As the literary adviser to the Palestine Festival of Literature, the poet Najwan Darwish knows how challenging it is to bring people together to talk about literature in a free and unconstrained environment. This is one of the reasons he was invited to FLUPP, the first international literary festival hosted by a slum in Brazil.
“The important thing I saw here,” says Darwish, “is underprivileged kids who have the privilege to be part of this festival. Sometimes they were shouting, sometimes they were moving, but no one was trying to control them. They were treated like the most privileged kids in the world. Literature festivals usually do not treat underprivileged kids too well. Literary festivals are places for people who buy tickets, and when you see kids at such festivals, they are brought by their parents, wealthy people, for the privilege of listening to what writers have to say. For me this is the message and the soul of FLUPP.”
In fact, it is possible to assess the festival's success by the background noise. The main panels, readings and open interviews happened in the basketball court at the entrance to the Morro dos Prazeres favela. The basketball court has no walls, so the audience and the guests could hear the locals passing by and talking and going about their lives. We couldn't even think about assigning people to set places, because this was their place. In other words, even those residents who didn't attend the event behaved like FLUPP was part of the favela. We were not special. Like them, we were just there.
Lots of Morro dos Prazeres residents helped the festival’s organization team. And lots of the favela residents came to listen to the guest writers and to ask questions. Speaking to a TV news reporter, one resident said that, in her opinion, FLUPP could make youngsters in the favela start to think about something other than sports and music.
“I think your life experiences and your aspirations are limited to what you can see, the environment around you,” says another of FLUPP’S international guest writers, the English novelist Yvvette Edwards. “And if you are aware that there are people who can write, who can create, this is like saying that there is the possibility that you can do it as well. Also I think that if you don’t have access to lots of books you may not have an appreciation for literature, you may not have an understanding of its power, so I think it is very good that the festival has been put on, because it is a first step toward people actually discovering that literature can be interesting.”
Another international guest writer, the German poet Martin Jankowski, thinks that FLUPP’s themes were well-chosen, because “there was a lot for the interests of the favela audience: soccer, resistance poetry, hip-hop, street theater. And because of that we, the international guests, also had the chance to get in contact with the ideas of the people.”
One touching moment was the meeting, set up by the festival and one of its international partners, the British Council, between the British/Commonwealth delegation and the aspiring writers included in the FLUPP Pensa book. One of the writers, Patricia Higino, is a military police soldier. She became very emotional when talking about her experience with the whole book process and about what writing means to her. After Higino was finished, the Jamaican poet Kei Miller told her: “You should come to Jamaica to talk to our cops!”
Kei Miller and Yvvette Edwards have written about their time at the festival.
About his meeting with Soldier Higino, Miller says:
“I want to tell it all to this woman who is wiping away her tears, this woman who is called ‘Tia’ (Auntie) by the children of the favela, but who is not fat and middle-aged and wearing a long floral gown. Instead she is wearing her police uniform — a gun tucked into her holster. This woman has shown me something I have never seen in a hot country, a police officer so in love with the people she is serving that she sits to listen to their poems and cries because they make her proud.”
During the first day of FLUPP, a group of cops entered the gym. One Brazilian writer who was speaking on a panel became so puzzled by this vision, a group of uniformed cops joining the audience (a scene that happily would be repeated during the whole festival), that she, microphone in hand, asked if there was a problem with the festival, like, say, a permit issue or something like that. Then the cops took their seats to listen to her and her fellow panelist, and the panel went on.
It seems to me that this quick episode shows clearly what kind of social experiment FLUPP is. It's all about strangers in the literature paradise. We were strangers to the favela residents. The favela residents were strangers to us, literary festival people. The well-to-do literature readers who came to FLUPP were strangers entering a new world. The cops were strangers to the writers' usual audience. And so on. But at the end of the day, we were no longer strangers. Everybody was sharing everything like old friends.
We had nearly a thousand attendees a day, from Morro dos Prazeres and from the rest of Rio de Janeiro. FLUPP had a research team on the ground to get people's impressions and opinions about the event. Hopefully, when we get the research results we will see that, among the thousands of attendees, there were some new book lovers.
As Yvvette says:
“This wasn't a regular event, the types I am familiar with, with audiences who are interested in literature and have access to books. I was participating in something monumental, in a literary festival based within a community, a segment of Brazilian society that is completely excluded from literature. People who have only had legitimate electricity in their neighbourhood during the last year. People whose lives are dominated by the need to get by, to keep their children alive and safe and healthy, to meet their day to day needs, people who must have incredible stories to tell, who up until now, have had no vehicle to facilitate this. I recognised that the FLUPP festival was a step in the right direction towards this. It was clear that the vision behind FLUPP, the event itself, was late for so many, but so desperately vital, so necessary now. And I felt incredibly honoured to have been able to play a part in it. So moved.”