Words Without Borders December: ‘Black Literature’ of the Afro-Brazilian Resistance

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘A near complete sidelining of black writers,’ says ‘Words Without Borders’ editor Eric MB Becker, and a literature of the shadows.

Image: José Alves de Olinda, Ark of Eshus. Wood, vegetable fiber, and metal. Museu Afro Brasil, São Paulo, Brazil. Used by ‘Words Without Borders’ by permission, and provided to Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Literatura Negra’
One of the advantages created by the monthly edition of Words Without Borders for the world of literature and translation is a chance to look beyond linguistic frontiers. The current edition of this free, online magazine is an example of that, examining Afro-Brazilian writing that’s frequently cordoned off by coarse political realities.

In bringing to light this sub-sector Portuguese-language writing, the December edition’s co-editors Eric MB Becker and John Keene don’t hesitate to point to the arrival of the so-called “Trump of the Tropics”—Jair Bolsonaro, who at the end of October won the Brazilian presidential election. A hard-right fan of Brazil’s former dictatorship, Bolsonaro is known for his sneering comments on women, homosexuality, and race.

As recounted by Mariana Simões for The New York Times, Bolsonaro’s comments in 2017 about the country’s Afro-Brazilian communities are instructive here. As Simões writes, he described the weight of the residents with a reference to the term arrobas, a unit of weight once used for cattle and agricultural products. As Simões writes, Bolsonaro said, “The lightest Afro-descendant there weighed seven ‘arrobas.’ They don’t do anything. They are not even good for procreation.”

Traditionally derided as lazy, less valuable citizens, “Black people constitute a majority of the population in the region,” write Becker and Keene in their introduction at Words Without Borders, “which has long been ridiculed by some people in the southeastern and southern parts of the country, which tend to be whiter and wealthier.”

And yet one of the reasons we may not know much of these Brazilian’s writings is that the very terms used to describe them are in some dispute.

“The problem with how to characterize or define an Afro-Brazilian literature,” write Becker and Keene, “begins with the term itself. Many Afro-Brazilian writers, among them the much-celebrated Conceição Evaristo—the only black writer to win Brazil’s vaunted Jabuti Prize, in 2013—prefer the term black literature (literatura negra) or black Brazilian literature.”

Eric MB Becker. Image: Luisa Leme

Publishing Perspectives asked Becker how it is that Afro-Brazilian can refer to work both by and for black Brazilians, while black literature can more reliably indicate work by black writers.

“Proponents of the term literatura negra (black literature),” Becker tells us, “have often emphasized it over the more general literatura afro-brasileira (Afro-Brazilian literature) in response to the fact that, in their view, the term Afro-Brazilian represents an elision or erasure of their blackness.

“Because there is an unresolved debate over whether non-black writers can produce Afro-Brazilian literature, the result is that the term black literature is a much more precise descriptor. There are even those who feel that the latter term sidesteps the blackness of the writers and, not infrequently, the very specific social and cultural context in which this literature lives, or, more specifically, in which it has had to fight for attention.”

And, needless to say, when even the terminology by which a given literature is referenced is a subject of contention, the work itself has trouble surfacing.

“Recent efforts to call attention to literatura negra, or black literature, in Brazil,” Becker tells Publishing Perspectives, “have been a reaction to the traditional exclusion of black writers from the Brazilian canon.

“While the nature of race relations is very different in Brazil than in the United States,” for example, “the result of these complex relationships—a near-complete sidelining of black writers until more recently—has largely been the same. The case of Machado de Assis[1839-1908]—whose legacy, until recently, was subject to an aggressive whitening by certain sectors of the Brazilian cultural elite—helps us to understand why many writers feel the need to assert their writing as black writing.”

The December edition of Words Without Borders is curated by Becker and the author, translator, and literary advocate Keene—a 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellow—as a sampling of a frequently hidden range of writings through which you can bring new voices and concepts from the Americas into your reading. An apt emphasis here, in the selection of material, lies in issues of identity, inequality, and resistance.

‘An Ethical and Political Commitment’

In addition to the Becker-Keene introductory essay that opens the edition, Another Country: Afro-Brazilian Writing, Past and Present, the December edition includes writings of six authors comprising two works of fiction, seven poems, and two nonfiction pieces. Becker and Keene take that “past and present” phrase seriously: the content you’ll find here runs from the work of a contemporary of the 19th-century de Assis to a finalist in this year’s Portuguese competition, the Oceanos Prize.

  • Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto

    Starting with the oldest work, “Black Teeth, Blue Hair” is a short story by Alfonso Henriques de Lima Barreto (1881-1922), a contemporary of Machado de Assis. Barreto, born in Rio, was the son of first- and second-generation freed slaves, who became a journalist and civil servant during the era of Brazil’s First Republic. A political activist, Barreto published his novels in serial installments in the day’s periodicals, and was known as a leading satirist of the time. Becker has translated this work, which looks at “a bitter man whom melancholy, the result of impossible, fugitive aspirations, had cloaked with a blanket of sorrows.” For more on Barreto, there’s “Afro-Brazilian Crusader: On Lima Barreto,” an essay in English by Felipe Botelho Correa, an associate professor of Brazilian, Portuguese and Lusophone African Studies at King’s College London. Correa is interested in how Bsrreto “challenged the increasing classism and elitism of the literary establishment by writing for the people.”

  • In Aflitos” brings together three “micro-stories” by Jean Wyllys in which, write the editors, “men and women handle defeat with toxic—even murderous—reactions.” Wyllys is Brazil’s second openly gay member of parliament and won the Prêmio Copene de Cultura e Arte in 2001 for Aflitos, his collection of crônicas—short writings about daily issues found in Brazilian magazines and newspapers. These poems are translated by Keene.
  • Cristiane Sobral. Image: Jimi Clyff

    Four poems of the Brasilia-based Christiane Sobral are translated from the Portuguese by Keene and are heavily weighted toward issues of protest and resistance. Sobral has published five books of prose and poetry, and she’s a frequent guest at international literary festivals in the States, South Africa, Colombia, Guinea Bissau, and Angola.

  • Insurgent Voices: A Panorama of Afro-Brazilian Writing,” an essay by Franciane Conceição Silva, translated from Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato. Silva is a literary critic and researcher, a member of the Latin American Studies Association and the Brazilian Association of Black Researchers. She writes, “As a scholar who is deeply connected not only to my research but to the writers who produce the works, I feel I have an ethical and political commitment to make their voices heard and establish their presence as critical to the history of Brazilian literature. … More than 50 percent of Brazil’s population is black, but literary education in Brazil is white and whitewashed.”
  • And Dan Hanrahan is the translator of three poems of Ricardo Aleixo, an award-winning writer whose work includes an homage to 13 youths killed by police in Salvador, Bahia in 2015. Here you can see a video in which Aleixo reads the first of the poems, “My Man,” in Portuguese: “When they say that a man is black, what they mean is that he is more black than he is man. But all the same, I’m a black man to you. I’m what you imagine black men to be.”

As is usually the case, the December edition of Words Without Borders includes a short feature, this month a set of works highlighting minority voices from Japan, guest-edited and introduced by Sam Betts. Included are works of Yu Miri translated by Morgan Giles, Shun Medoruma translated by Sam Malissa, and Shirin Nezammafi translated by Aoi Matsushima.

More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, and more from us on translation is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.