Can a literary scholar arriving in Rio dream of anything better than being picked up from the airport and guided through the city by a writer? My guide, Toni Marques, who works for TV Globo’s weekly magazine Fantástico, doesn’t disappoint. After an 18 hour flight am I too tired to travel to Paraty for the FLIP (Brazil’s most prestigious literary festival 4 hours from Rio)? No problem, Toni takes me to the event Flip:Flup – O Encontro das Festas Literárias at the theatre Nós do Morro in the rapidly gentrifying favela of Vidigal. There I meet FLUP organisers Julio Ludemir and Ecio Salles. Writer Raquel de Oliveira signs me a copy of her first novel ‘The Number One’, which tells the story of her transformation from Rocinha’s drug lady into a writer. Ecio provides me with a substantial list of writers from the periphery, which becomes even longer after some research and a conversation with Professor Renato Gomes. My fast growing collection of favela novels starts with Carolina Maria de Jesus’ Quarto de Despejo (published in English as Child of the Dark) and Paulo Lins’ Cidade de Deus, which kick-stared the current trend of favela writing in 1997. I am soon to discover more peripheral writers such as Ferréz, Marcelino Freire, Sacolinha, Allan da Rosa, Alessandro Buzo, Nelson de Oliveira, Fernando Molica, Sergio Vaz and collected volumes Eu sou favela and Je suis toujours favela, launched by Paris-based publisher Paula Anacaona. I read articles, MA theses, PhD dissertations and monographs on Brazilian literature, while drafting an article comparing representations of banlieues with those of favelas. Are the margins conceptualised differently in France and Brazil? Is there anything universal about the experience of stigmatisation and the responses it prompts from writers in different countries? How is this experience articulated in two different literary traditions in which marginality doesn’t have the same meaning? These are the first questions I’m exploring.
After getting settled in Ipanema and discovering its markets, flip-flop stores and bookshops, I am sunbathing with Helen Kara’s Creative Research Methods and Lazaro Ramos’ Na minha pele, an essay about being black in today’s Brazil. I begin visiting the ‘other’ Rio: I accompany Julio to Vidigal and assist at the preparation of a children’s game about favela memory. Our host at PUC, Sarah Telles, takes Bryan Clift and me to Santa Marta to meet community leader Itamar Silva and other members of the group ECO. We listen to their discussion of fundraising strategies for a one-week summer camp with 300 children. Our neighbours, the collaborators of social project Mais Caminhos explain to us their educative work with children from the favelas Cantagalo-Pavão-Pavãozinho. I walk on the traces of African slaves at the UNESCO site Cais do Valongo, visit the José Bonifacio Cultural Centre and future slavery museum with Jurema Agostinho, go to the Cemetery of Pretos Novos and meet Cristina Lodi, head of the Federal Institute for Historical Heritage in Rio de Janeiro state. My bourgeoning Portuguese is challenged by a free ‘African Heritage’ walking tour, surprisingly well attended by local audiences.
I visit Rocinha with Fernando Ermiro from the Museu Sankofa Memória and learn about successive styles of favela architecture. I return with Bryan to Santa Marta on a rainy day to meet brilliant tour guide, animal rescuer and wine aficionado Sheila Souza, whose social business, Brazilidade, promotes cultural learning instead of romanticised visions of Rio’s hill-top slums. Besides favelas and urban segregation, another issue haunts most of our conversations: the question of race. How successful is the new policy of affirmative action that opens university doors to black students for the first time? What theories should I recommend to that teacher with the afro who wants to resist Western theories and find inspiration ‘closer to home’? Are urban and literary marginalities inevitably linked with racial issues? I’m reading about the first Decolonial Summer Camp in Paris and wonder whether this is the beginning of a global postcolonial awakening.
After our second week in Rio the weather switches to autumnal and I suffer from food poisoning. While I am recovering, we discuss methodology with Bryan, Sarah and Angela Paiva at PUC. Toni introduces me to writer and theatre director Marcus Faustini, whose innovative model empowering young people to effect positive change in their own communities (Agência de Redes para a Juventude) inspired the People’s Palace Projects in the UK. I accompany him to Sepetiba, in Rio’s Zona Oeste, and observe the filming of an episode of his series showing young creators from the outskirts of the city, such as Lucas, skateboarder and graffiti artist producing murals with portraits of fishermen. On a moist and cool Tuesday evening, I interview Julio Ludemir about his experience of setting up Brazil’s first and only literary festival in the favelas. Toni and I are meeting him in a nearly empty seaside restaurant in Leme but suddenly a group of forty Argentines walk in, forcing us to flee to the terrace for the voice recording. I ask Julio about being middle-class and living in and writing about favelas. He admits that each of his books reflects a different personal quest while narrating other people’s stories. He talks with passion about the many challenges involved in organising a literary festival in favelas, a seemingly impossible task and yet one he has been pursuing for the last six years, battling with poor infrastructure, the residents’ mistrust and security problems. He believes that 2011 was the right time to launch this festival, having for the first time a school-educated young generation emerging from the margins in Brazil. ‘For once in my life, I was neither too early nor too late’ he jokes, evoking proudly the FLUPP’s successes: giving self-esteem to young people in favelas, being emulated by the richer and more established FLIP, which is now also starting to open its doors to writers from peripheries, and winning the London Bookfair’s Excellence Award.
After four weeks in Rio filled with exiting conversations and meetings with inspiring creators and activists tackling the peripheries of both the city and Brazilian society, I return to London with plenty of ideas for next year’s co-creation workshops. We will back in less than a year for more collaborative work!