In The House in Smyrna you write about a very specific family’s heritage, travelling from Turkey to Brazil to Portugal - is that based on your own family’s journey?
Apparently my family left Portugal in the early sixteenth century. They settled in Smyrna, in Turkey, from which they departed for Brazil four centuries later. One of the reasons why they chose Brazil as their homeland was the language; since they left Portugal they had continued speaking Ladino, a kind of Portuguese/Spanish Jewish dialect from the sixteenth century. This language had been passed from generation to generation in Turkey, the new land that welcomed them.
It always puzzled me: why didn’t they adopt Turkish? And above all, why did they continue to speak the language of the inquisitors, those who drove them from their homes? How come they didn’t hate the Portuguese nation and the Portuguese language? Instead they continued loving this language and passing it on to new generations. They had so much affection for it that my great-grandmother even called my grandfather "my little Portugal"!
When I was a kid, I was told that my Jewish ancestors passed from generation to generation the key to their home in Portugal, hoping to return one day. There was a legend that my family had this key – although I've never seen it. One day, I thought this story could make a good novel. But writing involves a process of transformation and the reinvention of reality. So instead of a Portuguese house, the key in the book ended up being the key to a house in Turkey.
In terms of visting Turkey myself, I went to Izmir once, at age 19. But I returned to Istanbul while writing the novel, which was essential for me to be able to describe the smells, the colours of the city. For me, it would be impossible to write about a place I've never been.
An interesting fact is that Portugal recently approved the citizenship to all Jews who prove they belong to a family expelled during the Inquisition. This provoked huge excitement; my whole family filed the suit for citizenship, and it was really nice to revisit their story.
Did a real experience of exile inspire your narrator’s journey?
During the military dictatorship in Brazil my father was part of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Brazil. My mother was a leftwing journalist, but was not part of any party. Both were dissidents in Brazil and they went into exile in Portugal, where I myself was born. Contrary to the story narrated in the novel, none of them was arrested or tortured. But during my childhood I heard the stories of several of their friends who had been through that, and they made a huge impression on me. Torture at the time of the dictatorship was terribly brutal.
You have travelled and lived in Europe and in Brazil, how has this impacted what you write?
I lived in France and now I’ve been living in Portugal for two and a half years, but I will always be a Brazilian writer. As much as I write about other countries (in my first book about Turkey and Portugal; in the second, about France), Brazil will always be the axis of my writing. I think a writer always revisits his own childhood, his early years — these are the years that mark us, form us, and accompany us always. Portugal brings me the calm I need to write, Lisbon is an infinitely quieter city than Rio de Janeiro, but I think the impact of that on what I actually write is very small.
Migration and identity are key themes in the book - have they been themes in your own life?
Identity, I think it is a theme of everyone's life. The question ‘Who am I?’ is at the heart of the human condition. And because there is no ready answer – for anybody – identity must always be built. Writing is a way of constructing this identity.
Migration is present in my books, but not in my life. It's funny, I lived in some places but never felt myself to be immigrant. Not even in Portugal, where I am currently living without knowing when I will return. Somehow, it's like I have a certain fluidity, a certain mobility, which makes me not feel stuck anywhere.
Another theme in the book is illness - did you draw upon your own experiences of illness in depicting this?
The feeling I have is that I'm constantly writing with and against my body. The idea for the novel actually came when I experienced a kind of physical paralysis. I had so much pain that I could not get out of bed. So I began to wonder why, in a family of many emigrations, I suddenly could not get out of this one place? I gathered this story together with another, and in interweaving them had the basis for the book.