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Brazilian Cultural Identity: Shaped or Limited by Language?

November 03, 2010 // 9:00am11:00am
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Summary of a Brazil Institute seminar with Cristovão Tezza, Author and Professor, Federal University of Paraná; Marçal Aquino, Author and Journalist; Luiz Ruffato, Author; Vivaldo Santos, Author and Professor, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Georgetown University; Paulo Sotero, Director, Brazil Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center

On November 3, the Brazil Institute and the Cutural Section of the Brazilian Embassy in Washington hosted a panel of contemporary Brazilian authors and scholars to discuss the current state of Brazilian literature and the role of the Portuguese language. Brazil Institute Director Paulo Sotero began by discussing the potential for cultural projection to accompany the country's current economic expansion and growing international profile, especially considering the modest participation of Brazilian writers in the literary world.

Vivaldo Santos, author and professor of Portuguese literature at Georgetown University, discussed the pressing questions for a professor in a U.S. context. What does it mean to write in Portuguese? What is the most effective manner for reaching a foreign audience, especially as one as resistant to foreign languages as the United States? Is the cost of using translated texts worth the gains of reaching a broader audience? These are the types of questions that a Brazilian literary projection in the world will have to face.

Author Luiz Ruffato, who worked for years as a journalist, put current Brazilian literature in context, tracing the dominance of French and francophone literature in the early 20th century, which was replaced by English in the second half of the century. He argued that literary and cultural achievement follow economic development, since it articulates a certain vision of the world. Due to Brazil's new global position, its literature has a new opportunity to spread a uniquely Brazilian point of view as it becomes more visible to other countries. To fully maximize this opportunity, however, there are some problems that need to be addressed. First, there is a tension between the articulation and interest in Brazilian culture with the academic predominance of Portuguese literature, which alienates many students and other youth.

Furthermore, there is a traditional problem of negative national self-image, especially among the elites. The typical literary classes –wealthy and well-educated– tend to look down on Brazilian cultural production and turn to the exterior, which has hindered the development of autochthonous literature. However, on a more optimistic note, he pointed out that not only is this perception among elites changing, but the new, expanding middle class that is driving Brazil's economic growth generally has a more positive view of its nation, which will hopefully stimulate more specifically Brazilian cultural production.

Author and professor, Cristovão Tezza, formerly a linguistics professor of at the Federal University of Paraná, discussed the lack of international reception of Brazilian literature. He traced several different causes of the problem, beginning with the view of the developed world of Brazil –carnivalesque, exotic and sensual, dominated by images of beaches, dancing and soccer, which has hurt efforts to get European and American audiences to take Brazilian literature seriously. Domestically, the lack of strong academic presence for literature has also hindered the number and quality of Brazilian authors. On the cultural side, the Iberian and poetic nature of Brazilian literature tends to clash and be poorly received by readers in the Anglophone tradition, with its tradition of realism.

He also echoed the optimism of Ruffato, pointing to the changing social profile of Brazil. As the country changes from a predominately rural and agricultural society to a more urbanized one, this not only has economic effects, but also cultural ramifications, as society begins to change its perception of the outside world and of its cultural production. He said he hopes, however, that the enormous disparity between Brazilian and foreign literature changes. Currently, 97 percent of the books purchased in the country are translated from other languages.

Marçal Aquino, author, playwright and journalist, provided a counterbalance to the generally optimistic tone of Ruffato and Tezza. He emphasized the enormity of the scale of the problem Brazilian writers confront to sell the product of their labor at home and abroad. In a country of almost 200 million people, the average book written by a Brazilian author sells 3,000 copies (1,500 of which, he quipped, are other authors). This makes it impossible for Brazilian authors to maintain a living, even with advanced degrees. Without a growing domestic demand, such as that for consumer goods that is driving Brazil's economic expansion, its literature will never have a strong international presence.

The nature of literature also makes this difficult, since authors must focus on quality and artistic authenticity, and not necessarily what audiences will find appealing. He used the example of Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian who is among the most widely-read authors in the world, but whose books do not reflect a Brazilian experience and have been criticized for their mass appeal. In order to make progress, he argued, education must not only be improved but must actively focus on instilling a passion for literature in the newest generations, and the country must move past its traditional inferiority complex in relation to developed nations.

By J.C. Hodges
Paulo Sotero, Brazil Institute

 
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