Portuguese Moors and moors: Randall Barfield interviews Alexandra OneLight*, contemporary Portuguese writer/poet/artist
1 Which medium for illustration is your preferred medium - crayons, watercolour, ink, charcoal or another?
I can’t say that I have a favourite medium, Randall. I seem to go through creative phases during which the styles adopted in my paintings or drawings are the ones which, at the moment, better express my “mood”; then, the medium is chosen – or better still, comes forth naturally – accordingly. Sometimes a combination of media seems to be what works best. As an example, in certain more recent phases, during which I was “bitten by the bug” of digital art, I added elements of conventional media like touches of pastel crayon, or dashes of oil paint to my creations, which made them really unique… and made them “feel” just right.
2 Which medium seems to be preferred by purchasers?
I’ve never put my artwork on the market, although I’ve been urged to on several occasions. In fact, I could never really bring myself to charge any money for my creations, even when they were specially commissioned – such as some portraits, or specific artwork for book covers. When they were finished, it was my great pleasure just to make them a gift to my customers… not very practical, perhaps, but then, and again it “felt” just right!
3 Did you encounter many problems putting together your poetry anthology ‘Antologia Poetica Amante das Leituras’?
The coordination of this anthology was not my responsibility. It was the magnificent joint work of the publisher, “Edium Editores”, and of my dear friend and fellow author, Ana Maria Costa, founder and manager of the literary Yahoo group “Amante das Leituras”. This anthology is a compilation of poems authored by several members of this group, and I feel very fortunate that seven of my own poems were selected for inclusion in a book of such high quality. It would be important to clarify that, in the deal Ana made with the publisher, each one of the anthologized poets got a certain number of free copies of the book to give away or to sell – at a pre-agreed price – to the persons of their choice. This is why, after having made gifts of some of my copies to relatives and friends, I have placed this book on my own “shelf” of the AD bookstore (and it will also be available for purchase at the OneLight*® online bookstore soon).
4 You are a Northern Portuguese. Are the differences between Northern and Southern Portuguese very marked?
Yes, they are, and not only between Northern and Southern Portuguese, but also between Northern and Southern Portugal. In fact, amazing as this may seem, mainland Portugal being such a small territory as it is (roughly, the size of the state of Indiana), the landscape, and even the climate, change so much as you travel across it that it’s as if you were traveling through different countries; as an example, the region where I was born and live looks a lot like Ireland (mists included, lol!), while the southern regions – especially the provinces of Alentejo and Algarve – give you the sensation that you are in Northern Africa in a country like Morocco or Algeria. Also, the characteristics of the populations differ a lot, and you can still feel, in this, the marked influence of different cultures and genetic heritages from the past. Our cultural traditions in the North, as well as many of our genetic characteristics, are still very noticeably Celtic whereas in the South, they are distinctly Arab or Moorish. Incidentally, one of my poems – actually a prose-poem titled “a kiss from Portugal (stone and sea)” – deals precisely with this theme of diversity – one, I must say, that never ceases to fascinate me.
5 Would you say you learned more in school or out of school?
I would say that I learned – and am still learning, and will never stop learning – from life, and life happened, and happens, in and out of school; the combination of teachings gleaned being, to me, the fundamental ground which I sense is an ever evolving one, though to my growth as a human being.
6 How is your next book – My Canvas of Feeling (Tela de Sentir) coming along?
Well… it is not coming along, at least not for now, I’m afraid. I had to put this project “to rest” for a while because other priorities – concerning, mostly, my work in non-creative areas – have come, inescapably, forward. But as I said, the project is just “resting”; it has not been abandoned – so, sometime, in a not very distant future, I hope, I’ll be able to resume it… and maybe add new and more inspired “brushstrokes” to “My Canvas of Feeling”, lol!
7 Which 2 or 3 of your short stories are your ‘babies’?
Oh, dear… my “babies” are all “my babies”… and very “independent babies”, too – they “go on with their own life” as soon as they’re “out of the womb”, and I’m left with… the pleasure of having “given birth” to such a varied “brood”, which I’m indistinctively [indiscriminately] proud of; one of my “children” – my literary character Otsana – even “gives birth” to her own “babies”… which, I guess, would make me a “short story grandmother”, and you know how “grandmothers” are when it comes to their beloved “grandchildren”… so, I’m sure you can appreciate the dilemma you give me in with this question, lol! But I’ll give it a try… and yet, for this, I’ll have to become, for a moment, simply a reader. As such, there are, among my stories, three in the reading – and rereading – of which I take particular pleasure: Otsana’s “Le Dernier Cri”, and, from the series Indissoluble Connections, “A Wild Tale of Wild Asses” and “The Visitors”.
8 Tell me about the composition of “It rains in Shanghai”.
Sometimes I go through these peculiar introspective moods which I call the ones of “mind on parallel modes”; one part of the mind is alert and highly sensitive, apprehending and processing even the most subtle vibes and information from its surroundings – while the other part remains detached and serene… almost aloof. This happens, usually in the quiet of late evenings… and it is when – like in the poem you mention – “awareness comes pussyfooting in”, and certain “obscure epiphanies” occur. “It rains in Shanghai” was the result of one of such epiphanies – and it had, or has, everything to do with the subjectivity of what we deem important, even crucial, the subjectivity of “what matters”. What seems insignificant to me may be of tremendous relevance to someone else. What is a matter of life and death to me may leave others totally indifferent. The night when this poem was composed, some people were practically “killing each other” on TV over the issue of skirt lengths… and while I couldn’t care less about the subject, I had to admit that it could be – and it seemed obvious that it was, considering all the yelling - crucial to them. Just like… the rain in Shanghai – too remote to be felt as relevant by me… and yet, certainly important, maybe even crucial, to those living in Shanghai or traveling to that region. Yes, “maybe crucial is not as crucial does, but as it feels”…
9 Did you study British English exclusively?
Basically, yes. First, here in Portugal from 7th grade (English was, in those days, the second obligatory foreign language in our curriculum, the first one being French, taught from 5th grade), and then in England, where I lived and attended school for a while. On a non-official basis, however, we are also very much “exposed”, in Portugal, to the influence of American English through movies, TV shows, song lyrics, publicity – and so the “differences” sort of instill themselves into our minds and our use of the English language… which makes for a very interesting blend!
10 Do you consider American English to be inferior to British English?
To consider that, Randall, I would have to think of Brazilian Portuguese as inferior to Portuguese from Portugal, and that would be a terribly imprudent judgment – so, my answer can only be a definite NO. English (like Portuguese) is an exceptionally rich language, and (like all languages) is undergoing constant evolution. Through this evolution, which has included and goes on including the geographic expansion of its use, the language acquires new aspects, and “drops” old ones – much like a tree, growing from its roots, and sprouting new branches, while, simultaneously, the “dead” (old ones) fall off. Continuing to use this parallel, as the “tree of language” is “transplanted” onto a different territory, it needs to adapt to a diverse climate and to the new soil – and local “grafts” will often be “spliced” to it. With all this, the “tree” remains the same… but it expands into new, very interesting variants. So, like Brazilian Portuguese – or Angolan, or Mozambican Portuguese – in relation to Portuguese from Portugal, I see the American English as a rich, exciting variant – neither inferior nor superior – of British English – the original “tree”.
11 In light of the level of your visual development and awareness, do you live surrounded by a certain choice of décor or does anything go?
While I’m very open to the charms of many different styles and trends, both in architecture and in decoration, I don’t feel good in cluttered, too “baroque” spaces, or, oppositely, in much too stark ones. My preference goes to a certain blend of the traditional and the modern in which I find the balance of comfort and stimulation I need. To give you an example, I love the combination of antique pieces of furniture (tables, side-boards, cabinets) and carpets or rugs, with modern, comfortable couches and sofas strewn with cushions. Also, I like contemporary art on the walls.
12 You have lived in different parts of the world. Why did you choose to return to Portugal?
I first left Portugal in my early teens; not by my own choice, but due to certain circumstances regarding a time when my country was going through great political and social instability – and things were not easy for me at that earlier stage. I’m lucky to have a great capacity of adaptation to different environments and ways of life, though, and I’ve always taken pleasure in being in touch with different cultures, so, later, as I went on with my studies and social interaction with people of the most varied origins, I felt more and more at ease and actually enjoyed the experience of living abroad. However, I have only very briefly considered the possibility of continuing to live outside of Portugal – in Great Britain or in Brazil – and that was before I was admitted to law school in my country. After that, and with the exception of a number of years during which I spent a lot of time in Mozambique, all of my projects, professional interests, and, most of all, my family and a great love for my country, drew me back – well… and compelled me forward, lol! – to Portugal, and so… here I am!
13 Is all well between the Portuguese and Spaniards or is there a tradition of some rivalry and jealousy?
All is just marvelous! We’re great neighbors and enjoy each other’s country and company very much! In fact, now that there are no borders – ever since we all became members of the European Union – there are steady streams of Portuguese and Spaniards constantly “flowing” from one country to the other; for business, but also, and most of all, for pleasure. It is true that we keep “teasing” each other – for example, we have this old saying that goes: “From Spain, expect neither a good wind nor a good marriage” – but it’s all just amiable banter that everybody enjoys and nobody takes seriously. And… Olé, lol!
14 Do you consider men basically the same or are those of one region superior to those of another?
Men can be absolutely horrid and absolutely wonderful, as well as all the gradations in between… in absolutely any part of the world, lol! It’s really their qualities, as human beings – two of the greatest being, probably, the awareness and acceptance of their own flaws, which enable tolerance towards the flaws of others, and tolerance in general – that makes them superior, and this has nothing to do with “geography”… or, indeed, with gender because what I said – and it is only my humble opinion – also applies to women.
15 What is special about Joseph?
Joseph is special in many ways… and in many of the ways which make a human being special. He is a very generous, compassionate man – and as much as some may not be willing to acknowledge, Joseph has the great capacity of “stepping into the shoes” of others… and even of assimilating the feelings of those who “have no shoes”. This sympathetic nature, along with his great kindness, really draw people to him – people of the most diverse ages and walks of life. He is also aware of his own flaws – one of the qualities I mentioned in my answer to your previous question – and, therefore, does not expect perfection in or from others, which really makes him a person not only very easy, but extremely pleasant to live with. Besides, he is a very sensitive artist – alert to all the subtleties of beauty, to all the nuances of dark and light – and a passionate one, who pours, upon his creations, the same fervor with which he imbibes life to the fullest. And… he is gorgeous, too, lol!
16 When did you write your first poem and how did you feel?
I must have been six or seven years old… and it was a rather nostalgic quatrain about little birds taking flight into a wine-colored horizon, lol! I guess I must have been feeling nostalgic, too – and, much as it happens nowadays, I already used colors to “paint” my moods. Also, I suspect that the “little birds” were, probably, the first sign of my penchant for… metaphors!
17 Does Portugal, as Spain, have the sport of ‘bullfighting’?
Yes. Bullfighting is a peninsular tradition, although in Europe, it is also practiced in the South of France – and, in the case of Portugal, it has spread to some of the Atlantic isles. Portuguese classic bullfighting, however, is very different from the Spanish traditional one which, in turn, has spread to several countries in South America where it has become very popular. Among the different features is that in the Portuguese tradition there are no “picadors” – a feature I find absolutely horrid and will abstain from describing if you don’t mind; the work done with the horses is much more similar to that of the Spanish “rejoneadores” – and, if the cruel act of stabbing the bull were not included in this part of the bullfight, the actual art of the horsemen and of the horses themselves (the brave and unique Peninsular horses, known, since Virgil, as “the Sons of the Wind”) would be – and is – something to be in awe of. In Portugal there is also something unique – the “bull catch”: possibly the only feature where the bull is not hurt. In the movie “Quo Vadis”, there is actually a scene in which the character Marcus Vinicius is faced with a wild bull in the Roman “circus maximus”, and, ultimately, manages to dominate it, thus escaping death; well, in that scene, the actor Robert Taylor was replaced by a famous Portuguese “bull catcher” – the late Nuno Salvação Barreto - who acted as the stuntman. The major difference between Portuguese and Spanish bullfighting, however, is that killing the bull is strictly forbidden in Portugal. With all this, Randall, and with all due respect to those who make it their profession (and although I’ve been “surrounded” by this tradition all my life), I would like to state that I personally disapprove of bullfighting, regardless of the “school”, and very strongly so as I totally disapprove of any sort of “blood sport”. The very concept of actually hurting or killing an animal for the purpose of entertainment as a “sport” is one that revolts me and one that I reject with every fibre of my being.
18 In ‘a kiss from portugal [stone and sea]’, you say ‘salt at south of bread and much further’. Is this phrase related to moors? Does Portugal have any moors? Of course, there are Moors and moors, aren’t there?
Regarding the sentence you refer to, no, not really, although “Moorish enchantments” are mentioned in the previous phrase. In this particular case, “the kiss becomes day”, and then becomes “salt” that travels “further than the south” of “bread” – a metaphor for its expansion (the expansion of “the kiss”) beyond the land, as an element of the ocean (the salt) and, as such, spreading and reaching as far, across all distances, as the ocean itself. As for the “moors”, there are, in fact, moors and Moors; and there most certainly are moors – grassland, fells – in some regions of Portugal, lol! On the other hand, Moors, with a capital “M”, as you know, was the medieval term used to designate the peoples from Northern Africa, of Arab and Berber origin, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula and founded the territory known as the Al-Andalus – comprising the South of Spain and the Portuguese region of Algarve (actually, the evolution of the designation Al-Gharb). So, in this sense, although many Moorish influences still prevail, including some of those peoples’ genetic heritage – as I explained in my answer to your question about the differences between Northern and Southern Portuguese – there are, at present, no Moors in Portugal.
19 The word bread ‘pops up’ in more than 4 or 5 places in your works. Is there any special significance attached to this
Apart from the more obvious symbol of “sustenance” which, however, I use both literally (“bread” in the sense of food for the body) and metaphorically (“bread” in the sense of nourishment for the spirit), “bread” has other connotations in my poetic works; it may be, in certain cases, a symbol of work, of endurance, of perseverance, even of patience. The daily act of making bread entails, or requires, all of these. It may also be, in other cases, an image of hope or of dream – in its sense of “dough” that rises and expands, as it leavens. On the whole, literally or metaphorically, “bread” is something we can’t live without… and the awareness of this seems to “seep” into my works frequently, one way or the other. Incidentally, one of my great grandfathers was a miller and a baker, so, his heritage may well have influenced – or “sieved itself over”, lol! - my symbology!
20 Looking at Portugal on a map, where would one go for a major shopping trip—Porto, Lisbon or Madrid? Or even Paris or London perhaps?
It would depend on where you would be travelling from and on how much money you would be willing to spend, lol! Actually, among the European cities you mention, Porto and Lisbon, the two Portuguese ones, are, by far, the least expensive of all and yet, believe me, their commerce offers as wonderful and varied a choice as that of any of the other cities, with the additional advantage of less expensive hotels, restaurants, entertainment, and so on. So, for “going crazy” at the shops, I would most certainly recommend Porto or Lisbon – or both – followed by a visit (taking advantage of all the money you would thus have saved) to the other three European capitals – each one of them unique and with many fabulous things well worth seeing!
Let me finish by thanking you, dear Randall, for the great opportunity you have given me, through this interview, of sharing some less known aspects of my creative work, along with some more personal perspectives on other subjects, with our friends, readers, and fellow authors here at Authors Den. This was a thoroughly exciting experience, so, thank you, also, for all the fun!
Let me thank you, rather, Alexandra OneLight*, for taking the time out from your busy schedule to agree to the interview as well as for your careful, colourful, and erudite responses to my questions. Much luck to you and yours.