Meet the Curator: Joselia Aguiar on Charting the Path To the Peripheries of Literature

The curator of a venerated literary festival in Brazil on innovation, diversity, and the role of the overlooked minority in art and literature.

Flip is a literary fiesta celebrating art and the written word in Brazil. The festival takes over the streets, squares and buildings of the colonial town of Paraty in Rio de Janeiro from July 26 to 30 every year, and calls itself a “feast.” Since its inception in 2003, Flip has garnered accolades in Brazil’s literary circles while also being controversial for favoring mainstream intelligentsia and largely leaving out minorities. The festival’s name stands for Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty (Paraty International Literary Festival). 

The curator for the 2017 edition of Flip is journalist and academic Joselia Aguiar. Over the last twelve years, Aguiar’s work has focused on literature, the editorial market, and public policies for reading. She has served in the capacities of an editor, columnist, academic and workshop leader. Aguiar is also writing a biography of the Brazilian modernist writer Jorge Amado (1912—2001), focusing on the literary and political exchange between Amado and writers of Hispanic America.

Every year, Flip pays homage to a Brazilian literary figure. This year’s honoree, chosen by Aguiar, is Lima Barreto, the Afro-Brazilian writer and journalist, best known for his novella, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma. Aguiar spoke about curating the festival with journalist and poet Jeanne Callegari in an exclusive interview for Asymptote.

—Maíra Mendes Galvão, Asymptote Editor-at-Large, Brazil.

Jeanne Callegari (JC): What motivated your choice of Lima Barreto as the honoree of Flip? Do you believe he deserves a more prominent spot in Brazilian literary history and canon?

Joselia Aguiar (JA): I believe that Lima Barreto has never had a very stable place in the Brazilian canon, and that there are many ongoing revisions about his status. I knew Lima Barreto’s work from studying him in school. I returned to him only after 2011 while researching Jorge Amado. I found out that in his youth Amado was a part of a group of poets and writers from Bahia that gathered around Pinheiro Viegas, a local mentor figure in the 1920s. Viegas had lived in Rio and had been a part of Lima Barreto’s drinking circle.

When Jorge Amado arrived in Rio in the 1930s, he wrote that Lima Barreto must be rediscovered. That didn’t happen until two decades later with the seminal work of Assis Barbosa, who consolidated the complete works of Barreto and wrote his biography.

JC: This year’s edition of Flip has women making up half of the participants and thirty percent of the authors are Afro-Brazilian. How did you reach this level of diversity? What barriers do minorities face in terms of representation in Brazil?

JA: Historically, literature has always been a male-dominated environment, with change coming about only in the twentieth century, which made an increasing number of female authors visible. In a way, the Brazilian editorial market hasn’t kept up with this change. There is a great number of women writers around the world and most are yet to be translated into Brazilian Portuguese. I invited some of them to join the Flip line up, but there are many more who could have been a part of the festival. The same goes for Afro-Brazilian authors who perhaps face even greater difficulties in getting published, receiving accolades, and creating a buzz around themselves. A single edition of Flip won’t solve this problem—a literary festival alone can’t change this. The festival is a small start.

JC: In an interview published in the anthology Vozes e Visões in the nineties, American critic Marjorie Perloff stated, “Being a minority poet is no excuse for making bad poetry.” Are quality and the fight for representation irreconcilable?

JA: Of course being a minority poet is no excuse for creating bad poetry, but also, just because an author belongs to a minority doesn’t mean their work is bad. This accusation has almost always been used by conservatives as an excuse to refer to minorities’ work that they’re not acquainted with.

The other day I was talking to Giovana Xavier, a historian from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) who organizes the Intelectuais Negras (Black Women Intellectuals) catalog that will be launched at Flip. She told me about how they received numerous portfolios and followed a stringent process for selecting the writers to be included in the inaugural issue, which will feature 140 women authors from various fields. I’m telling you this to underline that one can’t generalize and say that diversity and quality are parallel lines that never intersect. Personally, I can point to the fact that I am the first woman curator of Flip in ten years, and I don’t think my work lags behind other male curators’ work. My hope is to have more and more diversity in the arts, in this incredibly diverse country.

JC: Flip includes the Fruto Estranho (Strange Fruit) series, which comprises poetry interventions in between the regular panel discussions. How did the idea come about?

JA: Fruto Estranho consists of readings with performance, video, or other visual art accompaniments. This happened because I wanted to bring in more multidisciplinary art into the program. [Literary historian and researcher] Lilia Schwarcz has prepared a playful, visual interaction for the opening session of Flip that brings an actor and a director to the fore. Art also intervenes in the form of “pills”—short videos that air before each panel, this time with actors from an upcoming theatre group.

We solicited submissions via email, and received an impressive number of proposals that envisaged a very different approach from the usual literature panels. There were proposals from artists for installations, live performances, and music. I thought it was about time Flip went beyond the book and absorbed the energy from other disciplines of contemporary art. This is how we have six artists creating multidisciplinary art, from videos and photos to drama.

JC: Decisions such as changing the main venue for the Flip panels aim to make the event more accessible, a move that received a positive reaction. Was this change led by you, the curator, or did it come from the organizers? What other steps were taken to democratize the festival?

JA: The redesign of Flip was not a part of my curatorial work. The idea was the organization’s, and carried out by their architecture and design team.

Generally speaking, this decision is great for Flip because there will be a larger number of unpaid seats to watch the panels—700 in total—protected from rain and sun. This is because while the panels take place inside the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (the Motherchurch of Our Lady of Remédios), with paid seating, the festival has built a large tent outside the church with 700 seats for people to watch panel screenings for free. Also, the panels are screened in front of the main square so they are accessible to everyone on the square as well.

JC: What guided your selection of international authors? Did the editorial success of the authors in Brazil influence the festival line-up?

JA: With Lima Barreto as a guide, I followed the path to the periphery—not just of Rio but to the peripheries of the world. I tried to bring in authors who were outside of the geopolitical center. I found a lot of interesting authors whose work is getting translated and edited by independent publishers who agreed to be a part of the festival.

JC: You made the choice of favoring national authors in lieu of foreign authors. Is that a political stance?

JA: We have six more national authors than we did last year, all a part of Fruto Estranho.

JC: In what way do you think Flip can contribute to taking Brazilian literature and poetry to other countries and languages?

JA: As Flip gets attention from national and foreign press, I believe it can help spread the word about Brazilian authors and works. Of course, there are many other more important factors such as translation grants as part of the Brazilian foreign policy, and better investment by publishers to make their authors visible in the international arena.

JC: Flip, as the first literary feast to discuss literature and current political issues, became a model for several other similarly formatted festivals. Keeping in mind that what happens at Flip resonates elsewhere, what are the challenges for the next editions of the event?

JA: This edition faced a few challenges: to have more literature panels; getting a more diverse roster of authors; including the poetic and performative interventions of Fruto Estranho; bringing in names and titles from independent publishers. Each festival looks for its own identity, of course, and I hope Flip inspires some of those initiatives. I think the upcoming editions of Flip will always face the challenge of constant innovation in order to maintain its reputation as a festival that should be emulated.

JC: As a journalist, what path do you see journalism taking in this time of crisis in the editorial market, a crisis that seemingly has no end in sight?

JA: Much of what was being done in print has already migrated to digital media. I would say we are actually going through a time of great blossoming of literary projects on the Internet and perhaps we should not lament but actually celebrate their quality and relevance.

JC: Much like in journalism, academic circles are criticized for not keeping up with the latest in literature, opting for the safe territory of acclaimed figures. As an academic, do you agree with this criticism?

JA: I believe that some departments are more conservative, while others favor contemporary literature. We know that if one wants to sail smoothly through academia, there is a list of proper authors to study: Machado de Assis, Guimarães Rosa, Mário de Andrade in São Paulo. In my time, studying Clarice Lispector was still seen as risky; Jorge Amado had it even worse—he was pretty much outlawed. This has been changing, luckily. There are, of course, groups that are acquainting themselves with new ideas and authors, like the people at UnB (University of Brasília) and even UERJ (State University of Rio de Janeiro) off the top of my head, at the risk of forgetting many others.

Translated from the Portuguese by Maíra Mendes Galvão. The interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Aguiar’s photo is by Silvia Costanti.

Joselia Aguiar is a journalist who writes about books. Hailing from Salvador, she holds a bachelor’s degree in social communications from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBa) and a master’s in history from the University of São Paulo, where she is currently pursuing a PhD (FFLCH-USP). As a student, she was a reporter for Bahia Hoje and coordinated the communications sector of the Museum of Modern Art of Bahia. She moved to São Paulo to work at Folha de S.Paulo, first with foreign affairs, as a reporter, writer and correspondent based in London. At the time, she took training courses and workshops in England, Germany and Eastern Europe, and a specialization program in foreign affairs at USP.

Over the last twelve years, her work has focused on literature, the editorial market and public policies for reading. She was chief editor of EntreLivros magazine, a monthly outlet that circulated between 2005 and 2008. Back to Folha de S.Paulo, she wrote a column and blogged about books in 2011. She writes regularly for the Valor Econômico paper and Pessoa, a digital magazine of Portuguese-language literature; she also frequently integrates juries and coordinates non-fiction writing workshops.

Comissioned by Três Estrelas, the publishing house of the Folha de S.Paulo group, in 2011 she began to do research and interviews as preparation for writing a biography of writer Jorge Amado (1912–2001). Her doctoral research involves the literary and political exchange between Amado and writers of Hispanic America.

Jeanne Callegari is a poet and journalist. Born in Uberaba, in the state of Minas Gerais, she is the author of the biography, Caio Fernando Abreu: Inventário de um Escritor Irremediável (Seoman, 2008) as well as a book of poems, Miolos Frescos (Editora Patuá).


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