“The Atlantic is Full of Ghosts”: An Interview with Alexandra Lucas Coelho

by Maria Meindl

Maria Meindl is the author of Outside the Box from McGill-Queen’s University Press, winner of the Alison Prentice award for women’s history. Her essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in journals including The Literary Review of Canada, Descant, Musicworks and Queen Street Quarterly, as well as in the anthologies The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood  and At the End of Life: True Stories about How We Die. She has made two series for CBC Radio’s Ideas: Parent Care and Remembering Polio. Maria is the founder of Draft, a reading series featuring work-in-progress by established and emerging writers. She teaches movement classes in Toronto and is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

I first learned of Alexandra Coelho’s work at a panel discussion she was on, called “Literature Under Authoritarianism.” It was and event put on by the Disquiet literary program in Lisbon, in the summer of 2017. The panel was on the fourth floor of the Aljube, the museum of resistance. It’s located not far from the Alfama district, a dense web of streets still preserved from mediaeval times. Aljube means “dry well” in Arabic. Built under Moorish rule, this place has almost always served as a prison, most recently housing opponents of the dictatorship that ruled Portugal from 1926 to 1974. Prisoners were tortured and murdered here. Some were kept for extended periods of time in cells called “drawers.” They were one meter by two meters in size.

When I tried to get to the auditorium the elevator went down instead of up and I ended up in a hallway-to-nowhere in the basement. There was no way out, except by elevator. And the elevator was gone. I was stuck in the basement. This was a place where people had—in a skilled, calculated and practiced way—made other people suffer. For centuries. It was a world held together by cruelty. What would it have been like to have that simple fact dawn on you? How much fear had been experienced within these walls? Heart thudding, I worried the call button, which did not light up.

I was one of six participants in a workshop called “Writing the Luso Experience.” Our heritage was diverse, with parents and grandparents from various parts of Portugal. With my Sephardic background, I had the most tenuous connection to this country, my ancestors having emigrated at least four centuries ago. Chances are, they left this country feeling afraid.

I was homesick. No. More than that; I felt home was sick. Canada Day celebrations were fast approaching. Canada 150: its very name was a denial of 15,000 years of history, not to mention of the human rights abuses being perpetrated against Indigenous people in the present day. I felt like something was dying: the Canada where I thought I had grown up, a Canada that never really existed. Canada the good. Here I was in Portugal, investigating some obscure ancestral connection when I should be home, doing something—anything—just not leaving Indigenous people to bear the burden of keeping the truth alive. Yet as a white person, I was not sure what stories I had the right to tell.

The elevator finally returned to the basement. I pressed “4” right away, bypassing the display on the second floor which shows all the stages of detention, from arrest to interrogation and torture, along with a row of the infamous detention cells.

In the days that followed the panel I found myself having imaginary conversations with Alexandra, as a way of making sense of my complex feelings about what was going on back home. I don’t speak Portuguese and can’t read her book; still, I wanted to talk to her about her process, learn what drove her to grapple with an aspect of history her country would rather forget.

A few days later I met her at a reading. The room was noisy; we had to shout. All I remember from our conversation is that we used the word “narrative” a lot. But we did exchange email addresses. Six months later, and back in Toronto, the slow train wreck of Canada 150 had come and gone, an attempt to gloss over history that had done so much harm. I recorded this interview on the speakerphone as I watched the snow fall on the neighbouring yards.

In an email, Dr. Pedro Schacht Pereira puts it succinctly: “Portugal has been in denial about its colonial history for a very long time.” 1974’s Carnation Revolution, he writes, “brought the dictatorship and the empire to an overdue end after 13 years of bloody conflicts against the African liberation movements in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique.” Instead of reckoning with that past, however, the country has celebrated it: “starting in 1983 (and again in 1991 and 1998), the country embarked on a series of grand events commemorating its overseas imperial expansion under the misnomer of ‘discoveries’.” School children learn about how “the country’s navigators of yore discovered two thirds of the known world” but not its “deep involvement in the history of the transatlantic slave trade” or that “by the end of the 17th century, most Brazilian Indians had been wiped out under Portuguese rule.”

In Deus-dará, Portuguese writer Alexandra Lucas Coelho sets out to face that. The novel, set in the present-day Rio de Janeiro, deals with her country’s involvement in the slave trade in Brazil, as well as the destruction of Indigenous people there. It has not been translated into English, but according to Pereira, “the book effectively and relentlessly probes 500 years of Portugal’s colonial entanglements in Africa and Brazil.” The book’s impact has been mixed, however. Despite some positive reviews, Pereira says, “it is fair to say that silence has been the main feature of the book’s reception, and this silence may speak volumes.”

Maria Meindl: Can you start by saying something about your title?

Alexandra Lucas Coelho: Deus-dará means something like “Left to God.” It has a double sense. When talking about things that are abandoned, people say: ao Deus-dará. Left to God to take care of. But it means also “God will give.” It’s a very common expression in Portugal and in Brazil.

This book is set entirely in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and it started as a portrait of Rio. I went to live in Rio in 2010, as a correspondent for Público—the main daily newspaper in Portugal—and after more than two years, there was a particular day when the idea of this book came to me. I was walking around this big, beautiful lagoon in the Centre of Rio de Janeiro surrounded by these big mountains like the Corcovado, where at the top is Christ the Redeemer, always looking at us. And the idea of the book came to me: seven days, seven main characters with the title Left to God—a portrait of this incredible, miraculous city. The most beautiful city in the world, as far as I know, and one of the most violent, also.

In Rio there are six million people, one million in the richest part of the city, along the ocean. You have a Black population that works for the white people, the middle and upper classes. They do two and three jobs just to pay the bills and spend three/four hours a day on public transportation, which is terrible. They frequently suffer at the hands of the police, of the militia or are caught in the middle of drug-trafficking fights. They are the ones who mostly get killed. The favelas—the slums—where they live are places where the state rarely acts, besides police and military raids. These people have been left to God. These people are ao Deus-dará. The title.

MM: When you decided to write the book, you were writing about Rio as a reporter.

ALC: Rio in 2010 was in the midst of great expectations. The atmosphere was more than a euphoria—it was a grand bubble of building, spending, lots of business coming, lots of investors coming because Rio was going to host the World Cup of Soccer in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The economy seemed good, Brazil was being hailed as the 6th world economy. The Economist did a cover where the Christ was like a rocket launching.

The prices were skyrocketing. There was a lot of rioting. It was very, very hard to find an apartment because everything had become so expensive. The contradictions and the inequalities became even more dramatic. My aim was just to portray this madness, this crazy euphoria in a setting of such exploitation and violence, where the Blacks, the poor, the women suffered the most. But all this in a unique atmosphere which Brazil has—which is that, at the same time, people can sing and dance. People seem to be able to make a song or play guitar or just sit in a bar and in five minutes everybody is dancing or singing. There is this amazing miraculous joy which is not like the joy of the people that never knew suffering. The opposite. That’s why I have this feeling of a daily miracle and there was always something, this presence of magic, the Genesis, the Apocalypse, the miracles, the idea of the seven days, all these.

I’m not a religious person; I’m an atheist. But I could not find an atheist in Brazil. I mean, everybody seemed to believe in something. And many people seemed to believe in many things. It’s very common in Brazil that you go to a Catholic church, and also participate in Afro-Brazilian religions, which are these syncretic religions combining old African rituals, Christian and other traditions and beliefs that were established in Brazil by the enslaves. Religions like Candomblé or Umbanda. It’s really difficult to be an atheist in Rio. Everyone would have some kind of ritual, some kind of faith. There is a famous film, City of God, named after a favela in Rio de Janeiro. But actually, it’s a city of many gods.

I’m not a religious person; I’m an atheist. But I could not find an atheist in Brazil. Everybody seemed to believe in something.

So, in the beginning I had a structure of seven days and I created seven characters, five Brazilian and two Portuguese. Why two Portuguese? Because I am Portuguese and of course this would not be a novel written by a Brazilian; it would be a novel by a Portuguese.

It’s impossible to be in Brazil and not see the history which connects Brazil and Portugal, daily. Since the year 1500. Brazil was independent only in 1822, so we have more than three centuries of Portuguese domination in Brazil, and the colonial structures are very present in Brazilian society today. That’s what I was watching. Even in the 21st century, these structures were the ground beneath our feet. I wanted to reflect that, because I am Portuguese and there was also a need to see in the present the roots of the past. But I didn’t dream that the book was going to be such a large trip through these more than five hundred years. I was just going to make a portrait of a week in the life of Rio de Janeiro.

But in 2013, when I was writing the second day of the book, there was this big bang in Brazil. People went to the streets to demonstrate. There were huge protests. They started because of the rise in the cost of public transportation but they went in all directions. And the repression by the police was huge.

In Brazil you still have the military police, something that comes from the dictatorship that Brazil had from early nineteen-sixties to the end of the eighties. They still have military police and civil police. The military police go into the favelas and do brutal operations officially to deal with gangs. And it’s like a war, like a long, long war going on daily. I mean with tanks, armoured cars, loads of weapons.

And in 2013 the middle-class white population felt for the first time, in their skin, the repression of the military police. And this was a discovery for a lot of people, particularly for a lot of young white people. There was all this tear gas and pepper spray, people were being beaten, people were injured, some were blinded. Things that usually only happened in the favelas. The difference was that police were using rubber bullets on the whites. Usually in the favelas they don’t use rubber bullets. They use the real kind. Live ammunition.

When all this started, I was trying to just write. I had gone to a retreat in the mountains outside Rio to do it. But it was impossible. It didn’t make any sense and there was a moment when I thought: This explosion is also the explosion that I need to reflect in the book. So, I stopped writing I just went to the streets and lived what was happening.

In July, in the middle of all this craziness, Pope Francis arrived in Rio de Janeiro, and suddenly you had all these demonstrations with the Black Bloc, anarchists, urban groups, the left wing, and then you had millions of Christians that were coming to see the Pope. It was really crazy days. You had half-naked feminists and anarchists marching among these pilgrims that were sticking up graphic posters against abortion in the public space. There were all these emotions and fights and debates and it was incredible to just drown myself in all of that. I really needed a long time before I returned to the book, which I did almost one year after, in Portugal. And then I discovered that the book had to go in other directions. Into the past. I had to excavate.

So I started to study a lot about the Portuguese history that led to Brazil. I spent months studying slave traffic and the destruction of the native peoples of Brazil after the arrival of the Portuguese. I studied history, anthropology, a bit of astronomy also. Astronomy was very important for Portuguese sailing since the 15th century. But also, the Indigenous people have a strong relationship with the skies, the planets and the stars.

MM: When you got into learning about the slave trade, with almost six million transported, and the massacres of the Indigenous people, how commonly known is this information in Portugal? Or is it known and not talked about it?

ALC: In school we talk vaguely about the slave trade. But what’s lacking here—even today—is the scale. And then the several narratives. The narratives of the massacres, the narratives of the dark side of this history, and of course the narratives of the Indigenous people, and the Black people that were taken across the ocean. In Portugal there’s a national pride in these navigators of the 15th, 16th centuries. They were, in fact, incredible, in technical and human terms. They went to the seas and they crossed the Atlantic. They crossed the Indian Ocean. They reached the Pacific. They were amazing sailors, they were very brave, they started a lot of things. They invented a lot of things.

But there was an aim in this. There was a plan. There was a strategy. They didn’t do this because they were just adventurers. Of course, they were that, also. But they were fulfilling a strategy which had to do with the aim of defeating the Arabs, the Moors, converting them to Christianity, and also defeating them in a competition for the spice trade.

To give you some background: Portugal as a nation was born in the 12th century, partially out of a defeat of the Moors. Over centuries the Moors were here in Iberian Peninsula, the territories that are now Portugal and Spain. So from the time when Portugal was fighting for independence the Moor was an enemy.

The sailing down the African coast, three centuries after, started because the Portuguese wanted to dominate the spice trade in India. The Moorish had control of the routes of this very rich trade and the Portuguese were trying to create a route to India by going around the bottom of Africa. They became specialists in the problems of navigating the Atlantic, they knew it would be safer for the boats to make a big detour in the Atlantic away from the African coast because the winds were dangerous. That’s how they landed in the land that would become Brazil. By then, the year 1500, they already suspected there was land there—a continent or islands, they were not sure. So, on their way to India, they took the detour as an opportunity to confirm what kind of place was there.

There were two aims: an economic one, to dominate the spice trade, and a religious one, to convert the infidel, the Moor, to Christianity, the Catholic church. Two things: gold and God. Religion and money.

This means the territory that became Brazil enters Portuguese history because they were on their way to defeat the Moors, and eventually they colonized Brazil as well. In brief, there were two aims: an economic one, to dominate the spice trade, and a religious one, to convert the infidel, the Moor, to Christianity, the Catholic church. Two things: gold and God. Religion and money.

Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in what would become Brazil in 1500, and in 1532 colonization there started on a mass scale. The Indigenous people were enslaved at the beginning to cut wood, which the Portuguese were taking away, but they began to die very quickly from the diseases that the white men brought. They started to die in tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Then the priests decided that it was not Christian to enslave the Indigenous people, but it was possible to enslave the Black people. As if they were not so human. There were all these philosophical debates about the amount of humanity that a black being would have. That’s how the Portuguese Empire inaugurated the Atlantic traffic of human beings, to work in sugar plantations, mining for stones and gold, tobacco and, later on, coffee.

This was the first time in history when a European power takes people and just transfers them across the ocean. And Portugal was not only the first Atlantic slave trader, but also the biggest over a long time. To give an idea of the percentage, the Portuguese empire was responsible for 47% of all the slave trade. A tiny country. And the other four main powers: England, Spain, France and Holland, altogether they comprised 53%. This I think gives you an idea of what we are talking about.

But up until today, children in school in Portugal don’t have the least idea that we are talking about this scale: almost six million people. And these are the numbers that we can more or less publish because, for sure, there is a lot that we don’t know.

MM: It sounds like in your book you had to challenge some very dearly held national narratives. 

ALC: When I started to debate all these things in Portugal, people always made the same kinds of excuses, like “Oh the Africans already enslaved people!” Yes, some regions of West Africa had a tradition of enslaving people, it’s true. A very old tradition. Even today. But what happened was that the arrival of the Portuguese stimulated this enormously, and transformed it into a system and a business. The Portuguese stayed on the coast, and they hired these Africans to travel inland to bring more and more people. It was a huge flow, and of course many of them died on the way, and they died in Brazil, so they were always in need of more.

MM: How did you feel, discovering this?

ALC: It was very powerful to me, because within the academic world and among artists, all these issues have been brought out more, of course. But not in the mainstream debates, in the political debates, among political leaders, the president of the country, the mayors, the prime ministers etc. And in the school books—in schools this is lacking. And Lisbon as a city has no sign visible of this story. You have these huge monuments in Lisbon celebrating the extraordinary navigations of the 15th and 16th centuries.

And you don’t have a single tribute to probably one million Indigenous people that were killed following the arrival of the Portuguese. No tribute to the almost six million Africans. And when I started to cross all this information, like 16th century sources with contemporary history, anthropology and archeology, it became urgent to me that we need to deal with this, with all these ghosts. The Atlantic is full of ghosts. More than 500 years of ghosts that until today are wandering. They need to be faced and Lisbon needs to start to make a tribute to all these narratives. So I started to think of the novel as a kind of ground where all these could communicate, the ghosts that were lost to history, they could come up and speak to the living, now.

We need to deal with this, with all these ghosts. The Atlantic is full of ghosts. More than 500 years of ghosts that until today are wandering.

This became a true need. I am Portuguese. I was looking for the ghosts of my own past. Before that, as a journalist, I spent years covering the consequences of French colonialism, British colonialism, Ottoman colonialism, in Mexico I found myself looking at the effects of Spanish colonialism. And after all that I went to live in Brazil because I wanted to be confronted with Portuguese colonialism, to live this physically in my daily life. That’s what I did in 2010. I lived there for almost four years, so this book—it was not a pre-plan that I had. One thing just led to another. It was an organic process, how the book came, as a need, and how it was written. It was transformed along the way and it transformed me. I immersed myself deeper and deeper in this colonial history which in fact took me to a place where I not only studied a lot about Brazil and learned a lot about Brazil but also about my own history and about my country.

MM: Here in Canada we’re encountering some very difficult truths about our past and it’s things that we don’t want to know. Oppression of Indigenous people, and the oppression continues. One of the discussions that we’ve been having is whose job is it to tell this story. And who has the right to tell the story. How do you feel about that, about whose job it is and who has the right?

ALC: I don’t speak for anyone. I speak for myself with all the things that I am. But also, I believe identity is not a stable and finished thing. I believe identity is in movement. Which is very much connected with the Indigenous vision of the other as a power, and not something that is going to weaken us. I mean the Indigenous people that were in Brazil, the territory that was going to become Brazil when Portugal arrived in the beginning of the 16th century, they looked at the other as someone that was going to give you things, that was going to make you stronger, that was going to make you different. One of the most amazing things about writing is the ability to live other lives – in the process of writing. In a way, I create these characters for them to create me. This is true almost in a physical sense. I am not the same person after I write. I am not the same person because these characters, this book, they transformed me. This to say that identity is not something you can end. As a creator I want to have the right to put myself in many different skins. And be transformed by them.

And this Indigenous vision of the other as a plus, of being enriched by the other, can be a counter-force to the contemporary fear of the other. A very strong political inspiration for us.

But I don’t see myself doing books that don’t come from a personal, intimate necessity. So, in this sense I only speak about me. Deus-dará is not the book that a Brazilian would write, a white Brazilian would write, a Black Brazilian would write, an Indigenous person in Brazil would write. It’s the book I needed to write, and to be transformed by during the process.

MM: How has the book been received?

ALC: Compared to my previous books I felt there was some difficulty and maybe discomfort.

Also that, maybe, for young readers it’s easier to deal with it. The book also crosses genres and uses a lot of different materials. Different kinds of dialogues and modes of narration: drawings, pictures, typographic variations. And many drifts in the middle of the main plot, let’s say. Young readers are more familiar with the logic of hypertext. Also, they are not so attached to the colonial narrative, more open to demystifying it. The fact is that I felt an easiness in speaking with young readers about this book.

But it’s a demanding book. Almost 600 pages and the structure is not linear. A mix of different languages also. Some characters are Brazilian, some are Portuguese. Some live in slums, some live in an upper-scale neighbourhood, so they speak in different ways. For me it is also a tribute to all the incredible possibilities of the Portuguese language.

MM: And it’s a violent book. It’s a very disturbing book.

ALC: There are violent parts, yes of course there is death, there is violence, there are people being abused. There are a lot of things about women. It’s a feminist book, also. Portuguese like to think they were not so racist as the others because they mixed with the Indigenous people and they mixed with Black women. Of course, they mixed because they needed to populate Brazil. They needed to mix. They took almost no women to the New World, unlike other colonial powers back then. The racial mix in Brazil comes from the abuse of all the bodies of the Indigenous women, the Indians and then the African women. We are talking about mass rape. That’s what we are talking about when we talk about this euphemistic “willing to mix.” There are a lot of things that are hard for people in Portugal to deal with. But I also keep receiving encouraging reactions.

In Rio de Janeiro and in Bahia, where I talked about the book, the reactions from young people and African Brazilian communities moved me a lot.

MM: It was moving because it was positive?

ALC: Bahia was the first place where Portuguese sailors arrived. And in a way this book, all set in Rio, comes from Bahia—the location of first contact—and in the end it goes to Bahia.

When I was in Bahia—with Brazil already plunged in political and economic chaos—talking about this book, I had this session in a theatre full of people and the majority were young, Black or mixed racial audience. The reaction was so moving, there were people crying. Then I was crying. It was very, very emotional. It was cathartic. I was there on that stage in the centre of Salvador, the capital of Bahia, with all these sons and daughters and grandsons who were descendants of slaves. I will not forget this.

Author Photo: Rui Gaudêncio

Maria Meindl is the author of Outside the Box from McGill-Queen’s University Press, winner of the Alison Prentice award for women’s history. Her essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in journals including The Literary Review of Canada, Descant, Musicworks and Queen Street Quarterly, as well as in the anthologies The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood  and At the End of Life: True Stories about How We Die. She has made two series for CBC Radio’s Ideas: Parent Care and Remembering Polio. Maria is the founder of Draft, a reading series featuring work-in-progress by established and emerging writers. She teaches movement classes in Toronto and is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.