I always imagined that heaven would be kind of a library.
– Jorge Luis Borges
(quote engraved on to a wall in the National Library of Brazil,
as reported in this piece)
With the 2016 Rio Olympics underway, all eyes are on Brazil. Now on its second week, I admit I never really cared much about the Olympics. I have a slightly more nuanced view of any sports competition between nations, and I echo George Orwell’s sentiment when he says that “sports is war minus shooting.”
In an article from The Atlantic, J. Weston Phippen writes about the depoliticization of sports between nations, something that Russia and other countries have attempted to live up to miserably.
The world has always equated the fastest, strongest, most- winning country in the world with the most economically successful, most politically potent. The best proving ground to do that is the Olympics.
He writes how hosting the Olympics is also another way of showcasing geopolitical relevance.
Brazil, much like other developing nations, has its own problems: the impeding impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the worsening poverty of many of its citizens, the crumbling infrastructure that the Olympics committee tried to mask and a host of other social and economic issues that the world should also be paying attention to.
As always, I seek literature that reveals what the mainstream refuses to acknowledge. I was in luck: I came across Lit Hub’s 10 Works of Fiction to Better Understand Brazil. Francesca Angiolillo listed and reviewed a number of literary pieces that haven’t been translated in English yet, of which she offers comparable alternatives.
What I love about her recommendations is that they tackle social, political and economic problems of the country in different literary genres:
- Lima Barreto’s Clara dos Anjos is about a young, mixed-race woman whose situations was meant to represent the class of whole black women submitted to sexual and social abuse. Angiolillo recommended The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresmo.
- Rachel de Queiroz’s O Quinze tackles the problems of internal migration, “frailty of the law” as well as racial prejudice. Literary critics say that while de Queiroz’s work has been influential and significant to Brazil’s literature, her political leanings (she was a Communist) and gender got in the way of her popularity. She recommended Barren Lives by Graciliano Ramos.
- Joāo Antonio’s Leāo-de-Chácara is a collection of stories based on the life of people in the streets of Rio and Sāo Paulo, shedding light on the agricultural problems of the country. An alternative would be Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star.
- Bernardo Kucinski’s Você Vai Voltar pra Mim is the story of how the Brazilian dictatorship disappeared his sister. A journalist in training, he recounts the story of his sister Ana Rose went missing. Fortunately, his book K is already translated.
Finding out about these titles is as sweet as being witness to Naomi Jackson’s essay from the Brazil Beyond Rio edition of the publication Words Without Borders, who also writes from the breadth of personal and political history: as a West Indian woman from Brooklyn, who would love to call Bahia home.
She wrote and revealed the intricacies of home, geography and identity. The essay reverberated with tenderness, as Jackson navigated the same struggles that most people in the diaspora face: the loneliness of being far, of being away, the longing for the physicality of home.
Once I touched down in Bahía, I felt an intense mix of familiarity and intrigue and what I can only describe as hominess, the same as I’d felt the first times I visited the Caribbean as a child and Cape Town, South Africa, as a teenager. Wary as I was of adopting yet another country as second home in the same way I had with Barbados and South Africa, the moment that I saw the gold statues of the orixas floating above the water just past the airport, I knew that this was another place I would long to call home.
I didn’t realize how similar the Philippines and Brazil socioeconomically and geopolitically. But perhaps that is the fate of developing countries whose economies and culture are constantly bombarded and influenced by the West, as colonies of imperial powers.
These writers and poets reveal the intricacies of Brazil and as always, I am grateful for their work.
To write is to be at one’s own extremity.
– João Cabral de Melo Neto