He is an Angola-born Portuguese writer, that has lived in Lisbon, Macau, London, Amsterdam and, now, Tokyo. Despite his international background, Ricardo Adolfo writes mostly about a very Portuguese topic: the suburbs in the capital city, Lisbon. Still, he believes that, if he hadn’t left Portugal, he wouldn’t have started writing fiction, as it came from the need to be closer to his home country.
He has never thought on writing about Macau, even though today he recognises the potential — it is much more fascinating today than 30 years ago. In fact, he believes Chinese learning Portuguese in the territory might have a voice “waiting to be heard”, revealing an interesting usage of the language.
His latest book, Tokyo Leaves Far Away from Earth, is a new challenge, as the action is set in Japan, away from the reality he knows best, risking to fall into “Asia’s trap for those who come from outside”.
By Luciana Leitão
You’re back to Macau. Are you back home?
I’ve come back to one of my homes. When you’re an emigrant, we leave homes around — it’s almost as if you’re setting piles and I have here one, with a huge tenderness. Macau — or Taipa, which is where I lived — was part of an idyllic childhood.
Somehow, did those childhood years in Macau leave an impression, as a writer?
They did, but not in terms of writing. I mostly write about the suburbs in Lisbon, which is where I grew up and where most of my characters come from. But it was a place that left an impression that will last forever — I loved this place and the experience I had here has always connected me to Asia. And, if at this point in life I live in Asia [Japan], in part it is because I have such a nice memory of living here [Macau], in the beginning of my life.
Would you imagine writing something about Macau?
I never thought about it. Macau is a distant memory, almost as if something precious from your past, but that it is not part of my daily life — I do not have family here, I do not have a connection here that makes it a part of my concerns. To write about Macau, I would have to come here, and spend a period of time, to understand how it is.
Is it fundamental to know a place to write about it?
I don’t think so. I believe you can write about a place, without ever being there. It depends on what you are writing — ignorance can be as fruitful as wisdom, if that is the experience you want to have. If you want to work on the story from a certain angle and you need some information, obviously research is very precious, because it is half of the story. I don’t need to imagine it. Now, when some writers and directors say they don’t need to go to [for example] the United States — [director] Lars Von Trier did that a couple of years ago and I believe he said he had never been there. I don’t think his point of view is inferior; it is just different.
Why do you write mostly about the suburbs of Lisbon?
It’s not because of the place itself — places are always poor without people. The thing that all my characters have in common is that they are all from the suburbs, they’re all low lives, they’re all from the working class, they’re all trying to fight for the most basic needs in the western world, which is to have a job, a home and a life at least healthy.
I also grew up in the suburbs — and if there are years that leave an impression forever, my years were in this environment, with these daily tragedies that you believe are the most important ones. When I started writing — which was late —, these were the characters that I felt more connected to. It was never a very conscious exercise, it was more about the need and to be able to work these characters that I know so well and that I believe are much richer — they have dilemmas and problems that also need to have space in the Portuguese literature. I believe these [characters] have been a bit forgotten — two generations behind, they were more often; and now, maybe, fortunately, they are coming back. I am not the only one working on the suburbs. These characters have also helped me to work with the language in a different way, because they have a way of expression very unique and they have a certain freedom or ignorance or impudence towards the language, which I find fascinating. In writing, that helps to pervert it. It is an exercise I’m constantly doing — I work the language, which is how these voices can be more authentic, how they can help me as a writer —, which is taking the language somewhere else.
And subvert the rules?
Or give it [the language] others… I don’t know… There are certain basic rules that you cannot escape; and I don’t have the presumption of reinventing something, but I like that words are not so serious — or that they don’t take themselves too serious. When I lost my fear tof words, which took a while — our education is too ceremonious in what concerns the written word — I realised the potential could be infinite. That is something usual in my books.
When did you loose your fear of words?
When I started working in advertisement. As in journalism, in advertisement you have to write, even if you don’t want to. You have deadlines and they are merciless; you start controlling the technical part and you start gaining speed and, when you realise, you are using words as someone uses a hammer. From the moment you lose the fear of the hammer, that gives you confidence — in my case, it helps to steal something that is perceived as more informal and popular and try to turn it into something more literary — that’s how we have literature moving towards different paths and in different times. Something that today is considered literary, tomorrow it is not.
Your latest book is about Japan. Do you see a potential in Japan to create other stories?
From the western point of view, Japan falls into exoticism, which is Asia’s trap for those who come from outside — the same thing for those from Asia that go to Europe. That danger is always there, you might end up doing illustrated postcards and discussing a bit the other, you assume a more critical point of view, which is dangerous. Hence, my aversion to writing about other places that are not Portugal — because I feel less comfortable.
In this case, this was also commissioned. This started as an invitation from the magazine Sábado [Portuguese] to do a weekly column and when I accepted it, I created a character to become the hero or the voice of the column — it forced me to write about life in the field. And the experiences the character goes through are very much from Tokyo, there is an infinite potential. The question was trying to make this character solid, without being exotic — it always ends up being exotic, it is impossible not to, as a foreigner in Tokyo. You end up sometimes doing some kind of…
Exactly. And that is something that leaves me a bit uncomfortable, but, maybe, that’s how it’s supposed to. I tried not to be judgemental, but I’ve not always succeeded.
When writing fiction, is it necessary to be careful about the way you describe a certain place?
Whether you want to or not, it’s always an exterior perspective and you can always be criticised. There is no way out. And fiction also needs to have a critical point of view. You’re not doing a journalism report, you have an obligation of having a voice — my concern was that that voice wouldn’t… There’s a cliché about lost in translation in Japan, which has been explored several times. I tried not to repeat that exercise.
Are you thinking on another book in Japan?
I don’t know. I’m trying to rest my hands. Writing [fiction], as I work in advertisement, is a second job, and it is a job you do at night. To have two jobs — advertisement is very intense, even more so in Japan, you work many hours, apart from everything else you want to do in your personal life.
Would you like writing to be your only job?
Not at all. It is essential that I’m not doing it full-time — or advertisement, full-time. Our generation is no longer thinking that, one day, when you finish school, you go to a public office or a company and you spend the rest of your life there. We grew up knowing that, if we don’t move, we don’t work. And nothing is forever. We’re used to doing several things and being several things, throughout our lives. In my case, advertisement feeds writing — and vice-versa —, as the frustration of one helps the frustrations of the other.
You have a very international path — you were born in Angola, you grew up in Lisbon, you lived in Macau, London, Amsterdam and now in Japan. Were those experiences abroad important for your growth as a writer?
Yes, I believe these were fundamental. For once, I don’t know if I would have started writing fiction, if I had stayed in Portugal. It was also a need that I presume came up because I was away. When you become an emigrant, you start to have a very romantic vision of where you came from, and this is very Portuguese. There is something very romantic that comes from the distance. The other thing that I believe is fundamental is that when you emigrate, especially for a place in which you don’t know the language, you have to start from scratch. It is a very big humility exercise — no one knows you, no one needs you, no one has invited you and you decide to become part of a street, of a cafe, of a company. When you do it in another language, you have to reinvent yourself, because you are someone in one language and someone else in another [language]. Since you are not native, the way you express yourself will shape the perception other people have of you.
People usually say that, nowadays, no one writes about Macau. Did it never cross your mind to write about the Macau you used to know?
If I would write about it, I would write about today’s Macau. I believe Macau is very rich nowadays — it has a very unique dynamics. I believe Macau is much more fascinating today than 30 years ago — 30 years ago, nothing was happening, it was water and mud and a very quiet life. Nowadays, it looks like a unique place — even Las Vegas doesn’t have this spirit. There is so much potential here — I don’t know why there is not more fiction written here.
I was doing a workshop with students from the University of Macau and I told them ‘there can be a very Portuguese-from-Macau point of view that can only be created by people that are not Portuguese native speakers. This is a voice waiting to be created.
Do you have any new idea for a book?
I always have, but ideas are treacherous. When I have ideas for stories I never write them and I try to forget them. It takes one, two or three years and most of them disappear. There are a few that are left and I carry on with them for a couple of years — after a couple of years, I see if they have the potential to grow old well and if the pillars are solid enough to give them the time a book needs to wait.
On average, how long do you take to write a book?
It is becoming faster, but, at least, two or three years.
Are you a disciplined writer?
When I was working as a freelancer, I could take some time off. And when you’re a freelancer and you stop working, that costs money, so you’d better move your fingers. It is very costly to have time to write. If you’re not disciplined… I do the classic approach — I have a minimum number of characters that I write per day and I need to write.
You did a short movie with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. How did that happen?
It was my first [cinema experience], but I’ve had others. Somehow, on occasion, I end up there. Wong Kar-wai’s experience was for advertisement — I was doing an international campaign for Philips and we decided to contact him to do a short film. We wrote and produced it together — it was an incredible experience, as he is a cinema genius, not only Asian. I did it with him and William — which is his art director, another genius — and we found several points in common — first, this love for Macau, because he also films here a lot; we work many hours and until late, we have this Asian style of work, in which you work several hours and then afterwards everyone goes out for dinner. We wrote a story — it was a love story, because he always does love stories, and, somehow, I ended up doing them also.
Is writing and cinema a good match for you?
Yes. It is important to be available for new potential disasters. To test the language in other formats is always interesting. It is a format very different, that takes longer, that it doesn’t depend only on you, it is a work in group. In writing, it is you and you, it is a very lonely project.
Are you working on a cinema project, in Japan?
I’ve had discussions about potential projects, but they are not concrete enough to talk about.