Monday, June 16, 2008


Guest essay by Kathleen de Azevedo

Before my book Samba Dreamers (University of Arizona Press/Camino del Sol series) was released, I thought I could sail smoothly between the Latino and gringo world at whim. I figured once my book was published and the galleys sent, reviews and bookstore readings would land at my feet. I couldn’t imagine anyone NOT totally excited about a novel of Brazilians in Hollywood.

What really happened was this: The galleys my publisher sent out were ignored. For bookstore readings, I competed against best-selling authors and celebrities plugging their wares in the literary hot spot of San Francisco. One bookstore owner tried to comfort me on my rejection: “We tend to send galleys to prison libraries.” Okay, I thought. One of my characters in the novel does serve time. Maybe the book will change a prisoner’s life. Maybe I’ll be a literary Johnny Cash singing my own version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” However, if I didn’t want ten years of effort to go down the tubes, I had to think of another way, another “jeito,” as Brazilians would say, of marketing my book. My first break came when Alejandro Murguia, writer and La Raza instructor at San Francisco State University, graciously allowed me to do a spontaneous reading at L'Caffe as part of a series of cultural events celebrating Cinco de Mayo. I was introduced as a “Brazilian-American writer” and therefore baptized into the Latino literary community.

I felt comfortable. I finally found my niche. I was raised Latino, my current neighborhood is Latino, and the identity issue seemed resolved. After all, my story was included in the anthology Latinos in Lotusland, where my protagonist was a non-Brazilian Latina. Then, one day I was having drinks with poet Francisco Aragón, when he asked me, “Are Brazilians Latinos?” not as a challenge but because he had an earlier discussion about the subject with another acquaintance. “Of course Brazilians are Latinos,” I responded quickly. Look at a map of Latin America, at the big chunky country to the east. Is it not called “Brazil?” Our songs talk of our Coração Latino (Latin Heart). In California, we live and work in the Latino community. Portuguese and Spanish are so similar, it is easy to mix them up. Brazilians, along with other Latinos cross the Rio Grande for better opportunities, suffer the indignities of being undocumented, and fight for validation. Iberian, Indigenous and African blood runs in our veins. For us Brazilians, Africa is also part of our national psyche.

The Are-Brazilian-Latinos-Question came from the Brazilian side too, when I was invited to be on a literature panel at the "Brazliian-Americans in Georgia and Beyond: A Multi-Disciplinary Symposium" in Atlanta. There were people on either side of the debate. Some Brazilians wanted to be a part of the Latino community, others wanted no part of it. The emotional level of the discussion surprised me. Yet this debate has caused me to think about the role of Brazilian writers in Latino literature.

I am aware that Brazilians are at the frontera of both the Latino and non-Latino communities. We Brazilians are known for our soccer skills, our samba and our beaches, but except for those who know Brazil beyond the travel posters, we are invisible. We are not generally seen as having an intellectual or literary tradition. No doubt some editors look at Brazilian work and don’t know where to “place” it. Some editors would rather trust a non-Brazilian to write on Brazil (as in John Updike’s clunky novel Brazil). Some traditionalists in the Latino literature community are reluctant to include Brazil in the mix because of our non-Hispanic origins. When identity is an issue, sometimes it is hard for me to discern whether an editorial decision is based on my writing or their ignorance. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.

But conflict aside, there is much pleasure in being a Brazilian writer. The country and culture are so vast that there are myriads of things to write about. The Portuguese language is so musical that it makes the writing sound better just thinking about the words. Every one of my Brazilian pieces (non Brazilian too, sometimes) has a theme song that guides me to the voice. A lot of my characters dance and play musical instruments well, they gesture with their hands, they suffer excruciating pain and happiness particular to their homeland. There is a tingle of pride that brings me to my computer to write in the early morning hours. I know I am adding to, a literary landscape made rich by other Latino writers. I can pretty much know that for now, what I write is not being duplicated anywhere else. Like a pioneer, the writing experience leaves me both lonely and thrilled.

I’d like to think I don’t play the identity card, but I do. As writers, we would like to think it is enough just to present our individual visions. But Brazilian as well other Latino writers are faced with a general population that has misconceptions about our culture, so in a sense, we are teachers as well. An added responsibility? Yes. And for this, the door for us to go through has got to be larger. The Latino literature landscape – from Aztlán to Tierra del Fuego – contains many voices begging to be heard.

In the latter part of my novel Samba Dreamers, my protagonist Joe Silva finds in his moment of truth, that the U.S. “is both beautiful and cruel, innocent and guilty, the head twin and the heart twin.” All these conflicting identities make us the special gente that we are. However, we are not fighting for just our “literary niche” but our inclusion into American literature. This desire unites us all.

* * *

Kathleen de Azevedo was born in Rio de Janeiro but lived most of her life in the United States. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the Los Angeles Times, Américas, Boston Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Greensboro Review, Cream City Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Tampa Review, Green Mountains Review, Gettysburg Review, and TriQuarterly. She also has work anthologized in New Stories from the Southwest (Ohio University Press), Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press), and Best American Poetry 1992 (MacMillan). Kathleen currently lives in San Francisco with her husband, Lewis Campbell (pictured above with Kathleen), director of Multi-Ethnic Theatre. She teaches English at Skyline College in San Bruno, CA.

1 comment:

Francisco Aragón said...

What a pleasure to read this, Kathleen! And what a pleasure it was chatting with you in Albuquerque, what, two springs ago?

It was heartening to have our discussion because Momotombo Press, back in 2003, published ARROYO by Lisa Gonzales (with an Introduction by Helena Maria Viramontes), a California native, who has faced questions similar to the ones addressed in your fine essay.