An Interview with Betty Milan

The multilingual writer talks her Lebanese heritage, “self-xenophobia,” and the work of Jacques Lacan.

An Interview with Betty Milan

Novelist, essayist, and playwright Betty Milan, the author of 30 books, has received accolades for her writing both in her native Brazil and in France, her adopted country. Analyzed by Lacan, published in November by Bloomsbury, brings to English-speaking audiences two of her most celebrated works — both featuring French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan — the memoir Why Lacan?, translated by Chris Vanderwees, and the play Goodbye Doctor, translated by Clifford E. Landers. In 2022, the play was adapted for the screen in France by director Richard Ledes under the title “Adieu Lacan.” Milan answered my questions here in an enchanting combination of English, Portuguese, and French.

What drew you to the subject of Lacan?

I studied medicine, specializing in psychiatry. I went to study with Lacan and was analyzed by him in France in the 1970s. My sessions brought to light issues such as “self-xenophobia” and gender, which are themes in my books.

In Analyzed by Lacan, you write that by encouraging you to talk about your origins, Lacan sent you “back to the history hidden by [your] ancestors” and allowed you to come to terms with your background. Can you elaborate?

I’m the descendant of immigrants who left Lebanon at the end of the 19th century and settled in São Paulo. My identity was forged first by them and by Afro-Brazilian culture, and then by the culture I adopted as my own, that of France. I’m a Franco-Brazilian of Lebanese origin.

You write that Lacan had analysands speak in their native language even when he didn’t understand, because he thought it was important for them to express themselves in their mother tongue. Language is an issue in Goodbye Doctor.

Yes, the play is structured around the sessions of Seriema with the doctor. Seriema lives the drama of a Western descendant of people from the Middle East. She has had two miscarriages, and her husband has left her. Now she is living in France.

Seriema says: “I never know if I’m speaking correctly…I’m constantly translating from one language to another.” She has lost not only her husband, but also her native country, Brazil. The struggle to speak French emphasizes her sense of alienation. But in Brazil, she was marginalized, too, right?

Yes, cultural difference is a key. Motherhood seems impossible for her. Is it because she cannot identify with the women in her family, or is there some other reason?

In the play, the doctor explains: “Pregnancy was a torture in her family. Either the woman gave birth to a firstborn male, or she was looked down upon. The woman was treated unjustly merely for being a woman.” So, issues of sex and culture are intertwined.

But through analysis, Seriema discovers why she cannot give birth — namely, an unconscious desire to satisfy her father, who didn’t authorize her to conceive. Gradually, she ceases to be the victim of her unconscious [and] grasps the possibility of choosing a father for her child, and thus of becoming a mother.

In Why Lacan?, you mention that when the analysand had said what the doctor deemed essential, he stopped the session.

Although Lacan’s theories are widely known, his clinical methods are not. Lacan made extensive use of the so-called “short session.” The time of the session was variable. Lacan was not guided by the time of Kronos, the time of the clock, but that of Kairos, the moment of opportunity. What counted for him was the discourse of the analysand, not the number of minutes that passed.

What is the significance of this to your writing?

The Lacanian revolution influenced not only my themes but also my style — the orality of it, the “short session.” My texts are rapid-fire, written to be heard.

Is Goodbye Doctor autobiographical?

Good fiction cannot be completely autobiographical. With regard to both the protagonist and the doctor, there’s a great deal of invention.

Is immigration always a theme in your writing?

I’ve written two novels that have to do with immigration, Lacan’s Parrot and Baal. As I explained in an article for the European Journal of Psychoanalysis, the name of the first novel is an allusion to a meeting of cultures: the Brazilian parrot and the European doctor. It follows the journey of the heroine, a Middle Eastern woman, to a conscious awakening to her own identity, including her womanhood. It’s not a collection of autobiographical reminiscences but rather an historical panorama of the immigrants who, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, moved from Lebanon to Brazil.

Baal is also the story of an immigrant family. The grandfather, Omar, escapes conflict in the Middle East and builds an empire in the West. However, he fails to teach his daughter to be a strong, independent woman who can carry on his legacy.

Yes, I was honored with the Cedar of Lebanon for Baal in Beirut by the Lebanese Diaspora Energy Project, which brings together prominent people of Lebanese origin. I also wrote two novels inspired by my mother, A Mãe Eterna [The Eternal Mother] and Heresia [Heresy].

Goodbye Doctor was originally written in Portuguese. How do you feel about the French film adaptation?

First, the play was translated into English by Cliff Landers, an excellent translator, with whom I worked closely. I did the French translation myself with my companion, Jean Sarzana, who’s also a writer. I like the film very much. Richard Ledes, the director, understands the “Lacanian revolution” and wanted to depict the drama of transference. The film is now available through streaming, and I hope it will become a stage play.

Do you write in Portuguese or French?

I tend to write in Portuguese, then work with a translator on the French version. Today, French is almost a native language for me. I also work with a translator on the English text. I live part-time in both Brazil and France, and going from one country to the other inspires me to rewrite and retouch my texts so that they’ll speak to different audiences.

Bárbara Mujica is a novelist, essayist, short-story writer, and critic. Her latest novel, Miss del Río, based on the life of Mexican movie star Dolores del Río, was named one of the best books of 2022 by Library Journal and one of the five best recent historical novels by the Washington Post. Mujica’s novel Frida, based on the tumultuous relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, was an international bestseller published in 18 languages. Sister Teresa, based on the life of the Spanish saint Teresa de Avila, was adapted for the stage by the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. Her novel I Am Venus revolves around the identity of the mysterious model for the Rokeby Venus, the only extant female nude by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Mujica’s story collections are Imagining Iraq, an Amazon bestseller, Far from My Mother’s Home, and Sanchez across the Street. Her Collateral Damage: Women Write about War is a compendium of writings on the trauma of war. Mujica has won numerous prizes for her writing, including the E.L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition, the Pangolin Prize, and the Pioneer Prize from Dialogue on Diversity. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee. She is also a professor emerita at Georgetown University who specializes in early modern Spain and is the author of numerous books and articles on Spanish theater, mysticism, the counterreformation, and women’s writing. In 2022, her book Women Religious and Epistolary Exchange in the Carmelite Reform won the GEMELA Prize for best book of the year on early modern Hispanic women.

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