My parents, both psychoanalysts, thought Hampstead looked nice. It’s the kind of genteel London neighbourhood one dreams of when living in South America under a military dictatorship, and Freud had lived there, after all. But we couldn’t afford it, so we went one tube stop along and settled in Temple Fortune, NW11, a dowdy suburb near Golders Green, mostly inhabited by Orthodox Jews. It was 1986, the year after the dictatorship ended in Brazil. My mother was a lapsed Jew, my father a lapsed Catholic, and they had three children aged four to nine. I was the youngest. Our flat in Rio de Janeiro — three blocks from Ipanema beach, with a view of Christ the Redeemer — was rented out. At my new school in London, I sat in a corner with the other immigrants; all of us mute, unable to communicate. When my teacher spoke to me, I could only understand my name.

Trauma affects people in different ways. For my older brother, coming to the UK — where we had no family, connections or language — erased all his childhood memories. I was the opposite: the move crystallized my memories of Rio. Walking up the hill to school, surrounded by thick greenery, afraid that we would see a snake; living in our twelfth-floor flat, with my grandparents on the eleventh; running into a wall, face-first, at my parents’ social club in Leblon; chanting in the car, with my brother and sister, the four words we knew in English, ‘Cat, dog, yes, no’; our maid mopping the floor of our kitchen. It felt normal for her to be living there, taking care of us.

We were supposed to stay in London for two or three years; just enough time for my parents to develop their careers, for us to learn English and let that European glamour wash over us, before we returned to Ipanema, to our club, to discuss the merits of socialism at dinner parties, as maids cleared our plates. (To be fair, my parents and their friends were ardent activists, and no more hypocritical than some of the socialists I know in London. Latin America is just a very different milieu.)

But by the late eighties, the situation in Brazil had worsened: hyperinflation, escalating debt, widespread violence in the cities. When we visited, friends and family would casually recount stories of murder, robbery and kidnapping. The country sprinted through several short-lived currencies; prices went up every week and money lost its worth as soon it was in your pocket. My grandmother told my mother, over the phone, ‘You should stay in London.’ Her advice wasn’t given lightly. At the age of twenty-three she fled Poland alone, betrothed to a man in Rio she had never met — my grandfather. They had a difficult marriage, but it saved her life. Everyone else ended up in Auschwitz. My grandmother never visited Poland again, but she called it ‘minha terra’ — my homeland — until she died, aged 101. The last time I saw her she told me that the year we left Brazil was one of the most devastating of her life.

‘Living in Europe was like dying and going to heaven,’ says André Cabral, the protagonist of my novel, Flesh and Bone and Water, of his adolescent fantasies about leaving Brazil. My parents, in their late thirties, weren’t quite as misty-eyed, but they couldn’t have imagined how tough it would be, especially for their children. It’s often assumed that migration is easier for young people, because they are more malleable. On the contrary, I believe that it’s more challenging, because children don’t have a concrete sense of self — they have more to lose. You don’t step off the plane and slide into a new identity, like a foot into a shoe. It’s a painstaking process, a learned performance. I spent years making small, conscious modifications to my character, to be more British when I was in London, more Brazilian in Rio.

I was Brazilian in the summer of 1986, when we arrived, and I was still Brazilian by the end of that year. I realized that I was ceasing to be Brazilian — and becoming, not British, but something indefinable — when we went to Rio in 1987 for the Christmas holidays. My friend Tatiana gasped when I said the word paletó — blazer. I had been explaining British school uniforms to her.

‘It’s not paletó; it’s paletó,’ she said, but I couldn’t hear the difference. ‘You can’t speak Portuguese any more!’ She laughed hysterically as my face burned with shame.

It was incredible to imagine that, if I hadn’t gone to London, I too would be waited on like a princess. It seemed terrifying to be so useless, so dependent on others and so blind to the inequality of that relationship.

Seven years after we left, my parents sent for their furniture, records and paintings, and sold the flat in Ipanema. They recreated the flat in our new house — an Edwardian terrace near Golders Green station — minus the view of the ocean and Jesus, and the maid. We didn’t yet have indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but this wasn’t something I was aware of, as a child — the touch-and-go nature of our existence here.


We went to Rio almost every year. I swam in the salty, rough Atlantic off Ipanema beach and in the cool, calm pool in Leblon. I ran away from cockroaches at Tatiana’s flat and ate dinner served by her maid, Dada, who we loved so dearly. My sister and I watched MTV Brasil at my grandmother’s at until our eyes were sore. It was there that I first watched the video to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, which both thrilled and terrified me.

In London, my limbs grew long and cumbersome, and my skin fluorescent white, from lack of sun. In Rio, relatives routinely mocked my whiteness and my accent. The Carioca humour, like the ocean, is often salty and rough. In the middle of Passover in Leblon, I locked myself in a bathroom and wept. I developed a phobia of speaking in public — in any language.

In the eighties and nineties, almost every flat I visited in Rio’s wealthy Zona Sul was home to at least one hard-working, low-paid, black empregada, a maid who did everything for her white employers. (These days, thanks to new labour laws — maximum working hours and a minimum wage — it’s less common for domestic workers to live in-house.) Our family and friends weren’t aristocrats, but doctors, architects, engineers and civil servants. A princely life for the professional classes, while outside the spiked walls of their apartment buildings children lived and died in the streets. Many of the empregadas had family back home, in the favelas or further away, who they saw infrequently. But their sacrifice was often not recognized, and it was common to hear employers say, behind their backs, ‘Poor thing. She’s such an idiot. Such a bad cook.’ The parallels with slavery, which Brazil abolished after every other western country, were stark. It was incredible to imagine that, if I hadn’t gone to London, I too would be waited on like a princess. It seemed terrifying to be so useless, so dependent on others and so blind to the inequality of that relationship.

I cut my hair short and dyed it blue, and pierced my nose, tongue and belly button. On holiday in Rio, the sun bleached my hair till it was pale green. I couldn’t have looked more foreign. Not in the anodyne European style admired by Cariocas, but like a freak. Rio still felt like home, but it didn’t want me. It rejected me like a body rejecting a useless organ.

I was still Brazilian when a drunk man at Leeds train station screamed at me to get out of the country, ‘you fucking immigrant’, though by then I was also British, passport and all.

London didn’t want me either. It was difficult to see beyond the grey skies, my mediocrity at school — both academic and social — and my blistering, chronic anxiety. I didn’t have a single friend who shared my cultural background, and I envied the Asian girls, posh girls and ‘real’ Jewish girls (who went to shul and believed in God) for having the close-knit community I craved, the comfort of sameness.

I was still Brazilian when a classmate berated me for supporting Brazil in the 1998 World Cup. ‘You’re in England now; you should support England.’ I was still Brazilian later that year, when my cousin introduced me, in Rio, as ‘minha prima inglesa’ — my English cousin. I was still Brazilian when I went to Leeds to study literature and became friends with lots of white English people, when previously most of my friends had been first- or second-generation immigrants. I was still Brazilian when one of my new friends jokingly, and erroneously, called me a ‘spic’ (Brazil is Lusophone, not Hispanic). I forgave him easily, just as I hope I’ve been forgiven for my own youthful insensitivities.

I was still Brazilian when a drunk man at Leeds train station screamed at me to get out of the country, ‘you fucking immigrant’, though by then I was also British, passport and all.

We thought we hated London, my siblings and I, but really we hated the feeling of not belonging. Not here, not in Rio, nowhere. My brother and sister reacted to this by chasing Brazilianness as though it were a pot of gold. They improved their Portuguese, made Brazilian friends, my brother moved to Lisbon and returned with a Brazilian wife; my sister moved back to Rio and returned with a Brazilian partner. Junot Díaz expressed a similar impulse in a 2oo8 interview:‘I became a fanatic of the Dominican Republic based on the fact that it was taken away from me.’

I became better at being Brazilian too. I grew my hair long, took out my piercings and learned the words to Brazilian songs, but I never wanted to move back. I planned to go somewhere entirely new — like my parents, my Polish grandparents, my Lebanese great-grandfather and all the other immigrants I’m descended from. I looked at photos of California and felt my insides ache. Yes, this was the answer. As Mr Lies tells Harper in Angels in America: ‘It’s the price of rootlessness. Motion sickness. The only cure: to keep moving.’

It was love, in the end, that anchored me. I met Tim when we were at different universities, but we were both from London, so that’s where we spent our weekends.
I began to appreciate the wild beauty of Hampstead Heath, the city’s unrivalled diversity, the comfort of a London accent. I graduated and moved away from NW11, to neighbourhoods I barely knew. With my English boyfriend, I began to explore my adopted country, beyond the capital, for the first time. My parents had rarely taken me outside the M25. They didn’t feel comfortable in all-white English villages: their accents and my father’s Lebanese-Amerindian face still give them away as outsiders, even after thirty years in this country.

At twenty-three I swam in the North Sea and then shivered on the beach, something I had previously seen as the preserve of mad, hardy English people. When I told my parents, they said, ‘You’re really English now!’ But it’s always a relief to return to London, to be among people whose origins are also distant and multifarious, to hear dozens of languages spoken in the street.

It’s an accident, all of it. Growing up in NW11, becoming a British novelist, living a life that balances between two continents, even when I’m just walking from Golders Green station to my parents’ house, our own little Ipanema; even as I write this essay in the British Library. When I leave I will put my headphones on and walk to King’s Cross, listening to Gilberto Gil or Caetano Veloso — music from my parents’ youth, as comforting and familiar as Nirvana — and I will merge with the crowd. Another immigrant in this city of immigrants.