Lisbon Conversation: Part III
Jelly Bucket speaks with BGWS MFA Graduate Assistant Ellen Mitchell about her 2017 Summer Residency in Lisbon, Portugal
Q. So can you tell us a little about the balance of work and play during the Lisbon residency?
A. The Disquiet program lasts two full weeks, and includes a Saturday excursion mid-way through. Classes are held in the Cultural Center, right near the neighborhood metro stop. The weekly schedule is organized around a central Monday/Wednesday/Friday genre workshop, held 10AM-noon. Additional elective workshops are held Tuesday/Thursday mornings. Participants are free from noon until 2PM. The afternoons include two rounds of readings, professional panel discussions, and literary interviews, with a long break between each. Evenings include guided walks to several scenic lookout points around the historic city, followed by suggested restaurants and wine bars to close out the evening. It is a very full, well-paced schedule. There were also two supportive open-mic events.
Our third week, led by EKU faculty member Carter Sickles, was less hectic. We had class every day, and afternoons free to tour the area and write.
Q. What were some of your favorite highlights among the extra-curricular Disquiet offerings?
A. Well, I’ll begin with one event that took me by surprise. I almost skipped it, because I was feeling oversaturated, and because it was held in a former political prison. I just didn’t know if I felt like spending two hours in a place of such sadness. The building dates from Roman times, and is called the Aljube, which in Arabic means “a well without water.” It looks like a fortress, and I milled around outside it while everyone was filing in, a bit reluctant to go inside. The place first served as a women’s prison, then as a prison for political and social detainees, and finally was a private prison of the political police (who actively tortured citizens during the Salazar dictatorship). Ironically, it offers spectacular views of the Tagus river, and there are these vistas of freedom visible through narrow stone windows and from the balconies of the upper floors.
Today the Aljube is a museum dedicated to resistance and freedom, honoring the fight against fascism and authoritarianism. The museum interior is very modern, without losing the feel of the original purpose (lots of dark, exposed stone).
So, the Disquiet International Literary Program organized a panel discussion on Literature under Authoritarianism there in the Aljube. We all filed in and found a seat in a conference room on the top floor of historic monument. The panel featured Molly Antopol, and two prominent Portuguese writers, Alexandra Lucas Coelho and Teolinda Gersao, who represent two generations of writers, the one that came of age under the dictatorship, and the following generation, born around the time it ended, in 1974. Ms. Gersao is of the older generation, and Ms. Coelho is of the younger. The topic of discussion turned to Portugal’s history in the slave trade. We learned that more than 6.5 million West Africans were shipped through Lisbon to the Americas, where they were sold as slaves. This is a number that most Portuguese are only recently beginning to be aware of, as the propaganda under the dictatorship repressed and diminished Portuguese involvement in the slave trade. What was so interesting during the panel was to see how these two writers held very different opinions on how to discuss and remember this past. Ms. Gersao expressed a need to “move on,” while Ms. Coelho respectfully disagreed in very clear terms, insisting that Portuguese society needed to confront and accept its past and take responsibility for it. The talk was very open and cordial, but the difference of opinions was quite real, I found it very powerful to see another Western culture grappling with its past while we in the US are struggling with the issue of racism and racially-based violence under a presidential regime that embraces authoritarian rhetoric and action. I left with the feeling that writers have a very real role to play in expressing the voice and conscience of our respective generations.
Q. Were there any other surprises in the Disquiet cultural offerings?
A. Yes, it was like a banquet of discovery. We attended a reading by best-selling author and heavy metal rock star José Luís Peixoto* (who knew?). He graciously presented his remarks in English, and then read some of his poetry translated into English. One of my favorite quotes of his is “Lisbon is careful imprefection. Lisbon is the sky reflected.” He was joined on stage by American author Shane Hinton, who read one of the funniest stories I have every heard, from his collection Pinkies. They shared the stage very well together, both cracking jokes about their home towns.
We also got to hear BGWS professor Carter Sickels read from his upcoming novel, which was just beautiful to hear; for me these excerpts offered some of the most vivid and poignant images of the whole summer. There is a realism and a control in the voice that appeals to me very much, and which inspire me toward these qualities in my own work. And the venue was great, the Livraria Ferrin, which has been in the same family for five generations.
The line-up was just very impressive, and the venues were these historic bookshops that have been in operation for generations, in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Lisbon. For example, we heard Robert Olmstead read with Denise Duhamel,* which was especially fun because they are also domestic partners and fielded questions on the challenges of coupledom as writers. We were also treated to readings by Maaza Mengiste, Katherine Vaz, Jensen Beach, Susana Moreira Marquez, among others; it was just phenomenal, non-stop quality in an amazing setting. There was so much, I wasn’t able to make it to absolutely everything. For example, I regretted missing Katherine Vaz, whose short stories I so enjoyed discovering this summer in Carter’s class. It was wonderful reading a Portuguese-American author. I made an offering of my copy of her book to the Conchas Little Free Library in the neighborhood park near my AirB&B so other visitors can discover her work, too.
Q. You mentioned a mid-program excursion. What was that like?
A. We were treated to a seaside excursion to Cascais by train. The weather was gorgeous, and it was great to walk along the shore and be in a smaller town for the day. The highlight of the trip was a guided visit to a museum dedicated to visual artist Paula Rego (where we were also treated to a lovely, multi-course lunch). Her work is very narrative in that every painting depicts a story or narrative in some way. She is very well known in Portugal, and was invited to choose the architect to build her museum. Part of her studio is recreated there in the museum, and her work has a dark, fairytale quality I like very much. It’s very psychological art, very focused on the psyche and on childhood and femininity. The Lisbon residency was full of unexpected creative surprises for me, and perhaps the most enchanting was turning around in the metro station and seeing one of her paintings recreated there, larger than life, right in front of me. It caught me by surprise. You may recall the Blue Fairy from the Pinocchio fairy tale has the power to turn puppets into real boys, to transform what is fiction into reality, which is also a theme in my creative work. I found myself standing there, laughing to myself, thinking, “Of course this just happened. I’m in Lisbon!”
Published on September 26, 2017