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Interview with Jean Portante

Jean Portante has written more than forty books, including poetry, novels, essays, and translations, within different writing styles and genres. Next month, he will “swim” to the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.


Jean Portante has achieved great success in poetry and novels. His poetry collection L’Etrange langue was given the prestigious Mallarmé poetry award. In Luxembourg he was given twice the Servais Award for the best book of the year for his two novels. As a writer, he doesn’t like writing in the same style or genre. “Through writing, I search for different aspects of the matters. Some are better to be shown by novels while some are better to be shown in poetry. But all of my works shared the same subject – adrift migrants.”


Jean Portante himself is the son of migrants in Luxembourg because his parents are Italians. In his childhood, he felt that he was in a no man’s land, not belonging to any side. This feeling motivated him to travel around the world. Until one day he stood at the seaside in Havana, Cuba, he was reminded of a whale from his deeper memories.


Jean Portante sent many letters to his families and friends in Luxembourg to verify this memory, and his mother even helped him publish a notice on the local newspaper. There is a multiplicity of views on the subject but after a public discussion, the truth finally came out: When he was only three years old, a dead whale was on its European cruise. On February 23rd, 2003, the dead whale named Ms. Haroy came to the city he used to live in.


From then on, Ms. Haroy became Jean’s Muse. From her, he found the answer that he was seeking for:


“Whales used to be terrestrial mammals, but they migrated to the sea. In order to fit with the marine environment, their legs evolved into dorsal fins. And they never walked in a standing position but crawled forward as fish. But whales never gave up their most important organs – lungs, because they are their only memories from the land.”


Jean Portante can speak various language. Like other Luxembourgers, he can speak German, French, and Luxembourgish. When he went to the school, he started learning English. Since he spent a long time living and working in Cuba and many other American countries, he can also speak fluent Spanish. Besides, most importantly, his mother language is Italian.


However, most of his works are written in French or – to some extent – not, because “what I speak is not French but the language of whales,” he said.


This is also what Ms. Haroy taught him. When he finished his learning in France and got the certification as a French teacher, he started writing in French, but he always felt that he betrayed his mother language – Italian. Then he asked Ms. Haroy for advice. The answer she gave him was that he could hide the Italian deep in French just like the lungs in her body.


So in the following 30 years, Jean Portante has been constructing his own language. It looks like French, but you could find Italian in it. For example, the word “Pelle” means “shovel” in French but “skin” in Italian. If you use different explanations to read the poem, you will get two different understandings.


Jean once went to Qinghai Province to attend a poetry festival held there. From then on, he fell in love with China. Although he was unable to come to Beijing to tell the story of Ms. Haroy ou la mémoire de la baleine by himself due to the pandemic, for now he can enjoy life in his room, for the writer can travel around with an imaginary whale.


EU-China-litfest 14: Literary Nomads: Language, Experience and Inspiration