New Welsh Review
Interview with João Morais
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João Morais holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Cardiff University, and he writes regularly for New Welsh Review and other publications. A number of his short stories have appeared in magazines and creative writing competitions, and he has been shortlisted for the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition, the Percy French Prize for Comic Verse, and the All Wales Comic Verse Competition.
Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster features a whirling kaleidoscope of characters, from raving teenagers to refugee poets, body-builders to street food sellers. Satirical, humorous and tragic, this collection traces the contours of a Cardiff that is at once gritty and beautiful, harsh and desperate, warm and passionate.
ADB: Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster touches on so many concepts that have barely made it into mainstream consciousness yet. Is topicality an important aspect of your writing?
JM: Like many other people, I draw influence from what I see around me and experience on a day-to-day basis. If it comes across as being of its time, then so be it. But the problem with writing things of their time though is that the time in which they were written soon passes. I have attempted to future-proof many stories, by taking out certain references in the drafting process. I was a bit paranoid about this, to be honest. I couldn’t say that it’s an important aspect of the writing as it’s a by-product more than anything.
ADB: The book features many working-class voices. Was that a conscious choice?
JM: I’m working class myself. Most people I have interacted with, and have got to know over my life, have also been working class. I feel like I’m drawn to books from the working classes so it’s only natural that I would write something like this. My favourite stories – So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry, The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon – are both working-class texts so it’s probably inevitable that I would write one too. Having said that, though, one of my other favourite books is the very middle-class Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
ADB: Many of the stories have dialogue full of Cardiff dialect. What was the appeal for you in this?
JM: It has always appealed. I’ve read too many stories where the dialogue didn’t reflect the people they were meant to be portraying. Then I read Niall Griffiths’ Grits when I was about nineteen, and Trinidadian Sam Selvon’s previously mentioned novel (which is written in patois and reminds me of how my godparents from Trinidad speak) and I realised that you didn’t have to write in formal English. In many cases, if you can be sympathetic and have a good knowledge of the dialect, it makes the text better. Although it has to be done correctly. In order to make this type of writing work I became well acquainted, during the research for my PhD, with the formal aspect of pronunciation/vocabulary/grammar of Cardiff English, in particular by reading and applying books such as Nikolas Coupland’s Dialect in Use: Sociolinguistic Variation in Cardiff English, and by paying special attention when re-reading, for instance, Dannie Abse’s There was a Young Man From Cardiff and John Williams’s Cardiff Trilogy.
ADB: Your characters are very different from each other and from yourself, I assume. What was the biggest challenge in writing such a diverse cast of people?
JM: Not stepping on anyone’s toes. While I broadly agree with Lionel Shriver that ‘both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth’, the last thing I wanted to do was to inaccurately represent anyone, not only because it would be evidence of my lack of skill of characterisation. but also because it doesn’t look like fun to be on the receiving end of a social media call-out. I made sure the stories passed basic critique tests (where applicable), such as the Bechdel test or Deggans’ rule. In other stories, where identity is important to the narrative, the characters are mixed race in a similar way to my own racial background of West African and Celtic. If racial identity isn’t important, then I left this aspect of the character’s description/context blank so that the reader can put their own implicit bias onto what they’re reading. The exception to this is a character who is a refugee from Syria, in my story (‘The Pavement Poet’, originally published in New Welsh Review). I modelled this character’s speech patterns on someone from Syria I know who went through a similar experience to this character, even going as far as to include a line of what they said verbatim to get it right.
ADB: In what ways do you think your settings have influenced the stories or vice versa?
JM: In some ways it’s obvious. One of the stories is set partly in a gallery and you’re likely to meet a different type of person in an art gallery to those visiting a prison visiting room, or at least this is what I gather from my experience. (Apologies for stereotyping both people who’ve been to art galleries and prison visiting rooms.) By writing this I’ve just realised that I’ve been in both, so I’ve failed at the first hurdle here.
ADB: Some of the stories have appeared elsewhere before being published in this collection, yet most stories connect to each other in subtle ways. How did you go about writing this way?
JM: It’s unintentional and, I guess, one of my current limitations as a writer. Like a Stone-age person with no access to liberty caps or ayahuasca I can only see as far as the horizon. I’m writing from experience, for the most part, after all. But this subtle connectedness is not a bad thing in this case because it has given the collection a sense of thematic coherence.
Ann D Bjerregaard works for Parthian Books.