We have to skillfully protect and defend people Trump has terrified, which means having a little bit of spine and calling bullshit when we see it.
Two of Brazil’s most renowned contemporary writers discuss the creative process, societal disparities, and politics.
Translated by Adam Morris.
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Beatriz Bracher is a screenwriter and accomplished short-story author, but she is most well known for her four novels, which have won some of Brazil’s most prestigious awards: the Clarice Lispector Prize (2009), the Rio Prize (2015), and the São Paulo Prize (2016). Bracher’s work has been celebrated for its close attention to narrative voice, and for the quiet power her stories gather as they unfold. Her 2004 novel Não falei appeared in English as I Didn’t Talk (New Directions). Nuno Ramos is a sculptor, painter, and multimedia installation artist. His literary work earned him the 2009 Portugal Telecom Prize for Literature; his most recent book, Adeus, cavalo, was a finalist for the 2018 Jabuti Prize in Fiction. Last September, in the lead-up to elections that resulted in the victory of far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, Nuno Ramos and Beatriz Bracher discussed their work in relation its sociopolitical context in Brazil.
Nuno RamosYou often rely on interviews as research for your fiction. How does that work?
Beatriz Bracher Interviews help me find the words, the grammar, the syntax. I basically take words from interviews and then build around them. For example, how does a torture victim describe being tortured? For my novel [I Didn’t Talk], I didn’t want details about the actual process of being tortured. What I wanted to know was how a friend of mine—whom I interviewed, and who had been tortured—would talk to me about it. It wasn’t just the words he said, it was the way he said them. That was where things got really interesting. One of the powerful things he said to me went like this: “Afterwards they took us back downstairs, to one of the cells, and if I heard the door open it gave me a horrible pain in my stomach, because I knew that they were coming to get me and take me back upstairs.” This was the description of torture I found the most moving: the creak of the door and that chill to the stomach.
When I interviewed my mother as research for the character named Isabel in my novel Antonio, I heard her use a word to refer to the set of kids in her grade who didn’t care all that much about studying. She called them gentinhas [a diminutive of gente, for “people,” meaning something like “rabble”]. But she didn’t say it in a derogatory way—it was just her way of talking about people who were close to her but not her friends. I don’t know if you ever feel this, because your work is so different, but real things like that are always so much richer and more powerful than anything I can imagine on my own. The words that are the most powerful are the ones that people just say.
NRLet’s talk about characters, then. Do you think you became a writer so that you could have this kind of access to people?
BBI don’t know. Do you know why you became a writer?
NRNo, but I know that my deficiency lies with this ability to access the other—this character outside myself. My voice is always lyrical in some way: a self who speaks. So every time I start to feel myself inside a character it’s like I’ve just learned how to mount a surfboard and ride a wave. For me the character is the wave. And it never lasts long, but it’s incredible while it lasts: it’s like, look, I’m not me, I’m someone else. But it’s not like that for you: you’re always up on your board, right? That access to the character—it’s where you write from. What I mean is: that’s where your books start to emerge.
BBYes, I have to have the character. But I’ve always wanted to write a book that doesn’t require a specific place or space. I think that your books—like Beckett’s, or Kafka’s—are books that don’t require any place, any time, or even any character. That’s simply not the point. And for me it’s the other way around: it’s always the character who shows me the way. I don’t know if I became a writer just so that I could be in that zone, but I need to be in that zone to write. If I can’t find that character, there’s no book, no story. And I need to have the space laid out: I need to know if it’s São Paulo, or Rio, and what year it is. The city is always an important character in my work. When it’s São Paulo, it’s really São Paulo. And when it’s Rio, it’s Rio.
NRYou have such an anatomical vision of society, this way of approaching it and composing it as an organic whole. So how do you feel about this harassment, if we want to call it that, among different ethnic, sexual, and social groups—this sort of division of all life into categories, where the degree of authenticity of a certain discourse can be violently contested—not on the basis of the discourse itself, but according to the origins of whoever is speaking?BBWhat I feel like saying is, “let’s leave fiction out of all that” or “let’s not take things that far.” And even outside fiction, I think what I need to do most is listen. Before, I felt like I had to argue or respond. I think I’ve changed a lot with respect to that. Now I think I just have to listen. I have to think about these things—there’s no need for me to react, which used to be my first impulse. I’m beginning to understand that there’s almost nothing I understand, not even feminist discourse, which should be right in my wheelhouse. Listening is allowing me to discern some things I only sort of knew, things that were there all along. And even though it’s sometimes poorly articulated or argued—I’m thinking of statements like “all white people are fascists,” something that’s very easy to debate and contradict—even statements like that are things I think people have to stop and listen to. Sometimes even the person speaking doesn’t really understand what they’re saying, but there’s still something powerful there, something true.
NRThe very fact that it’s being expressed is already something positive.
BBExactly. I don’t think we have to agree with it, but we have to listen.
When it comes to fictional works, on the other hand, boy do I get angry when people start to say, “you can’t make this film because you’re white, you can’t talk about slavery” or “in this day and age, you can’t make a romantic film.” I really find that jarring. But jarring isn’t the right word—it’s destructive to think that a writer or a filmmaker should have to consider certain subjects off-limits, sometimes for reasons that no one could guess ahead of time. It’s awful for a society to neuter artistic talent like that. Talent is so rare that it has to be protected. Of course, that’s not to say that anything goes—but it’s not right to simply destroy it. But right now people are only looking at things in terms of right and wrong. When people only wish to judge, instead of understand, that’s a real problem. I think you can write any book you want, make any film you want: the artist can go anywhere—he has to be allowed. There’s also this huge confusion over whether a book is sexist just because a character is sexist. But that’s not how critique functions in a work of art. I think we, as artists, need to assert our right to this space. You have the obligation to be politically incorrect in a work of art, and the obligation to be politically correct in public life. It’s a real obligation in both spaces.
NR And yet your work directly addresses this notion of public life. Doesn’t that mean these two things will come to a breaking point, this political correctness and incorrectness?
BBI’m terrified of that all the time. I’m always saying to myself, Someday, someone’s really going to come after you. It’s impossible for a wealthy, white woman to remain immune from it somehow—it seems impossible that nobody’s come to rake me over the coals. And it’s going to be about whether I have the right to be writing about this or that, whether I can have a character who lives in the favela, a black woman. But I only think about all that after I’ve finished writing. While I’m writing, nothing like that interferes and everything makes complete sense—I’m totally immersed in it. The fear doesn’t get into the writing, not while I’m doing it.
Even so, I don’t know if I’d write I Didn’t Talk today, because it contains such a strong critique of the glorification that Lula’s government was performing. This performance had already begun under Fernando Henrique [Cardoso], but it continued under Lula and Dilma. There was this lionization of anyone who’d been imprisoned or tortured.
NRBut during the Fernando Henrique and Lula governments, they paid reparations to people who were tortured because they wanted to show that the State was concerned for those who suffered State violence.
BBEvery State action, every indemnity and apology, is important. I’m talking about the unofficial side, which has more to do with the imaginary. In I Didn’t Talk, the idea wasn’t to engage in self-critique, which is usually a fool’s errand, but to complicate the narrative. It’s not just that the military did bad things and the rest of us are so great—whoever this “us” is.
I’m not a very ideologically firm person, in one direction or another. But—and it almost seems silly to say this—much more than oppression, it’s humiliation that moves me. It has a really strong effect on me.
BBWell when you use the word oppression, it’s already become something that’s too abstract—it’s beyond individual people and just exists out there in society.
NRSo, classist humiliation rather than class oppression.
BBRight, class humiliation. The humiliation of one class by another. And the humiliation of women by men, of children by their parents. And sometimes it’s the other way around: the way the poor humiliate the wealthy, the way women can humiliate men. This is the sort of social conflict that seizes me and I think it’s in every single one of my books.
Addendum from Beatriz Bracher as of January 25, 2019:
We are only days into President Bolsonaro’s term. His administration has already shown itself to be totally chaotic and completely incompetent, but powerful enough to censor exhibitions, trample the law, and eliminate demarcated territories and other protections for indigenous people. Closest to immediate danger are social activists and the most vulnerable members of Brazilian society, who have always been viewed as “suspect” by the forces of repression: women, blacks, the indigenous, and of course, the poor.
What is now most urgent and necessary is to form groups that can respond quickly to any attack on our laws or fellow citizens. When it comes to censorship, we know what to do: when the government censors an exhibition, we will make noise, appeal to the courts, and enjoin the press to react. We will make censorship something tedious and expensive, and cause the government to doubt its efficacy by turning it into a hassle.
Changes to the law are another matter. Bolsonaro’s government has already attempted to overturn laws, such as the ones that demarcated territories reserved for indigenous peoples and the descendants of escaped slaves, as well as lands marked for environmental protection. And his allies in government will attempt to pass new laws, like the proposed “Non-Partisan Schools Act” [Lei da Escola sem Partido], which would allow the state to punish teachers for what they say in the classroom. We can also expect to see proposed laws outlawing all abortions, even in cases of rape. And when the government openly attempts to infringe on our rights with legal restrictions like these, we must use whatever time we have to mobilize against them.
This brings us to the most troubling problem of all: how to defend the bodies and lives of activists and the people rendered most vulnerable by Bolsonaro’s agenda. These are people who have already been beaten down and killed for centuries of Brazilian history, even during the democratic governments of the past several decades. But until recently, there remained some social, moral, and legal constraints with regard to this repression. Now it seems the brakes are coming off.
Our problem is not Bolsonaro, but the “Bolsonarists”—those Brazilians who see no problem with trampling the law. That is because the law means nothing to them in the first place. The way they see it, the law wasn’t made for them, so it doesn’t even need to be changed—they’ve always believed themselves to be above it. They are the thugs and assassins who now feel authorized to kill people in broad daylight.
In response, a group calling itself the “Pact for Democracy” [Pacto pela Democracia] has attempted to unite various existing foundations and NGOs in the fight to defend democracy and the rights of minorities. Among these is Conectas, an institution that defends human rights, and which is now attempting to develop an organization modeled on the American Civil Liberties Union. The idea is to have lawyers at the ready throughout Brazil, prepared to engage with the courts immediately whenever a legal infringement or violent aggression occurs.
Alongside this initiative, the rest of us must start to think and act. We need to learn how to have activists released from prison, issue denunciations whenever someone is assaulted or disappeared, and generate maximum publicity whenever any type of abuse occurs. I don’t know the best ways to do these things. But today I think that those of us who were never militants might do well to learn from some of their strategies.
For our efforts to be effective, we must build a network of fine capillaries that will convey news of individual aggressions to the public’s attention. I am part of a group that has begun to organize a platform for cataloging civil-rights infringements whenever news of them appears in the press or arrives via one of the organizations connected to the feminist, black, and LGBT rights movements. Our motive is simple: we need to know what acts of repression are being committed, and where, in order to prevent them from happening again. Then we will raise our voices, and our pens, to speak out against injustice.
This network of publicity is something that people all over the world can help us build and implement. In the United States, in Europe, and elsewhere, our predicament is familiar: the flames of aggression are being fanned across the globe. But in many other countries, there exists a much stronger tradition of respecting the laws, and a far more responsive press than what we have in Brazil. Here in Brazil, our task is to resist repression by flexing the muscle of the law. But we need our friends outside Brazil to echo our grievances and put pressure on the Brazilian state and national governments to respond.
We won’t be able to defeat the “Bolsonarists,” but we must act: we must organize to prevent the destruction of our forests, to prevent indigenous peoples and quilombolas from being driven off their ancestral lands, to prevent our artists from being silenced, and above all, to prevent people from being harmed and killed.
Adam Morris has translated novels by Hilda Hilst, João Gilberto Noll, and Beatriz Bracher. His book American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation will be published by Liveright in March 2019.
We have to skillfully protect and defend people Trump has terrified, which means having a little bit of spine and calling bullshit when we see it.