Thursday, June 9, 2011

Culture Share: Brazil - Write About Your City (A Challenge)

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Fábio Fernandes discusses the city of São Paulo, Brazil

Write About Your City (A Challenge)
Fábio Fernandes

One of my most recent stories (still unpublished as I write this piece – June 3rd, 2011) is called The Remaker. It’s based on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote. Basically (easy, I won’t give any spoilers) it deals with a future writer who revels in rewriting works by famous authors of the past, and how this can be done (and why someone even would do this) in the mid-21st Century.

But, even though this is the major plot point in my story, it is by no means the most important thing of it - or, at least, it’s not that how I envisioned it to be. For this story takes place in São Paulo, Brazil.

Most of you who read these words have never been to São Paulo, or to any Brazilian city. I don’t know if you are aware of my country and how big it is, and of its diversity. To this day, I still find out people that sincerely believe all of us Brazilians live right in the middle of the jungle, and we are not familiar with electricity, for instance.

How, I thought when I was writing The Remaker, can I show people that São Paulo is a city almost as big as Tokyo and almost as full of cultural and ethnic diversity as New York City? Not an easy task without resorting to clichés. So I focused on the story. And so it resulted that the first version portrayed almost every scene happening in closed quarters: a university library, a mall, the apartment of the protagonist, a café in downtown, a quaint, old-fashioned printing press, a bookstore, and a few other places. Interesting markers, and, I thought then, good markers in that they would show the non-Brazilian audience that São Paulo is a city like any other civilized city in the Western world. Yay for us!

But I didn’t think it was enough. For, in doing so, how São Paulo would be any different from Now York, London, or Paris? (among other things, lots of cafés in those cities, if you ask me.)

Besides, São Paulo offers a particular challenge for the writer. If you already watched the beautiful animation RIO (if not, go see it, I strongly recommend it) , you will see the beaches, the Carnival, and the huge, beautiful statue of Christ the Redeemer. It is indeed a beautiful statue, and every time I go to Rio to visit my parents, I like to walk in the beach with my mom in the sunset to shoot the breeze, talk about family, personal projects, and life, drink coconut water and look at the statue from a distance – at night it is wonderfully illuminated. (You should visit it someday.)

But São Paulo is another thing entirely. It is a megalopolis, an industrial city. Not a tourist place – though it has some of the most interesting Modern Art museums of the Americas, as the MASP (Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo), and its only visible monuments (aside from some very beautiful statues) are its huge buildings. The city is home to the main international event in Latin American athletics, the Saint Silvester Road Race, to the Brazilian Grand Prix of Formula 1, and several cultural events like the São Paulo International Film Festival (now in its 35th edition), the Virada Cultural (a once-a-year grand extravaganza featuring theater, classic and pop music, movies, book readings and signings – all for free during 24 hours straight), and the Gay Pride Parade, considered in 2006 the biggest pride parade of the world by the Guinness Book of World Records with an estimated 2.5 million participants. And did I mention that Brazil has the biggest Japanese community in the world outside Japan, most of which is based in São Paulo? And this is – really – just the tip of the iceberg.

The Remaker is in a slush pile of a magazine. I’m not sure if I managed to improve the perception of the foreign reader regarding the uniqueness of my adopted city. One thing is for sure: I still didn’t do everything I wanted to do with São Paulo. (Neither I was expecting to do it in one story.) But eventually I think I’ll be able to write a mosaic of stories in São Paulo, a set of near future stories where I can take the reader by the hand and show her the labyrinths of the largest city in the western and southern hemisphere, and the world's seventh largest city by population. It’s no small feat.

Fábio Fernandes is a writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. A university professor and translator, he is responsible for the Brazilian translations of several prominent SF novels including Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and A Clockwork Orange. His short stories have been published in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, England, and USA, and in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. There's another story coming up in The Apex Book of World SF, Vol. II, ed. by Lavie Tidhar, later this year. He writes a column for SF Signal on e-books and e-readers.


  1. And did I mention that Brazil has the biggest Japanese community in the world outside Japan, most of which is based in São Paulo?

    No...I had no idea!

  2. We had a wonderful celebration a few years ago to mark the 100th year of arrival of the first immigrants. It was a 12-month celebration. Even Yoko Ono went here, and she also had no idea of this fact, she was a bit shocked. It was beautiful.

  3. That sounds amazing, Fabio. I remember there being a very large Brazilian group living in my foreign-students' dormitory in Tokyo, and most of those were of Japanese extraction. That was the first time I learned about the Japanese community in Brazil...there were also some students of Japanese descent coming from Peru.

  4. Juliette, today there are heaps of Brazilian immigrants in Japan, doing the other way round - they're called the dekasseguis - in fact, they're temporary immigrants. They go to Japan to live there for 5, 10 years and then return to Brazil. This was very popular until the turn of the millennium, but it started to change when our President Lula made the economy grow in the past decade. Now many of them are coming back because they are getting better opportunities here again.

    As for Peru: just last week they had Presidential elections there, and one of the candidates was Keiko Fujimori, daughter of a former Peruvian President of Japanese ascendancy. She didn't win (probably because his father is in jail due to a corruption scandal after he left the House).