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Scheherazade revisited: Nélida Piñon's 'Voices of the Desert'

September 26, 2009 | 10:00 am

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Thomas McGonigle, an occasional contributor to the book review, caught Nélida Piñon in New York City.

Does Scheherazade get aroused at the thought of having sex with the Caliph?

That was the unexpected question Brazilian writer Nélida Piñon recently explored with preeminent translator Gregory Rabassa before an audience in New York on the occasion of her controversial new novel “Voices of the Desert.” The novel, which is an erotic retelling of “One Thousand and One Nights,” led Piñon and Rabassa to a question no one in the assembly hall of the Americas Society on Park Avenue could have expected. (The original question, I assure you, was even saltier.)

At 73, Piñon seems the elegant epitome of anyone’s favorite aunt — but appearances are deceptive. She was the first female president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (elected in 1996). A protégé of Clarice Lispector and her last literary confidant, Piñon said she did not talk to Lispector’s recent biographer, Benjamin Moser, because a confidant should not give up her confidences.

Piñon is the author of numerous novels, now published in all the major languages. English translations of her work include “The Republic of Dreams” and “Caetana’s Sweet Song.” In discussing “Voice of the Desert,” she denies that the novel is a radical critique of the situation of a woman in Muslim society -- rather, Piñon is a novelist rooted in the actuality of a woman’s flesh. This is why the answer she gave, to the question mentioned above, was powerful in its simplicity. How could Scheherazade be aroused?

“A woman does not make love under compulsion to a tyrant,” she explained.

Later, after the talk, I wanted to see how Piñon’s views may have changed over the years. I reminded her that Scheherazade had surfaced in another interview she’d had — 17 years ago — with me about writing and the sources of one’s inspiration. She had been talking about what it was like to care for her mother when she was gravely ill — and how that experience led to another memory of her being sick as a child and being cared for by her mother:

My mother would follow me about the house, in the garden always presenting me with food, trying to get me to eat. For some reason I was refusing to eat. In order to seduce me she started to tell me a story. For each spoon of food I accepted, she was obliged to advance the story. As soon as I had a portion of words that corresponded with the spoonful of food, I immediately refused to open my mouth unless she would deliver more words. It was a verbal game: My mother at that time was a Scheherazade eager to protect my life instead of stealing it. She was my first living writer.

“Yes,” she said, after the talk, “That was true: But it was really my mother’s loving words that opened my mouth.”

Also during that earlier conversation, years ago, Piñon had mentioned how difficult it was to be a writer in a country like Brazil where half the population did not own a pair of shoes. Today, she says the situation is even worse -- not only in Brazil, but the world at large.

“Today our whole attitude toward money has changed," she said. "From the newspapers it would seem that, in America, even a mediocre actor expects to get a million dollars for a movie, and a ticket for 'Tosca' in New York can cost more than $1,200! It is terrible to be a young person in such an atmosphere.”

-- Thomas McGonigle

Book cover: Random House, Author photo: Paco Chuquiure / EPA

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