Amora won several major literary prizes when it was first published in Brazil several years ago, and having just got my hands on the soon-to-be-published English translation, I can see why.
The short stories in this collection by Natalia Borges Polesso are often intimate, often poignant, and always beautifully written. They mostly explore love between women, all the way from teenage explorations to fifty-year relationships. They are a pleasure to read.
“Short stories” can encompass quite a range of formats, so let me make it clear that the stories in Amora are definitely on the shorter end of the spectrum: 33 stories in a book of about 250 pages. Some of the stories towards the end, in the “Short & Tart” section, are just a page or two, with beautiful writing but little plot to speak of: they reminded me more of prose poetry. Even the earlier ones in the “Big & Juicy” section are generally quite quick reads.
What this means is that, although some stories stood out for me over others, the collection made more of a holistic impression on me, as I read several stories in a single sitting, and the themes and characters from one story spilt over into another. The downside was that I didn’t get to stay very long with characters or situations that had intrigued me, but the advantage was an impressive sense of cohesion in a set of really quite disparate stories.
Much of the love in Amora is hidden. In the first story, a seventeen-year-old girl invents convincing details of losing her virginity to a boy in the back of a Chevette with 4 Non Blondes playing on the radio, as she tries to hide “the unmentionable thing”.
Even when she finally has a more satisfying encounter with the beautiful, red-lipped Leticia, they keep it secret:
“No one saw anything or said anything. Not even them.”
In another story, “My Cousin’s in Town”, a woman brings some work colleagues home, thinking her lover is away on business, but then she hears her in the shower as soon as she opens the door. She tells them Bruna is her cousin, in town for an exam, which causes problems because Bruna is more open about their relationship.
“After they left, I went to talk to Bruna and all she said was that at some point things would have to change. Then she laughed at the ridiculousness of it all and said the truth would’ve been painless, but … maybe, she wasn’t sure, maybe she was wrong. The fact is, we’re still trying.”
Although the stories are short, Polesso manages to cram in a lot of information and depth about each of the relationships she explores, so that by the end of each one, you really feel the nuances of them, the love, the loss, the deceptions and confidences.
In some stories, we see the surrounding homophobia that explains some of the secrecy. I loved “Flor”, in which a young child overhears her family referring to the neighbour, Flor, as a “machorra“. She asks what it means, and her mother lies and tells her it’s an illness, which prompts her to pick some flowers from around the house, put them in a glass and leave them for Flor, with a note wishing her to get well soon and asking her to “please put the flowers in a vase and return the glass because my mom would probably notice it was missing.”
Later her friend tries to explain what a machorra is by saying they’re women who like girls more than boys, and the little girl then thinks she must be a machorra too, because she likes girls more than boys, and so she thinks she’s sick too. It’s a touching story and a great way of exploring the disparaging language people use, through the innocent, as yet prejudice-free eyes of a child.
That’s not to say that all the stories in Amora are about secrecy and suppression, however, and the characters in them are certainly not victims. What comes across most strongly is the love and strength of feeling that no external disapproval can affect.
There’s a lot of humour in the stories, too. In “Aunt Betty”, Daniela and her partner Tereza visit hateful old Aunt Betty with Daniela’s gay cousin Marcos. They pretend that Marcos is married to Tereza and tell her Daniela has uterine cancer, and each time one of them leaves the room to go the bathroom, they eavesdrop on the nasty and completely misinformed things she says about them, laughing even more at what she would say if she knew the truth. It doesn’t sound that funny the way I’m describing it, but the scene really worked well.
The even shorter stories towards the end contained some beautiful imagery, but I found less to hold onto, and although I appreciated and admired the prose, I didn’t enjoy them as much as the earlier, more character-driven stories.
Overall, I’d recommend Amora to anyone looking for some thoughtful, beautifully written Brazilian fiction in translation. There are some truly memorable stories in this collection, and they work together beautifully to create a vision of all the diverse forms that love and human relationships can take. It’s a wonderful read.
As a side note, can any Portuguese speakers enlighten me on the meaning and/or nuances of “amora”? It’s the name of a character in one of the stories, but I also immediately thought of love. But then I discovered that love in Portuguese is actually “o amor”, a masculine word, and “amora” seems to mean “blackberry”. Can adding “a” make words feminine in Portuguese, so that “amora” could mean a feminine love, or does it not work that way?