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Where the Sidewalk Bends: One Year Later

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

At the tail end of my nine months in Rio de Janeiro last year, after first living in centrally located Laranjeiras followed by a brief stint beachside in Copacabana, I decided I need a change of scenery if I was going to make any real progress on my project: researching and translating contemporary Brazilian poetry with a strong sense of place.

A friend spotted an ad for a house along the iconic bonde (tram) line, in the old bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa. As I followed the tracks up the hill to check out the room—dodging cars, taxis, buses, motorcycles, endless dogs and cats, and one stubborn goat in the process—I felt certain that no matter how beautiful the place turned out to be, it would be too impractical to actually live there. But each bend in the road revealed new street art on the wall to my left, and an ever more dramatic view of the city to my right. The air felt different the higher I climbed; not just cooler, but calmer. And given that I was living in Brazil on a creative writing grant, when had being practical ever served me well, anyway?

Still skeptical, and now short of breath, I was greeted at the wrought iron gate by the owner, Miguel, who led me into his faded pink house for a tour. We walked past his first-floor bedroom and study, downstairs to a balcony overlooking the city and my potential bedroom (complete with built-in writing desk). Then Miguel lifted his trap Brazil wood floorboards, revealing a winding staircase into a high-ceilinged basement, which led out onto a small garden veranda. All the rooms were filled with contemporary art, antique furniture, and bookshelves overflowing with volumes written in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. And when I asked Miguel logistical questions like where the closest bus stop to get downtown was, he cracked open the tall green shutters in the living room to yell to his neighbor Alice (“Ah-LEE-see!”) for the answer, a method of information-gathering which would continue throughout the three months that we ended up living together before I headed back to the US.

Santa Teresa’s development began in 1750, when two Carmelite nuns established a convent on Morro do Desterro (Exile Hill) devoted to St. Teresa of Avila. Then, during the second half of the nineteenth century, Rio’s elite moved there to escape a devastating cholera outbreak down below. Though Santa has long since sunken to lower- to middle- class status, ruled by artists instead of aristocrats, the neighborhood’s stylish but run-down Belle Epoque-style French architecture from that period remains. Having grown up in Cleveland—another old money city that later fell on hard times—its aura of grit and faded glamour felt instantly welcoming to me during my own period of self-exile there.

Miguel was retired and devoted full-time to the study of literature and history, he told me. Although he had spent most of his adult life in Rio, he was originally from the south of Brazil, gaúcho (cowboy) country. Family heirlooms were artfully placed throughout the house: matte gourds in the kitchen; boxes of archival materials piled high, with old black-and-white photos spread out across long tables in the basement; a leather saddle, a wooden buggy, and riding boots suspended from the ceiling. Miguel spent hours each day in his study working on a memoir about his family’s role in the Federalist Revolution—the South’s unsuccessful 1893 rebellion against the Republic—while I worked from the balcony below. There, late at night, I loved to sit outside, the city around me lit up and buzzing like a circuit board across the mountains.

2014 was a historic year to be living in Rio: there was the World Cup, the presidential election, the fiftieth anniversary of the military coup that brought down the democratically elected government of João Goulart, unprecedented street protests, and the early preparations and controversy surrounding the 2016 Summer Olympics. It was a volatile, exciting period to witness firsthand. But what I most remember when I think of Rio now are the stories of friends, waiters, neighbors, artists, cab drivers, even strangers talking beside me on the metro—the unexpected, informal narratives that complicated and clarified my understanding of contemporary Brazil, and, in turn, its contemporary literature.

I’m writing this, the final installment of my Brazilian literary column for Words without Borders, from Montreal, where I joined my writer-translator boyfriend this past January. It’s been almost a year since I left the southern hemisphere, my third time doing so. I first lived in Brazil back in 2005 on a one-month summer exchange program in Salvador da Bahia, and wasn’t sure yet if I would go back to Brazil, much less to Bahia, ever again. Just in case, I bought a Jorge Amado novel in the airport gift shop, as a souvenir of my time in the acclaimed writer’s home state.

However, it wasn’t until I got back from Brazil the second time (a junior semester abroad studying visual art and history at the Universidade Católica do Salvador), that my Portuguese was good enough to truly appreciate the poetic novel. Throughout my senior year of college, the seasons in Ann Arbor rotating in perfect opposition to Bahia’s, I made my way slowly through the book, Mar morto (Sea of Death). It wasn’t just the plot or the setting or the way Amado used language that I was savoring; it was the language itself. Surrounded by English on a daily basis, reading Brazilian literature became a way, like music, to keep the sound of Portuguese in my ears.

As time went on and I spent a few years working in Portland, Oregon before heading back East to New York City for my MFA in poetry, I discovered more and more Brazilian writers that I loved, their work just as varied as the country itself. Clarice Lispector, Paulo Leminski, Machado de Assis, Hilda Hilst, Moacyr Scliar, the Campos brothers, Manoel de Barros . . . . Many of the characteristics I appreciated in Brazil’s literary greats were the same qualities that drew me to my Brazilian friends: their humor, irreverence, hybridity, and dramatics. I jumped at the chance to take literary translation workshops at Columbia as part of my graduate studies; translation became another, even more intimate way, to stay in conversation with Brazil from a distance.

So much of a translation’s success depends on which foreign elements (linguistic, cultural, physical) you transport from the source text into the translation, and how you preserve them; not just that Miguel kept his family’s wooden buggy intact, say, but the innovative way he displayed it in his house. Suspended dramatically from the ceiling, the wagon evoked a different era in Rio Grande do Sul while blending into contemporary Rio de Janeiro, becoming both foreign and native in its environment—becoming something entirely new.

I’m drawn to poetry where the physical space has as much personality as the speaker, in part because it selfishly allows me to inhabit interesting landscapes while I translate. This winter in Montreal, I’m looking forward to transporting back to Rio through the work of the writers I came across there. Until I next have the chance to wade into the South Atlantic, I can keep traveling via language, opening up new channels for English-speaking readers to access Brazil’s rich literary offerings, I hope, in the process.

This is the final post of my Brazilian literary column for Words without Borders, "Where the Sidewalk Bends." You can read all the articles and interviews in the series here.


Published Nov 12, 2015   Copyright 2015 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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