Photo: Kelly Bedeian
Belonging: to a future
It’s one of those days. I am packing the last books, closing up the boxes, and addressing them home. The next home. I make a quick calculation: two years in Macao; one in Utrecht; a couple of months each in Paris, Helsinki, Berlin, and Iowa; fifteen years in Antwerp; a few more in Lisbon, in several different neighborhoods; and a couple in Paço de Arcos. And here I am packing again, the reason for leaving as sudden and as unexpected as what had once made me stay here.
Living somewhere beyond the duration of an occasional holiday or a love affair can’t help but make you wonder: where does one come from when one is going somewhere else to stay? Where does one belong to while in transit? To the place one leaves behind, the original place, the latest place? To the place one is going to? Or to the place one has been the most? At first sight, these may seem unnecessary and trivial questions, but the possible answers open a Pandora’s box.
Where do I belong to now, today, at this moment of transition?
The question haunts me like a dark cloud over my head.
I sit at my desk, trying to look at my life as if it weren’t mine, to explore it from as many angles as possible. Will I be able to choose the right narrative that can explain to what, and to where exactly, I belong, belonged, will belong?
I hope to be able to sit at this desk and start the detailed research right away. Check, in thorough detail, my whole life, my deeds and those of my family, my city, my nation, my continent and map, a complete and rigorous image of the where, the what, and the how of where I belong, so that I’ll be able to readily answer, without hesitation, to anyone who asks, and above all … to myself.
As an impulse of that indispensable muscle called imagination, I sketch, with no further reflection, a myriad of possible answers to my own question.
Do I belong to the legacy given to me by my parents? And if so, to which legacy: the emotional one? The political one? The historical one? And do I belong to the local, the philosophical, the common legacy shared by the two of them, my father and my mother, which established the difference between the two of them and the rest of their family. Academic revolutionaries in the 1960s, political activists in the 1970s, but also soldiers during the colonial wars, happy free citizens celebrating Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, then after 1976 desolate and disappointed utopians, jobless and emigrants in the 1980s, neoliberals in the 1990s, unhappy in the early 2000s, premature retirees soon after, for reasons unavoidable and imposed by the European crisis, perhaps people of faith at the end of their lives.
Am I the result of a wild and recklessly pro-cultural education during the first years of a democratic era in one of Europe’s most ancient countries? A time when schools’ creative projects burgeoned, philosophy was at the center of secondary school education, your practically teenage parents were of the same age as those in power, and the whole country seemed like one ongoing literary and artistic happening? Those who grew up in the Portugal of the 1980s live on with an adrenaline deficit and an excessively utopian attitude, unknown and unheard of on the rest of the continent, a whiff of Revolution easily detectable to those like-minded, and incomprehensible or outdated to those from other historical backgrounds.
But perhaps I am (also) a product of the more recent European Union: the first generation to be given the opportunity to travel without any special permission through so many different countries, the first that could get to know the world with their own eyes, marry someone from another country, settle down in a region with other beliefs, other convictions, other political systems, without fearing an immediate cultural or social shock.
Or maybe all this is deceiving. Maybe we all belong to a heavier and deeper History, the History of the places we were born or grew up in and which, no matter what, we carry in our bloodlines, letting it surge at the first moment of crisis no matter in how amnesiac a state we choose to live our daily life, no matter how sleepy, how zombie-like we may seem. Life goes along without special obstacles until the moment someone makes that one single inappropriate comment about you that awakens your sense of belonging, unleashing the clichés and the ready-made sentences you’d always promised yourself to avoid but which, at that moment, let you have a feeling of recognition, which reassures you that you aren’t an alien amongst other equally strange others.
But if I belong to that deeper, longer, heavier, older History, which part of it should I claim as mine? The modernist Lisbon’s poetry culture I grew up listening to and learning by heart, using the poems’ best lines, as if they were proverbs or part of daily speech?
Or do I belong to something older yet, say the millennial culture of my country, a unique country at the margins of Europe whose borders are fixed, one that Julius Caesar said was “unmanageable by emperors but also not able to manage itself,” filled with beheaded kings (or just defenestrated, as happened to the last one), a country with an endless assortment of pirates, mercenaries, missionaries, merchants, and visionaries responsible for astronomic discoveries, gruesome conversions, and the birth of global trade? Can I really choose? Can I accumulate?
Or is it perhaps the case that, with all the history I carry thanks to the geographical accident of having been born in Portugal and to Portuguese parents, I have really been shaped as a citizen of this world by the two years I lived in Macao between the age of eight and ten, a period so short and yet one that gave me my only childhood memories?
Do I belong to where I have lived for the past fourteen years, in Antwerp, Belgium, in a place with three languages, none of which I speak as fluently as I’d like to? Do I belong to the language I write in and am educating my child in? Do I belong to the place where I chose to live with my husband? Do I then unbelong to it if I do not wish to further be married to him and his country? And what about my daughter: does she have to choose where she belongs? Does she have to feel divided each time? Does she have to comprehend, understand, know in depth the history, the geography, the functions, and the malfunctions of her two rather unusual countries in order to feel they both belong to her? Does she have to share her time equally between them? And me? Am I more Belgian because I have a Belgian daughter? Does a place of belonging need to be a place? A geography? Or a time zone, a timeline, a certain history?
Couldn’t my place of belonging be a language instead? A language bound not to a nation-oriented logic but to a line of thinking? Could I belong to Pessoa, to the way he spoke and changed my language? And if so, which of the many Pessoas I’ve read: the atheist Ricardo Reis, the decadent Álvaro de Campos, or the hunchbacked Maria José, forever at the window, dying of tuberculosis while wondering whether the blacksmith next door will ever notice her?
Somehow none of these possibilities satisfy me as a path for deep reflection. History is the story of the powerful, the story of the winners. The history of the oppressed is a counter-history, and I, as a Portuguese trying to carry all my possible pasts, cannot but admit that in my story I am both the victim and the oppressor, both the colonialist and the freedom fighter, the lost heretic soul of the witch and the converted Catholic, the slave and the master. Travelling is a no doubt a great story trope, but can I really consider myself Chinese, Dutch, Belgian, North American, French just because I have temporarily tried to grasp these different cultures? Or am I a very open-minded Portuguese? But language cannot be a sole home. Language carries History as much as Poetry and Philosophy do, as much as Wars. Language belongs to us, we do not belong to language; it is our duty to own it rather than be owned by it.
The idea that I could belong simultaneously to all of these belongings and be some kind of melting vessel of all of them challenges me even less. The fear that no matter what or where I think I belong to, what others recognize in me might be totally different than what I expect triples the doubts and the questions. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that we are enough by ourselves to be substantial, the borders between us and what surrounds us are organic, fluid, and therefore unpredictable. We keep happening in too many unexpected ways to be one thing only; we dress like an onion, in several layers. We are children of too many circumstances; very little is in fact in our control, or has a good and solid reason to be what it is in the moment we live it. We are, rather, a roller coaster pointing at a future. So something tells me that, as a writer and rewriter (as I often call myself), and as a maker of “alternative worlds” in words and images, I only can, should, and have the responsibility to belong to the future, and to the future alone.
I should belong to change, to the possibility of what might come after all the transits and all the transitions. After us, after the end of our common story. I should belong to an ever-ending after, and to a never-ending struggle of trying to understand what could be different during our lifetime that would shape the present, to then be handed over to future generations. And future generations. And future generations. How can I read my past, my stories, my memories, my traditions, my ideas, and own them in my own particular way so as to continually make room for change, but also allow for a continuity of knowledge? How can I read and write in order to rethink, rewrite, reread, allowing for what is not there yet as a place of a shared belonging?
This urge to think and practice some kind of belonging, that is, act upon it rather than merely find, understand, or choose one, should be the mission and the responsibility of anyone who has a voice in the public space, whether as an artist, a writer, or a spokesperson of any sort.
My modest contribution as a writer must be an attempt to understand and practice my role as one that has to belong to a place not yet extant but already possible, a place made of several ways of belonging that can foresee, suggest, promote, and improve the future instead of reading, closing, and explaining a very specific past.
But why am I so intensely inclined to see the future as my chosen place of belonging, the place where I intend to bury my body and to which I intend to offer, commit, all my strength, energy, and creativity?
Beyond carrying an inheritance, remembering a past, and absorbing the natural consequences of geographical and genealogical circumstances, one has the right as well as the duty to make one’s own history one’s own, and only then everyone else’s. But how to do this without stealing or erasing someone else’s past? How to be creative without being a revisionist, a conservative, an authoritarian progressive mind living off of someone else’s traditions?
It is to answer this last question that I intend to write. How to be free enough to reimagine a world without avoiding or inflicting unnecessary conflicts. That is the difference between inventing a future without ignoring its past and rereading and interpreting a future you must belong to with all your pasts.
Patrícia PORTELA has written and coordinated nearly twenty award-winning stage performances and live art works across Europe, the Middle East, China, and Brazil. Widely anthologized, she is the author of the novels Para Cima e Não Para Norte (2008), Banquete and A coleção privada de Acácio Nobre (2016). In 2015 she was one of the five finalists of the MediaArt Sonae /Chiado Museum prize. A founder of the cultural association Prado, she teaches regularly at Forum Dança and in the graduate programs of the Theatre and Cinema school, both in Lisbon, as well as in the Program for Visual Criticism and Film at the University of Antwerp.