A short update

I now speak English with a Brazilian accent and Ivander has started to react to the clickety-click sound of my shoes. Everytime he hears it he sits up straight and looks all around him. I’m not Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada. I’m the crocodile in Peter Pan.

The most important words in Brazil right now

Yesterday I participated in one of the many demonstrations held against Bolsonaro all over Brazil. I learned how to say: ”contra fascismo”, ”contra homofobia”, ”contra racismo” and, of course, the most important words here right now: #EleNao or #NotHim.

And the important conversations continued at the Tarrafa Literaria. I listened to this amazing woman, Djamila Ribeiro, who’s written a book called Who’s Afraid of Black Feminism? She was the main event at the book festival, and by far both the most popular and the most important. The line continued for two blocks. When they couldn’t let everyone in, they put up speakers out towards the street so that everyone could at least listen to her. She talked, amongst many other things about how she refused to be reduced to either a victim or a warrior. That when white people told the story of black people they inevitable focused on the suffering, until all they became were passive victims. For white people, the history of black people began with slavery. For her, telling the story of centuries of resistance was equally important. But she also criticized the romantization of the strong black woman. Romantizing the strenght and sacrifices of black women also means romanticisisng society’s violence against them. She wanted to be “human and happy and honouring the sacrifices of my parents.”

Perhaps the most important part of her talk for me was how white people have to learn that empathy is an intellectual, emotional and moral process that demands real action. It’s not lika a flu virus you can catch and then recover from a few days later. As an example, she mentioned how her own view and knowledge about trans people had changed: “We must kill the oppressor inside of us. It’s a painful process, but it is neccessary.”

Against hatred and intolerance


First of all, let me just state firmly for the record that Brazilian coffee is, of course, great. I had possibly the best espresso of my life at the Coffee museum, but walk into any café you like and you’ll find a great espresso.

The problems arise when you want to add milk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not critizing Brazilian coffee! I know that it’s my own fault for wanting to ruin a great espresso with warm milk. In fact, that seem to be the Brazilian way of looking at it: you either want coffee, or milk. So if you order coffee with milk, chances are you’ll end up with coffee coloured milk or so much foam that you have to dig your way down to any hint of coffee. Order a cappuccino and it might be covered with so much cacao that it turns into a, delicious of course, hot chocolate.

It’s even worse if you want a large coffee. I usually do, but large in this context means “same amount of coffee, more hot water”. And then they add the milk.

Today I’m going to experiment with saying “um café grande, por favor, com un pouco leite” and see if it helps. Either that or just ordering two coffees at the same time and pretend one is for my imaginary friend.

The days in Santos

I’ve been in Santos, outside of Sao Paolo in Brazil, for about five days now, and life has settled into a nice routine. I wake up each morning at nine, still slightly exhausted after a great night’s slepp. Between nine and ten I drink as many cups of coffees as humanly possible (averaging some five or six cups), and eat some scrambled eggs and papaya.

After breakfast, I spend some half an hour walking on a treadmill with a view of the beach and the bay. Everyday I watch the freight ships in the horizon, heading towards the harbour that’s defined Santos for centuries. Sometimes there’s a freight ship in the middle of the bay. Often they are half hidden by fog. And everyday I feel that ancient pull to sign up on a freight ship and spend years traveling from harbour to harbour. Who knows, maybe tomorrow I will? Since it’s early spring here, they are all freight ships, but in a few months the bay will be full instead of cruise ships. I feel no longing at all to sign up on one of those, although I suppose it would give me plenty to write about. Ivander used to work on a cruise ship, and he told me about this older woman who was a passanger on it and probably suffering from alzheimers. Every night she called down to reception asking them when the cruise departed. “It was like she never went on the cruise at all. She was always waiting for it to depart.” If that’s not a metaphor about life I don’t know what is.

Lunch is at 12.30. That is, I show up at 12.25, and Ana, Zé and Ivander turn up at 12.45. We usually eat at the same Italian restaurant (excellent fish, as everywhere in Santos), have a great coffee afterwards at the bookshop, and then Ana spends the afternoon sightseeing and I head back to the hotel to regroup.

(Ana is the portuguese writer that joined us a few days ago, and her full name is: Ana Margarida de Carvalho. Never have “Bivald” felt more boring!)

I contemplate the next developments in the book I’m working on by swimming around, around in circles in a very small pool. There’s something very meditative with swimming around in small circles. I usually get an idea or two, but if inspiration is really lacking I spend some time in the hot tub as well. That usually does it. And then I sit in the hotel bar with a coffee of varying quality and write down whatever idea I had.

Evenings are spent at the bookfestival, sitting high up in a theatre and listening to the talks while Ivander translate besides me. Yesterday was a translator who was working on One thousand and one nights, from arabic to portuguese. He was currently on volume 4, but had no real hope of translating the whole thing. There are some twenty volumes and an indefinite amount of different versions and were he to translated it all he would, as he put it, “die translating”. Which is not a bad way to go, I felt. The other writer was Milton Hatoum, who had lived all over Brazil and wrote novels with strong female characters in them. He had himself grew up in a family where the men were silent and the women strong, and he believed that childhood and the teenage years influenced what a writer wrote later in life, which is probably true.

Dinner is ten pm and lasts until about one am, which is the reason I wake up slightly exhausted every morning at nine.

Humour and resistance in Brazil

During lunch, the conversation eventually and inevitably turned to the political situation in Brazil. Voldemort, as my guide calls Bolsonaro, would set the country back to the middle ages. He’s like Trump – but with a military background. He’s candidate for vice president is a former general. In most countries in South America this would be a terrifying prospect even if he hadn’t also openly celebrated the use of torture and the dictatorship. And Pinochet, for good measure. But the Bookseller also told me about the typical Brazilian way of dealing with disaster: “We laugh at things so we don’t cry about them”. This has lead to a number of amazing initatives on Facebook, such as: “Cookies against Bolsonaro” or “Colour blinds against Bolsonaro” or, my favourite, “Sea turtles against Bolsonaro”.

Both the humour and the seriousness of the situation was also discussed during the two first talks of the book festival. The festival takes place in an old theatre. Someone told me that Sarah Bernhardt had once perfomed there. Someone else told me that it had at one point been a strip joint. It had also burned down, so the inside is completly new, but they kept the old facade. Because Ivander has to talk to me constantly to translate everything that’s being said, we were allowed to sit on the balconies upstairs. So the writers on stage talked, Ivander translated, and I listened, fascinated.

Diógenes Moura had written a book about the invisible Brazil. For years he photographed and wrote about the homeless people he met on his way home. His view of the country was ruthless: “The barbarity is the same in the entire country. The misery is real. The people abandoned”. He added, completely unnecessarily: “It is not a book to make you happy.”

In the next talk, professor Elias Thome Saliba told us about his research on the history of humour: “Brazil is a country of involuntary humorist”, he said. He had also studied some 160 different national anthems. Brazil’s was the only one that mentioned the word “smile”. Twice.