Ananda Lima (MFA ’19) is an award-winning poet, short-story writer, essayist, teacher and photographer from Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, a planned city and UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its formalist urban layout and stunning modern architecture. As such, Lima was steeped in music, reading, writing, film and photography early on, and her work has been deeply influenced by not only countless artists from her home country and beyond, but also the graphical architectural elements she took in daily during her youth.
Lima is also very much a citizen of the world, which has impacted her art. At age 16, she did a year in Australia as a high-school exchange student, then returned there for a B.A. in linguistics and psychology. As an undergraduate she studied abroad in the United States at UCLA, where she returned to complete an M.A. in linguistics in the mid-aughts before moving to New York City, then New Jersey, with her husband and son. (They now live in Chicago.)
While there Lima worked as a photographer, received her MFA from Rutgers University–Newark, and pursued writing projects and teaching. Her written work often combines both text and photography. She is the author of four chapbooks: Vigil (Get Fresh Books), forthcoming in 2021; Tropicália (Newfound, 2021), a novel set in Brasília and winner of the Newfound Prose Prize; Amblyopia (Bull City Press, 2020); and Translation (Paper Nautilus, 2019), winner of the Vella Chapbook Prize.
Lima’s work has appeared or is upcoming in The American Poetry Review, Poets.org, Kenyon Review Online, Gulf Coast, The Common, Poet Lore, Poetry Northwest, Pleiades and elsewhere. She has served as the poetry judge for the AWP Kurt Brown Prize, as staff at the Sewanee Writers Conference, and as a mentor at the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Immigrant Artist Program.
This month Lima released her first full-length book of poetry, titled, Mother/land (Black Lawrence Press), a multi-lingual collection centered on immigration and motherhood, which won the 2020 Hudson Prize and was recently short-listed for the Chicago Review of Books' 2021 CHIRBy Award.
We recently sat down with Lima to discuss her childhood, her influences and her work.
Tell us about your background, growing up in Brasilia, the administrative center of Brazil.
My parents, like all my friend's parents, were migrants from other parts of the country, as Brasilia was a planned city built quickly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most kids I knew were part of a first-generation of their families born in Brasilia. My parents came from the northeast, Bahia, and had only a high-school education. My father at some point worked as a traveling salesperson for Kodak, among other things. When I was a teenager, my parents went to night classes and got college degrees, then worked at a stable government job at Banco do Brasil, a national bank. Much later, my father left the bank, then pursued graduate school and now he teaches business at a college.
I love language, but I also love to be able to experience and express beyond it.
Yet your world was filled with literature and the arts.
Yes. Music filled our house. My mother liked playing Caetano Veloso—who gave me some of my earliest powerful experiences of art—and also Chico Buarque, Novos Baianos and the people who had been involved in Tropicalia. So, my exposure began early. I also liked writing diaries and all sorts of themed books and scrapped books, and I loved photography and making videos. My cousins and I made some really fun ones, spoofs of soap operas, etc. I was always behind the camera and directing, never acting. And I read books from a big collection that my aunt left us when she moved to America. I loved Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector, and remember marveling at the way Erico Verissimo and Machado de Assis animated the dead in some of their work. As a teenager, Pedro Almodovar's movies made me feel that awe that you sometimes get with pieces of art, too, and gave me something, an appreciation for the possibilities of art that stayed with me.
Despite all this, you studied linguistics in college and grad school?
That’s right. I was in awe with all the intricate mechanisms of language, its complexity and power, including its power in the computational sense. I focused on this formal Chomskyan linguistics that looked at how sentences mechanically work in a micro level, in English and other languages. There were so many formal puzzles. We were given data sets of words or sentences and their meanings, and we had to figure out the principles explaining that data. I loved working on those puzzles.
Your work breaks down and plays with the intricacies of language, and you combine language and photography in interesting ways.
First, photography is so compelling to me for so many reasons. Some intersect with things that happen with writing. There is some evoking, there is some narrative, there is image. But there is also this non-verbal part, expression that goes beyond words. I love language, but I also love to be able to experience and express beyond it.
That said, as a reader I also love the tension created when a photograph is inserted into text. There is this lovely friction between how fiction functions and how pictures function. They differ in how images are drawn in the reader's mind, and how sharp the link is between the world of the fiction and the real world. A photograph in particular (versus, say, a drawing) is presumably a photograph of a real object that exists outside the story, even if it is being fictionalized. It brings in the world outside into this fictional world one has imagined. It jolts you awake. I find that friction very interesting and very enjoyable as a reader. I think there is a lot of possibility there. Poetry already plays with more non-verbal elements—the way the words are arranged on the page, blank space, the line break—so they can work together more smoothly.
And growing up in Brasilia helped your photography?
At a more concrete level, I think it did. Architecture is so present, so much human-created beauty with intentional framing, leading lines, etc. Part of that shaped my sensibility. I feel like there is a link between what I get from some photographs and what I feel looking at architecture.
You’ve been busy in 2021, coming out with Mother/Land, Vigil and Tropicålia all in the same year.
Yes, it all happened at once for me. In 2019 my first poetry chapbook, Translation was published. Then in late 2020 my second poetry chapbook, Amblyopia, came out. In spring 2021 Tropicalia, a fiction chapbook, was released, and now this month my first full poetry collection, Mother/land, followed by my chapbook Vigil later this year. They all came out very close to each other, but I have been writing them for a long time. It is just that everything started getting picked up so close together.
How did it feel to win the 2020 Hudson Prize in 2020 for the unpublished manuscript of Mother/land?
It was magical receiving this news this year. I have been writing it for so long. I had been placing as a finalist in various contests for a while. So, when I learned I was a finalist, I felt happy but really didn't expect to win. Then I got a message asking for a phone call, which had never happened when I was a finalist. I could not believe it. I was so happy. Having this really helped me in this difficult year—the timing really helped me personally, having something so good to look forward to during the pandemic. Professionally it also has been wonderful. People have been so generous, and I am so happy and surprised at the reception so far.
You’re currently doing an in-person and virtual book tour for Mother/land. How’s that going, and what are you working on next?
Most of the events are scheduled for October and November—six events plus one class visit within the first seven days!—with a few more in December and early next year. The in-person events include New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Nashville, Fort Wayne, Ind. and Milheim, Pa. My main focus writing-wise this next year will be my short-story collection, for which I was awarded the inaugural Work In-Progress fellowship by Latinx in Publishing, sponsored by Macmillan Publishers. I will be revising the manuscript under the guidance of editors, and Latinx in Publishing are providing a lot of support. The timing is perfect in terms of where the manuscript is in the revision process, and this is such a great opportunity. I am very excited about it.
Thank you very much for sitting down with us.