A little over a year ago, a bunch of white, middle-class guys—much like myself—invited me to do something that had never been done before in Brazil: run an international literary festival in a Rio de Janeiro slum.
This extraordinary idea sounded like a joke to me.
Well, a little more than a year later, it's actually happening.
Its name is FLUPP, the International Literary Fair of the Pacification Police Units. Sounds weird? I thought so, too, when I first heard about it. But let me explain.
Despite its name, FLUPP has no links to the current or to past Rio de Janeiro state administrations. This name is also for us an irresistible word play that pays homage to FLIP, the Paraty International Literary Fair, Brazil's first and most successful literature gathering.
We have writers from Jamaica, Palestine, Portugal, Spain, France, Mexico, Germany, the UK, and of course Brazil. Plus a rapper from Benghazi, Libya.
Some background information is needed to understand why FLUPP has a place in the Brazilian literature festivals scene.
Two decades of sound economic policies have brought more than 90 million people—about half of Brazil's population—into the ranks of the middle class. In Rio de Janeiro, part of that new middle class lives in the slums, or favelas, as we call the shanty towns in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro alone has more than 700 of them. Perhaps a non-Brazilian reader will find this fact very unusual, middle-class people still living in favelas. But Rio is a very expensive city and it's getting more expensive by the day, thanks to the soccer World Cup that will be held in several cities in Brazil in 2014 and to the 2016 Summer Olympics that will be held in Rio. House prices are soaring. But mind you that while we have Manhattan prices, we lack Manhattan's infrastructure in terms of housing, public transportation and so on.
What defines the new middle class here is their total household income: up to $2,230 a month. That's well above our monthly minimum wage, $310.
Real income gain has given them access to financial credit, and they are spending money. Spending money is giving the people a sense of citizenship for the first time.
Books aren't a priority here. First and foremost, they are spending money on house appliances and electronic goods, including computers.
There is no comprehensive research about their book-reading habits. In general terms they tend to buy self-help and religious books.
Nevertheless we asked ourselves: what if they were exposed to something else, face to face?
For nearly three or four decades, the favelas were left on their own to figure out their water supply, sewage system, roads, medical and social services, you name it. Law enforcement was a bad joke. Drug lords became the rule of law in the favelas, and you don't need to be a Brazilian to imagine what that means.
This outrageous reality has started to change with the so-called UPPs, or Pacification Police Units, permanent law enforcement stations that open up the favelas to the rest of the city. Non-residents can visit favelas because they are safe now.
So we asked ourselves: what if literature was next in the favelas? The cops moved in, social services moved in, and though it’s true a lot of infrastructure has yet to be built, what if books could move in, too?
Thanks to public and private sponsorship and support, and thanks to dozens of Brazilian and foreign writers, cultural institutions and publishing houses, FLUPP can now do just that. From November 7 to 11, the festival is bringing literary panels, poetry readings, children's literature workshops and so on to the Morro dos Prazeres favela, in the Santa Teresa neighborhood in downtown Rio.
Every guest writer and every theme has to have a connection with the favela and the new middle class.
1.Because the favelas have internet cafes, which are also used for gaming, there will be a panel on video-gaming and literature.
2.The Libyan rapper MC Swat will be on a panel about what is like to be an artist or writer when one is constantly under threat from bombs and bullets, something our host community can relate to very easily.
3.The Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos will talk about his first novel, Fiesta en La Madriguera, because the young protagonist's father is a powerful Mexican drug lord. No Brazilian novelist has done what Juan Pablo has done with this book.
Besides these three, there are many more, and themes related to violence are actually rare in the program.
We don't have the resources, techniques, nor the time to teach. Nor is that our intention. We intend to motivate. We can't patronize either. We are just trying to be inspirational.
And they are inspiring us and all readers who are eager to hear those voices from favelas. One of the festival 's highlights is the book Flupp Pensa, a selection of poetry and literary fiction written by aspiring writers from favelas in and around Rio. This book is the result of several workshops and lectures set up by FLUPP with the help of dozens of Brazilian prestigious writers and book industry professionals.