Contemporary Queer Brazilian Literature You Can Read in English Translation
As a Brazilian translator living in the United States, I often find myself speaking of contemporary writers from my home country and their work. However, their literary production is rarely translated into English. Sadly, the situation is even grimmer when we speak of sexual dissident writers. There is a growing interest in US publishing and academia in translating the works of some of the greatest Brazilian writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as Clarice Lispector and Machado de Assis. Although the works of canonical authors should be celebrated, I wish that more contemporary sexual dissident Brazilian writers would be translated into English in their lifetime.
Lundu by Tatiana Nascimento, Um Exu em Nova York by Cidinha da Silva, Contos ordinários de melancolia by Ruth Ducaso, and Amora: Stories by Natalia Borges Polesso, translated by Julia Sanches
Translation, however, is not without its challenges — it raises questions about who has the material conditions to be a translator, what are the translator’s ethical responsibilities, and, of course, the never-ending question of to footnote or not to footnote. The complexity increases when it comes to non-US sexually dissident literature. For instance, using the term “queer,” as I do in the title of this piece, to talk about these authors’ literary work is fraught. Queer is often used as an umbrella term that is meant to blur gender and sexuality categories, but it is a concept that has been largely developed and mobilized by people in the Global North. Different parts of Latin America, including Brazil, have tried to queer the term by coining the word “cuír,” and by adding local accents to its pronunciation. As a way of living and being in the world, cuirness has always been part of the sexual dissident lives of the people in these territories.
Playing with the idea of cuirness, poet, essayist, and translator, tatiana nascimento wrote the essay “literary cuírlombism: black lgbtqi poetry exorbitating the paradigm of pain,” translated by Bruna Barros and Jess Oliveira. By combining Orixas’s lifestories, itans, and lgbtqi+ Black poetry that has the potential to dislocate the orientation of Afro Brazilian literature from the “whiteist colonial cis-hetnormative gaze” — a perspective that demands pain, suffering, and a grammar of resistance for Afro descendant literature to be considered legitimate and legible. Nascimento outlines the “roots,” the “roads” and the “routes” toward a way of writing, being and thinking despite/outside this paradigm. The anthology Cuíer — Queer Brazil (2021) includes my translation of four of tatiana nascimento’s poems, and it borrows its name from nascimento’s poem “Cuíer Paradiso,” which speaks of an aspirational (utopic?) space of rest for sexually dissident lovers:
a cuíer paradise could be a very simple place:
laying my head betwixt your tits, or wel
cum you between my thighs”
The anthology also features literary works by 14 other authors, including the short story “Farrina,” by Cidinha da Silva from her 2018 collection Um Exu em Nova Iorque, and my favorite one out of her more than 13 published books. Translated by JP Gritton, “Farrina” tells the story of two Black women who meet in New York by chance. Narrated by one of the women in the first person, the story hints at transnational Black interconnectedness through shared cultural references from Farrina’s dreadlocks to the iconic 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. While reminiscing about the Caribbean, the narrator tells Farrina about Audre Lorde being a lesbian activist, mentioning the word lesbian swiftly since she is still unsure who Farrina is.
“[Y]our typical dona de casa cisfem, straight, traditional? Or was she one of those old-school lésbica who liked to play everything close to the chest? One of those gals for whom every gesture was a rune to be decoded?”
It is interesting to notice that the narrator, perhaps in a haste to establish a closer bond to Farrina, mixes up Lorde’s Caribbean heritage, which gives the reader a productive site of reflection on how memory plays tricks on us when longing for connection.
Through her writing, both in fiction and nonfiction, Cidinha da Silva is always weaving masterful stories of Black life, love, death, spirituality, politics, spanning from across the Americas — from the Tuaregs and the blue man of the desert in Africa to the intimacies of different Brazilian territories. Some of her short stories, like “I Have Shoes for You,“ translated by JP Gritton and Courtney Crumpler, “Dona Zezé,” “Mameto,” and “Maria Isabel,” translated by Gritton, and the crônica “Marigô”, translated by Ana Luiza de Oliveira e Silva and Daniel Persia, can be read online.
Although the works of canonical authors should be celebrated, I wish that more contemporary sexual dissident Brazilian writers would be translated into English in their lifetime.
Similar to tatiana nascimento and Cidinha da Silva, Luciany Aparecida also writes across genres. After reading Elisa Wouk Almino’s translations of some of Aparecida’s short fiction from her book Ordinary Tales of Melancholy, or Sarah Rebecca Kersley’s “What Males Want“ or “Sunday Dress,“ you might say that “across genres” is an understatement. Aparecida explodes literary genres in her intermashing of poetry, essay, fiction, and memoir. Not only that, Luciany Aparecida has three other pen names: Ruth Ducaso, Antônio Peixôtro, and Margô Paraiso, who posthumously signed the poetry book Ezequiel (2018), not yet translated into English, after she takes her own life. Each pen name brings a different weight, perspective, and voice to Aparecida’s literature, which is always experimental. Like in “Slay Sea,” a lot of her work is about the creative process of writing, imbued with gender dynamics in contemporary Brazil, without fear of killing and dying, so other(worldly) things can be (re)born. Since each of her pen names has its own voice and style, as a translator, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have Aparecida’s writing “team” in conversation in a single collection in a way that the differences between each authorial voice would shine through.
Finally, even though they are harder to find in translation, single authored books by contemporary cuir Brazilian writers are also available in English. Natalia Borges Polesso’s short story collection Amora was published in English in 2020, translated by Julia Sanches. Amora is divided in two parts — “big & juicy,” where we get long, full-arch stories, and “short & tart,” which brings vignettes, poems in verse, and those internal thoughts we don’t often dare to say out loud. When the book was published in Brazil in 2015, Amora won several literary awards and became a landmark in the literary representation of women who love women. Perhaps more importantly, Borges Polesso received hundreds of messages from lesbian and bisexual women who saw themselves, their friends, their love and loss, their joy and anguish beautifully portrayed in her fiction. Amora is one of many non-mainstream, non-normative literary works to be published with the support of public funds.
State grants used to be a common avenue for these projects, including translations, to come into fruition. However, over the last three years, the far-right Brazilian federal government has drastically reduced state funding for these endeavors and also for visiting professors, postdoctoral researchers, and doctoral students in STEM, but especially in the humanities, which has led to a decline in the number of professionals engaged in translation. Furthermore, the current federal government has a strong agenda against LGBTQI+ rights, policies and, quite frankly, our personhood.
In the United States, incentives for literary translators are similarly scarce. The three percent project, out of the University of Rochester estimates that only around three percent of the books published in the United States are translations and that percentage is at around one percent if we focus on literary fiction and poetry. Independent publishers and a few editors at big houses have been making efforts to publish more translations, however, issues of funding and what would be marketable in the US continue to be a problem, especially for narratives that go against stereotypical portrayals of those cultures like the ones shared here.
In today’s world, being in contact with art forms from multiple geographies and learning from a myriad of voices from these cultures should be accessible to all. Translation is a lot more complex than simply transposing words from one language to another — it is also about bridging cultures and communicating social, political, and cultural specificities, like smells, tastes, and other intimacies. With around a million Brazilian people living in the United States nowadays, it would be wonderful to have more of our contemporary, sexual dissident literary production to be a part of what we can share with our neighbors.
Publab Fellow 2022
Natalia Affonso is a translator, teacher, researcher and activist. She’s from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she created and hosted the award-winning literary salon Sapatão & Ficção and subsequently organized the publication of booklets that memorialize each event. She holds an MA in Literatures of the English Language (UERJ). She studies Caribbean and Brazilian sexual-dissident literature and is interested in how these can make decolonizing love together. Currently, she’s pursuing her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, where she is one of the head editors of Interversar, a graduate-student-run interdisciplinary Latin American Studies journal. Her poetry translations of Afro Brazilian writer tatiana nascimento appeared in the anthology Cuíer (Two Lines Press, 2021) and will be published in a chapbook of selected poems (Ugly Duckling Presse, forthcoming).