Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
“What can’t I be in São Paulo that I could become in New York?”
In Alexandre Vidal Porto’s debut novel, Matias na Cidade, published in Brazil in 2005, the protagonist is at a crossroads: he can choose to stay with his wife, kids, and maid—or he can leave everything behind. He seems to have that choice, but really he’s run out of options. The desire to find oneself is central to Vidal Porto’s characters. In his second novel, Sergio Y., published in English this month by Europa Editions, the titular character chooses to leave São Paulo for New York and change his name to Sandra. But, once again, there’s very little choice in the matter. It’s more like fate.
Vidal Porto leads us into the private lives of frustrated urban explorers who need a change of scenery, flâneurs who feel confined in familiar streets and seek a new beginning. His writing moves from dark to light, as his characters walk to higher ground for safety. From up there, they are able to see their own paths and decide where to go next. When faced with crisis, they choose life.
I met with Vidal Porto at Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo, where we talked about the future of Brazilian fiction, gender identity, and traveling to find oneself.
Bruna Dantas Lobato I’m interested in how information is withheld in your new novel. Sergio chooses not to say certain things that later become important. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Alexandre Vidal Porto You’ll notice that my narrator, Armando, never calls Sergio by his full name—Sergio Yacoubian. It’s always “Sergio Y.” There’s something to what is unsaid, unspoken. All we see is the silhouette, the contour given by everything that is around it. So you have this shape you recognize. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with a missing piece. You don’t have the piece, but the piece is there because you have its outline. Meaning, of course, that what you say is as important as what you withhold. More than anything, I wanted the narrator to be respectful of Sergio Y.’s identity. I wanted to make a non-issue of it. She is transgender. So what? She is transgender in the same way that someone might be blonde or might stutter. As a gay man, I would argue that gender and sexual identities are irrelevant, complete non-issues.
BDL It’s certainly a non-issue for the character of Sandra, in a way. I was surprised by how well she understands the transition.
AVP Yes, she was prepared for this moment. The previous generations prepared her for it. The epigraph of the book quotes Walt Whitman and Fernando Pessoa, as both of them take the Brooklyn ferry to Manhattan, years apart from each other. They coincide in place but not in time. It’s a generation speaking to another, in this existence that goes on and on.
BDL There’s that beautiful scene when Armando touches a doorknob and imagines Sergio’s hand underneath his own, picturing Sergio walking the same streets as him. The experience comes through like a vision, as knowledge that a place can offer.
AVP Yes, all the different layers of human experience, all these experiences that make a city superimpose one another.
BDL You’re said to be a leading voice in the New Urban fiction movement in Brazil. How do you define this school of fiction?
AVP Leornardo Tonus, who is a professor at the Sorbonne, writes in his PhD thesis that there’s this New Urban movement in Brazil, featuring a series of novels that don’t take place in Brazil.
BDL But that’s common in Latin American literature in general, right? In a way, we’re a culture of exile.
AVP Yes, we have been. And it’s starting to show in Brazil. We have João Paulo Cuenca’s book set in Japan, Joca Reiners Terron in Egypt, Daniel Galera in Argentina, Paulo Scott in Australia, Adriana Lisboa in the United States, and so on. It’s the zeitgeist, in which “urban” might mean “global,” by transposing national and cultural borders to test how one fits into the world, coming from such an isolated language as Portuguese and now treating our identity in a wider context.
BDL Both Sergio and Armando lived in the United States in their youth, and so did you. I was interested in their optimistic view of New York, the American dream, and the Brazilian characters as bodies. They are always accepted, it seems. There was no exoticism, no rejection, no sense of them being perceived as strange or foreign or alien. You describe New York as a city of outliers in a positive way, as a place of hope that welcomes new possibilities. Scholars like Sara Ahmed would argue that immigration offers a false promise of happiness, that it puts pressure on the emigré to be just happy and grateful to be there.
AVP It takes time for someone to feel that they belong, of course. This novel is a kind of tribute to New York. I owe a lot to this city. You know when you look at the skyline and don’t see the end of it? That’s the sense of possibility I felt here, that there’s no end. Of course I know the stories of rejection as well, but you can reinvent yourself here. I believe in Elia Kazan’s America, in starting anew, in creating a new version of one’s life. I don’t think the fact that I’m a foreigner here disowns me or disqualifies me or sets any kind of handicap on me. This is free territory. Of course, I’m simplifying this. I know it’s different to be here as a diplomat or as a graduate student or as a visiting doctor, but still you see the American dream come through.
BDL There’s one brief moment in the novel when Armando hints at the awareness of his privileged circumstances as a wealthy, renowned therapist. He’s lying in a hotel room in New York, and he understands that his experience could have been entirely different—that at the bifurcation of the Y, at the fork, he might have followed a different path.
AVP Yes, of course. Again, it goes back to possibility. Sergio isn’t self-made, for example. His parents bought him an investor’s visa so that he could live in New York. Especially being born Brazilian, class is so random. If you’re born on this side of the street, you go to this leg of the Y, and if you’re born on the other side, you take the other leg. And this has nothing to do with merit. It’s more like fate. That’s where my Brazilianness emerges.
BDL You write that the Yacoubian family makes their decisions based on how the São Paulo elite is going to perceive their actions. And later Sergio’s parents talk about sending their son away so that nobody will know his gender identity.
AVP São Paulo is a provincial city. Everybody knows each other. It can be very crippling and conducive to collective hallucinations. If you don’t have other references, if you don’t ever wander outside, you might think that’s reality and that’s how things should be. When, in fact, they don’t have to be a certain way. It’s a city that’s more preoccupied with looking cosmopolitan than experiencing cosmopolitanism and embracing difference.
BDL Can you speak to this idea of “traveling to find oneself,” as you describe it in your novel?
AVP My characters are winter flowers in the summer or vice versa, so they have to find their niche. This is what I called traveling. This can be immigration or other possibilities in your own national space. What can’t I be in São Paulo that I could become in New York?
BDL In the same way that Sergio’s grandfather leaves Armenia for Brazil and the protagonist of Sergio’s favorite book leaves Lithuania for the United States, Sergio also leaves his own body to become Sandra, a migration within himself toward becoming herself. Your first novel is called Matias in the City, and now you’ve written Sérgio Y. Goes to America, as it’s called in the original Portuguese. Your characters are always going places.
AVP Yes, Sergio travels inside himself. He goes into himself to find the transformation and reinvigoration there. Sometimes readers tell me that this story is very tragic. Why is it tragic? My characters get to their final destinations, which are themselves.
BDL I am thinking of the queer fiction that was prevalent in Brazil in the ’80s, pioneered by Caio Fernando Abreu and others. You’re following in their footsteps, but your fiction already shows very different concerns. Where do you think queer fiction in Brazil is going next?
AVP I have a problem with the word “queer.” I have a problem with queer theory, actually. Because my political approach to queer rights is totally different from queer theory. I don’t want to sound confrontational, but the thing is, I am not queer because I am who I am. I don’t want my queerness to be a difference between me and the world. I don’t think I am a different kind of human being because I am attracted to people of the same gender.
BDL American poet Jericho Brown once said that people are the same precisely because they are different. He says we should accept difference instead of trying to relate to a false sense of sameness that doesn’t accommodate variation.
AVP Yeah, I am not concerned with making my literature representative in any way. Because the only thing we all have in common is difference. Any story could be a queer story. I chose the transgender metaphor for my book because, basically, I am embracing difference. As in: You are different, but that makes no difference.
BDL Gender identity is so important in this novel, but sex itself isn’t present. Was that a guiding principle for the book?
AVP Yes, I was interested in identity and not so much in sex. I don’t mean it in the sense of orientation, desire, or lust, or whatever. I never mentioned any of that. Identity is its own thing. And maybe Sandra was a lesbian. She could be a trans lesbian, for all I know.
BDL Sometimes other characters used the word “transgender.” But when your narrator talked about it, he tended to use the term “transsexual.”
AVP I wanted to talk about his learning curve. Before his trip to New York, it was always “transsexual.” But during the trip you see that he alternates between “transexual” and “transgender,” and later it “transgender” only.
BDL In New York, Armando meets with Cecilia, Sandra’s New York therapist. Armando was attracted to her and the meeting wasn’t successful because he was too distracted and eager to please; he gave in to his desires. So, in a way, he didn’t transcend the limitations of his body, which is what Sandra did so well.
AVP Definitely. Armando was humiliated by Sandra’s courage. It was good that he came to the realization that he wasn’t invincible or unquestionable as a therapist. Because he, too, traveled within himself. From this self-aggrandizing attitude to saying, “No, I am mistaken. No, I lied.” Only then, may he become better and transcend.
BDL Your narrator expresses ethical concerns toward the act of storytelling. He knows that he can’t reveal confidential information about his patient, but he tells Sergio’s story nonetheless. Cecilia also shares her patient’s confidential files against her own best judgment. Why did you choose this therapist-patient relationship?
AVP Because I wanted to focus on people who are both powerful and all too human. Right at the beginning, Armando says, “My father was a doctor, and as a kid I always thought that my father being a doctor would save my family from pain and illness.” A superhuman. It doesn’t have as much to do with psychotherapy as it has to do with medicine, with the ability to cure even though you get sick yourself. You broadcast this image of power, even though you are just human and have the same foolish inability to see the things that are in front of you. Armando’s father dies at a young age. He is not that powerful. And that’s something he did not notice himself.
BDL This is a book of parallels and mirrored halves. There’s Armando and his father, Sergio and his immigrant grandfather, and Sergio and Sandra. But there’s also Sergio and Roberto, his twin brother who makes a brief appearance. Roberto was born with anencephalus. I was struck by the moment when the mother says of her twin sons, “I gave birth to two monstrosities.”
AVP The Aurélio Portuguese-language dictionary defines transgender as a kind of monstrosity. That’s one of the definitions, as I remember it. It’s amazing. How can anyone call a human being a monstrosity? You are just denying the whole spiritual dimension of the person.
BDL Another strong idea in the book is this notion of changing the body in order to better resemble the identified gender. Roberto didn’t get to live and have an identity of any kind, of course. Both parents said that the loss was tremendous.
AVP You know, the mother was walking from the east side to the west side of New York when Sandra told her that she was finally happy after the operation. I am a very happy person and an openly gay person. I could have been on the other side, you know, and I didn’t cross the bridge by myself. I wanted Sandra to help her mother cross the bridge toward acceptance, because her mother’s human experience is complicated, too. That act redeemed the mother. She realized that it was not a monstrosity that she bore, that Sandra was happy, so now she could be happy too. Her mission was accomplished. Armando’s too, but he took the last train.
BDL His train was the novel.
AVP Yes, exactly. The novel narrates his journey. I have a friend who told me that he decided to move to London after he read the novel, so I like to think that this book is useful to whomever wants to amass courage, to go off on a journey, who might not be ready to do something but who is willing to accomplish it.
BDL As one of your characters suggests, one must wear the vest and own the mask.
AVP One should not be afraid to be themselves—that is my motto. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so concerned with who we are as much as where we’re going. There’s a David Hockney painting that shows this blue, serene swimming pool as seen from the tip of a yellow springboard. Every time I see this painting, I think to myself that I should never be afraid, especially as a gay man. Every time I see this painting, I just think I’m ready to jump.
Bruna Dantas Lobato’s writing has appeared in Ploughshares online, The Millions, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. She is the editor-at-large for Brazil for Asymptote Journal and assistant fiction editor for Washington Square Review.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.