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My Life as an Intellectual

By Elvira Vigna
Translated By Eric M. B. Becker

In this short crônica, Brazilian writer Elvira Vigna—who just last week was named a finalist for the 2017 Oceanos (former Portugal Telecom) Prize—gives a self-deprecating account of the writer’s life.

I had a sack of potatoes in my hands and a brand-new dress on. The potatoes required something of an explanation, while the new dress didn’t, because, after all, I was on my way to an event in my honor and I didn’t want anyone to think I’d a habit of going to such events holding a sack of potatoes, though no one would think twice about me going to one of these things in a new dress—fertile ground for an essay on gender and capitalism, but that’s a matter for another time.

It’s not as if I show up with potatoes on purpose, not at all, though it might sometimes look that way.

In this case, and others like it—and yes, there’s been more than one—it was because I didn’t have anything to do.

I never do. I spend my days staring out into space. And so I always leave the house early and end up arriving early wherever I go, which always prompts strange looks from people. So I have a choice: either I arrive early and people give me a look or they give me a look because I ran to the grocery store to pass the time before the event.

But one way or another, I always arrive. And then I ask at the reception where I can find the event with the writer, they tell me how to get there, and it’s always in a huge auditorium that’s still empty because, potatoes or no, it’s still crazy fucking early.

Then I sit down in one of the last rows and start to pray there’s no mosquitoes because, like I told you, I’m wearing a dress.

People begin to show up, some of them give me a nasty look, what am I doing there, the event’s closed to the public, a notice was sent that no parents were to come because the whole place always fills up just with the students.

That day, it filled up too.

When they finally figured it out—that I was who I was—there was already a good, I don’t know exactly, I’m not very good at judging such things, but I’d bet a good three hundred people.

And by figured it out, I mean they looked me straight in the face, I wasn’t at all what they had expected, there were no flashing lights on my forehead and I didn’t look anything like someone who deserved some event in her honor.

But I was what they got, what can you do, they brought me up to the stage and the children chanted, in unison:

“Elvira!!! (pow, pow, pow) Elvira!!!! (pow, pow, pow).”

Pow, pow, pow: I have no idea how they made that sound, if it was by stomping their feet, with their hands against the chair, or by using all their strength to strike the books (mine) in their laps.

Colégio Benett. It was gigantic. In Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro.

A long, long time ago.

Later, I stopped writing children’s books and that was it.

The day became known as my “Zico Day,” after the Brazilian soccer legend. I don’t have a very clear idea who Zico was, beyond the fact he was a soccer player. But Zico Day because a few writers of literature for adults said to me, green with envy:

“Look at that, it’s like you’re Zico or something.”

Never again.

Until the day in Pacaembu.

There was no longer a sack of potatoes in my hands, but my novel Nothing to Declare instead.

Which can more or less be summarized as follows: some curse words, a tale of adultery, complete with details involving motel rendezvous.

But there, in front of me, three hundred kids. They must have rounded them up from the neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking that there’d been some mistake. I had warned everyone I’d be talking about Nothing to Declare and that the target audience, as a result, was adults—more than just adults, adults with an open mind, ready to discuss the things that sometimes happen to adults. Besides, I added, it had been more than thirty years since I last wrote a book for children.

In these sleepy little towns, it can be difficult to win over adults. Children are a different story, they do what you tell them: run along, come over here. And they do it. Much easier.

And that’s how my adult audience turned out to be a bunch of children.

I considered my options for proceeding:

1) Human fallibility in a nontheological context:

“Sometimes, Daddy and Mommy do a doo-doo. Who else here’s ever gone doo-doo?”

And then, after a few stories about mommies and daddies going doo-doo, pencil and paper for everyone to draw the resulting mess.

2) The threshold of indiscernibility between individual ethics and collective morals.

 “Lying is bad, you hear me? Who here’s ever lied before?”

And then, after a few stories about lying, pencil and paper to draw one big red fiery hell.

“No coloring outside the lines, you hear?”

3) The structure of language and the unconscious, according to Lacan.

“No swearing. This nice old lady wrote this entire book to show what happens when you use swear words.”

And then, pencil and paper so everyone can write A Day with Grandpa, all without using a single swear word.

 “Not even one, especially if you ‘didn’t mean to,’ understood?”

The teachers decided it was better I stop there and let the children ask questions.

The event ended early.

My driver was nowhere to be found. I sat there on the little wall outside waiting for him to show up.

He’d gone to see “somebody.”

These trips to remote towns involved days and days of you and the driver on the road, staying at the same hotels, looking at the same endless patch of asphalt stretching out before you. It’s better to strike up a conversation, but I’m not much for small talk about soccer or politics. Pacaembu wasn’t the first stop on that trip, far from it. In the beginning, the driver tried several times to strike up a conversation before giving up. No, I didn’t like music either. That’s when the little alarm started ringing. An alarm went off on his watch at regular intervals.

 “What’s that?”

“It’s so I don’t fall asleep at the wheel.”

I didn’t ask if he always used that contraption. I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

No. Only when I’m driving around some pain-in-the-ass writer.

After Pacaembu and my wait for the driver, sitting there on the tiny little wall, things began to improve. He started telling me about his failed marriage, the mysterious “somebody.” He didn’t turn on that little alarm for the rest of the trip. As we said good-bye, I gave him my copy of Nothing to Declare. A one-man audience. I don’t mind. Generally speaking, I’m touched by my audiences, no matter what size they are. I look out at the people in front of me and, almost always, my eyes finally rest on some crazy nuts just like me. People who, when the road gets too straight, require an alarm so as not to give up for good.


“My Life as an Intellectual” originally appeared in the Brazilian journal Revista Pessoa. It appears here as a part of WWB’s ongoing partnership with Revista Pessoa. Each month, WWB will bring readers new work that originally appeared in Pessoa here in English translation, and Pessoa will publish work from WWB’s pages in translation into Brazilian Portuguese.


Read Eric M. B. Becker’s remembrance of Elvira Vigna

Published Oct 30, 2017   Copyright 2017 Elvira Vigna

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