At Home in Two Cultures
A citizen of the world examines his multicultural identity paulo da costa, in conversation with Fernanda Viveiros
In the words of Saint Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” It could be said that writer paulo da costa has read many pages since immigrating to Canada in the late 1980s. Born in Luanda, Angola, and raised in Portugal, paulo has traveled throughout Europe and Brazil, lived in Calgary and on Cortes Island, and recently touched down in Silverton, a tiny hamlet in the Kootenay mountains. Now settled in Victoria, he is preparing to leave for a month-long stay in Portugal where he will launch his new book of poems, notas-de-rodapé, in Lisbon. He sat down long enough to participate in this interview for WordWorks, conducted via email.
You grew up in Portugal and moved to Canada as a young man. Do you self-identify as an ethnic or immigrant
writer or do you consider yourself fully integrated into the mainstream Canadian community?
My linguistic and cultural multiplicity is part of my complexity and richness as a human being as well as a writer.
It distinguishes me from many other writers but it is not the sole and defining aspect of my identity as a writer.
I do not emphasize it. It has its cherished space among other aspects that form my multifaceted identity. I carry my multicultural identity yet it is not something that makes me self-conscious or places me in a particular slot on the Canadian literary map. It is an accent of being, and as with a speech accent it reveals that one’s origins are from the margins, and margins can be from here or from beyond. Although I am a Luso-Canadian writer, I am also much more than that.
You refer to yourself as a Luso-Canadian or Portuguese-Canadian writer and yet you chafe against the use of the term “ethnic writer.” Why?
The word ethnic is another sanitized word the dominant group in a society uses to say the other does not belong. We do not see the word ethnic used to describe a person of British or German ancestry, a Québécois or an Australian writer in Canada. We are all ethnic in my Canada. Everyone inhabits more than one culture, and cultures do overlap.
And even within a dominant culture we inhabit many other sub-cultures. Ultimately we are all simply immersed in assorted ranges of cultural diversity and touched by varied degrees of intensity or commitment to that diversity, be it in the different cuisines we incorporate in our diets, the music we listen to, the foreign words we absorb or the number of languages we cultivate. Ethnic labelling, or any other labelling of course, isolates a particular element or characteristic of a whole and proposes to define and identify its entirety—a work, an identity—on the basis of a single and isolated element.
It highlights the difference and converts it into an exotic characteristic, perhaps lending it more than its due space within the page, the image, the work or the identity. Could ethnic be another word to distinguish the shades of one’s skin?
After all I have heard ethnic writing identified as writing that is more colourful. Ultimately, it subverts the entire point of view of the speaker. The voice is always that of “the other.” I fear that such labelling might box and constrain the fluidity inherent in the complexity of any narrative—the narrative of one’s identity or the narrative of one’s work. I also regret that the ethnic ingredient alone will define or catalogue one’s entire work.
What are some of the challenges facing immigrant writers?
I view the challenge of the fusion writer as one where we must be vigilant of the acculturation by the dominant culture while preserving our sense of difference, writing from that edge beyond the cultural and linguistic mainstream.
I would not want to wake up one day and find out I have lost my accent, my quirkiness, or stopped taking risks,stopped pushing at those edges.
How does the knowledge of a second language affect your writing?
A mother tongue impresses its structure upon the mind and the heart of its speakers. By moving away from the imprint of my mother tongue and cultivating several linguistic imprints I stretch my field of vision. Each language is a lens through which I view and apprehend reality. Experiences and feelings are translated through such particular systems of symbols. Naturally each language carries limitations and strengths as it favours distinct perspectives of humanity and of the world around me. The Greeks have four words to describe and distinguish the different feelings of love, the Persians have eighty. In English we have one word that is equally applied for the love of pizza as for the love of a sister. Writing in a second language I feel freer from its rules and limitations. A native speaker absorbs a language’s inherent syntax and semantics by osmosis. One’s relationship to its mechanics and foundations is often an unconscious one. Second language speakers enter the language from both directions, consciously and unconsciously.
Do you ever feel pressured to portray your ethnicity in a positive or romanticized light?
Romanticism or discrimination comes with the territory of a life that cultivates difference. People will relate to me from such angles. Some will feel threatened and some will be curious. Some might feel neutral. I relate to myself from all those angles too. I try to maintain a balance in relation to self and others whereby I acknowledge and praise the differences while not falling into the distortions that come from embracing an either/or position.
My cultural multiplicity just is. It helps that my creative process does not concern itself with what the outside world might think or how it might respond to my writing. Writing is a personal exploration where people might choose to join me in the different legs of such a journey or not. I do not include commercial concerns in my creative process.
I follow my heart so I do not feel pressures in relation to portraying my ethnicity in any particular light.
Can one’s ethnic identity limit a writer’s ability to write about Canadian settings and Anglo characters?
I believe the richness of imagination and the depths of empathy are the artist’s most important tools, enabling writers to approach any subject, character or situation with insight while delivering a few kernels of truth. We can all recog nize pain, joy, jealousy, and exploitation in any geographical or cultural context. A courageous writer can bring both the reader and the writer to places previously unknown to both. Like an outstanding actor, an outstanding writer is able to shape-shift into anything convincingly. I don’t have to be a horse to be able to draw a horse. In fact I prefer to write about what I don’t know and learn through my research, learn the possible depths of our humanness through my characters.
The stories in your book, The Scent of a Lie, are all set in Portugal. Do you feel more comfortable writing about your childhood home as opposed to writing about your adopted country?
I feel comfortable setting my writing anywhere in the world. It just happens that my only published book to date
takes place in Portugal. I have other manuscripts of fiction where the stories unfold in Canada, Africa and elsewhere.
My novel-in-progress grew out of Brazil even before I had set foot in that country. On the other hand my poetry is strongly rooted in Canada. I feel that I am a citizen of the world and the world is my subject matter and my playground.
Henry Miller recommended that writers live abroad, because their native language suddenly becomes precious to them. Is this true for you as well?
While growing up in Europe I only wrote in Portuguese and I felt constrained in my approach to writing. Now, feeling linguistically ambidextrous, I have learned to take my new risk-taking, playful mind—cultivated in my relationship to the English—and apply it to my mother tongue. Now my Portuguese writing shows more vitality and playfulness than when I first began writing from within its invisible constraints. I can now work simultaneously on projects in either English or Portuguese shifting easily from one language to another. Distance shifts the perspective of one’s relationship to any object. I feed my cultural multiplicity by spending time in Portugal and in Canada—as well as other countries.
In that way I do not let the longing for either Portugal or Canada grow in the space left by the vacuum of distance.
Distortion grows from that vacuum. I travel that space continuously and I inhabit both cultures.
a foot in two worlds
on south terraced slopes
vineyards rose in awnings of foliage
feet lifted me up ten-foot ladders
through green nearer the divine
fingers easily pinched the dangling blue
thirsty skin touched every soft fruit of the earth
but not tin or plastic
heels digging into grapes it was love
stomping through the eve in granite vats
tannin tingling skin before bed
before blowing out the candle
the blood of christ on my lips then hers
— paulo da costa