Language: Brazilian Portuguese

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your literary updates for the turn of the year from Brazil, India, Mexico, and more!

Before we jump into our weekly world news tours of 2017, here at the blog we wanted to look back at the waning days of 2016 and give the literary achievements that closed such an eventful year their full due. There is already so much we’re looking forward to in the year ahead, but no piece of writing or writer exists in a vacuum; each new publication, reading, and translation takes from and makes space within the existing cultural consciousness. To be able to understand the developments in the literary scenes around the world this year, we have to see the full scope of 2016’s progress. Luckily, Asymptote has eyes and ears in every hemisphere!  

First stop on the map: India, where we check in with our first contributor this week, PhD student of postcolonial literature Tanushree Vachharajani:

2016 saw a huge uprising across India for Dalit rights. The suicide of Hyderabad PhD student Rohit Vemula in January 2016 and the assault of a Dalit family of cow skinners in Una, Gujarat in June 2016 have led to a resurgence of Dalit identity in social and literary fields, along with much dissent and unrest about the government’s attitude towards lower castes. The Gujarat Dalit Sahitya Akademi in Ahmedabad issued a special edition of their literary journal Hayati, on Dalit pride this fall under the editorship of Dr. Mohan Parmar. Also in September, under the editorship of Manoj Parmar, literary journal Dalit Chetna published a special edition on Dalit oppression, featuring works written by Dalit as well as non-Dalit writers.

The well-documented human rights violations continue to inspire a flood of responses. For the first time last month, Delhi saw a literary festival dedicated entirely to Dalit protest literature, offering a platform for Dalit regional literature and its translations into English, French, and Spanish to increase accessibility and broaden the demographic of its readers.

Dalit literature is also no longer in the realm of the purely literary. Inspired by the death of Rohit Vemula, three young activists from Mumbai—Nayantara Bhatkal, Prem Ayyathurai, and Shrujuna Shridhar—have set up the unofficially titled Dalit Panther Project for which phone numbers were collected on December 6, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Through the popular social messaging app WhatsApp, they will transmit four videos on the origins and legacy of the Dalit Panther literary movement. The videos were shot at the homes of Dalit Panther supporters, and are in Hindi. The creators are also looking to bring out a full-length feature film on the subject this year.

Hearteningly, the Dalit community is pushing back strongly against abuse of any members of the lower castes. From threatening a sanitation strike to bringing Dalit literature into mainstream circles and creating inclusive literary institutions and awards, Dalit protest movements across India only seem to be getting stronger as the New Year begins.

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A Dispatch from European Literature Days 2016: On Colonialism and Literature

Two writers and a publisher from three different places around the world shared the same story: each, at age sixteen, felt their life was changed.

In early November, the picturesque, if rather overcast hills and vineyards along the Danube in Spitz, Austria provided a luscious backdrop to literary discussions ranging from Haiti to Hungary, Brazil to Burkina Faso, Slovenia to South Africa and Brazil to Zimbabwe. Headlined “The Colonists”, the European Literature Days 2016 brought together writers, translators and literary critics to debate cultural appropriation and colonialism in literature in both the literal and metaphorical senses, with literary readings and wine tastings to boot.

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© Julia Sherwood

“Every country in the world is a hostage of its history from which there is no escape,” German reportage writer Hans Christoph Buch declared in his keynote speech (reproduced in full in the daily Die Presse). Since first visiting Haiti—the country of his father’s birth—in 1968, Buch has traversed the world, concluding that, although he might have written about the Caribbean and Africa, experience is not transferable across continents.  But isn’t a white author writing about Haiti stealing the country’s stories? Do writers have the right to write about countries that are not their own or does it turn them into colonists? Media and cultural scholar Karin Harrasser posed these questions to Zimbabwean lawyer and novelist Petina Gappah and Cuban author and cultural journalist Yania Suárez.

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Hans Cristoph Buch © Sascha Osaka

They certainly do, according to Gappah. But with the privilege to tell stories, especially those that are not yours, comes responsibility to tell the truth, she added. She deemed Hans Christoph Buch to have passed this test with flying colours.  She stressed the value of the external gaze but warned about striving for authenticity, which is the death of fiction: “If you go down the rabbit hole of authenticity you end up with memoirs.”  Suárez agreed that people have the right to write about other countries but only if they’ve spent enough time there to get to know their surroundings properly. Those who haven’t immersed themselves in the culture often misrepresent and fetishize Cuba, for example, creating fantasy narratives and appropriating its recent history to support their own romantic ideas (ideas echoed only a few weeks later by the accolades heaped upon the late Fidel Castro).

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Petina Gappah © Sascha Osaka

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Urban Protest in Brazil: the City and the Politics of Luiz Ruffato

What annoys me sometimes in literature is when you try to show me a world which is only a violent, terrible world. I know this already.

‘Our political history is a succession of dictatorships.’

                                                                                            —Luiz Ruffato                                                        

The fiction of Luiz Ruffato tackles the grave injustices found in Brazilian society: the deep chasm between rich and poor, the endemic corruption, the cheapness of life in the sprawling poverty-stricken peripheries of the major cities. He is the kind of outspoken writer that tumultuous Brazil needs right now. The country is in crisis following recession, a massive corruption scandal and the impeachment process of its President Dilma Rousseff.

It is the poor who will suffer most from this debacle. After just a week in power the administration of acting President Michel Temer began scaling back social policies that the left-wing Workers’ Party had put in place over many years. The Guardian reports that ‘moves are under way to soften the definition of slavery, roll back the demarcation of indigenous land, trim house-building programs’[1].’

Ruffato gave presage to all this in his 2013 speech to Frankfurt Book Fair, presenting Brazil not as an up-and-coming economic success story, but a country in which the shackles of slavery had not been shaken off, describing the abject state of the majority of the population as ‘invisible…deprived of the basic rights of citizenship: housing, transportation, leisure, education, and healthcare…a disposable piece of the machinery driving the economy.’

Ruffato is in a position to talk of these matters. The son of an illiterate washerwoman and a popcorn seller, he slept rough for a month in a bus station when he first moved to Sao Paulo, making his subsequent literary success all the more remarkable. His most famous novel, There Were Many Horses, published in English in 2013, has been hailed as a defining novel in the history of Brazilian literature, winning both the Brazilian APCA Award for best novel and the Brazilian National Library’s Machado de Assis Award. In 2016 Ruffato won the International Herman Hesse Prize for Literature in Translation.

Set in São Paulo, a metropolis of over 20 million people, There Were Many Horses roams across the cityscape and its underbelly, investigating the lives of the homeless, the broken, the lonely, the corrupt and the evil. It is an important book for its political and social statements but also a rare example of a novel which engages completely with the concept of the developing world megacity: in characters, imagery, and structure. A series of 69 vignettes which happen over the course of a night in São Paulo, it began as an experiment, an attempt to capture the sprawling city in a way which Ruffato felt traditional novels had not done. Ruffato argues that the book’s experimental form mirrors the splintered infrastructure of São Paulo and the fragmented lives of Paulistas more effectively.

This interview was conducted in two parts. The first meeting happened in Sao Paulo, at the home of Ruffato. The author lives in an old-fashioned apartment block on the quiet crest of one of the city’s steep hills, in the upper middle-class neighbourhood of Perdizes. The narrow marble corridor that leads to his apartment, filled with potted plants and hanging ferns. Inside, the apartment is neat, with few ornaments. Opposite to a shelf of novels and books on art, a sofa sits by a window looking out across the city. The streaming lines of cars, the expanse of blue sky, the poor peripheral sprawl that goes on and on, blurring into the horizon: all of this made a fitting setting to talk about São Paulo itself, the genesis of There Were Many Horses, the challenges of writing about Brazil and developing world cities. 

The second part of the interview happened over the internet, after the recent suspension of the President Dilma Rousseff. This time, the author focused on politics and on uncertain future of Brazil. The bold red typeface in which he answered questions was perhaps an indication of the fear he feels for the dangerous position Brazil finds itself in today.

Kathleen McCaul (KM): Tell me how you came to write There Were Many Horses?

Luiz Ruffato (LR): There Were Many Horses, started first of all, like a stylistic exercise. I was thinking the following; for me, to write about São Paulo, or any other megacity, is almost impossible. The idea of a novel is closed, it’s a closed structure, and with a closed structure, you need to make choices, you need to make edits. I thought that these edits were precarious. I was wondering in what way I could get the city in the way that we (Paulistas) get it. I stayed thinking about these questions. The two basic units/concepts of a novel is time and space and I was thinking how does time and space work in a megacity? It’s not the same in a small city—space and time are different there. And space and time in São Paulo and London are different, for example. These two questions were the first things I was thinking and then I started to think how to put these things into São Paulo, how to create a novel, thinking about time and space, set in São Paulo. READ MORE…