Afonso Reis Cabral

“I try to be aware of life’s enchantment”

Interview: Maria Martinho
Photo: Vitorino Coragem

He was born in Lisbon, grew up in Porto, and began writing on a patio next to a magnolia tree when he discovered poetry though the voice of fado singer Amália Rodrigues. At 15 he published his first book of poems, but it was as a novelist that Afonso Reis Cabral began to get noticed.

In 2014 he received the Leya prize for his book O Meu Irmão, and five years later he won the José Saramago prize for Pão de Açúcar, inspired by a notorious crime and soon to be adapted for the big screen. In 2019, this young writer walked the entire highway EN 2 alone, a distance of some 738 km, an experience which he shared on social media and which led to his most recent book, Leva-me Contigo.

It is between constant doubt and chronic anxiety that his creative process takes place. Memories, observations and things he has read are jotted down in a handwritten notebook. Nowadays, Afonso Reis Cabral is 32, president of the Eça de Queiroz Foundation, independent editor, columnist for Jornal de Notícias and he has a radio programme on Antena 1.

Q: Tell me about your origins…

A: My mother is from Lisbon, my dad from Porto, I was born in Lisbon but was raised and I studied in Porto, where I actually started to write aged nine, next to a magnolia tree. I remember picking up the pen very suddenly. I was already a voracious reader and I knew that somehow my life would revolve around literature. At that time I thought I would be a poet, but poetry was simply a response to a kind of literary calling I felt. Later on, aged 15, I published a volume of poetry, but stopped writing verse at that time.

Q: What influence did fado singer Amália Rodrigues have on your beginning to write?

A: I knew that her death in 1999 was what sparked me to start writing. I felt it was a gauntlet Amália had thrown down for me, at the moment when she died and I had discovered her. The poetry in her voice was something that struck a mysterious chord in me, that sounded like a call to action. My first poem, Pensamentos, came about after hearing and being awed by Amália’s words, it was clear as day.

Q: You don’t call yourself a poet, but do you feel poetry was a way to try out things in order to get to where you are today?

A: It was a place to start. I think I had to get poetry out of my system so my writing could flourish. Aged ten, I was constantly questioning my writing as poetry. I wrote some 300 poems, carrying a file around with my work while thinking my true vocation was to be a storyteller, a novelist. I remember having a file on my computer I called “alter-ego” because I truly thought my writing came from another me who could express things that in truth did not exist, almost like on a stage. My first prose was a small book I wrote in 6th grade on the French invasions, using a narrator and different characters, or to put it another way, I transformed that historical moment into a narrative, a novella.

Q: What were your references at the time?

A: Fernando Pessoa. I remember being aged 9 or 10 and not understanding what a heteronym was, and that was a constant source of fascination. I read a lot of poetry, Alexandre O’Neill, Mário Cesariny and David Mourão-Ferreira, and I would go back and reread certain books, always with a different purpose in mind. For instance, I now host a show on Antena 1 with Dulce Maria Cardoso and Richard Zimler which is a kind of book club; every week we read something we’ve chosen between us, and we tend to chose books we know are good and which we’ve already read in the past, so I’m back to rereading books that were once important to me.

Q: You published your first book, Condensação, at age 15. When did you begin to gain confidence in your work?

A: Maybe it would be easier to say when I began to lose confidence in it [he laughs]. As a kid I was absolutely certain this was what I wanted to do, I never had to undergo a psycho-technical test or wrack my brains to figure out my chosen professional career. At that age the process was completely the opposite, very childish and starry-eyed. I knew what I wanted and this helped me on my way, although over time I began to lose my assuredness and see it for the illusion it was. These days being a writer for me is a process of constant self-doubt, whether for my column or a chapter of a book; it’s practically a kind of writing dysphoria, where I begin by thinking it’s all terrible. This began to happen in the last 10 years, from the moment when I started writing the book O Meu Irmão published in 2014.

Q: You won the Leya prize with what was your first novel. Did this recognition and exposure affect you?

A: When the book came out, I was a complete rookie in this respect. I’d already been writing for 12 years, so I didn’t feel exactly like a brand-new writer, but I had no notion of how it would feel to be published on the coattails of the Leya prize, the spotlight this gave me and the sudden readership. Although I do think I was able straight away to surf this wave and keep my integrity and independence intact, after a while the pressure did begin to get too much.

Q: How did you cope?

A: By eventually understanding that a literary prize is simply a group of people and readers who liked a certain book, and this does not grant me any special privileges or obligations in relation to anything. This distancing process of mine helped me a lot as I went along. When I received the José Saramago Literary Prize in 2019, that was a different matter, because I’d already learned how to adapt to me and my writing being the public eye.

Q: Others liking your writing is always something you bear in mind?

A: Yes, obviously whoever is a writer has to bear the reader in mind, but our voice is a solitary one, which is expressed without an audience, a context, obstacles or a life beyond the written word on a piece of paper.

Q: Can you picture your readership?

A: I know they tend to be middle-aged. There are few in Portugal who pick up a book; if there are one hundred thousand people who read more than one book per year that’s already not bad.

Q: In 2018 you published Pão de Açúcar, a novel inspired by the case of Gisberta, the transsexual murdered in Porto in 2006. How did you come to write about that?

A: I remember that when that happened I was still living in Porto, aged 16, exactly the same age as the oldest boy involved in the case. Like anyone else, I remember it being on the news and how shocking and dramatic this reality of something I knew absolutely nothing about felt. In 2016, when the case was 10 years old, I read an article about it and knew there was a story waiting to be told, although my book is fiction and this was something that really happened. It’s no journalist’s account, it’s pure fiction because the characters are all made up. I was fascinated by how so much remained unexplained. How could three boys help her and then weeks later contribute to her death? This void can, in my view, be a space for fiction, while at the same time I was attracted to the remove between me and the facts of the story.

Q: Is there a “before and after” with regard to receiving the José Saramago Prize?

A: I don’t know, because it’s an international award, maybe in that sense, yes. It’s a distinction that is quite wide-reaching, which helps to get my work translated and off the shelves, but in my case it was really the Leya prize that was my before-and-after moment, its publication really changed my life.

Q: A Brazilian production company has bought the rights and is adapting Pão de Açúcar for the cinema. How did this come about?

A: I’d already received some offers to adapt my books for the big screen, but they never seemed particularly serious, while Glaz’ approach seemed to have more in common with what my book was about. The idea of the aggressor, life on the margins and the feeling of helplessness is still there, though I think film has its own take and stands on its own merits. I think filming will happen in Portugal over the next two or three years, with the idea of it being an international production.

Q: Leva-me Contigo is your latest book, published in 2019, and is an abridged version of your trek along the EN 2 highway. What did this experience teach you?

A: I set off with no specific aim, I didn’t know it would end up as a book, it just happened. I’d write a text every single day relating my experience which I then shared on social media, and by journey’s end my publisher suggested I compile it all into a book. What I got from this journey was the enormous solidarity of the Portuguese people, many of them my readers and others who just saw me with my backpack and wanted to help, gave me a bed for the night and a cooked meal. This wave of solidarity was totally unexpected on my part, and I was able to build a realistic portrait of the country and friendship, discovering how friendships are made simply on the road.

Q: What things would you still like to do?

A: I’d love to take part in an expedition on one of our submarines, that for sure would be interesting to read about.

Q: What goes into your creative process? Does it always start by asking questions?

A: It’s always a process of constant self-doubt. I actually believe I suffer from some kind of writing dysphoria, in which I tend to think it’s all bad, and this is not false modesty, then I soldier on and understand it’s not so bad after all, but at first I’m wracked by doubt, mistrust and the niggling feeling it’s truly awful. This implies a lot of work and rewriting, which I associate with my idea of this being a trade — besides being President of the Eça de Queiroz foundation, I’m an independent publisher — it doesn’t really fall in line with the idea of inspiration, but at the same time I’m grateful for the moments in which everything seems to be going according to plan, which is rare, but really nice.

Q: Dealing with being your own harshest critic is not hard?

A: Yes, I wish I wasn’t so sensitive and didn’t subject myself to such chronic anxiety. The only justification I have for this constant self-criticism is the fact it can inspire me to do better, otherwise it would only amount to suffering.

Q: Your writing is always a result of what you see and hear?

A: My narrators are always first-person and they have their own character, their own ways of living and speaking, and this is thrashed out in every book I write, but it’s all material for me, from the books I read to what I see with my own eyes, while dipping into my own memory. I try to be aware of life’s enchantment, I’m still endowed with a certain sense of childlike wonder.

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