Reading Brazil

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka


RIO DE JANIERO: Last week’s news that Rio de Janiero will host the 2016 Summer Olympics raised cheers across South America, a continent that is sometimes misunderstood and often underestimated. The setting for an Olympic games could not be more stunning: the city abuts both the ocean and the forest, with roads cut through mountains that majestically jut into the sky, and beaches famous for their beauty. Of course, behind the beauty, Rio is also a city with tremendous poverty and crime. So it will be interesting to see how the city fares when, just like the Cristo Redentor that is the symbol of the city, it opens its arms to embrace the world. If the annual Bienal do Livro, which took place in September, is any indication, it will do just fine.

The Bienal do Livro is Brazil’s premier book show, and alternates each year between Rio and Sao Paolo. This year brought some 600,000 visitors to the Fair, which is located at the Riocentro Convention Center the edge of the city (indeed, the parking lot appeared to end at a forest). On the day I visited, as part of a cultural program organized by the Frankfurt Book Fair and APEX (Agência Brasileira de Promoção de Exportações e Investimentos), thousands of school children filled the halls. Over half of the overall visitors to the Fair are children: the city buses them in to the fair and issues them vouchers worth 10 reals (US$7) off the price of a book to entice them to make a purchase.

When the popular Brazilian cartoonist Ziraldo started his presentation, the children lost all semblance of restraint letting out a chorus of screams. Looking down from above, we watched as thousands rushed from all corners of the fair and swirled around him in a Technicolor pinwheel (children from each school are issued a t-shirt in a distinctive color so their minders can identify them in the crowd). We were told by Antonio Laskos, director of Sindicato Nacional dos Editores de Livros (SNEL or The National Book Publishers Association) and the fair’s organizer, that this was a regular occurrence. Other cartoonists, such as Thalita Rebuucas, and children’s writers, like Mauricio de Souza and Pedro Bandeira, were met with equal, if not greater enthusiasm.

Upon arriving in Rio it was obvious that the book fair was in town. Notices were up all over the city and the buses were adorned with book advertisements. One in particular stood out: It was an ad for the Brazilian translation of David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtell. Wroblewski was one of a dozen American authors reading at the fair, part of the “Tribute to the USA” that also featured a large stand sponsored by the United States State Department featuring information on emigration to the States (something you’re not likely to find at Frankfurt, for example).

Laksos noted that the first weekend of the fair is the most popular and brings in trade visitors from across Brazil to talk shop, though trade activity in general is limited. To remedy this, the organizers are considering converting the first day to a trade only event. The intention is to attract more foreign publishers to the fair to trade in rights. “The market for our rights is something we’re really looking to develop — we buy the rights to many books from overseas, but sell very few ourselves,” he said.

The Bienal do Livro was only the first stop on a week-long tour that took us first to Rio and then on to São Paulo to visit bookstores, publishers and book advocates in the government who are looking to take advantage of Brazil’s burgeoning reputation as an economic force and use this to put the country more firmly on the literary map.

If you’re like me, and your main idea of Brazil comes exclusively (and I’m admitting my own ignorance here) from Paolo Coelho, the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and watching the Brazilian national soccer team routinely trounce opponents during the World Cup, the robust and diverse literary life of the country can be something of a surprise.

ipanemaOne quick way to form an initial impression of a country’s reading culture is to take a look at the bookstores. During my time in Rio, I visited two locations of the Livraria da Travessa chain — one in an upscale shopping mall in the district of Leblon and another on a street in the neighborhood of Ipanema (yes, home to the famous beach).

While these are not superstores by any stretch -– the chain’s seven locations range in size from 1,000 sq. meters to 1,800 sq. meters — each was beautiful and modern, furnished with dark wood fixtures, chic lighting, racks of music and DVDs, as well as piles of books, a surprising number of which were from foreign publishers. Aside from Portuguese, the most prevalent languages are English and French, while there are also a limited selection of German, Spanish and Italian titles mixed in as well -– a reflection, in some ways, of the diverse cultural heritage of the Brazilians themselves.

The bookstore’s motto is “Enter, read and hear,” and people were taking them on their word: each store was packed. One the night we visited the Ipanema location, the store was hosting an event for the release of a new biography of toniacarreraTônia Carrero, the now 87-year old actress and renowned film and television personality. Photographers swarmed Carrero, who was seated and patiently bearing interviews from various TV crews, while curious shoppers tried to peek over the throng to get a glimpse of the icon. The mayor of São Paulo was even in attendance to pay homage, in part because the state publisher of São Paulo, Imprensa Oficial, was responsible for publishing the book. (If you find that fact unusual, you shouldn’t. In addition to printing the daily government proceedings of the São Paulo government, Imprensa Oficial publishes art, architecture, literary history as well as their very successful line biographies of Brazilian performing artists. It even published the first Portuguese translation of philosopher Walter Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), which retails for a not insignificant R$230 -– or about US$130).

That so many ordinary citizens were mingling in the crowd at Livraria da Travessa among the celebrities was just another reflection of life in Brazil’s Second City. Gabriela Giosa, public relations manager for the store, said that customers widely regard the store as the most “Carioca” of all the bookstores in Rio, meaning it is the one that most authentically reflects the culture of the city. “We Brazilians are a fruit salad,” she explained. “Black and white, rich and poor, Portuguese or Japanese, we are all Brazilians. And our selection here in the store and our book culture reflects that diversity.”

Look for more coverage of Brazil and its publishing scene following next week’s coverage of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

VISIT: The web site for the Bienal do Livro

SHOP: Livraria da Travesse


Above, Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland talks about his visit to the Bienal do Livro.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.