Interview with Luana Monteiro
Q: How similar is your background to the stories you tell in your book?
The landscapes, sounds, colors and people in my stories are all very familiar to me. Almost every character I write about is based on someone Ive known at some point in my life. And the original idea for almost every story comes from events that happened to friends, acquaintances, family. Theres one constant in my life and that is: I can always count on meeting characters, people with extraordinary stories, wherever I am, lines, planes, buses, restaurants. I consider it a great gift. And of course, there are some stories I would never tell. I exercise discretion.
Q: Did you grow up in a village similar to the one visited by the fish?
I grew up in Recife, a city of about 2 million people on the Northeastern coast, but spent most weekends of my childhood in a dusty town called Camaragibe because thats where my nanny Zefa, who had a great influence on me, lived. In Recife I lived with my mother, brother, and Zefa across the street from Boa Viagem beach, a privileged, trendy neighborhood with a gigantic shopping mall, fancy hotels, cars, and lots of European tourists. In Camaragibe we had no running water, no electricity, dirt floors. The house was shared by Zefa, her four sisters, and all their kids, so that on weekends there were never less than 10 of us. But the freedom I had there I could never experience in the city. The nearest asphalt road was a mile away. Nearby we had a river and deep woods, and absolute darkness at night. Abundant superstition, stories of beasts and ghosts, everything a child could ever want.
Q: Did you grow up in an oral tradition? Do people still tell each other stories as a form of entertainment?
Absolutely. Its almost too much for a writer to handle: you want to remember every story, every incredible detail youre told, even the words used by the teller, but its impossible to capture the life of the language in writing. Often, words are made up, like coisificado or thingafied, as in, That mans house is so thingafied, you have to walk sideways to get from one room to another. Im very lucky to have access to that culture. What it gives me in stories and inspiration is priceless. I hope to one day give at least a small portion back, and I plan to.
Q: You have a wonderful understanding of old people. What is the source of this?
I wont answer this one! I can already hear my friends, my mother, asking: What do you mean, OLD? A very close friend is 66 years old and rides his bike to work every day even in freezing temperatures. Another one, a little younger, goes out every night and wakes up every morning at five to write. Likewise, weve all met kids whose jadedness makes them seem geriatric. But Ill say this: ever since I was a child, I had friends who were much older than me. I always befriended my mothers friends, for instance.
Q: What writers inspired/inspire you and why?
Paul Bowles is a great inspiration, primarily because his stories transport me to other worlds that are at once foreign and familiar to me. When it comes to reading, Im still very much a kid -- I like sorcery, mystery, danger, the unknown. Most of all, I like to travel. Because of him, I know to never, ever go walking alone down some dark alleyway in a new, strange place. Then theres Saramago, whose depiction of human nature has also had a huge impact on me. I love the stories of Flannery OConnor and Joyce Carol Oates. Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?might be my favorite short ever. Garcia Marquez, of course. More recently I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, which has one of the most touching love stories Ive ever read. Peter Damian Bellis is also a writer who had a great influence on me.
Q: When did you decide to be a writer?
I dont know that Ive ever decided that. Im still not comfortable calling myself one. What happened was, at eighteen, I wrote a short story, beginning, middle and end, in a single night. Before I knew it the sun was coming up and I had this great feeling of exhilaration, which is really what got me hooked until now. That, and my desire to impress my cool drummer boyfriend.
Q: What did your family and friends make of your decision and your move to the States?
My mother had always been enamored with the United States since she was a child. At thirty-two she moved to Florida and got married for the second time to a first generation Brazilian man. Seven months later, she arranged for my brother and I to come live with her. I was ten, and hated the move. I lost the beach, Zefa, Camaragibe. After a few months, I returned to Recife, and for the first time in eight years lived with my father and his new family. I spent the rest of my teenage years shuttling between the two countries. I preferred being a teenager in Brazil than in the States; there was much more freedom. But I missed my mother, and couldnt stay away from her for too long. At seventeen I moved to Florida and have been in the U.S. since then. In 2002 I moved to Wisconsin under the advice of my fiction teacher John McNally to pursue my MFA.
Q: Do you see a similarity between yourself and Little Star of Bela Lua, maker of poetry and song? If so, what are the parallels, what are the differences? Did your father give you the equivalent of a guitar
upon which to learn? If not, who encouraged you? Did you have siblings who responded like her brother? Do you have her same fire-fueled independence? What is the significance of the similarity
of your two names?
Little Star of Bela Luas character is based on a repentista singer, one of the most popular female repentistas of all time, who is known as Mocinha de Passira, which means, Little Lady of Passira. Passira is the name of the town she is from, in Pernambuco, my home state. I read an interview with her and found her completely irresistible. I hope to meet her one day. I am not much like her at all (I dislike competition or any form of confrontation) but her attitude is typical of women in the Northeast, at least women I grew up around, particularly Zefa and her sisters. However, I did play congas, a macho instrument, in an all-male Cuban band for about a year, and experienced some of the prejudices she went through. As for guitar
I am, at heart, a frustrated guitarist. I studied it during my teenage years and early twenties. My guitar teacher, Frank Mullen, once told me, after two years of lessons, Most girls quit guitar and go into English, you see, which is why Im so proud youre sticking with music. Guess what happened? It was like a curse in disguise! Music was my first love, and Ive always been (and still am) surrounded by musicians. Ive been living with one for many years. I enjoy writing about them. Im sure theyll always be in my stories. And Bela Lua is a made-up city name which means "Beautiful Moon." The similarity to my name is only coincidental.
Q: What was it like to come from Brazil (at what age?) and end up in freezing cold Wisconsin?
I had been living in Florida for ten years before I moved to Wisconsin. It was here that I experienced real culture shock. The weather here is just incredible, amazing, fantastic to me. I still have to taste snow after a fresh fall and roll around in it every now and then. It fascinates me that in mid-winter, when its minus 5 below outside, you could die in 30 minutes. I never had the reality of lethal weather in my life before now.
Q: How do your friends and colleagues here compare to those back home?
Im blessed with meeting wonderful people wherever I go. Im still in contact with most of my childhood friends in Brazil. I would say that the biggest difference is, most of my friends there are still living in the same houses, sleeping in the same rooms, as when we were kids. One of them is a doctor, has her own practice, but still lives with Grandma, who brought her up. Another difference is that here, I have friends from all over the world.
Q: In your story, "A Fish in the Desert", you draw on a primal theme of a fish as a messenger from the deep. Is this based on Brazilian legend?
If it is, I dont know. The idea came to me from a puppet show about a woman who lost her baby and a tiger who lost his mother. He hid from the hunters who killed his mother in the womans house, whose new-born had recently died from disease. She still had milk, and decided to breast feed the little tiger. They adopted each other, comforted each other. Meanwhile, the hunters were still looking for the baby tiger. Word got around of his whereabouts, and one day the hunters forced their way into her house. She hid the tiger in her arms, under a blanket, swearing up and down it was just a baby she had there. But the skeptical hunters pulled the blanket away, much to her horror, and ta-da! The little tiger had been transformed into a perfectly human baby boy. That was the story that gave me the idea for A Fish in The Desert.
Q: What sort of research was required for the book? Were there any surprises?
Research on mining, alchemy, repente, candomblé, astrology, language, food, Pentecostalism, Christianity, priests, etc. I try to do at least some research on anything Im writing about, even the subjects Im comfortable with. Yes, there were many surprises. The most recent one came from Curado and that is: apple martinis do not have olives, but vodka martinis do.
Q: Who/what was the inspiration for Pascoal, magician, alchemist, "healer?"
An artist from Pernambuco called Saúba, maker of dolls. He once had a VW van that he would fill up with his kids and take them for rides with him. A brilliant man. Im also a closet astrologer, and have always been fascinated by the influence of the stars upon this world. I originally had intended for Pascoal to be an astrologer, but he wanted to be an alchemist, so I let him.
Q: What are you working on now?
A novel inspired by the experiences of a Peruvian co-worker. A young mans voyage through the forest in search of the blue stones his grandmother told him about, the only remedy for his adolescent love-sickness.