Award Lecture - ALMA
 

Award Lecture

Recently, during an interview I gave to a foreign journalist, he asked me if I had experienced any physical/emotional occurrence, as a child, which had made a particular impact on me.

I must confess that giving interviews has always been painful for me, as I feel that my privacy, to some extent, is being invaded. As a result, I only gave interviews very occasionally. However, the news of The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award changed the panorama considerably. Before, I was able to avoid interviews without feeling awkward or guilty. Now, however, being awarded such a generous prize, how could I justify evading all powerful press, knowing that it is quite natural for the organisers to wish to spread the news far and wide.

So, going back to my foreign journalist: At first, I did not understand his question, I, like you on these occasions was using a foreign language, as I am today, which is not that easy for me. In Brazil it is not usual to speak a second language, much less a third one as many do here in Sweden. I was therefore puzzled by the interviewer's "physical/emotional occurrence". What was he looking for? I asked him to repeat the question. He did. Using exactly the same words as before. It was then that I noticed that the interviewer had along with his notebook a copy of my book "O Abraco" (The Embrace). "The Embrace" is a tense story, written in the first person, about a young woman who before reaching 8 years of age had the bitter experience if being raped. Seeing my book, I understood the question and once again realised how dangerous it is to write in the first person: the reader may easily identify the character in the book with the Author. The interviewer of course, wanted to know if the episode of the rape happened to me when I was a child, and used the "physical/emotional occurrence" term to pose his question.

I became irritated (that old problem of invasion of privacy...)
"Oh yes", I replied.
"There was?"
"Yes, there was. When I was 7 years old I had an experience that marked me deeply".
"Seven years old?"
"Seven years."
"Like that"
"Like how?"
"As you said: physically/emotionally - which marked me for the rest of my life."

Now that I know what the interviewer was after I began to do what I most like in this life: to invent! I took on the air of one going back to one's infancy, and described a scene similar to that in my book "The Embrace", building up the suspense around the man who is coming to rape me. My performance must have been reasonably good: the interviewer was absolutely still, staring at me. "And then the man came behind me, embraced me and whispered in my ear; I am certain you are going to like it. I turned and came face to face with my uncle. My uncle was like my father, always with a book in his hand. It was Easter - instead of chocolates he brought me a book by Monteiro Lobato - a thick book called "Remiacoes de Marizusko" (the adventures if the girl with the unplumbed nose)."

The interviewer glazed at me.
"When I saw my uncle was giving me such a thick book I felt disappointed. I had only recently learned to read could I manage to read all of it? I put it away in a drawer, but every now and again my uncle asked how was I getting in with the book, so one day I decided to give it a try. And it was then that I had a "physical/emotional impact", which marked me for life. That book shook my imagination! I read it and re-read it. I didn't know how many times. I was passionately in love with it. I carried it with me everywhere. There was not only the emotional impact but as well the physical pleasure of holding and caressing the book. I was only 7 years old, and didn't realise that this first passion would change "into a person that could never be without the company of a book."

Pause. The interviewer asked in a very disappointed voice:
"You mean to say that what marked you as a child was your passion for a book?"
"Absolutely. But with a difference: I not only had a passion for one book; I had a passion for the object BOOK (in capital letters). And it was only after some years that I understood the privilege the impact it was for me."
That was the end of the interview.

My passion for the book "Marizinko" led me to become a confirmed reader. The principal character in the book - Emilie - was very independent, just like Astrid's Pippi Longstocking. That book not only encouraged me to read other books but as well gave the desire to write. It's like when you see someone dancing well: immediately you feel like dancing yourself, don't you?

I began to write little stories, using our dog, the neighbour's cat, my sister's doll for my characters. And in the same way that I liked to hold a book so I liked to feel the writing paper, to sharpen the pencil, to see the ink from the pen on my fingers. These pleasures have remained with me, and to this day, I continue the habit of writing by hand.

As a child I came to know another passion: reading and writing led to desire to act out the stories I wrote.

We lived, when I was seven, in the extreme south of Brazil. I had never been to the theatre, I didn't even know what it was, and yet I had a compulsion to act out the basic dialogues that I was inventing for my stories. I would call my parents, my friends, anyone who I could get hold of and ask them to take the part of the dog, the cat, the doll, all without having any idea of theatre - I would make my own, at home.

When I was eight my family moved to Rio de Janeiro, and this changed my life. We came to live in Copacabana - in front was the sea, that I never seen before! The impact was tremendous. My ventures in theatre were forgotten as each day I raced to the beach. But a reader I remained. My storybooks stayed with me, often embraced in my arms. Then came adolescence, along with the personal conflicts which mark that time in one's life: misunderstandings with the family, misunderstandings with loved ones, difficulties in trying to understand the complexities of human relations. I took refuge in my books, reading and reading and reading. Then suddenly reading was not enough, I needed to talk about my problems, but who to talk to? To my diary; he was the only one who would not tell my secrets, what I felt, what I thought. And also I wrote. Everyday. I filled diary after diary throughout my adolescence. One day, at the beginning of my professional life, when I was 19 years old, I destroyed each of the diaries, one by one. I was determined to start a "new life". But I did not begin my professional life as a writer, but as an actress, more by accident.

My need to be independent was as great as Emilia's or Pippi's. Ever since I can remember I always believed I could manage my own life. I learnt very early on - having witnessed some financial dramas in my family - that without financial independence I could never be in charge of my life. To be a writer, at that time, would not - I thought - lead to independence. I considered studying medicine and I started to direct my studies to that aim, but destiny decided otherwise. By chance I saw an advertisement in the newspaper, inviting candidates to audition for a play to be performed in a new theatre in the old historical borough of Santa Teresa, overlooking the city of Rio. The advertisement reminded me of the days when I would act out my short stories of cats and dogs, and I thought: perhaps I could become a true actress!! I walked up the hill to Santa Teresa - I hadn't been there before, but immediately I felt so inspired from what I saw that I put every bit of energy I had into the audition - and I was awarded first prize! I was given a contract and - forgetting all my previous plans - I began my acting career. I was told I had a talent for the stage, and I believed it. But I hadn't yet learned the difference between talent and vocation.

I plunged into the theatrical world with total dedication. The beginning of my professional life as an actress was exciting and rewarding but - for me - very demanding. I am not a gregarious person, and the fact that my work was now so dependant on other people - directors, assistants, other actors, the people in charge of lighting, costumes, props and so on - didn't make me happy at all. Not too long afterwards I realised that I didn't have a vocation for the theatrical life. I quit it.

So I found myself in vacuum: I had given up my studies for medicine; I had made a not successful marriage, in the meantime, and in spite of my fascination for the stage; I was not contented there. My only consolidation in those troubled times was: books. I read exhaustively, going deeper and deeper into my potential for imagination - a potential that all of us have.

And then came a light at the end of the tunnel: an offer for me to write for radio: soap operas. So off I went writing for hours each day, creating dialogues, not for cats, dogs or dolls..., but for the people which we face in our daily lives. Shortly afterwards came another opportunity - this time to work with television. For years I translated, adapted, wrote, acted, was director's assistant - in short, for years I led (again) a tumultuous life that was not tailored for me. In those days I was eager to get the necessary money to build the home I wanted, in the mountains where I went to live after quitting my TV work.

Then finally one day, I thought the obvious: if books mean so much to me, why don't I at least try to write books, instead of pursuing things that never make me contented. But then came doubts: all my writing for radio and TV had been in dialogue only dialogue. How could I now enter in detailed narrative writing - a garden in flower, a sea in revolt, a ravioli with cheese and spinach. I thought I'd better begin with a simple tale - something for children? And so I began to write my first book concentrating entirely on how I was as a child, that's to say, I behaved like Astrid Lindgren, who once declared: "there is no child who inspire me other than the child I once was. You don't have to have children of your own to write children's books, not at all, you just need to have been a child once upon a time - and remember more or less was it was like..." I'm glad Astrid said "more or less": with the basic idea of what our childhood was like we can recreate the rest using our imagination.

After completing the book I heard of important literary competition with a prize guaranteeing publication and with prize winning illustrations. Once again the gods favoured me: I won the prize. The book was well received, both children and adults seemed to like it. Immediately my publisher wanted me to write another book, thus creating an enormous difficulty: the difficulty of reconciling one’s TRUE SELF (put capital letters on this) with the expectations or demands of others, and these expectations or demands increased as the system we live in grows into a so called globalisation.

I believe creativity is the daughter of slowness (slowness in connection, birth, growth, maturity). Creativity is part of NATURE (again: nature with capital letters): - it needs time to develop – the seed can’t become a plant the very next day. I’ve always been, or wanted to be, close to nature – I enjoy being with plants, trees, animals in their natural habitat – and I respect nature’s rhythm. I find that the accelerated life styles of our times, and the speed with which technology and, particularly, communications are being developed, are not compatible with nature. The lust for speed has an immense impact on creativity, which, of course, is the very heart of books.

So I never know how to respond to my publishers, or anyone else for that matter, when they ask me:
“When is your book going to be ready?”
“I haven’t the vaguest idea.”
“But last year you said you were writing a new book?”
“That’s right.”
“My god! And it is not ready yet?”
“Oh yes, it’s finished, but it still hasn’t got it’s alma.”
“It hasn’t got what?”
“It’s soul.”
(When I first wrote these words I’m saying to you now, I was writing in Portuguese (my language) and, in my language soul is alma. And here I am to receive the ALMA prize! That for me is something very – very beautiful!)
“Are you trying to tell me that the book you have written is no good?” I never manage to think of my books of being good but, sometimes, I succeed in giving life – a soul – to a book, and that is when I think it’s ready for publication.

Now - of course – there is another problem: I have become a publisher of my own books and you can imagine the tragic/comic situations I get into: as a publisher – wanting a new book, and as an author – looking desperately for the soul!
“Haven’t you got the soul yet?”
“I’m looking for it, I’m looking.”
“Time’s passing: a new book is needed now!”
“How can I create anything if you put all this pressure on me?”
“Oh! go and find your soul, get on with it!”

This soul, that I’m always trying to give to my books, includes a component which I consider essential: the sound of my language. I try to bring the music which you hear when people speak in Rio. I spend a great deal of time trying to write in a colloquial manner in order to create this musicality. On the way I break grammatical rules. Of course, this brings about conflicts with editors and publishers: "Your book is not going to be adopted in that school: the teachers think you are not using the correct grammar.” “Of course not! If I use it my music will be incorrect!”

Since the publication of my first books I have insisted that the contracts include a clause which says my text will not be changed in any way without my written consent (this is in Brazil of course).

I’ve often asked myself – looking at my books published, say, here, in Sweden, or in Germany, or in Korea – where will my music be? It is possible that the language in Stockholm has such strong musicality as the language in Rio, and if so, did the translator manage to capture that music, that rhythm in the translation?

In practically all the interviews I’ve given – since the ALMA Award was announced I’m asked three questions:
First – What do books mean to me? I think you know the answer to that from what I’ve been saying here today.
Second – Why did I choose to write for children?
Third – What does the ALMA prize mean to me?

With regard to writing for children I must confess publicly that I only decided to write specifically for children when preparing my first two books, for reasons that I have already given to you. From then on it wasn’t a conscious choice, it just happened. After my first two books were published I felt so relieved that I wasn’t frequently asking myself “what on earth I’m doing here”, which was the ease when doing radio and theatre, and particularly television, that I realised that now – Oh yes! – now I had found my true vocation.

Writing books gave me the unique opportunity to review my past life and exorcise my fantasies, my anxieties, my repressed feelings - I could now reinvent my life, filtering it through my imagination. In the book A Bolsa Amarela (The Yellow Bag) I filtered my desires as a child; in the A Casa de Madrinha (Godmother’s House) I filtered my revolt against the injustices I saw all around (it was the time of a hard dictatorship in my country; in Corda Bamba (Tightrope) I filtered that process of opening the mind to let out repressed memories. And so I went, from book to book, going even deeper into myself as I reinvented my past. So far I have written 18 books and two plays for theatre. Which, in reality, is a small output for someone who has been dedicated to books for so many years. But as I have been saying, my affair with books is very intense, and as I am a slow person in my emotions, it follows that my writing will take time.

I’ve always found it difficult to answer the eternal questions.
“This book that you are writing what age is it for?”
“The last book you wrote, is it good for children of 11?”
Or the complaint from some countries, including my own:
“No child is going to enjoy this book! They won‘t even understand it.”
“Lygia, do you really think that writing books about rape and suicide is the proper thing to do for children?”

Many times I have to give the only explanation that I know of – it’s as follows: “For me – whoever reads my books is without a face. I don’t know, and I don’t care, who they are. I don’t know if they are masculine or feminine; if they are rich or poor; if they are a child, adolescent, adult or old. It is as if whoever reads me becomes this other half. One half can’t exist without the other. Sometimes my books have the face of a child, because I am always feeding off my infancy and off the child that I was and which continues to live within me. So often the final product of my book has a child’s face. At other times it doesn’t. I never know where the book I’m writing is going to take me, and so when they say:
“But no child is going to enjoy this!”
“Ah, what a pity!”
“Don’t you agree this is not for a child?”
“Yes…looking him straight in the face, I agree that you are right…it’s not.”

But this leads me to the third question frequently asked since I received the prize: “What does the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award mean to you?” I believe that I have made it clear that it was a great surprise and with much emotion that I received the news about winning the prize. In my words to Parliament and at the prize giving ceremony I’ll refer to the honour (and the help) this prize brings to me, but here, in this place where all of us are – I imagine – book lovers, I want to raise a particular point: it is that the Swedish jury considered my modest work an example of the spirit of Astrid Lindgren, a work that can bring a positive influence to children’s imagination.

I consider it a rare privilege to be able to activate the imagination of a child through a book; it is what happened to me when I was 7 years old, and the positive effects have lasted all to this day. Each time a child tells me of the pleasure felt in holding one of my books, or adults tell me how one of my books made an impact on their childhood, I feel that the struggles in the past and those to come are well worthwhile.

I am certain that if Astrid was here – let’s imagine that she is – she would raise her thumb and say “that’s it Lygia, it doesn’t matter what road we take, what’s important is that we plant a seed of imagination, and hope the seed will germinate – because – “everything big that occurred in the world occurred in someone’s imagination.”



Lygia Bojunga
May 2004