HOW TO WRITE THE PAST
The most common way, which will come as no shock to the reader, is to use the past perfect. For example: D. loved the revolution from that moment on.
Julia Sanches is a translator of Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan. She is the translator of Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques and has also translated works by Daniel Galera, Eva Baltasar and Geovani Martins, among others. Her shorter translations have appeared in various magazines and periodicals, including Words Without Borders, Granta, Tin House, and Guernica.
Then again, another technique would be to bring the past to the reader with the present tense: D. loves the revolution from this moment on.
It is also possible to use the future tense, intimating that the action will outlast the event and also the act of writing: D. will love the revolution from that moment on.
It may be important to consider the point of view of the character—in this case, D.—and the point of view of the narrator—in this case, me.
In this moment, D. is almost fifty years old and waits for a man to bring her the keys to her first house, that is, the first house she will rent on her own, which is a dream she's always had but never fulfilled and that led her son to grow up away from her. It is May 1, 1974, seven days after the revolution that laid low the dictatorship. D. has no interest in politics nor any opinion on what is happening, and, due to this happy coincidence, D. loves the revolution from this moment on.
In that moment, I had not yet been born. I can try to picture D. when she was younger. I can pore over images of people on the streets on that May First. I can listen to D. I can ask more questions about that moment and that time: how she dressed, how she spoke, how she felt. I can try to understand what the life of a single mother might have been like back when D. was a single mother as opposed to when I was a single mother. I can try to slip into the skin of a mother who has earned herself the right to a house that is no longer of use to her son—because he is of age now and wants a house all his own—and who is happy even so and loves everything that is happening around her. I can try to imagine being unable to read or write and making a living by serving others, as was the case of D., having an employer by day and also by night. Though it may be a laudable effort, it will always be lesser-than, incomplete, with noticeable flaws.
Let us consider, then, the issue of allegiance: if the reader’s allegiance is to the point of view of the character or the narrator.
There is still the question of desired effect: with the present tense, the reader will experience the illusion of having witnessed the event alongside the character who witnessed it. With the verb in the past tense, the reader will participate in the narrator’s nostalgia, the particular pain of a thing not lived that will never return so that we may live it.
In the last case, with the future tense, it may be possible to merge both worlds: to describe the scene in which character and narrator meet, the moment the story is told in the hallway of a home during the day and amid the echoing of old white-and-blue tiles. The character still lives in the same Lisbon house to which she was given keys on that May First. D. is by nature untrusting, but happy. D. complains but is content to do things that affect usefulness, watch TV, eat the same snack every day, enjoy every small courtesy she is given. In her story, and within her, there appears to be a before and an after to the moment when she loved/loves/will love the revolution, as if having inadvertently mirrored the country itself. The narrator—that is, me—still believes she will visit this woman again, that she will listen to her story a while longer, corroborate details, or perhaps simply let her know she has not forgotten her. But I never return.
How to Write a Related Personal Anecdote
To choose an anecdote that says something about the narrator—in this case, me. That says something about who I am and what the source of my motivations may be, but without overexposing myself. A memory. Perhaps a minor, almost metaphorical story; a defining story. Anything, such as: the moment my grandfather asked my sister and me to buy a red carnation to lay on my grandmother’s casket. To highlight the comic and quasi-absurd elements that often accompany moments of tragedy: my sister and I dashing to the florist and having the florists tell us, one by one, that it is too early, that it isn’t even April, and there are no red carnations. To describe another element that is romantic, amorous, beautiful, and maybe too literary to be plausible: my grandfather joining my grandmother’s hands around an orange carnation, as if not realizing it wasn’t red.
How to Write Against a Backdrop
To start by traveling around the country in an effort to collect memories of life before the revolution.
To tell the stories of people encountered along the way, without searching too hard, allowing chance to play its part. People who had left their homeland and then returned and people who had never left. To not fear telling life’s most difficult moments—I think, now, of L., who lost all three children of her first three pregnancies, one of them slipping suddenly from between her legs as she walked up the stairs, the boy’s head (it was a boy, see) cracking on the old wood steps—but also to not fear telling moments of joy, describing dances, the beginnings of relationships, rushed weddings—I think of that same L.’s village, and of the woman who spoke with pride and wistfulness of having taken her husband his lunch in the fields before returning home to have her first son with only her mother's help.
To wander around the middle of nowhere and visualize what had changed. Maybe not the enormous, primordial rocks in the north, or the soft slopes in the south, but so much even so: the colors of fields and the contours of roads.
To insist people tell their stories even though they claim to have nothing interesting to say. To not be disappointed if they really have nothing to tell.
To carefully study expressions such as “that’s what life was like” not for what they may say about people’s lives but for what they don’t say and what will never be said.
To not fear repetition. Rather, to make repetition a strength: another man who had secretly emigrated and given thanks to the Virgin Mary; another woman who had lost a baby yet still counted it when speaking of the children she had borne; another man who went to Africa to fight and returned overjoyed to still have legs; another woman who cannot read and is ashamed of it. And yet, to not let repetition collectivize these voices, dissolving them into a formless choir as so often happens to “the people.”
This may be an exhausting process, a slow and frustrating process—because every voice deserves to be heard—but it will eventually be a rewarding process; of insight into the country of our forebears.
To not forget, while traveling, to observe solitude, to contemplate it, assimilate it, to think of it as a side effect but also as something—the idea, here, of a cornered animal?—that must be saved from itself.
How to Write the Day of the Revolution
If a central character should appear—better yet, a character at the center of events—to focus without judgment on their experience.
For example, to not judge S. when he speaks dispassionately of where he was on the morning of April 25, 1974. He is more animated when describing the two days it took him to travel on several buses from Trás-os-Montes to Lisbon, to join his troop, than he is when telling of how they—he, and the other soldiers—were woken up at three in the morning on April 25, 1974 and taken to Praça do Comércio, where they remained until noon. People brought them food and beverages and seemed to know better than they did what was about to happen.
To observe how S. does not use the word revolution; first, he says the change.
How to Write in the First Person
To not be afraid to use the singular form of the first person in the voice of the narrator—in this case, me—bearing in mind it may be the most honest way to write, without the pretense that there exists no I who first listens and later tells.
To understand that “I” can also stand for others like the narrator. In this case, others like me, born after the revolution and rarely allowed to forget they had been born after hunger, after ignorance, after houses without bathrooms, after houses without running water, after houses without separate rooms, after silence, after accusations, after mistreatment, after political prisons, after bans, after colonialism, after the war in the bush against the blacks, after independence movements in Africa, after the paving stones, after significant international protest, after beatings, after words of order, after declarations, after civil rights, after feminist triumphs, after the sexual revolution, after the Nouvelle Vague, after the Beatles, after protest songs, after bell-bottoms, after flowers in their hair, after co-ops, after plenaries, after literacy campaigns, after education for all, after utopias, after everything had been done.
How to Write the Mistakes of the Revolution
Even though the streets appear full in photographs of the revolution, for most the revolution only began later. Maybe a few days later; but in many cases, years later.
There is an instant of anticipation, of suspense, a visible hesitation—as I sift carefully through archival images—in the faces on the street on the day of the revolution: masses laughing, crying, screaming, embracing.
I think repeatedly of M. I think of her on the days she waited at home for evidence of the revolution. Hers was a cramped apartment in a suburban building. She spent those first days of freedom unable to leave the house, alone, speaking to almost no one but listening in on everything the neighbors said. She spent those hours occupied with the house because there was nothing else to do. She would’ve been around my age and yet looked older, despite her soft face and delicate constitution. Her hair would have already started graying and she would’ve had the feel of a person who doesn’t believe she will make it to the autumn of her life. I can’t remember if she told me what her name was at that point in time, but M. had not been M. and was not allowed to be M. for several days after the revolution—as she waited for evidence of the revolution.
M. was a member of the Communist Party, and spent most of her youth underground, changing her name and moving all over the country; she spent many years in prison unable to raise her son or watch her parents grow old; her husband was in prison even longer and on the day he was released, she did not recognize him; and yet of all the things she told me in the space of those two conversations we had in a small town in Alentejo, what struck me as cruelest, after everything she’d been through, were the days she spent waiting for evidence of the revolution.
How to Write and Personalize the Revolution
To find a character able to illustrate the narrative arc of political awareness. A.’s story might work yet may be too perfect. A. has not shared his story with many, but he has probably told it to himself plenty of times, a polished self-narrative that positions A. in relation to those around him.
At first, A.’s story is a story of powerlessness: powerlessness to save his mother, who dies at a young age in a small village on a Cape Verdean island; powerlessness before a work colleague significantly older than him—still a teenager—mistreated and forced to work while ill; powerlessness, later, before his own circumstances, hired to work on a cacao plantation in São Tomé and Príncipe while at night listening to clandestine speeches about African liberation; powerlessness when his infant son contracts a mysterious illness that inexplicably turns his small body another color; powerlessness when he disembarks in the metropole and is unable to reach the city he had planned to travel to. When the revolution takes place, it is as if A.’s whole life had prepared him for this moment. From now on, organizing will be his greatest joy: organizing his circle of workers at a factory in the suburbs of Lisbon, then organizing black communities in a neighborhood in the outskirts where he lived with his family. To organize is to fight chaos. To fight the visible forces of chaos. Because nothing can be done against forces that are invisible and mysterious and arrive announced to bring down parents, children, friends, work colleagues, until suddenly the story of a life is peopled with ghosts.
Following the exuberance of his revolutionary period, A. devotes himself to a discreet yet everyday labor—in his neighborhood and on his street (but not in his house), like a pilgrim who does not need to leave home. He ages well in this mission and assumes the carriage and childlike joy of the selfless. A. would serve as a good example of what the revolution was able to do to a single life and to a single man, were his story not too perfect, predictable—like we had read or seen it somewhere before, familiar yet unreal.
How to Write a Character at a Remove From Events
E. was docked in New York when someone on land said to him: So, there was a revolution in Portugal?
E., who had gone cod fishing in northern waters instead of fighting a war in Africa as a young man and who had since been working at sea, was used to hearing news, good and bad, from a distance. This never stopped E. from receiving this news as though he were still at home: the death of his daughter and the birth of his son. Perhaps he actually experienced these events more acutely, imagining them time and again in his head. He had an unfounded hope in the revolution, which was at odds with his quiet and pragmatic character.
It was most likely not on that day, and maybe not even on that trip, that E. saw a piece of moon rock. But for the sake of narrative effect, one might situate E., shortly after receiving news of the revolution, in Manhattan—in his off-shore clothes and cap, his face fresh and clean-shaven, tall, strong, good-looking—staring boyishly at a piece of moon rock and thinking to himself: everything really is possible.
How to Write Honestly
To admit a taste for a certain kind of story, no matter the circumstance. In the case of the narrator—that is, me—to explain how it is I came to seek out the stories of those who had not participated in History but were at its mercy, praying at every jolt that History would not act thanklessly toward them and their loved ones.
To explain that it would not have always been this way but rather that tastes change with time; and that these changes might simply be a matter of age or that they might have to do, finally, with the awareness that, had I been born earlier, I would most likely have been a spectator to the revolution—watching from a safe distance, riveted and a little bewildered.
How to Write Using Appropriate Imagery
To regard certain references and images as traps because, for example, there is no new day, there will never be a new day. Time does not simply begin again, and we are not given the chance to start over—fresh, clean, and absolved.
To begin by considering continuity in the concept of “revolution” as applied to other spheres, such as, for example, astronomy. There, revolution is the unending journey of Earth around Sun, a thing we view as certain and continuous.
Maybe this will allow us to see revolutions as ways of keeping the world from coming to a complete stop.
How to Write Freedom, Now that Freedom Is Routine
To find an effective image, a somewhat metaphorical situation. In this case, me as narrator setting off in search of a character who may have already come up: perhaps a description of my grandfather’s bearing as he left the house, impeccably dressed, wearing a hat, solemn, expectant, cheerful, on his way to vote. And this, on repeat, for every election, for every year of democracy.
How to Write in the Nomenclature of the Revolution
The inability to use the nomenclature of the revolution, even the simplest terms such as people and bread and friend and hope and victory, may have less to do with a change in the context in which these words exist, and are either necessary or unnecessary, and more to do with the fact that they transport us—both me and others—to our childhoods. A time when we did not know how to handle words and used them correctly at the wrong times or incorrectly at the right times or simply for their music, which surrounded us, or because they were spoken by the people we loved.
How to Write a Setting
Consider the setting. Not just the city streets and squares but the streets and squares in detail. It was spring, the trees would have already been blooming—what color were the flowers? It was the season of heightening, when everything appears better or worse. The season of great loves. But also the season of suicides.
Regarding places: to visit them but without the hope that they will affect the writing. Because they might otherwise strip imagination of its power to bewilder. True, emblematic locations tend to boast statues and placards—for example, in front of the Carmo Convent where the regime surrendered—but statues are omnipresent to the point of becoming invisible and placards are trod on every day, and maybe this is a form of paying homage: by exercising the freedom of indifference.
How to Write in the Present
A constant effort is required not to diminish the present or its perils. An effort to record minor events, observations, or descriptions that might serve to contrast or compare. I am thinking, for example, of the mirror on the street fence behind my house. I still haven’t been able to figure out who uses it, whether a man or a woman. I don’t even know what its purpose is: if people use it to shave or apply make-up or simply not forget their own faces. This is a concrete task: to find out who uses that mirror. It helps to have concrete tasks. The mirror is circular and surrounded by smaller mirrored circles, multiplying the windows of the large building opposite and the people who pass, and, when the light strikes, resembling a sun.
How to Use the Second Person
It is always good to address someone. Not like in a conversation, which is overly colloquial, but maybe like in a letter, an object for the future. The second person may be vague and unnamed, their relation to the narrator undefined, rendering the subject mysterious and the relationship between narrator and reader ambiguous. On the other hand, maybe the second person should be well-defined and the fact that they are a part of the narrator—in this case, an intrinsic and inseparable part—made clear. The narrator—in this case, me—might in the end be writing to you, who do not yet speak, do not yet have a face and do not yet exist; you, who are a living thing inside me and still know nothing about the world, and who, unlike me, may never have any interest in the revolution.