that age ended up in the garbage can, except for one poem which has survived to this day.
Q: Your poem, ”Lorna Breen” is featured in the latest issue of Gávea-Brown about one of the COVID-19 pioneer doctors. How did you come to write this tribute to her?
A: Humanity is interconnected—it’s the globalization phenomenon. It so happens that listening to the international news, I found out what had happened with this American doctor and I was so touched that, suddenly, I saw myself in front of a sheet of paper writing that poem. It gushed out of me.
I want to say that, for several years I practically wrote only fiction but, in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt compelled to return to poetry. I did, and so feverishly that I finished a new book after many years. It’s called the Diary of Fear (Diário do Medo) and it should be published this year in Portuguese. The poem for Lorna Breen is included in it. For me, all this shows how poetry is something visceral and essential. Poetry may be our last salvation option.
Q: So much of the writing in Lusophone countries is not translated into English, nor does it appear in the US. Why do you think this is? What can we do about it? To build a bridge?
A: It is a hard question to answer. Competition is brutal. There are many folks writing all over the world, and in many languages, but those who write in English possess a great advantage as English is the global dominant language. For example, the increasing international interest in African literatures is being propelled by the boom in Nigerian literature.
The anglophone publishing houses would have a lot to gain, I believe, if they researched and betted more on the various literatures in the Portuguese Language—after all it’s the sixth most spoken idiom in the world, covering a multi-geographic and multi-cultural reality, as vast as the English language hegemony. Remember that Portuguese is a language spoken in all five continents. I have no doubts: Harold Bloom’s astonishment when he read the works of Saramago or the wonder that the North-American critics experienced recently when re-discovering Machado de Assis, can be repeated if other Portuguese language authors, including African authors, are translated and published in English.
Q: Have you translated your own work into English? And have you translated fiction or poetry from English into Portuguese?
A: Not really one nor the other. In terms of fiction, I work mostly with the great American translator, Clifford E. Landers, known for his translations of Brazilian authors. He organized one of my short-story books and translated the title as And Suddenly the Flowers Withered.
He is currently looking for an anglophone publisher. In the meantime, some short stories were published in the USA in several literary sites and magazines, such as Words Without Borders, Catamaran Literary Reader, Chicago Quarterly Review and the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
In terms of poetry, I have very few works translated into English. The poem “Lorna Breen,” published in the Gávea-Brown magazine was translated by Greice Holleran. A beautiful translation! The American poet and translator Indran Amirthanaygam, born in Sri Lanka (where there are vestiges of the Portuguese idiom…) also translated some of my poems, read in his poetry YouTube channel. But I’m excited about the possibility that any of them would translate more of my poetry.
Q: What are some of the literary journals who are publishing Lusophone works in Portugal and other Lusophone countries, like Angola?
A: I do not know what that reality looks like for all the countries of Portuguese expression. However, I can say that Brazil is the country with the largest number of literary supplements, newspapers and magazines currently in existence.
In Portugal, the best known and most resilient is Jornal de Letras, a biweekly publication; I can also mention the poetry magazine Nervo. In Angola, there’s only one: The Lavra & Oficina Gazette, published by the Union of Angolan Authors (União de Escritores Angolanos). Recently, a series of literary blogs, web and digital magazines for the Portuguese Language has appeared.
Q: Do you think that writing is a process of unmaking and remaking?
A: Without a doubt. Since its advent, literature in general deals with a series of fundamental themes common to mankind, such as love, hate, joy, sadness, anger, despair, hope, escape, resistance, struggle, among others. Looking at it more specifically, the writing process itself is somewhat of a constant reformulation. Thusly, the recourse to intertextuality, the dialogue between levels of language, parody and others, which in our post-modernism time has been taken to an extreme. Finally, I believe that authors, some more than others, constantly revise their own works. Lately, and after 50 years of literary activity I, myself, have been involved in revising and reorganizing my poetry. I will be doing the same with my short stories.
Q: In what way does art have the potential to heal society?
A: I have been more optimistic about it in the past. Nowadays, I believe that art can either cure the ills of society or aggravate them. The state of disinformation, fake news, the revisionist theories, the digital manipulation and other expressed manifestations and procedures are extremely worrying.
Q: How do you feel literature can address inequality and violence?
A: Even if literature cannot on its own change the world, it must, in my opinion reflect and denounce violence and inequality, which have in the last four decades exponentially increased with neoliberalism and tend to aggravate with the expansion of the extreme-right all over the world. Good literature must take us out of our comfort zone. But we must be careful not to feed polarization tendencies, new tribalism or defining excesses—in short, the “politically correct apartheid.” Another obvious concern is that it must still be literature i.e., not turn into an essay, manifesto or, even worse, a mere pamphlet.
Q: Where, when, and how often do you write? Is it a formal or organic process?
A: I’ve never been an organized writer. Before retiring from public life, I used to write occasionally and not with a specific rhythm—I would have more productive periods at times and at other times I practically did not write at all. Although I have in the past written poetry at a bar table, I mostly always wrote at home. Now that I am exclusively dedicated to writing, I have the time and conditions to write for longer periods of time, and also in a more organized fashion. But I am still looking for a routine—I have many ideas and plans, but I need to establish a routine to achieve them.
Q: Which Angolan artist or writer, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
A: There are three Angolan artistic expressions that deserve a greater global recognition: music, literature and the visual arts. I want to name three names representing each one of these arenas: Waldemar Bastos (musician), unfortunately deceased in 2020; Luandino Vieira (writer), a fundamental author who revolutionized the use of the Portuguese language in literature, articulating it innovatively with the African languages spoken in Angola, who I have been saying for a long time, and without fear, deserves the Nobel prize for Literature; and António Ole (visual artist). However, there are many others in these and other artistic domains.
Q: What draws you to the work of Mozambican, Mia Couto?
A: The dialogue between modernity and the African traditions, the recreation of the Portuguese language and his poetic expression.
Q: Can you describe the attitudes and themes that other Angolan writers are exploring?
A: Angolan literature is mostly urban (after all, the country’s urbanization rate exceeds 60% of the population) and from Luanda. It deals with a series of themes, such as the memory of our colonial past, the post-independence era, the question of identity, the utopic failures, the criticism of the contemporary elites and of the current government, common themes to several authors. The redemption of the pre-colonial history and of its “heroes” is starting to be a focus for some authors.
Given that the great majority of the population is young, the younger authors tend to write about their own experiences and problems which are similar to the problems of all other young people all over the world. Themes such as ecology, homosexual relationships and other themes are starting to also surface in their writing.
Q: How does your work differ (in theme and subject matter) with work by writers from other Lusophone countries?
A: I’m not comfortable talking about myself in those terms. As a poet, I inherited a traditional Angolan poetic lineage, with a strong social bend but I think I have contributed equally to its aesthetic renewal by introducing eroticism and experimentalism. As a fiction writer, I believe that humor in all its variants will make a difference. Actually, for me humor is a kind of cosmovision, a way of understanding and, above all, a way of dealing with human misery.
By the way, I always remember the saying of a great African writer that posited that for us Africans, humor is a form of resistance… Another difference would be the narrative style, openly post-modern, using techniques such as the dialogue between different levels of language, pastiche, interrupted narration, the multiple or open-ended outcomes and the explicit intervention of the narrator (and even sometimes the Author’s), it all resulting in an unexpected construct.
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Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of two full-length poetry collections, most recently, Only More So (Salmon Poetry 2016). She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Barbara Deming, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD. Her over 50 reviews and interviews have appeared in publications such as Another Chicago Magazine, Portuguese American Journal, and AWP Writers’ Chronicle. Find her @TopangaHippie (Twitter and IG).