Scholar and poet Ana Luísa Amaral on the effort to return the Three Marias’ daring mixed-genre work to its rightful place in the Portuguese canon.

Ana Luísa Amaral

Photo of Ana Luísa Amaral by Oona Patrick

New Portuguese Letters was written by three Portuguese women in 1971, including Maria Teresa Horta, whose poems appear in the supplement to issue 25 of The Puritan. The book was first written to intentionally provoke the Portuguese dictatorship’s censors. The authors—known as the “Three Marias”—were put on trial for obscenity, and their struggle became an international cause. However, the book’s later history, 40 years of cycling between suppression and avoidance, and being co-opted and rediscovered, may be just as interesting and instructive.

At the 2012 DISQUIET program in Lisbon, I wasn’t surprised to find that hardly anyone in our group of 60 international writers knew of the Three Marias. But I was surprised that their book had fallen out of print in Portugal for almost two decades, and was not even read in universities. The authors had continued to write, but their association with feminism had not helped their careers. As Hilary Owen quotes Graça Abranches, in the Index on Censorship, the book had become “an exile in its own land.”

At the time, I was still reeling from the results of the VIDA count back home, and it got me thinking about different types of censorship and how the outright banning of a book can draw a rapid response. But the prolonged, silent neglect of certain voices deemed unacceptable or, more optimistically, “ahead of their time,” is harder to challenge. Organizations such as VIDA and CWILA have been quantifying the silence for us in North America, but what was the situation elsewhere?

In Portugal in 2012, I grew obsessed with the New Portuguese Letters and what it might have to say in our time. I took a train north to Porto to meet Ana Luísa Amaral and learn about the movement to return the book to its rightful place in the Portuguese canon.

Amaral is Portugal’s leading expert on New Portuguese Letters and the editor of a 2010 annotated edition in Portuguese. An accomplished poet and scholar who teaches Anglo-American literature at the University of Porto, she is the author of 15 books of poetry and several beautifully illustrated children’s books. In the 1990s, the critic Osvaldo Manuel Silvestre called her one of “the two greatest revelations of Portuguese poetry in the current decade.”

In an effort to bring New Portuguese Letters back into the public consciousness, Amaral has since been deeply engaged in the ongoing effort based at the University of Porto to mark the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication, an effort which includes the publication of four new books, the development of a comprehensive website, and the creation of a series of international workshops, events, and other related publications. Much of her work and the work of other recent scholars, such as Ana Martins, has focused on the question of how it has been read, or perhaps misread, in the light of evolving contemporary feminist theory. Both Martins and the American scholar Darlene Sadlier before her point out that its interest as a work of literature has been neglected, much of the focus falling instead on its “political life.”

Amaral is scheduled to speak on a panel about the Three Marias and New Portuguese Letters as part of the 2014 DISQUIET program in Lisbon this July. Below is my interview with her, conducted at the Universidade Lusófona in Porto, Portugal.

Oona Patrick: What is your first memory of New Portuguese Letters (or Novas Cartas Portuguesas) and the controversy surrounding it? Do your students usually know the book?

Ana Luísa Amaral: I knew this book for a long time, of course. I’m 56 years old. I still remember when the book came out in Portugal. I was very young—15 or 16. It was a very, very polemic thing in Portugal. At that time, Portugal was still under the dictatorship, it was still fascist. When the book came out, it was prohibited.

I started to include the book on my syllabus, in the course that I was teaching (and still teach)  at the University [of Porto], called “From Feminist Studies to Queer Theory.” And what I do in this course, is I use New Portuguese Letters from beginning to end. I give two or three theoretical sessions about feminist studies, and then queer theory. They learn [Judith] Butler right off, they learn [Donna] Haraway, and all of that. And then I start with New Portuguese Letters which I use as a model to apply both feminist theories and queer theory. And when I started this, none of my students knew New Portuguese Letters. This was in Portugal. My own colleagues did not know New Portuguese Letters.

OP: How did this happen?

ALA: I don’t know. I mean, they have heard about it. It’s this kind of phenomenon, a very interesting one: everyone heard about the book, everyone knows that there was a book called New Portuguese Letters, but very few people read it. First of all, it’s not simple; it’s hard. It’s hard to read. Then, there is this anathema. You know, this kind of thing: “It’s a feminist book.” And feminism is still connected to the burning of bras. I mean the typical response: “Those crazy women, burning bras and jumping under the horses and all of these ideas.” Especially in Portugal, the words feminism and feminist are still connected to the historical feminism of the 1970s. I believe that New Portuguese Letters was much ahead of its time.

OP: I’ve been thinking that, too.

ALA: Although it was written in the 1970s, and although it owes a lot to French feminism and French theories of feminism, New Portuguese Letters makes you reread the French feminists, makes you go back. It makes you read again [Hélène] Cixous, it makes you reformulate ideas which were mostly spread in the 1980s by North American feminism, by Anglo-American feminism, about French feminism.

I have worked with this paradigm for years, but I have changed—in the past six or seven years, I recognize that I have changed a lot. I have worked with this paradigm, [that of] some of the Anglo-American feminists, for example Elaine Showalter, who said that French feminism didn’t bother with social and historical conditions. By stressing this issue of écriture féminine, French feminists defended that there was a way women were writing, there was a women’s writing. And this is a very essentialist position: this is what Anglo-American feminists said about French feminism. Anglo American feminism was attentive to social and historical conditions. I mean, I don’t think there is such thing as feminine writing. And if there is such a thing as feminine writing, this is because the social conditions and historical conditions have created inequalities between men and women, and this is how the concept of gender appears. I think that New Portuguese Letters makes you rethink this issue. It makes you go back to French feminists and makes you see that French feminism was actually the base for Butler’s theories.

The Three Marias

The Three Marias: Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta, and Maria Velho da Costa

OP: What was the intention of the authors in writing New Portuguese Letters?

ALA: The interesting thing, also, about New Portuguese Letters, is that when it came out, or when they wrote it, they did not write it as a feminist manifesto. This was not the intention. Their intention was to write a book, you see, that’s all. It was to write a book in a way that would defy authority. One of their books had come out and it had been received very badly by the censorship. So one day, they were having lunch, and one of them said, “If one of us can make so much noise, imagine the three of us.” That’s how the book started; that’s how the book was composed. But they were not writing a feminist manifesto as some people wrongly say. They were writing a book; they were writing texts. After that, the book became the first feminist global cause.

OP: I read how they mailed it to feminists in France and asked for support.

ALA: But it was not written as a feminist manifesto. Because if you read it, it speaks about the colonial wars, it speaks about violence, it speaks about love, it speaks about women’s bodies, it speaks about men’s bodies, as well. I find that very interesting.

[In our project] we are not working only on New Portuguese Letters, per se. What we are also interested in are the themes that are raised by New Portuguese Letters, that is, for example: feminization of poverty, inequality, war, the relationship between power and gender. So all the issues, and of course, naturally, politics of the body. Sexual politics. Because I think that the book has all of this.

OP: That’s part of why I like it so much: it ranges. And there is no closure at the end; instead we have the authors disagreeing with each other more and more. As Darlene Sadlier writes, it is “open in a way that few political arguments and few narratives are.” How would you describe the book’s form?

ALA: When we think about New Portuguese Letters, we may ask ourselves, is this a book of short stories? It isn’t entirely. Are these letters? They are, but they’re not only letters. They’re not only poems, not only short stories, not only even fiction, or fictionalized news. I mean, it’s everything. The issue of stability doesn’t exist in New Portuguese Letters. Not only does it raise the issue of intertextuality, but also, in my opinion, queer theory could very well be applied to New Portuguese Letters.

OP: I’m really interested in the genre question, especially as it relates to new forms of nonfiction.

ALA: So, both in terms of genre, and in terms of gender, it’s an extremely new and original book. Of course, you can say, “ah, the nouveau roman was already there.” The stream of consciousness (which owes a lot to Modernism) of course was there with the Modernists before the nouveau roman. But, the thing is, it’s not only that. New Portuguese Letters totally demolishes this idea of stable genres. This is very interesting, as it connects with the issue of authority and the issue of authorship. Who writes what, to start with? And then the issue of authority, you know. What is this, from the canonical point of view, where does this fall? I think it raises extremely interesting questions.

OP: As Sadlier also writes, in New Portuguese Letters, “Nearly all of the poetry violates the established Portuguese norms of literary taste.” How are women writers received in Portugal today? Patrícia Reis gave a very harsh assessment during her talks in the Disquiet program, but Luísa Costa Gomes countered her, dismissing these concerns as an American obsession with issues.

ALA: This is very interesting, you see. I know both of them, and I’m a friend of both of them. I would go to something in between. I think that, as in any area, women still have to make a bigger effort than men to be recognized. I think this is true in the university world; this is true for entrepreneurs and for writers as well.

New Portuguese Letters

New Portuguese Letters

Speaking for myself, I have never asked for any favours; I have never asked anyone to do anything for me. This is true, but I can’t complain. I personally can’t complain. I’m invited to so many things. I go abroad so much. But it’s very interesting that, for example, the pattern is for me to go with Vasco Graça Moura, Nuno Júdice, and Pedro Tamen. Three men and me, the token woman. Something like that. I don’t know if they think, “Well, she’s the token woman, she goes as a symbolic person.” I don’t think it’s conscious. They know me, I have a name, you know, and it comes out as natural.

There is [discrimination] for women, as there is for all minorities. So many levels of inequality still exist in society—I shouldn’t say still, when I say still, it almost seems as if I’m speaking of something small—it’s not small. Among the poor of the world, women remain the poorest. Because this goes on and we haven’t achieved a society of equality, I think that it is understandable that those inequalities, those levels of discrimination also happen in the literary world—especially in the literary market.

Personally, I write, you see. And I won’t stop writing because of that inequality. I always wrote. Publication or no publication. I can’t complain. I have been published in the major publishing houses. I am now in Publicações Dom Quixote. Fortunately, I have no problems at all in publishing a book with the big publishing houses in Portugal. But I am not saying that this happens to everyone. And I am very well aware of precisely that discrimination.

Once in a while I write for Público newspaper, and I write political pieces. And no one has ever said, “This is a woman; this is crazy.” Last time, I said something like, “The government should resign.” Very strong things, you know. Another one was my cat. I have two cats and a dog. My cat, she was speaking, and she was saying, “I will not emigrate.” This was when our prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, was saying that we should all emigrate because Portugal’s destiny is the sea. The young people should emigrate. And my cat (she’s called Poppy) was saying, “I will not emigrate! I like this place.”

OP: Do you think writing can be either masculine or feminine?

ALA: I don’t think literature has a gender. In this, I disagree with Maria Teresa Horta, who strongly believes [that there is] a feminine writing. I do not believe there is a feminine writing. I think writing is writing. I am a feminist in my citizenship, let’s say, but I do not think that there is a feminine writing or masculine writing. I think there is writing. It is either good or bad.

It is the politics of reception that make it feminine or masculine. So it is criticism, it is literary theory—the grammar under the theory of literature. Those are gendered. And very strongly biased. And discriminating. But poetry itself has no sex, I don’t think. It’s human. And it’s a need of the human people. It’s a way for human beings to connect, as art is.

OP: Are there examples of writers who have responded to New Portuguese Letters in literary works?

ALA: No, except the three authors themselves, who have continued to respond. Wanting to or not, they have. Maria Velho da Costa wrote a book called O Livro do Maio together with a Portuguese poet Hermando da Silva Carvalho, and they are letters to each other. It came out in 2008 or 2009. Last year, Maria Teresa Horta wrote As Luzes de Leonor (The Lights of Leonor). And it is written, in my opinion, in the manner of New Portuguese Letters. And Maria Isabel Barreno has done the same, with her essays.

OP: So in a way, they’re still writing it.

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