FLIP 2015: Between a Search for the Future and Nostalgia for the Past

Image of FLIP 2015: Between a Search for the Future and Nostalgia for the Past

This year's FLIP (Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty, or Paraty International Literary Fest) had a certain desolate feeling for me at times. Maybe it was the weather, cloudy with intermittent rain, that contributed to the nostalgic tone. The last time I was there, in 2013, it had been a sunny week and I was writing for an online literary magazine, meeting writers I admired, two weeks after coming back from New York City, where I had been researching experimental poetry in the Village for my PhD thesis in Literary History. Fresh off of a hard winter, I was eager to return to a seaside city to talk to Brazilian, American, British, and French writers about historical time and literature in the 20th century. This year, I came to FLIP with a different perspective. Teaching humanities in a metropolis such as São Paulo is a grueling routine and I was looking for a break from my workload and for an opportunity to observe how things had evolved over the last couple of years.

Perhaps it also felt nostalgic due to this year’s honoree, the poet Mário de Andrade. One of the founders of Brazilian Modernism in the early 1920s, Andrade was a celebrated poet, novelist, musician, and admired public administrator who changed the shape of cultural institutions in the city of São Paulo during the 1930s. But he was also a somewhat melancholy soul, disdained by his friend and collaborator Oswald de Andrade for formulating Modernism in the late 1920s. Mário de Andrade was alleged to be a closeted homosexual, and became the target of public mockery (high literary humor, some might say) by Oswald, at a place and time when such an identity would never have been acknowledged in the public sphere. Andrade died in exile in his own country: he was driven to live in Rio de Janeiro due to the political turmoil of his era. Despite all this, he is considered by the most relevant academic institutions to be one of the fathers of our Modernist culture. 

However, I think there’s another story to tell about nostalgia here: this was the thirteenth edition of the festival. When it began in 2003, it was truly a hub for the up-and-coming generation, young writers meeting each other for the first time to discuss the future of Brazilian letters in the new online, independent publishing climate. A decade or so later, it seems to have become a party for the enthusiasts of highbrow culture.

Attendees were there to see critically acclaimed authors, and the festival delivered. The panel discussions were political, engaging, and delightful. But at R$60,00 (US $25) per panel, the cost was prohibitive for many people, especially the younger literary crowd.

This year, in addition to the literary panels, there were ones on topics ranging from cuisine to mathematics. The mathematics panel hosted the 26-year-old mathematician Artur Ávila, the first Brazilian to receive the prestigious Fields Medal—the highest international honor for mathematicians—since its inception in 1982. His panel colleague was Edward Frankel, a Russian mathematician who is a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley and author of a bestselling 2014 autobiography. The culinary events—conversations and cooking demos with renowned chefs—took place in a special venue called Gastronomy House. The books available were anthropological tales, mainly focused on a people’s cuisine as an object of intellectual reflection on their culture and history. But does this mean that FLIP is still a literary party in a beachside paradise, or is it now a wider cultural celebration aimed at all sort of non-literary interests?

It is worth noting that a significant portion of the new, exciting generation of Brazilian writers discussed relevant social topics outside of FLIP’s official schedule. These panels took place free of charge in Casa SESC Paraty. SESC is a social institution that offers social benefits to commerce workers; in big cities, it also has a cultural wing, serving as a high-quality and low-cost venue for cutting-edge artists and performances.

In SESC, the topic of feminism came up in one of the panels, generating media buzz. One of the panels hosted three male writers with solid careers in Brazil: Daniel Galera, Joca Reiners Terron, and Ronaldo Bressane. The topic of the debate was literary territories. The writers were invited to talk about how their experiences living in many different cities throughout their lives influenced their narratives. The discussion turned for a moment towards “feminine” literature. This could be expected at some point: after all, of the 38 writers invited to FLIP, only ten were women.

Galera, who is one of the first young contemporary Brazilian writers to be published in the US (by Penguin Press), said there is no (or should be no) such thing as a feminine literature. This statement was backed by the other writers on the panel and the assertion has since ignited a series of debates in literary publications and on social media. The term “feminazi” was used later by Bressane in a piece in a literary journal to refer to those who criticized the debate. The main point of divergence between those who engaged in the debate was precisely about the necessity of the term  “feminine literature” (or "black literature" or "periphery literature"—written by a poor and vulnerable minority on the outskirts of big cities). Those on the panel who were against using it argue that the creative act of writing should allow a male writer to be able to construct a woman freely, just as a white person can create a black character. The critics, myself included, think that there exists such a thing as a feminine experience: the result of a sexist culture that defines women as a different, not neutral, subject. To simply change the gender and think the protagonist (male/female) can be interchangeable is to forget those experiences that have defined the condition of women throughout history in literature, as an object, not a subject, of desire. Which is not to say that a male writer cannot create a female character; it is to alert them to the impossibility of neutrality.

Plenty of women, however, were in Casa SESC this year, representing this new generation. Carol Bensimon, for example, gave a lecture during a panel entitled “Transitions” that debated the journeys characters go through, either in spatial territory or inside themselves. She shared a place with Daniel Galera in Granta’s 2012 selection of the best 20 Brazilian writers under 40. At 32, Bensimon has published three books with the prestigious Companhia das Letras and is one of many competent and creative writers in this age range, many of them women. It is the first time that she was part of a panel connected to FLIP. Even though it was not in the formal event schedule, it is important that it happened: she met most of her writer friends, decided to be a writer, and defined some of her style at the 2004 FLIP. Many regulars at FLIP during the early 2000s are the voices of today, defining the shape of today’s literature.

The festival closed with a talk dedicated to Mário de Andrade, by literary and music critic José Wisnik. At one point he stressed Andrade’s solitude and melancholy, partly due to his sexuality. It was only this past June that a letter Andrade wrote to his friend, the poet Manuel Bandeira, in 1928, was allowed to be read publically. In it, he admits to his sexual orientation. The social process in Brazil is such that what is no longer a threat becomes celebrated. Wisnik demonstrated that by talking openly about Andrade’s homosexuality during one of FLIP’s main events, while literary debates about other minorities (feminine, etc.) were relegated to the fringes of the festival. But, somehow, even at the margins of implied discourses, there was space at FLIP for literature to be embedded in politics. Paulo Werneck, curator of the event for the second year in a row, highlighted to me FLIP’s commitment to actively create more panels and invitations to improve women’s participation. This shows that FLIP can still be a moment, a space, a spark, where discussions arise, matters come to life, and reflection can bring about change. The attempt to be inclusive is there, but we must never forget to keep asking for more.