One of the special guests at the International Literature Festival in Bucharest, seventh edition (FILB, 3-6 December 2014), was Toni Marques, Brazilian journalist and writer. He is also the story editor with Globo TV news show Fantástico, the curator of FLUPP, an international literary festival hosted by shanty town communities in Brazil. He has published four books and edited the anthology “The Book of Rio”.
We spoke about the current literary Brazilian scene, about his favorite themes and also about what drives him to write. Hoping that soon his books will be translated in Romanian too, we invite to immerse a little in a literary world quite unknown to us.
Pentru versiunea în limba română, click aici
The motto of the International Literature Festival in Bucharest is “Re-writing the Map of Europe”. With the emergence of this new map, how do you see the idea of borders and where would you place your literature and Brazilian literature?
Is fair to say that my generation, the people born in the 60s, in Brazil, in big cities, like Rio de Janeiro, is under the big influence of Rubem Fonseca, who opened Brazilian literature to dark, urban themes. In the 60s, when i was born, he said: “Hey, literature doesn’t have to behave well, it has to be dark, gritty and has to explore the darkest corner of any soul, any place, anywhere”. That hooked me, as a young reader. That hooked everybody, in fact, because he was so different from everything Brazil had at that time. There were some other crazy guys just before him or showing up with him, but he was the modern guy, a combination of Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver. I got so hooked in my adolescence and my young adult years, that I can’t get rid of that influence, not in terms of language, but in terms of themes. I think you, Europeans, have more advantages (that come with counter advantages, of course). You belong to a territory that was forged by conflict between brothers or cousins, you were conquering everybody all the time, but in the same time, learning from each other all the time. You have the benefit of traditions, the combination of traditions, for me Europe is a real melting pot of the world. But that could also be a burden, because you were dealing with solid structures of thought, language, culture. I come from a former Portuguese colony, we were built from scratch.
The first Brazilian native writers are just emerging. The black slavery didn’t produce writers, there is only one account in English from a slave who was brought to Brazil and then was sent to America and in his book he briefly mentions Brazil, though he mainly sticks to the trips between cities. The white people, in the colonial days, the educated people who were able to become writers followed the European schools of literature, realism, naturalism, until the modernist days. In Brazil, modernism was all about trying to create a Brazilian way of seeing and doing things, in the arts, theatre, literature. The modernists set up a real revolution, they did crazy stuff, so to speak, especially Mario de Andrade, he really shoots in the direction of genuine Brazilian expression in terms of language and the way he writes is totally different from any other writer from Europe or elsewhere. One of the ramifications of modernism that stuck as a school was the so called regionalism. The regionalist movement was, practically, a countryside literature, the literature looking at the countryside Brazil, the structures away from big cities, the use of the regional language, the way Brazilians outside big cities think, talk. Fonseca is the one who says “Enough! I’m going to write about urban, crazy things”. He writes in a very precise language, almost like a surgeon, like a forensic, dissecting words and phrases. In fact, one of his first novels is about a forensic.
“Searching for themes that are not either mapped yet or could be explored from a different angle that has to do with my subjectivity, this is what interests me.”
Which are the themes that interest you?
Searching for themes that are not either mapped yet or could be explored from a different angle that has to do with my subjectivity, this is what interests me.
I’m interested in what are the borders of themes, which Brazilian themes are global, which of them are a world in themselves, how Afro-Brazilian faith brought by the black slaves was rewired somehow in Brazil to the point that it became, over the years, a white middle class religion, and how that process ended up in Argentina. This is for me an example of rewriting the map.
Brazil is so big, 200 million people, lots of stories to be told, from the present and from the past. I was lucky to write a screenplay, sold to a production company, and they developed a TV series for HBO Brazil, which will be aired next year. My story is a comedy, they got the protagonist and surrounded him with other things, but what he wants, who he is and the conflicts he has are the same. With this story I tried to do something that seems totally natural, yet you don’t see every day in Brazil: I tried to write a comedy about a dictatorship. Of course I know it ruined a lot of lives, but perhaps you can laugh at some aspects of the dictatorship, in my case the censorship. My hero is a movie censor. In the 60s and the 70s, Brazilian movies slowly got into this sexy middle class anxiety thing, light comedies dealing with the sexual anxiety of the 60s, but in a very crude, rude manner. Slowly, the administration let those movies out and it created a whole school of movie making; those movies were understood at the time as light porn, but they weren’t porn, they were sex comedies. So I thought, “Hey, a movie censor seeing movie, after movie, after movie about sexual frustration – that should be funny”.
Do you think writers should be concerned with the immediate reality?
You can do whatever you want, but I prefer, as a reader, therefore, as a writer, to tackle with reality. You see the Americans. The Americans do everything. For me, they are THE storytellers, because they tell any story. If you want to see a movie about presidents, you’ve got where to choose from. In Brazil it’s nothing like that. If you want to read a novel whose main character is a senator, you would need the help of a scholar to find that kind of book. We are always surrounded by the danger of the self-grandiose by the means of a narrator who is a white middle class writer/journalist/professor… This I don’t like. The classics already did this. One of the bad things of the dictatorship in Brazil is that you cannot find the elite in any works of art, including movies and theatre plays. The rulers, the wealthy are marginalized. Artists tend to speak about poor people, about victims, who could, in a way, be saved through art. This is what Brazilians do – the poverty surrounded by magic. Dictatorship makes you feel almost obligated to deal with social inequalities. You have to outline yourself as an artist with the weaker, with the poorer, which is ok, of course.
I think art is not paying necessary attention to the elite as well. You have to understand their environment too. How come these families became industrialists, where are the Rockefeller narratives from Brazil? I like that as an uncharted map in Brazil. Imagine if a Martian needs to know Brazil through books, how many books will he have to look for until he finds a narrative of our presidents, of our Rockefellers? You need that narrative as well, to understand the whole.
Perhaps because most writers are from the middle class and because you can’t be a professional writer that easily in Brazil, meaning time for research, it is easier for them to write about their class or to align with the poor, because it is the right thing to do. I like that. And I like that people coming from poorer communities are starting to write. They don’t need us anymore, they are creating their narratives, and there are peripheral literary scenes around the country, people with hip-hop influence and so on.
How about you? Who do you align with?
My first novel is about homeless people and… cannibalism, about the cannibalism rising from the poor. The second one is about Brazilians living in America, because I’ve been living in America for three years. But my idea wasn’t to document on them, I just got inspired by some of them. There are some scenes describing the daily life of the characters, but I didn’t intend to describe the neighborhood where Brazilians survive. My point was to highlight their inner world. There are poor people, people escaping poverty, but there is also a banker, based on the image of the bankers I met in New York. I like to see everything as a foreigner. I like the idea of those layers that are clashing and, in the same time, supporting each other. For me, this is the history of mankind.
Now I’m working with football, but I’m not a fan of football. I’m going to use football as a crazy thing. Borges also hated football because of the nationalism involved in it.
How much of your work as a journalist helped you as a writer?
A lot. I have two distinct phases in my journalist life. The first one is the print media. The second, TV. The first one helped me to be precise, to be clear and to decide when not to be clear, it gave me a sort of discipline: meeting deadlines, limits, building an expression form within some boundaries. On TV, I work for a two hour news show, a mix of “60 Minutes” and variety show. So, a variety show with news. I mostly write investigative stories. It has a very strict rule of you being simple and clear. But because of the nature of that show, the process of writing TV stories as building blocks that are chained to each other, glued to each other as to form a unitary structure, you have to learn to do that in several ways of formatting the story… beginning with the end. It is very difficult to do that, because you make one mistake, and the viewer is gone. My second fiction book is based on the knowledge I acquired in TV. There are short stories and I try to connect them in very subtle ways. A protagonist here is a shadow there.
At the festival, you said that you write in order to take vacations from yourself. What do you escape from when you write?
My bills. 🙂 I take vacations when I write because it levers me to have a conversation with the things I like, to learn more and more. I like more non-fiction books than fiction books, I like reality, I love to learn through research, to learn about subjects I didn’t even know I would like. And then, I write to try to die later.