Paula Tavares was born in Lubango, Angola and lives in Lisbon where she teaches History at the Universidade Católica. She has published two books of poetry, Ritos de Passagem, 1985 and O lago da Lua, 1999 as well as a book of prose, O Sangue das Buganvílias, 1998, chronicles from her a weekly column in a daily newspaper.
paulo da costa spoke to Paula Tavares on a warm November afternoon. We sat on a wooden bench by the Tagus River as ferries raced the gulls and shuttled people from downtown Lisbon to their dormitory communities along or across the estuary.
paulo da costa: Your interest in the state of affairs of Angolan women, already visible in your first book of poems, Ritos de Passagem, continues fourteen years later on the pages of O Lago da Lua. After this journey of almost a decade and a half what are the changes you observe in the status of women as well as in your own poetic treatment of the subject?
Paula Tavares: Fourteen years later, in regards to the women’s conditions, and regretfully, I see a state of affairs which has worsened terribly. It is strange to use the word worsened because it already was a terrible situation. During these last years the war spread and deteriorated the condition of all Angolans, in particular of the women and children. And in every possible way transformed Angola in large urban centers of displaced people – except for well-defined minorities – people now living wherever the war has tossed them.
This dislocation carries a shift of patterns, the necessity of adaptation to new spaces, leaving behind the origins and encountering an absence of time to devote to the sacred spaces as well as an absence of those traditional sacred places. That all changed. Regarding my poetry I don’t feel it has changed significantly. People age, become inward looking. My gaze to the world has turned inward. There is more silence, a dialog with that silence you might say.
PDC: Could one claim that post-colonial Angolan poetry has a defined thematic concern?
PT: No. I think each poet found and defined its relationship with the word and established a territory. The themes are also varied. Although I do find a common tendency or preoccupation to find ways to break away from the preceding generations. An attempt to find its own voice, at times isolated, and attempting, – either successfully or less successfully – not to be at the service of a specific cause or a special interest, and instead to serve what is found by the poet, a discovered or rediscovered word. The shift in engagement – which beforehand lied on a cause, a people, the construction of a country – became a commitment to the individual, the citizen, everyday life, and to survival.
PDC: How do you see the place of a poet in a war torn country?
PT: A difficult one. To say I believe that a poet in a country at war should do such or such is not possible. What I think is that the fact that in face of war one still creates poetry, that under excruciating circumstances one still finds a space for the word, that is a true miracle.
pdc: Although you reside in Europe, your poems are rooted in the African Angolan experience and not in the growing experience of Angolan European immigration such as the one in Lisbon. Was this a conscious focus?
PT: Until now yes. It is an issue of fear. When one loses contact with an experience and a reality one becomes less able to describe and portray it. I have that fear in relation to the Angolan people of the so called diaspora. It is a problem towards which I pay attention and feel concern but so far I have made a conscious choice not to write it.
Instead, I have a continuous desire to write about Angola because I believe there are still many undiscovered worlds by the word, as well as worlds to be reinvented by them. There is a danger to lose a memory, a history, because the war destroys everything.
It is around this memory that I lately circle despite not seeing myself as a woman of memories only. I am alive and therefore there is a life that unfolds around me and to which I am not indifferent. I cannot guess what I’ll write tomorrow. It could be from the place of an Angolan who is living in the Lisbon community…
pdc: It seems that the literature coming out of Africa or from African authors speaks in the tongues of the colonizing languages, be it French, English, Portuguese. Angola is not an exception. Do you se the possibility of indigenous languages such as Quimbundo, Umbundo, Banto and others to enter the Angolan literature as voices of national expression and to be seen and heard beyond those borders?
PT: There is an oral poetic and narrative tradition in the indigenous languages. Some of that poetry – which is already our heritage – has been fixed by the written language and translated to the Portuguese. Some writers and poets, whom I know, find other ways to continue the proposals of those traditions in their work. I like to place myself among that group. First, one must deeply know that heritage and that work before recreating that oral tradition in the tongue in which they are fluent, the Portuguese.
The issue of the absence of an autonomous literature in indigenous languages results, I think, from the inexistence of schooling in indigenous tongues – or if those schools exist they are not significant in numbers. After our independence the number of Portuguese speakers in Angola increased. The books are in Portuguese, the school is taught in Portuguese and naturally our literature emerged in Portuguese. If there would be a language policy development based on a different foundation it’s obvious that I could not predict what our literature would look like in twenty, thirty years.
It’s not an issue for me to express myself in Portuguese. I consider Portuguese my mother tongue. I feel a special connection to some of the indigenous tongues around the area where I was born and I will be sad if nothing is done and we will end up losing that linguistic heritage. That risk is real. I do not believe that the omnipresence of Portuguese tongue will impede the indigenous languages from developing. The Portuguese language has its place and will continue for many more years, although something should be done to save the indigenous languages at risk.