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The City and the Writer: In Lisbon, Portugal, and Orkney, Scotland with Rachael McGill

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Lisbon/Orkney as you feel/see it?

They’re very different places but for me their mood is the same: calm. It’s about vistas, water, and changing light.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Leaving Orkney on the ferry is always a bit heartbreaking. It’s the main reason I now usually take a plane.

In Lisbon my heart breaks a little bit more with every new boutique hotel advertised with a meaningless slogan in English.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Lisbon: The moon. I’m always staring at it, especially when it’s reflected in the river. Coming from the UK, it’s a revelation to have cloudless skies.

Orkney: I wouldn’t presume to say what most people notice or don’t notice, but the detail that becomes normal when you’re there and is novel again when you first come back is glimpsing the sea everywhere: out of the corner of your eye, at the bottom of the street.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Lisbon: Catarina Fonseca. I translated a short story by her in the book Lisbon Tales and Trails. In a literary culture that takes itself too seriously, she’s witty and playful.

Orkney: Eric Linklater. I remember reading his children’s novel The Wind on the Moon at my grandparents’ house. I’ve always had a moon obsession.


Is there a place here you return to often?

Lisbon: A dustbin where a shop throws away perfectly good organic vegetables.

Orkney: A beach where the seals come to sit on the rocks.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I like Lisbon and Orkney because there are still not too many places in them that someone’s labeled iconic.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Lisbon: It seems to me that in Portuguese culture a lot is hidden; people are private, you don’t get to know them quickly. As Lisbon has become more saturated with tourism, it’s gotten even harder to really understand what makes native Lisboetas tick.

Orkney: Near to my parents’ house is a Neolithic village, Skara Brae. You can look into the little stone houses. My mother once found a Neolithic spoon in her garden.


Where does passion live here?

In Lisbon I’ve witnessed it only in relation to Benfica football club.

In Orkney it’s under a lot of woolly jumpers.


What is the title of one of your works about Lisbon/Orkney and what inspired it exactly?

Lisbon hasn’t percolated into my writing much yet. That will take years. The only things I’ve written about it are a flash fiction piece called “Shoe Box,” published in Pygmy Giant, about a banker selling an illiterate farmer a loan, which was based on a news story I read; and a story about the Portuguese revolution, the Carnation Revolution, inspired by an old man I know.

Orkney: “The End of the Line” (short story, Fictive Dream). I don’t remember what inspired it; it’s a distillation of different things that were in my head, and like nearly everything I write, it came from a place of political anger.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Lisbon/Orkney does an outside exist?”

I feel a strong connection to both of these places, as well as to some other places where I’ve spent a lot of time. But I’m always outside all of them. There’s nowhere that I don’t feel like an outsider. It’s always been that way. I can’t imagine it any other way. For me that’s something joyful. I can’t imagine being a writer without it.


Rachael McGill was born in the Shetland Islands. She lives with one foot in Britain, the other in Lisbon. She’s a playwright for stage and radio, a prose writer, and a literary translator from French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Her translation of The Desert and the Drum by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk is published by Dedalus. It received a PEN Translates Award and has been shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Her play The Lemon Princess is published by Oberon, as are her translations of the Kerstin Specht plays Marieluise (which won the Gate Theatre/Allied Domecq Translation Award) and The Time of the Tortoise. Her short fiction has been published in the anthologies Shoe Fly Baby (The Asham Award, Bloomsbury), Shorts 5 (Polygon), She Said He Said I Said (Association for Scottish Literary Studies), Stories for Homes 2, Words for the Wild, and Story Cities (Arachne Press), as well as in literary magazines and online. Her forthcoming first novel, Fair Trade Heroin, was longlisted for the Linen Press First Chapter Award.

Published Aug 26, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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