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Interviews

Reading to Coexist: A Conversation with Itamar Vieira Junior

By Ana Laura Malmaceda
Translated from Portuguese by the author
Itamar Vieira Junior debuted in English on WWB in 2020. This summer, his award-winning novel Crooked Plow was published in Johnny Lorenz’s translation. Today, he speaks with Ana Laura Malmaceda about the novel's popularity in Brazil, the struggle for land justice, and the legacies of colonialism in Brazil.
The cover of Itamar Vieira's novel Crooked Plow, translated by Johnny Lorenz; a portrait of Itamar...

“I still have faith in literature,” Bahian writer and geographer Itamar Vieira Junior tells me in a gentle tone, as if the affirmation could help nurture his belief. He is describing the challenges of crafting words in a milieu of well-fed authors who by default foment a “nihilist perspective of life.” His first novel, Crooked Plow, has netted an unparalleled number of readers, making him a conspicuous phenomenon in contemporary Brazilian literature. With more than 700,000 copies sold, Vieira Junior, a writer of African and Indigenous ancestry with no connections in the editorial industry, has long passed the 5,000 mark that is the goal for most novels in Brazil.

Although his success felt like a miracle for many, especially in a moment of democratic crisis, some of his peers have openly wondered why the book was so treasured by its readers—while some seem only to be curious, others have gone public about their dissatisfaction. When I ask Vieira Junior why the book was such a hit and mention that it must be irritating for his critics to have only a fraction of his readership, he responds modestly that Crooked Plow’s rural themes resonated with a large swath of the country’s population: “Brazil was urbanized late—it happened with great speed during the sixties, seventies, eighties . . . So, my generation, born and raised in the city, still carries a strong memory of the countryside. Even those who weren’t born there have heard about it. They tell me how they saw their parents and grandparents in the book. Brazil has a multicultural past, and people of different origins, even white people, identify with intergenerational histories of survival.”

But there’s more to Vieira’s novel than its country setting and collective origin myth. Crooked Plow is a tour-de-force that deeply humanizes those who bear the unspeakable burdens of colonialism in the Americas, making their gestures appear through writing that pays close attention to hidden languages of care. In this novel, elements of maroon communities’ material cultures and Afro Brazilian systems of knowledge inform the characters’ search for tenderness, alliance, and resistance. The story of Belonísia and Bibiana, two sisters growing up in a poor rural family of Bahia while trying to negotiate their existence in a fractured reality between white landlords and Indigenous peoples, encapsulates vital elements of the fight for land and spiritual freedom amidst Brazil’s founding structural and intersectional violence.

There is a long history of subaltern characters in Brazilian fiction, one that is enmeshed with the country’s own notion of itself. Since the nineteenth century, popular culture has occupied the center of the national pantheon. Indigenous peoples, for example, became romantic heroes of a national identity under construction, such as in José de Alencar’s Iracema. In the 1920s, this romantic vision gave way to the modernist myth of Anthropophagic art, present in novels such as Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma. More recently, in the early 1990s and 2000s, a rising interest in the portrayal of favelas emerged, as in the film adaptation of writer Paulo Lins’ City of God. In the several years, a global movement toward social justice in the arts has prompted contemporary Brazilian artists to challenge such simplistic representations of historically marginalized people. Vieira Junior has taken up the complex quest of making the country’s historical minorities, the most visible tropes of Brazilian art, noticeable without falling into the trap of milking their struggles or enacting a brief, self-congratulatory pity.

His career background might explain the book’s achievement. Before his late bloom, he worked for more than a decade at the National Institute for Colonization and Land Reform (INCRA), one of the federal bodies responsible for Indigenous and quilombola (maroon) land demarcations. Against the cliché that art is best when it lacks a clear purpose, his work shows how much stronger writing can be when committed to a cause. In our conversation, we discussed the power of literature as a tool for collective healing, the importance of cosmopolitical visions in decolonization, and how to live with others by opening up to a story.


Ana Laura Malmaceda
(ALM): When did you start writing? Was it an arduous or fluid process?

Itamar Vieira Junior (IVJ): I started writing stories when I started reading stories—repeating a little bit of what I read, you know? I used to change the characters a little bit . . . and it’s been part of my life ever since. To your second question, I’d say discovering writing was easy, but finding my voice was a different thing. Each book has a unique voice, so it’s an ongoing process. But learning to read and write was a giant discovery. For many people, these skills don’t hold any profound value, but to name what surrounded me, to discover that things had multiple meanings, was a moment of enchantment. It was like new dimensions, new portals opened in my life. I credit my interest in literature to this enchantment.

To me, the text doesn’t resolve itself even when I write the final sentence. Because a lot of what I reflect upon will come from the readers, too, from their readings. Crooked Plow is a story I’ve been in touch with since my teenage years. It was evoked by the reading I did of authors from the generations of 1930 and 1945. Initially, I tried to write a narrative in the third person, a very different one from the book I eventually published. I wrote eighty pages, but in the end, I was too young and inexperienced. Still, I nurtured the desire to write this story. It was only after I had lived, traveled, and developed a profound knowledge of the northeastern countryside of Brazil that the story gained layers, density.

 

ALM: I appreciate you bringing voice into the conversation. What’s the importance of crafting one in a decolonial writing process?

IVJ: While writing, I was very moved by the characters, especially the sisters Bibiana and Belonísia, and those who surround them. In the last chapter, there’s a moment when the narrator says: “Riding Belonísia’s body, I could feel that the past never deserts us.” The past is still present in our daily lives, and in the history of the Americas; colonialism has instilled a way of inhabiting the world that is very predatory, one from which we haven’t yet freed ourselves. And this is where we find the roots of racism and many of the collective struggles we face today: in an established system that ranks certain lives as having more value than others.

 

ALM: This takes me to another question essential to your work, which is land justice. What can literature imagine or express about this cause?

IVJ: For some, literature is a place of nihilism, but I see it as a space for us to reflect on our humanness, our world. It’s not an intentional reflection; it arises from the creative process, from understanding characters, figuring out what the narrative at issue is. I’m also interested in this growing movement on our continent to at last free ourselves from the scars of the past in order to change something in the present or future. It seems that colonialism has nourished a sort of “alterity-cide” in us, the killing of others as a constitution of the self. From this inability to coexist, all our problems emerge: the Indigenous genocide, the African diaspora, the exploitation and subalternization of countless societies on our continent. Literature, in a very modest and almost naive way—though I do have faith in it—restores our capacity for alterity, to experience the lives of others or put ourselves in their place.

Take, for example, the trajectory of memorable characters—and I am thinking here of Grande Sertão: Veredas, Pedro Páramo—and how they help us understand the fundamentals of our existence. No human can go without land, even those of us who live in cities. The question of land has always been tied to immense inequality, and to the exclusion of our humanity. I keep thinking that literature can restore a bit of that. Because this issue also intersects with something profoundly human, or better still, something that concerns all species. There is no life without land, but how can we feel this? Through literary works that might bring it to light. That’s how I felt while writing Crooked Plow.

What’s at stake is not only the reality of these characters, but humanity itself. Because if someone in the world is exploited, it concerns us all. To think about land, then, is to think about the abolition of exploitation, and about the climate emergency, which arises from this colonial model that defines who can and can’t own land. When we compare the maps of protected natural areas with the maps of Indigenous lands, we see that they overlap. Indigenous people are living, fighting, often dying, to preserve a piece of land. To talk about land inequality and land justice is to talk about the future of humanity.

 

ALM: It’s a huge responsibility to portray these lives. What is your understanding of care for these cosmologies? Literature comes from power; it can be cruelly used as an entryway to institutions but is nonetheless a fascinating tool . . . What does it mean to you to translate these worldviews as you write?

IVJ: I try to be as respectful as I can. But I also think that literature is a space of worldmaking and world-recreating. We often draw from real life in our literary work, and we need to do so responsibly, but also with poetic license. Even if it mirrors reality, it’s still fiction. In literature, as in other crafts, there’s a risk of oversimplifying, of caricaturing as you re-create. It’s not easy to find a balance, but depending on how we construct our narrative, we might reach a comfortable place from which to imagine cosmologies, and to re-create them from our own interpretations. And this is interesting, because you get to a place where there isn’t a single truth, where our Western mode of thinking reaches its limit. Some people have trouble understanding the magical side of these stories—and I don’t mean “magical” in a pejorative way. I think about magic as a way of naming what we don’t recognize in our Western worldview. This magic is a vital language for many Indigenous societies, as well as Afro American societies, especially from the Caribbean and South America. Trying to capture magic in writing is always a risk, but it’s worth it.

 

ALM: This takes me to the question of how nature is embedded in the characters’ psyches in your writing, and how it becomes a metaphor for their displacements, such as the intimacy Belonísia develops with the sounds of the forest after she loses her voice. How do you think about the relationship between the natural world and the Indigenous and Quilombola communities you write about?

IVJ: This an important point. The characters in Crooked Plow and other stories I’ve written reflect what I’ve learned from these peoples and their understanding that nature can be more than a resource. This division between nature and culture has been established by a colonial, Western ontology, whereas in many Indigenous territories, the binomial nature-culture is enmeshed, it’s all the same. That’s why the natural world is a major part of these character’s lives. They are submersed in it, and it is ingrained in them.

In my writing, there are no backdrops; what exists is a landscape, or what I call a “world-time.” I use the word “landscape” because it’s shaped by actions: not only those of humans, but of air currents, raindrops, the sun. There are no inactive parts in this novel—everything is alive, active, carrying a consciousness that all things are intertwined. The world-time itself is an active character. When the characters are trying to grow crops, torrential rain falls, and the plants are lost. Wherever the characters go, their world is alive, and they understand it as part of themselves. There’s a line about Belonísia losing her voice: “You felt that the sound of the world had always been your voice.” Since her accident, she has lived in silence, but she ends up finding in the world’s gestures, its violence, that her voice is made up of the sounds of her surroundings.  

Copyright © 2023 by Ana Laura Malmaceda. All rights reserved.

English

“I still have faith in literature,” Bahian writer and geographer Itamar Vieira Junior tells me in a gentle tone, as if the affirmation could help nurture his belief. He is describing the challenges of crafting words in a milieu of well-fed authors who by default foment a “nihilist perspective of life.” His first novel, Crooked Plow, has netted an unparalleled number of readers, making him a conspicuous phenomenon in contemporary Brazilian literature. With more than 700,000 copies sold, Vieira Junior, a writer of African and Indigenous ancestry with no connections in the editorial industry, has long passed the 5,000 mark that is the goal for most novels in Brazil.

Although his success felt like a miracle for many, especially in a moment of democratic crisis, some of his peers have openly wondered why the book was so treasured by its readers—while some seem only to be curious, others have gone public about their dissatisfaction. When I ask Vieira Junior why the book was such a hit and mention that it must be irritating for his critics to have only a fraction of his readership, he responds modestly that Crooked Plow’s rural themes resonated with a large swath of the country’s population: “Brazil was urbanized late—it happened with great speed during the sixties, seventies, eighties . . . So, my generation, born and raised in the city, still carries a strong memory of the countryside. Even those who weren’t born there have heard about it. They tell me how they saw their parents and grandparents in the book. Brazil has a multicultural past, and people of different origins, even white people, identify with intergenerational histories of survival.”

But there’s more to Vieira’s novel than its country setting and collective origin myth. Crooked Plow is a tour-de-force that deeply humanizes those who bear the unspeakable burdens of colonialism in the Americas, making their gestures appear through writing that pays close attention to hidden languages of care. In this novel, elements of maroon communities’ material cultures and Afro Brazilian systems of knowledge inform the characters’ search for tenderness, alliance, and resistance. The story of Belonísia and Bibiana, two sisters growing up in a poor rural family of Bahia while trying to negotiate their existence in a fractured reality between white landlords and Indigenous peoples, encapsulates vital elements of the fight for land and spiritual freedom amidst Brazil’s founding structural and intersectional violence.

There is a long history of subaltern characters in Brazilian fiction, one that is enmeshed with the country’s own notion of itself. Since the nineteenth century, popular culture has occupied the center of the national pantheon. Indigenous peoples, for example, became romantic heroes of a national identity under construction, such as in José de Alencar’s Iracema. In the 1920s, this romantic vision gave way to the modernist myth of Anthropophagic art, present in novels such as Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma. More recently, in the early 1990s and 2000s, a rising interest in the portrayal of favelas emerged, as in the film adaptation of writer Paulo Lins’ City of God. In the several years, a global movement toward social justice in the arts has prompted contemporary Brazilian artists to challenge such simplistic representations of historically marginalized people. Vieira Junior has taken up the complex quest of making the country’s historical minorities, the most visible tropes of Brazilian art, noticeable without falling into the trap of milking their struggles or enacting a brief, self-congratulatory pity.

His career background might explain the book’s achievement. Before his late bloom, he worked for more than a decade at the National Institute for Colonization and Land Reform (INCRA), one of the federal bodies responsible for Indigenous and quilombola (maroon) land demarcations. Against the cliché that art is best when it lacks a clear purpose, his work shows how much stronger writing can be when committed to a cause. In our conversation, we discussed the power of literature as a tool for collective healing, the importance of cosmopolitical visions in decolonization, and how to live with others by opening up to a story.


Ana Laura Malmaceda
(ALM): When did you start writing? Was it an arduous or fluid process?

Itamar Vieira Junior (IVJ): I started writing stories when I started reading stories—repeating a little bit of what I read, you know? I used to change the characters a little bit . . . and it’s been part of my life ever since. To your second question, I’d say discovering writing was easy, but finding my voice was a different thing. Each book has a unique voice, so it’s an ongoing process. But learning to read and write was a giant discovery. For many people, these skills don’t hold any profound value, but to name what surrounded me, to discover that things had multiple meanings, was a moment of enchantment. It was like new dimensions, new portals opened in my life. I credit my interest in literature to this enchantment.

To me, the text doesn’t resolve itself even when I write the final sentence. Because a lot of what I reflect upon will come from the readers, too, from their readings. Crooked Plow is a story I’ve been in touch with since my teenage years. It was evoked by the reading I did of authors from the generations of 1930 and 1945. Initially, I tried to write a narrative in the third person, a very different one from the book I eventually published. I wrote eighty pages, but in the end, I was too young and inexperienced. Still, I nurtured the desire to write this story. It was only after I had lived, traveled, and developed a profound knowledge of the northeastern countryside of Brazil that the story gained layers, density.

 

ALM: I appreciate you bringing voice into the conversation. What’s the importance of crafting one in a decolonial writing process?

IVJ: While writing, I was very moved by the characters, especially the sisters Bibiana and Belonísia, and those who surround them. In the last chapter, there’s a moment when the narrator says: “Riding Belonísia’s body, I could feel that the past never deserts us.” The past is still present in our daily lives, and in the history of the Americas; colonialism has instilled a way of inhabiting the world that is very predatory, one from which we haven’t yet freed ourselves. And this is where we find the roots of racism and many of the collective struggles we face today: in an established system that ranks certain lives as having more value than others.

 

ALM: This takes me to another question essential to your work, which is land justice. What can literature imagine or express about this cause?

IVJ: For some, literature is a place of nihilism, but I see it as a space for us to reflect on our humanness, our world. It’s not an intentional reflection; it arises from the creative process, from understanding characters, figuring out what the narrative at issue is. I’m also interested in this growing movement on our continent to at last free ourselves from the scars of the past in order to change something in the present or future. It seems that colonialism has nourished a sort of “alterity-cide” in us, the killing of others as a constitution of the self. From this inability to coexist, all our problems emerge: the Indigenous genocide, the African diaspora, the exploitation and subalternization of countless societies on our continent. Literature, in a very modest and almost naive way—though I do have faith in it—restores our capacity for alterity, to experience the lives of others or put ourselves in their place.

Take, for example, the trajectory of memorable characters—and I am thinking here of Grande Sertão: Veredas, Pedro Páramo—and how they help us understand the fundamentals of our existence. No human can go without land, even those of us who live in cities. The question of land has always been tied to immense inequality, and to the exclusion of our humanity. I keep thinking that literature can restore a bit of that. Because this issue also intersects with something profoundly human, or better still, something that concerns all species. There is no life without land, but how can we feel this? Through literary works that might bring it to light. That’s how I felt while writing Crooked Plow.

What’s at stake is not only the reality of these characters, but humanity itself. Because if someone in the world is exploited, it concerns us all. To think about land, then, is to think about the abolition of exploitation, and about the climate emergency, which arises from this colonial model that defines who can and can’t own land. When we compare the maps of protected natural areas with the maps of Indigenous lands, we see that they overlap. Indigenous people are living, fighting, often dying, to preserve a piece of land. To talk about land inequality and land justice is to talk about the future of humanity.

 

ALM: It’s a huge responsibility to portray these lives. What is your understanding of care for these cosmologies? Literature comes from power; it can be cruelly used as an entryway to institutions but is nonetheless a fascinating tool . . . What does it mean to you to translate these worldviews as you write?

IVJ: I try to be as respectful as I can. But I also think that literature is a space of worldmaking and world-recreating. We often draw from real life in our literary work, and we need to do so responsibly, but also with poetic license. Even if it mirrors reality, it’s still fiction. In literature, as in other crafts, there’s a risk of oversimplifying, of caricaturing as you re-create. It’s not easy to find a balance, but depending on how we construct our narrative, we might reach a comfortable place from which to imagine cosmologies, and to re-create them from our own interpretations. And this is interesting, because you get to a place where there isn’t a single truth, where our Western mode of thinking reaches its limit. Some people have trouble understanding the magical side of these stories—and I don’t mean “magical” in a pejorative way. I think about magic as a way of naming what we don’t recognize in our Western worldview. This magic is a vital language for many Indigenous societies, as well as Afro American societies, especially from the Caribbean and South America. Trying to capture magic in writing is always a risk, but it’s worth it.

 

ALM: This takes me to the question of how nature is embedded in the characters’ psyches in your writing, and how it becomes a metaphor for their displacements, such as the intimacy Belonísia develops with the sounds of the forest after she loses her voice. How do you think about the relationship between the natural world and the Indigenous and Quilombola communities you write about?

IVJ: This an important point. The characters in Crooked Plow and other stories I’ve written reflect what I’ve learned from these peoples and their understanding that nature can be more than a resource. This division between nature and culture has been established by a colonial, Western ontology, whereas in many Indigenous territories, the binomial nature-culture is enmeshed, it’s all the same. That’s why the natural world is a major part of these character’s lives. They are submersed in it, and it is ingrained in them.

In my writing, there are no backdrops; what exists is a landscape, or what I call a “world-time.” I use the word “landscape” because it’s shaped by actions: not only those of humans, but of air currents, raindrops, the sun. There are no inactive parts in this novel—everything is alive, active, carrying a consciousness that all things are intertwined. The world-time itself is an active character. When the characters are trying to grow crops, torrential rain falls, and the plants are lost. Wherever the characters go, their world is alive, and they understand it as part of themselves. There’s a line about Belonísia losing her voice: “You felt that the sound of the world had always been your voice.” Since her accident, she has lived in silence, but she ends up finding in the world’s gestures, its violence, that her voice is made up of the sounds of her surroundings.  

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