"Crying, is much more than deep sadness, it allows a resolution, a confrontation, a joining of timeframes, a holistic dwelling of sorts, a cleansing of the soul that is quite healthy."

About Irene Marques – author

Irene Marques
Photo credit: Eva Lewarne

Irene Marques is a bilingual writer writing in English and Portuguese and an academic with a PhD in Comparative Literature. She currently teaches in the African Studies Program at the University of Toronto and the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University and occasionally also at Ryerson University in the Department of English.

Marques is the author of three poetry collections in English—Wearing Glasses of Water, The Perfect Unravelling of the Spirit and The Circular Incantation: An Exercise in Loss and Findings— as well as the Portuguese language short story collection Habitando na Metáfora do Tempo: Crónicas Desejadas. Her most recent works include the novels My House is a Mansion and Uma Casa no Mundo and the collection of short stories titled Procurando Maravilhas. The latter two are due for release early next year.

The Interview

1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?

Writing for me is something fundamental.

I cannot live without it. As soon as I learned how to read and write – when I was seven in grade one in the small village I was born in in Portugal – I knew that writing was my call. It was that “thing” that gave me the most pleasure.

The discovery that I could use words to construct realities and worlds beyond the ones I had, was something magic, something that made me feel I was a daughter of the universe―I could create and see and feel things way beyond my immediate milieu and there was no limit to reality, to my reality.

I was a queen, a queen of the universe.

I believe that at that moment I came to an awareness of my creative call and realized that this call, which we all have (but often suppress) could be fulfilled, expressed, executed through words and writing―and this discovery gave me great delight. Given that I grew up pretty much without toys, I think I might have taken writing even with more vigour, assertiveness and desire. It is as if writing replaced the toys that I had not had: with words I could now build and imagine things ad infinitum, be forever playful…

I also feel (and perhaps I am being vain and conceded) that I have something beautiful to say, to myself, to the world… I have this deep belief that communication, when done carefully, beautifully, ethically, caringly and sensitively can allow us to connect with one another in a very fulfilling way –  erasing, or at least suspending, our existential loneliness and forging real love, real community, and real understanding.

Writing for me is about profound communication: with myself, others and otherness (the non-human, the transcendental). Writing is about love, love for the self, for the other and for the otherness: it is about connecting as deeply as possible with all there is and expanding my consciousness and awareness of the world, of the universe.

2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).

When I was younger I had a severe eating disorder.

This experience affected me in an acute manner. I thought I was the only one who had this “horrible thing,” and that there was something profoundly wrong with me.

Then I realized that it was in fact a very common problem, especially among young girls. That discovery made me feel less alone; more normal. I also knew that I could not let “this thing” overtake my life and so I took steps to overcome it.

It was a very difficult thing to conquer, likely the most difficult thing I have had to overcome, but it gave me a lot of inner strength and told me that we, as individuals, are in fact very resilient, more so than we might think.

We forget that resilience sometimes, and come to rely on others too much to do things for us. We want the world to serve us, to save us, to take care of our problems – evading our own individual responsibilities, demanding more than we give. Capitalism and consumerism may be partly responsible for that.

We want to have things, people, and freedoms to “fix us”, to make us happy, to expand our powers and rights and we forget to tap into our deep well, our resilient side―our internal strength which can be limitless and boundless.

3. Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?

In Canada when I hear this question I often feel that there is a pressure to say “yes I am happy” even when the hurt pounds heavily inside your veins.

We live in a society that tends not to accept emotions very well, especially negative emotions. If you express your emotions in a strong way others often perceive you as odd or they may even become afraid of you, they may think you are mad or out of control or aggressive or a trouble maker. It is as if we have to always pretend that we are happy and if we are unhappy we are to tame and hide our emotions (the tears, the rage, the negativity, the disappointment, the sorrow…).

I find this way of life unhealthy, incomplete and in fact unbearable.

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Photo credit: Lurdes Cardoso

I grew up in Portugal where people tend to express emotions quite loudly and openly and they do so because they feel things (like we all do).

Hiding those feelings seems unnatural to me―and in truth not conducive to genuine communication or relationships or beingness. This is not to say that we should all go out and scream and insult one another of course – or forever dwell in the negative – but we should make a conscious effort to say what we feel without having to mute our most profound emotions.

Some of those emotions may precisely be sorrow and sadness and disappointment and helplessness and loss in the presence of a world that often is unbearably and disgustingly unjust.

In Portuguese we have this word saudade, a word that basically means a yearning, a melancholia, a sadness even, but a sadness that also brings you happiness.

It basically refers to this idea that we are always incomplete, always missing something, thinking of the past or the future as better than the present. You miss a place, a person, a time, you regret something that you did not accomplish. You miss a state of being that you envisage as perfect and complete and possible to attain and so you are in this state of saudade and it can bring you sadness but also a beautiful happiness because in this state of being you mentally, intellectually and spiritually recreate (imagine) and even experience a perfection that you may have never had in real terms, symbolically entering a wholeness that (sort of) fills and fulfills you.

You can enter this state through memory recollection or memory selection, through fado music and even through crying, convulsive crying, because crying, is much more than deep sadness, it allows a resolution, a confrontation, a joining of timeframes, a holistic dwelling of sorts, a cleansing of the soul that is quite healthy.

And you can cry out of deep joy too and real awareness―when you know you are in the presence of the truly beautiful and sublime and pure.

In fact, writing for me also allows all this: it joins the dissected, it beautifies life, it changes memory, it creates beauty, it allows entrance into the sublime, it renews the world and reality, making me feel like a little girl in awe with life again: excited at the novelty of the world before me, a world that I can make much better than it is.

The Perfect Unravelling of the spirit
A collection of poetry by Irene Marques

It is as if I become a magician playing at magic realism.

Despite the fact that many Portuguese like to think that saudade is a feeling that only they experience, I think that is a myth as likely most peoples of the world experience it even if they call it something else.

Let us recall the U2 song: “I still haven’t found what I am looking for.” In this song, this yearning, we envisage and imagine the beautiful and we keep going with a faith that nourishes, that sees, that seeks, that believes, that constructs. It may be more than utopia, more than the thing that never was and could never be because it does not in fact exist: it might just be the very saudade for a world that is still far from being what it could be for all of us, for most of us.

And in any case what is happiness? Can one feel real happiness, real realization, real presence, without feeling profound sadness, profound lack, profound absence? I don’t think so. I believe it was the Mozambican writer Mia Couto who has said something to the effect that we have moments of happiness, and the rest, well, the rest is bearable.  It’s a wise remark. I identify with it and recognize a fundamental existential truth there. I am a being with a wide range of emotions and to live in the world is to see things, to feel things, many things, beautiful things, ugly things. With the countless miseries and injustices that are always going on, one would have to be dead and blind not to feel sad, not to feel broken, not to feel devastated a lot of the times.

I recently wrote a poem that expresses this, this “carrying”… I transcribe it here.

4. What do you think is your greatest strength? On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?

I think I work hard.


I try to do my best and I sometimes may overdo things only because I feel I may not be doing enough―this can of course be both a strength and a weakness (an insecurity).

I would blame it on my Portuguese upbringing.

I grew up in rural Portugal with parents who had a very hard life and endured almost 50 years of a very oppressive fascist regime and so they passed on a strong work ethic, a harshness and a pessimism to myself and to my other seven siblings.

Irene Marques
Photo credit: Eva Lewarne.

I did not grow up with a lot of positive reinforcement: my parents were more predisposed to point out the negatives than the positives (that is perhaps a Portuguese cultural trait), so due to that I sometimes struggle between finding a balance, between loving myself and my accomplishments sufficiently and letting those voices fade away…

I also value honesty and try to always be truthful to others as not to mislead them and cause hurt.

Speaking honestly and avoiding rhetorical trickery are things that I consider essential for a happy, healthy life.

I think we cannot build true community, true love, without honesty and forthright communication. For trust to happen and for the world to make sense, one has to understand the power and the consequences of what we say, to practice the word that we put out as if we were creating something with it―because we are in fact doing so. Words are sacred and can make or break the world, make or break love.

5. When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?

I think I answered that question above―at least partially. At the age of seven, I discovered the pleasure that writing gave me and I knew I needed to purse the path of words. So from that very young age, I would write poems and compositions and the teachers gave me a lot of compliments and would ask me to read my work out loud to the class.

That encouraged me and served to sediment my belief in my call toward writing and I would dream about being/becoming a writer. Since that tender age, my idols were writers and I dreamed of being like them, as good as them.

6. Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?

I like to have some time to relax, to think and be with myself.

I also need to exercise regularly so going to the gym is essential. I cannot stay home all day: I need to go out and see people, hear people, the sounds, the life, the breathing, the noises of the world. Given that I live alone, this is necessary and essential to feel connected to the world and also because communication is very important to me.

I need this connection to the world, to people: it is a way to find the self (my Self) in others and otherness, otherwise I feel I am disappearing. I need the mirror that the other is to remind me of myself.

This speaks to the importance of  relationality in finding being, in beingness, like the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas has pointed out. Sometimes, because of my academic work demands or other social commitments, I don’t spend enough time alone, doing nothing or engaged in creative writing, and this affects me so I try to find time to devote to those tasks and exit the stresses of life―this allows me to reconnect with that base that brings me back to myself and reenergizes me.

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a collection of poetry by Irene Marques

So I need both solitude and sociability to reach a balance, to satisfy my humanity, my personhood, my beingness.

7. How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?

I need to speak with friends or write to exit the “mundane.” Writing also functions as a therapeutic medium, as a mechanism to exorcise “the devils”, the insecurities within, a cleansing mechanism that then regenerates me and allows me so start anew, to believe in myself again.

I also need to cry: when I am sad or disappointed or hurt or without hope, a good cry is necessary and it does wonders to bring me back to another way of being, and feeling and seeing.

8. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?

I think an artist must stay true to his/her artistic call and not allow the commercial world to dictate his/her aesthetic.

I think this is more and more difficult nowadays and artists of all kinds feel pressured to produce works that sell – leading to artistic poverty and monoculture.

For instance, in terms of writing, there is a plethora of agents, editors, commercial publishers and creative writing courses being taught at Universities that all seem to be taming the writer, telling him/her what they should write about and how they should go about doing so.

I also believe that in Canada (and also in the US and England) literary writing is dominated by what I often term the Anglo-Saxon ethic and aesthetic. Given that English dominates the world and that most English works are translated into other languages and very few non-English language works are translated into English, this ethic and aesthetic then contaminates and influences the world and comes to be the judging “tool” of what is considered good literary writing, consequently leading to a monoculture that passes as diversity or globalism.

This is a topic that I often discuss and am in fact very passionate about and I believe real and serious discussions need to take place about this subject. Recently I posted an answer on Facebook relating to this issue and responding to Camilla Gibb’s remarks about the importance of editing

I transcribe it here as I believe it really relays my thoughts well:

Although one must trim and edit this advice sounds too much like an Anglo-American philosophy on writing and reading which must be questioned and defied otherwise we end up with the same type of writing, which is already the case in North America and also becoming a problem around the world with a monoculture on writing passing as diversity–where the aim is often to appeal to an audience that shares certain ethic and aesthetic (what I often term the Anglo-Saxon ethic and aesthetic) and sell to large commercial publishers.

The reader is not dumb, should not be dumb and should work to understand the book he/she reads.

Reading is a learning experience, where the reader constructs the story, not a final dish served to be eaten.

Feed the monkeys bananas and that’s all they think they will like. Furthermore, writing is not always (should not be only) about being specific and appealing to the reader on a logical and contained way: it is about relating to the uncanny, the unfamiliar, the confused and the confusing, the allegorical and magical and leaving you there without giving you the answers, therefore allowing the reader and the writer to enter another realm.

And for that to happen you need language, twisted unfamiliar language and form that can push the boundaries and allow for perplexity, you need long stretches of “meditation” that many in the Anglo-American circles confuse with “indulgence.” Literary writing is not/should not be neatly formulaic because if it is we stay in the same place… Let’s not kill writing in the name of clarity, logic and rationality, epistemologies that only see so far and beyond them there lies an entire world of marvel, magic, wonder and profound wisdom…

See this excellent article by Professor Sarah Brouillette titled “On Some Recent Worrying over World Literature’s Commodity Status” on these and other issues related to writing.

9. Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).

Most writers (if not all) feel the powerful call to write and yet they may also feel they will fail at the task, that they may not be able to write at all or write well.

My advice is that you put that fear aside and follow that voice that is calling you.

Also: do not let editors, agents, publishers and rejections letters stop you from writing, and most importantly, do not allow them to change your writing to the point that it is no longer yours or make you feel that you don’t know how to write.

because literary writing is about being creative, innovative and not simply reproducing what the status quo or a certain literary elite deems acceptable or fashionable or good.

Writing should be about going beyond what is already there. Writing is about giving life to the unique impulse that you carry in you and that no one else carries quite like you. Do not fear being alone in this endeavour. This can, of course be applicable to artists of other sorts who also suffer similar pressures.

10. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to money? This is a less specific question, but I’m just curious about your thoughts on the topic. Has your relationship to money changed over the years?

I emigrated to Canada from Portugal at the age of 20 by myself.

I came to Canada as a nanny with a restricted work permit. Coming from a poor family in rural Portugal, having grown up without running water and access to other modern living conditions, material success was certainly something that I felt pressure to achieve.

My family in Portugal still thinks that I should have several houses in Canada and Portugal and other material possessions to be a success like my other siblings. That pressure to succeed materially is still there but I have learned to allow my own voice, my own choices to speak louder―even if at points I may still vacillate because I am of course not a superhuman being and the voices of others also affect my sense of self, my self-assurance.

But I try to assert my own right to be the way I think I should be, to live the way I think I should live.

11. Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
Irene Marques
Photo credit: Eva Lewarne.

Yes being “in the zone” is a beautiful, magnificent thing.

Writing often allows me to enter that “zone.” I experience that deeply and powerfully and for longer periods of time, especially when I am writing a novel, as novels demand more time and concentration than poetry and short fiction―and may be, for that reason, more conducive to that.

But I can (and do) of course, experience being “in the zone” when writing poems or short fiction too as they can allow for that quick eureka moment or illumination that can also be astounding.

I experienced “this zone” quite intensely and steadily when I wrote my last novel (Uma casa no mundo/A House in the World), a novel in Portuguese about the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa that is due for publication in Portugal next year.

I wrote the novel in about six months. At the time I was not working on anything else and so I was able to enter the process of writing very deeply – without being interrupted – and that felt amazing, complete, intense…

I remember I would write for about 2 to 4 hours a day and then I would feel ecstatic for the rest of the day as if nothing else mattered―as if I had the absolute certainty that writing was my only real call and that my life was perfectly fulfilling by doing just that.

I must say that I have done all kinds of work in my life since a very young age, and up until that moment I had been working several jobs, so perhaps that also contributed more to that feeling of being “in the zone”―because finally I had a moment of uninterrupted writing, a “room of my own” so to speak.

Also, as I said previously in different words, writing is a deeply spiritual and ontological experience for me so being seriously immersed in it feels like there is nothing missing, like I am with “God.” And that “God” is Good! It is as if you are dwelling in a totality, a wholeness, where there is nothing missing, because you are all and everything, you are many, you exit the smallness of your ego (you forget yourself) and become joined with the others and the otherness. You are no longer alone. You are communicating. Truly communicating. You are in communion. You are extended. Loving the world and the universe by becoming part of them, one with them.

12. What is your favourite book? It could be about your craft, or maybe just an excellent story. If that is too difficult to answer, who are your favourite authors?

I will say that I have many favourite writers: Clarice Lispector (Brazil), J.M. Coetzee (South Africa), Toni Morrison (U.S.A.), Isabel Allende (Peru), José Luis Peixoto (Portugal), José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola), Mia Couto (Mozambique), Marie Redonnet (France).

There are others of course…

I like writers who take language and form beyond what we know, beyond what we have, beyond what we use―writers who confuse you, who make you think, who do not necessarily give you the answers in a rational, logical way, but allow you to see with the non-rational wisdoms (the sprit, the emotion, the instinct, the body, that third-eye, that fourth dimension).

Writers who awake in you that little boy or girl that you have dormant inside―that “little” person open to playfulness and creation and awe that our society (pragmatic, serious, boring, tamed, literal and devoid of magic) tells you to push down and often for the sake of control and clarity, because we are afraid of the unknown and the uncontrollable, but the unknown, the uncontrollable are there, and if you open yourself to them, you may become less fearful and more yourself.

I like writers who take you to the zone, another zone, that zone. And these types of writers, I fear, are not being sufficiently nourished today, as I noted earlier.

As Mia Couto puts it, “Life is too precious to be wasted in a disenchanted world.”


Follow Irene Marques

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Irene’s most recent novel My House is a Mansion came out March 2015.

It’s a “spiritual and sexual coming of age story explores issues of personal and collective identity, mythical and mystical understandings of self, world and universe, gender, race and class.”

Visit her at her website: www.irenemarques.net

And check out some of Irene’s work by clicking here.

You can also browse her books on Amazon.ca

 


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“Writing for me is about profound communication: with myself, others and otherness” – an interview with Irene Marques
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These conversations are about the creative soul. They are the true experiences of creatives with their own creative impulse, and they are the private (made public) reflections on what creativity feels like on a very personal level. All interviews are conducted by Christine Bissonnette