Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Irene Marques

Share |
Irene Marques

Academic, poet and novelist Irene Marques wears many hats, and has learned how to use each discipline to support the other, growing her writing in each genre exponentially.

Her newest book, My House is a Mansion (Leaping Lion Books), is in many ways a book about travel. Amélia travels between continents on a quest of self-discovery, but she also travels symbolically, coming of age and into a richer understanding of gender, class, race and identity. Desire, violence and exploration weave together in Irene's lyrical prose to create a story that is part narrative, part philosophy and part homecoming.

Today we speak to Irene about My House is a Mansion as part of our Lucky Seven series, which asks authors to speak in depth about their latest books.

Irene tells us about the experience of writing a novel in English for the first time, the single phrase that set the entire book in motion and offers a quote from Toni Morrison that captures what the purpose of writing truly is.

OB:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Irene Marques:

I wrote this book quite a while ago, right after I finished my PhD dissertation, a year before I went to South Africa on a Post-Doctoral research fellowship. I think after I finished my dissertation I wanted to engage in a type of writing that would sept away from the restrictions of academic style and experiment with the literary form. Academic writing can be stifling and quite limiting: there is an over-concern with logic and rationality in relation to how arguments should be framed, even in disciplines where you are writing about literature, as was my case. This can be frustrating for language and form are an essential part of the message being transmitted. The novel allowed me to escape the rigidity of academic style and exercise my ability with the word and there is a beautiful freedom in this endeavour — a freedom that leads to growth and a certain spiritual vision and ontological expansion because we live and know and feel through language. It was also my first novel in English so I think part of me wanted to know that I could do that: I was, I suppose, trying to prove something to myself.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

IM:

When I started writing the novel, I knew I wanted to explore issues related to love, feminism and women’s and men’s expectations in relationships — matters related to societal impositions and constructions of womanhood and manhood and how that can limit both men and women and the very experience of love, of what I envisage and imagine as love (I am an idealist, a romantic at heart). I also knew that I wanted to explore these themes through a transcultural approach by juxtaposing different societies, from Christian to Muslim to Buddhist, bringing in experiences from different continents (Europe, Africa, South America and Asia) and also discuss issues related to race, class and colonization, matters that I also explored in my PhD dissertation and in my academic life. The story is told from the perspective of a young girl of Portuguese descent, named Amélia, who travels between continents in real and symbolic terms and relays her findings, experiences, visions, discoveries and dreams. Having said all this, I will say that the very act of writing also took me into directions that I did not envisage at the beginning, which is always the case in writing, I believe, for many of us.

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

IM:

I think this question is partly answered above. In relation to the time that it took me to write: I think it took me about six months. I tend to write very fast, once I overcome that initial fear or impasse that many of us writers experience. Sometimes I need time to feel that the structure is right but once I do, I cannot stop and tend to write steadily or obsessively until I finish. Because this was my first novel in English, I think I had a more open approach: the very act of writing was my way to feel, discover and know what I wanted to cover and the style that felt natural to do so. I remember that I had in my mind a phrase, the first phrase of the novel that kept coming to me and I knew I had to take that phrase to places, explore it, give it what it was asking for. And the phrase was: “Ever since I remember being a woman, who thought of herself as a woman, and who was thought of as a woman, I have always felt that marriage was not something I would ever enter.” And then the second phrase came: “Nonetheless, sometimes doubts would assail me and I would think that perhaps entering the circle of two might be something that I would eventually give in.” And then the deluge could not be stopped… In fact, writing for me often starts this way: I have a phrase or a word that is constantly coming to me and I know that it wants to be fed, to become something bigger...

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

IM:

I have said this before: when the time comes and the words can no longer be contained, kept inside me, I can write almost everywhere. Of course that if I have other life duties demanding my attention, my disposition and openness to the act of creative writing are going to be affected, impeded by a certain guilt or anxiety, but even in these circumstances, I always find some time to write, as writing also functions as a therapeutic medium for me or as a medium to meditate and exit the pressures of life.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

IM:

I wouldn’t say I feel discouraged in the process of writing — at least not for long periods. At points, it may be that I feel I don’t have enough time to devote to it and that other life duties (that actually put bread on my table) take precedence but I know that creative writing is my spiritual and existential life bread — and I always return to it. As noted above, sometimes, and especially initially, when the structure of the work (more so in cases of novels) is not coming easily or quickly, I may feel somewhat at an impasse or I may want to know right away what method or structure will work and I may feel impatient — but then I try to tell myself that time and patience will allow for the revelation.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

IM:

I think a good book is a book that goes beyond what you already know and for that to happen you need experimentation with form and language, you need to get confused and you need to confuse. You need to engage yourself in an act of discovery, of discomfort, of entering and exploring the unknown. Toni Morrison said recently, in an interview given to CBC, that writing is an act of resolving something, an act that shows the growth of characters, it is a process of enlightenment. I agree with that. I will say though that there is (and especially in the Anglo-American world) an over-preoccupation with a writing that is tamed, comfortable and literal, and with a form and language that are easy to the reader and that is detrimental to writing and creates a sameness and a mono-culture that leads to literary poverty. Two books that I find truly powerful: Beloved by Toni Morrison and Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector. But that is too short of a number: there is also Life and Times of Michael K. by J.M. Coetzee, The House of Spirits by Isabell Allende and The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa. I’ll stop here only because I have to.

OB:

What are you working on now?

IM:

I am working on a piece of poetic prose that discusses the issue of love, but love in an expanded way, not merely romantic love, but love for that which is painful, love for truth and communication, love for the sorrows of the world — a love that aims at real change, vision, self fulfilment and awareness because we are no longer fooling ourselves or believing that love and happiness are about avoiding the ugly of the world or the inconvenient or the distressful. I am also working on a second novel in Portuguese about the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa, a topic I am quite obsessed with lately.


Irene Marques is the author of three poetry collections, as well as the Portuguese language short story collection Habitando na Metáfora do Tempo: Crónicas Desejadas. Her most recent works include the novels and Uma Casa no Mundo, as well as a collection of short stories titled Procurando Maravilhas. The latter two are due for release later this year. Her academic publications include the manuscripts Transnational Discourses on Class, Gender and Cultural Identity and Critical Approaches: The Works of Chin Ce, Volume 1 (Editor) and numerous articles in international scholarly journals.


Related item from our archives

Related reads

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad