Lebanese descendant talks about immigration in new novel

Betty Milan released the book ‘Baal’ to tell the story of the character Omar, who came from the Middle East, faced prejudices, made a fortune, but couldn’t prevent his family from falling apart. She has published over 20 books and is inspired by her own Lebanese background.

Isaura Daniel

São Paulo – Last Tuesday (18), second-generation Lebanese descendant author and psychanalyst Betty Milan has published her new novel, Baal, which talks about immigration. The author of the bestseller “Paris Never Ends,” Betty has sold the rights of two of her books to the cinema. In her new book, Betty narrates through the voice of Omar, a Middle Eastern man who moved to Brazil fleeing a war.

The character Omar endured prejudices and hardships as an immigrant and a traveling salesman but manages to become rich. Baal is the name of the small palace Omar built for his daughter Aixa. When he dies, however, his family and palace start to fall apart. Her grandchildren move Aixa to a tiny room together with the maid and the dog. The narrator Omar realizes he was mistaken and regrets not making his daughter his successor.

Betty Millan brings much of her own personal story to her books. In an email interview to ANBA, she tells the inspiration for the book came from the demolition of the small palace her Lebanese grandparents built in the neighborhood of Bela Vista in São Paulo. “Like I say in the novel, it was ‘an Eastern jewel in the West.’ My grandmother sheltered many immigrants there,” she says. The small palace should have been made into a memorial to immigration but was demolished.

The book was published this month

The author doesn’t specify a home country for Omar in the book precisely to talk about the drama of every immigrant. “Just like him, others are forced to become their own saviors to avoid death. Just like him, they are victims of xenophobia, that is, the fear of the foreign,” she says. Another famous novel by Betty, “The Parrot and the Doctor”, also talks about diaspora and prejudice against the immigrant.

Her sister Denise Milan is also an artist and a public figure. Their mother’s family came from the regions of Zahlé and Baalbek, Lebanon, while their father’s family came from the village of Mount Lebanon. Just like Baal’s Omar, they started their lives as traveling salesmen and were very successful. Betty studied Medicine but devoted herself to psychoanalysis – having even worked with Jacques Lacan in France – and writing, in newspapers and literature.

Her published works have many references, direct and indirect, to her Arab family. In her memoirs “Carta ao filho” [Letter to My Son], Betty talks about her grandmother making Arabic bread, her aunt that danced dabke and reminded her of Saraghina from Frederico Fellini’s “8½,” and the stories she heard around her family. It is clear in the book how she admired her mother, who became the head of the family after her father died, when she was still very young.

Betty first went to Lebanon with her parents when she was 14 and then went back this year to participate in the Lebanese Diaspora Energy, a conference held in the country to bring together Lebanese and descendants living around the world. The author visited the main sights and says her trip was an extraordinary experience.

“Lebanon is a jewel, a heritage of humanity, but it’s going through hard times now. Besides the war in Syria and the refugee presence, it has very serious ecological problems. I think the next diaspora conference should focus on the environment,” Betty says. In the conference this year, she was honored for her collaboration and commitment with her family’s home country. The initiative came from Lebanon’s consul to São Paulo, Rudy El Azzi.

While talking about her love for storytelling, she remembers her grandfather, who she describes as a great storyteller. “He told them in Arabic and Portuguese,” she says. The novel Baal also includes storytellers, the so-called hakawati. “Omar’s best friend was a storyteller that talked about Sinbad the Sailor, who is a kind of patron of the novel. Just like the traveling salesmen, Sinbad travels to work,” says Betty.

Just like Baal is connected to her Arab background, so is “Carta ao filho.” It is a letter she wrote to her son, the filmmaker Mathias Mangin, who she had with her late French husband Alan Mangin. Directed to her son, the book tells her life, including personal reflections on her background, such as being the first daughter and a woman in an Arab family.

“I tell the real story of my paternal grandparents, who came from a village in Mount Lebanon over a century ago. I was there and was thrilled because the stone walls of the house were conserved by the descendants and because I saw the mountain they went down to reach the sea. The immigrants are true heroes and should be treated as such,” she says.

In “The Parrot and the Doctor,” there are also references to her family. The book is inspired by the psychoanalysis Betty did with Lacan. In the novel, Lacan is the imaginary ancestor of the female lead, who can only set herself apart from him by evoking her Lebanese ancestors’ story. “In Parrot, I focused mainly on my father’s family, while in Baal on my mother’s,” she says. The rights for “The Parrot and the Doctor” were acquired for a cinematic adaption in the United States. Milan’s book “The Eternal Mother” had its rights acquired for an adaptation in Brazil.

The book “The Parrot and the Doctor” was translated into French, Spanish and English. “The Eternal Mother” was translated into European Portuguese and Spanish, while her bestseller “Paris Never Ends” was translated into French, English and Chinese. “Now we need to translate the novels about the diaspora into Arabic,” Betty says.

She believes that, if they are translated into Arabic, the books may help the Middle Eastern residents know the problems of immigration, resulting mainly from the war. “The novels may have a peacemaking effect, as well as liberating women. Both books are appropriate for that,” Betty says about “The Parrot and the Doctor” and “Baal.”

Betty Milan doesn’t work as a therapist anymore but talks as a psychoanalyst at congresses and conferences in Brazil and abroad. She says she intends to devote herself mainly to literature and theater from now on. Betty wrote seven plays and one of them, “Goodbye Lacan,” will premier at Teatro Eva Herz in São Paulo in September featuring actors Ricardo Bittencour and Bianca Bin.

She is married with the author Jean Sarzana. He traveled with her to Lebanon this year. Her son Mathias Mangin has recently launched one on his movies in Brazil, “Horácio.” Mangin directed other movies too, including “Dona Rosa,” based on his grandmother’s story, which has also inspired Betty. “I wouldn’t have done none of it if it weren’t for my mother’s support,” she says.

Fact sheet:

Editora: Record
Price: 49,90
ISBN: 978-85-01-11635-2
1st edition, 2019
224 pages

Translated by Guilherme Miranda

Lailson Santos

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