Realms of invention
Julián Fuks was born in Brazil to parents who fled the Argentinian junta in the 1970s. Like his mentor Mia Couto, he writes in Portuguese. Much of his fiction - which includes three novels and a collection of short stories - draws on his own family history, including the story The Dinner, which appeared in Granta in an English translation by Johnny Lorenz in 2011. In a cafe in his neighbourhood of Pinheiros, a bohemian district of São Paulo favoured by writers and artists, Fuks speaks (in excellent English) to the cultural journalist and critic Maya Jaggi about the mentoring year so far.
When did you first read Mia Couto, and what was it like to encounter him in the flesh?
It’s curious: I read him in my first year studying journalism, to understand more about African and Mozambican history, and to see how literature could try to capture something real. But what enchanted me was his poetic language. He says he’s trying to lose that poetic voice. It’s strange, because when I knew I would work with him, I thought maybe I could try to be more poetic in my writing. So we’re crossing ways. When I met him in Mozambique, he was so open, our dialogue was very natural from the beginning.
Mia was also born to parents who had fled from elsewhere - his parents left the dictatorship in Portugal for Mozambique. How did you come to be born in Brazil, and do you think you and Mia share an inherited exile?
That’s interesting. For a while I’ve been asking myself if exile was part of my identity, and whether I inherited my parents’ exile, or whether I was simply a Brazilian who had this history to cope with. But it leaves marks on you. A colleague of my mother’s in Argentina was kidnapped by military. He reappeared a month later and said, ‘you’re next’. So my parents left the same night and came to Brazil. In 1988 they decided to go back and try to recover something they’d lost, but it was a tense moment in Argentina, between exiles who were treated as deserters, and people who had stayed and were maybe accomplices. So my parents came back to Brazil. I feel myself attached to Argentina, and think about the country’s history as in a way my own. I’ve never thought till now that Mia and I have that in common, but perhaps we do. One thing I most admire in his work is the way he lets his characters’ personal stories be influenced by the history of the country - how the personal, social and political intermingle. This is something I intend to do too.
In The Dinner you talk about the protagonist, Sebastian, avoiding the nasal vowels of Portuguese for the ‘proper music of Spanish’. What is Brazilian Portuguese to you, and what do you hope to gain from a Portuguese-language writer from Mozambique?
Because Portuguese was never exactly my mother tongue, and I first learned to write in Spanish, I always approach Portuguese with a feeling of strangeness. It’s interesting to be working with someone who writes in the same language but in another register, so this estrangement is again present. We’re influenced by other languages: African languages are very present in Mia’s work, while Brazil has its own indigenous roots. Sometimes we talk about the way they use a word in Mozambique and here in Brazil, and how it’s different in Portugal as well. You get another consciousness about your own language, and this is very productive because writing is about choosing words.
You often trawl family history, but you’ve said your most recent novel, A resistência (Resistance, 2015), is also your most personal. In what way?
It was a story of adoption. My parents lived in Argentina till 1977, and my mother was having trouble getting pregnant, so they decided to adopt. Having a child was a form of resistance; of not accepting that a military regime would interrupt everything. But a few months after they adopted my elder brother, they had to go into exile. After the end of the dictatorship, people discovered 30,000 people had disappeared. If the women were pregnant, they waited for the baby to be born then killed the mothers. So there were stories about 500 children kidnapped, and many given to families who supported the military regime. Although it was unlikely my brother was from one of these women, you can never be sure. My brother asked me to write about it after we had family therapy. I used the stories my parents had told us of their militancy and exile. They suffered reading it, but after a while it was very positive for us.
Do you hope mentoring will help you change tack from strongly autobiographical fiction?
With Resistance I experienced something strange: I was unable to invent. It’s fiction, but there’s nothing really made up. I want to go further in inventing stories and making up characters. Mia does that incredibly well. In his books, fantasy is very important - it’s almost magical realism, though he doesn’t like people to say that. My idea is to let him influence me, to give fiction a bigger part in my work and not be so attached to reality. After Resistance I decided to do literature with a more open mind. It was very opportune to be with Mia in that moment. If it were five years ago, maybe I wouldn’t be so interested. Now I am.