uneeta Peres da Costa wrote “Homework” at the age of 23. A year later, the novel had been published by Bloomsbury and had rapidly become an international bestseller, jettisoning the Sydney-born author into the world of three-continent book tours, what she calls the fiction “marketing machine.” The book was initially written as a personal project and Peres da Costa says she was slightly disoriented and embarrassed by all the attention garnered by its publication. On the heels of the succes of “Homework,” Peres da Costa won the Australia Council’s B.R. Whiting Rome writer’s fellowship. As part of The American’s Writers Without Frontiers series, Michael Reynolds chatted with her in the B.R. Whiting apartment in Trastevere, where Peres da Costa spent the better part of last year working on her new novel, tentatively titled, “Paper Cuts.”
This is not your first time in Rome, is it?
No, I came here two years ago on holiday. I was supposed to be here seven days but I kept extending my stay because I liked it so much.
Just in Rome?
I was in Italy for about three weeks. I came from Greece and stopped first in Naples, then went from Rome to Florence and Lucca. I was in Bologna for a couple of days, and Verona, Venice and Trieste.
Can you tell me some of your impressions of Rome?
I have been struck by the brusqueness and irritability of people, and equally by the fact that underneath they are really nice. They reveal themselves, you see? Over time they uncover their niceness and helpfulness. And, what else? Well… everyone here appears to hate their job! At the same time, they don’t seem to know how to change it, or anything else in their lives for that matter. But somehow I like that air of put-upponess that is so thoroughly Roman. They’re not just irritable because things don’t work. They’re irritable because so much had to come before them. I don’t know what it would be like to live in a place with so much… past! But I can imagine it might create a degree of irritability in the people. We’re not really going to talk about this are we?
It’s a start…
It’s hard for me to talk about a place, and harder even when I have been in that place, or when I live there. Place for me is always really imagined. I am much more daunted by a question about Rome and how I have experienced it than I would be if you asked me to describe a place I’ve never been. Maybe this speaks to the solitary person who sits reading books. Even in my travels I probably don’t look as much as I should. But there’s too much said for looking. Hearing is much more interesting.
Yet place seems to have a particular importance in your work. In a novella of yours entitled “Oblivion,” for example, throughout the story a character is referred to exclusively as “the teacher from Coimbra.”
Obviously, the fact of where this person comes from makes a particular impression on the I-narrator. It was the sound of that epithet that appealed to me more than the allusion to a place. But maybe it’s exactly for this reason that I mentioned it. I’m never really sure of my physical reality, and so perhaps I search for it through my writing. “Oblivion” is set in pre-independence Rwanda, just a few years before ’74, and it’s a very particular kind of coming of age story about a young woman of Goan descent. And, well, it’s almost as easy for me to imagine Rwanda never having been there as it is to write about Sydney. I still worry that I have never been to Rwanda and I have reconstructed the whole setting of that novel from a map that I was given and a little bit of reading. I’m terrified some day someone will say: No, Rwanda’s not like that at all. Anyway, back to Rome. I’ve seen the Colosseum (laughter).
The Trastevere train station. I thought of setting a short story there about a bag left behind by someone on Easter Sunday, and amidst all this bomb scare, terrorist attack mania, the alarm is raised and the municipal sappers have to leave their family dinners to deal with the scare. I’ve seen San Clemente. I think the lower floors would be a great place to hold author readings
There is an absurd, or surreal element to the writing in “Homework.” A family falls apart because there is this unexplained depression of the mother. In the book this is attributed to her having a hysterectomy, and the drama sort of befalls the whole family. The father also descends into “unreality”. And I suppose the narrator is the story as well. She is the story; her voice, that is. She is this overburdened child. Observing everyone. Partly because of the child’s point of view, partly because of the general descent into tragic unreality, I think this absurdity was unavoidable.
So, how long did it take you to write?
It was something like two and a half months. But I probably should have had some more time to think about it, especially after I had written drafts. But you can never know. There are a lot of people who say to me now: Don’t be so hard on yourself. [They say] those early parts that I am very unhappy with have a rawness to them I probably couldn’t achieve now, which has its own charm.
How did your family react?
Um, I still don’t know (laughter). The honest truth is that I fled the country. I’m not exaggerating in the least. Happily, I received the chance to go away, again, just as my book was coming out. Having come from an Indian background, not only did I have Catholic guilt, because my family are Christians, but in India-Asia — and I’m sure it also happens here in Italy — there is this idea that you don’t honor shame, and you especially don’t want to shame the family. All those taboos having to do with revealing oneself! But the best fiction is made of revealing oneself. So I got this chance to go to the U.S. and I took it because I think I wanted not to have to deal with the response from my family.
How did you react to the success of “Homework?”
The book was published simultaneously in the U.K., U.S. and Australia and I did a number of short tours in each place. It was all good experience; it was sobering. But all that’s just a machine, it’s very different from actually writing. It’s a little bit saddening to have people imagine that you confuse your wish to be a literary author with your co-operation with that machine. But what was I going to say? Oh no, I don’t want to be doing this. That would have been tantamount to saying; no I don’t want to have my next book accepted by you. The line between writing and all the promotion that goes on around a book is confusing for writers and for the public. And then there was all the commotion around the advance I got and my age etc. In reality, I think all authors should get good advances and the chance to publish. I was lucky. But to have people think that that kind of attention was what you think about when you are sitting in your room writing can be a little bit saddening.
What kinds of things did you hear from the people who had read your book?
The more insightful things related to madness, immigrant families, two themes that are central to the book. But for the most part, too much emphasis was placed on me, author, rather than the book. Today, as I said, that line is very blurred. From my impression of Italian literature, not being an expert in any way, it seems that that whole European culture of taking it all very seriously still exists here. You can’t say that about English-American publishing. People have a right to be confused, if they are not literary people, about the boundaries that your work crosses.
Speaking of madness, I know you’re working on a new novel that deals with the life of James Joyce’s daughter.
Yes, I’m writing about Lucia Joyce, who was institutionalized, or incarcerated, for many years and diagnosed as schizophrenic. From the age of 27 or so, she was in and out of hospitals and she died in 1982 in a hospital. I’m really fascinated by the idea of genius, an idea that had a strong hold on the romantics but which the modernists seem to have cast aside. Yet people like Joyce and other high-modernists were considered geniuses. It is fascinating to me that people said in her madness she exhibited so many qualities that he did. It spoke a lot to me about madness and history and the way women were treated.
Joyce, too, noted that her symptoms were labelled madness, while similar behaviour, similar idiosyncrasies both verbal and behavioural in him were called signs of genius.
Exactly, and naturally he aestheticized her madness too, which is another thing that I find interesting about this. “Finnegans Wake,” and not just the character of Issy, but the language of the whole thing, is a clear transposition of Lucia’s madness. You’d have to be a fool not to see that. His writing of “Finnegans Wake” and Lucia’s institutionalization were happening at the same time. I don’t think I’m reading too much into it. It’s not original, enough people have said that his style was influenced by her madness. But one thing leads to one person being remembered forever as a genius and the other being cast into the dustbin of history.
Do you think Joyce could have, or did, see the way his daughter was diagnosed as symptomatic of a certain attitude to women at the time?
He was conscious of the currents belonging to the times. He was suspicious of psychoanalysis, though he was indebted to it. Jung sent him that letter in which he said in “Ulysses,” in Molly Bloom’s monologue, Joyce had shown that he understood more about women than he, Jung, or psychoanalysis, would ever do. As much as he liked flattery, Joyce didn’t really get off on the idea, partly because of this ambivalent relationship toward his daughter’s psychoanalysis. He genuinely had these innocent hopes that each new treatment or cure would make her well again. And that didn’t seem to happen. Joyce didn’t like the idea that there were these doctors poking and prodding his daughter, but I’m not sure how much he saw this as symptomatic of how women were treated.
Are you writing in first person?
Yes, it’s in first person. Joyce himself said writing is memory.
Have you read many Italian authors?
Not contemporary ones… Well, that’s not true. I had the opportunity to listen to some very good young Italian writers read in Rome, and to read some of their work in translation. I really liked Antonio Pascale; his reading was hypnotic. There was that unfolding duality, where you feel like you are like the character in the story, you are in the darkness. I think that the play of light must be a feature of his stories. And then there is Mattia Torre. His monologue “In Mezzo al Mare,” is just the kind of fiction that I like reading and listening to. The ironic, confessional narrator, the self-deprecation and the absurdity; this combination of elements appeals to me.
Do you like public reading? I mean, it could sometimes seem part of “the machine” as you called it, that gigantic marketing apparatus known as modern publishing.
Depends on how it’s done. I mean, these ones here were very enjoyable, both as a participant and as a member of the public. It’s different when you just show up in the middle of a book tour like I did. Especially if, say, you’re in a low point in your life. Often writers who have written a book are having horrible lives in the aftermath. You know, their lives may have changed as a result of the book, or the people that they care about… have. You know, the world of work and writing can be quite separate, and it can be quite discombobulating for an author… of course for them it’s not… They’re constantly thinking about both things… Sorry, what was your question?
Excerpts from “Papercuts,” a new novel
Of course, I’d had plenty of applause, taken curtsies on the stage of the Vieux Colombier, to know it needn’t lead to happiness to court so much favour. Vanity is a vice, but when you’re young you’re hard pressed to refuse the chocolates and the flowers. I petted them too, for they were like so many sisters I never had, I even let the freaks at Ivry strut about in the mink Babbo sent me — come to think of it, I don’t know where that went either. Either put away your pretty things or don’t get too attached ‘cause eventually you’ll be made to part with it all, the frills and laces and the shoes so shiny and new they look like fête champêtre taffy you could eat! Yes, all the lovely things of this world disappear and it’s true there are the memories, but even those leave one feeling melancholy. Take the fellow from Locarno. I think I loved him, certainly he loved me. He spoke Spanish, so I called him Don Quixote. Actually he was from Buenos Aires, had come to the foot of the Alps to peddle shoes! He shod me in a pair of patent leather gaiters, caramel-hued if I recall correctly, which fit as perfectly as Cinderella’s slippers. From the piazza to the park it was a beautiful walk at the start of autumn, but the poor chap was tubercular, would get quite breathless when we kissed. There was moonlight, yet strange to say, apart from his pince-nez and moustache which scratched, I have a clearer recollection of what I was wearing than what he looked like. It was a frock of dark salmon velveteen with wooden buttons down the front. The silk of the lining was soft, softer than cream as he touched me, and the crystals on the buckles of the gaiters sparkled like fallen stars.
Yes, they’ll say you’re famous, a genius, but the next thing you know they’ll call you a pervert, or much worse, mad. Oh, my dear Babbo, am I loony as the newspapers say? When there’s so much folly in the world how can they say that I’m crazy, hmm? I wrote a book, not a masterpiece, mind. A professor from America, a little Jew, came here especially to ask for it. They wouldn’t give me a typewriter so I had to do it longhand like a schoolgirl. In pencil for heavensake! Well, I wrote what they wanted, ‘I am the daughter of James Joyce the famous Irish writer etcetera, we were in Trieste, in Zurich, in Paris, during the fond days of my youth etcetera, etcetera’. Not even the courtesy to write to say they’d received it. What is it now, 1982? The pages must have yellowed, pulverised. Perhaps they wanted more on Anna Livia Plurabelle, whoever she was, some woman airing her dirty laundry no doubt. Or to discover how high my father performed his birthday kicks or could my mamma cook. It’s true I left out certain particulars. Do they need to know everything, these biographers and psychiatrists and priests, can’t they leave us alone with our secrets? They’ll get hold of your soul, they’ll put it up for auction and do the bidding themselves. They’ll flatter you, say you’re fair, photogenic, a rare phenomenon, but no, no, it’s your soul they’re about. Poor Princess Anne, what a lot of nonsense they wrote about her and her beau, and now lovely Lady Di, so shy with her picture on the front page everyday, she’s always blushing those flashes going off are sure to make her self-conscious, and Prince Charles himself can’t pass wind without it being a matter of royal importance to the journalists.