Interview with Luís Cunha

“Academic writing is a true corset”

Luís Cunha is an anthropologist, a Lecturer at the University of Minho and a researcher at CECS who integrates the Cultural Studies research group. He has developed his research on social memory, in which the “frontier” constitutes one of the themes that he has approached in this scope. The other area of ​​research that has occupied most of his time as an investigator is the problematic of the national identities, on its various aspects. One of them, is related to the representations of Lusophony. In this context, he published some works, such as “A nação nas malhas da sua identidade. O Estado Novo e a construção da identidade Nacional” [The nation in the meshes of its identity, the Estado Novo and the construction of the National identity”] (2001) and “Memória social em Campo Maior. Usos e percursos da fronteira” [“Social memory in Campo Maior, Uses and routes of the frontier”] (2006). In addition, he has production outside his area of ​​research, and has recently won the 11th edition of the National Contest Manuel de Fonseca 2016, with the book, “Vinte Mil Léguas de Palavras” [Twenty Thousand Leagues of Words] that was released on October 21 of 2017, at Santiago do Cacém. The work, which was distinguished by a unanimous decision of the jury, is outside of what Luís Cunha does as an academic and is therefore an exercise he envisages important, since, as he says in this interview, whose answers to the questions were provided by e-mail, “the academic writing is a true corset”. For now, he doesn´t think of publishing more fiction, despite defending that “writing only comes alive when it leaves us and is appropriate, in many ways, by those who read it”. He notes, however, that there is a great difficulty in publishing in Portugal, especially by the new authors. Although he doesn’t totally reject the hypothesis of publishing more fiction, he says that he has the drawer full “without space to more unprintable paper”.

Question (Q) – You have won, in 2016, the 11th edition of the National Tale Contest Manuel de Fonseca with the book “Vinte Mil Léguas e Palavras” [Twenty Thousand Leagues of Words], recently presented. What is this book about, in which each of its tales has the particularity of having a thousand words. By the way, why does every tale have this dimension?

Luís Cunha (LC) – Paradoxically, the rigor of a thousand words was a bit accidental, as a result of the way the texts were written that became twenty short stories. The initial challenge I made to myself was to spend the usually lazy mornings between Christmas and New Year with the daily writing of a short narrative. A good part of these tales were born thus, and as they were written in a very short and defined period, they all ended up with a very similar dimension. One of them fell into exactly one thousand words, and from this chance came the idea of ​​putting others back together so that they, were of the same size, too. The initial intention was to associate an illustration with each tale, thus playing with the sentence, attributed to Confucius, that a picture is worth a thousand words. The book ended up without illustrations but the intention remains.

I also think the fact that the stories collected in this book, at least a good many of them, were written in a relatively short period of time help to explain the significant thematic consistency they possess. I would not say that there is a theme, but there is surely a bundle of reasons more or less convergent. Madness and death, first of all, haunt several of these tales, subjects treated with some black humor sometimes, or with a bit of cruelty, on other occasions. In my opinion, they all converge, in the way one uses writing as an exercise of illusion, for example resorting to unexpected outcomes or somewhat absurd situations, seeking (almost) always to surprise the reader.

Q – What did this prize mean to you?

LC – It meant, above all, the possibility of publishing this book. It seems like a little thing, but the truth is that in Portugal, today, there is hardly a publisher willing to risk authors who are not known, especially when you are living far from Lisbon and you do not attend the appropriate circuits. It is easy to edit if the author gets ahead by paying for the edit or if he arranges a sponsor to do so. Something that also exists, we all know, in the editing of scientific texts, but which is making publishers merely ‘publishers’ (in the strict sense), that is, companies willing to publish anything, as long as the money is advanced so that the publication takes place. This discredits the publishers and penalizes some good authors, who publish in these publishers and thus end up paying the burden of this disbelief. The literary prizes attributed to unpublished works allow a little smashing of this siege and closure, even though they do not properly signify a bet on an author – the editions are very small, and there is not an effective distribution of the books in the bookstores of the country.

The National Tale Contest Manuel de Fonseca, already in the 11th edition, is associated with one of the great names of the neorealist current (I think it is undeservedly devalued today) and presents itself as “Nacional”, which distances him of the parochial craze of some prizes of this kind, that appeal to local themes or authors. For these reasons this prize has pleased me greatly.

Q – Being an anthropologist, teacher and researcher, with work done in the area, what leads you to write, and for the first time, outside your ‘research’ themes and make a leap to fiction? Or is it that this incursion is not alien to your thematic of investigation?

LC – Well, this really is afar from what I do as an academic, and it is precisely because I am outside that it is important to me. I began to write fiction more seriously, that is to say, trying to do something withan introduction, developmant and end, something that could be shown and published, in the hangover of the writing of the doctoral thesis. Academic writing is a true corset. The effort to justify everything we say, the search for all authors who, before us, wrote something similar to what we say, imposes a permanent and suffocating weight on us. You feel this, in fact, in any academic article, of course, but the writing of a thesis is something of a different kind, even by the time it takes to conclude. As far as I’m concerned, I finished writing my PhD thesis with a feeling of tiredness and a motivation to write in another way. I wrote a novel, which I tried to edit without success and which awaits in the drawer for better days, and I also wrote other things, still moved by this desire of a writing where the imagination would impose itself to the written script, supposedly rigorous and even suffocating that the academy requires us. In this sense, this book is not the first incursion into the field of literature but is the only one that can be read by interested or curious people.

Q – Write fiction complements you as a social scientist?

LC – You could say that, yes. I feel that I have been much under the skin of a reader than that of a writer, at least in the sense that I could give up writing but not reading. As a “scribbler” I use different registers. The academic writing, rigorous, fulfilling of all the rules of the office; the writing that I use to participate as a citizen in the public debate, what I do, especially through what I post on Facebook, the only forum that I have current access to; finally, what I write in the field of fiction, and here there is neither the vigilance of academic rigor nor the political implication of citizenship, but rather a territory free and available to the imagination. If my academic side interprets the world and if my side of implied citizen criticizes and promotes visions of the world, my fictional side invents worlds. In that sense, yes, these three dimensions of writing complement me.

Q – Are you planning to write more fictional books? If so, do you have already have projects?

LC – Writing to myself does not interest me at all. Writing comes to life only when it leaves us and is appropriate, in many ways, by those who read. Having this understanding, and given the difficulty of publishing that exists in this country, for some years I have stopped writing fiction. I do not say that I will not do it again, but the truth is that I have the drawer full and there is no more space for unprintable paper there. The prize motivated me, of course, at least enough to consider sending other texts for similar competitions. As for the rest, I have no longer the age or patience to run after editors, or “publishers”, or whatever they are. To paraphrase Luiz Pacheco, who was a great portuguese writer who never published a novel, “Puta que os pariu” [Sons of a bitch].



Interview and photos: Vítor de Sousa