Poetic debris in a Brazilian junk room

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“When I go to the city, I feel like in a luxury living room. Back in the favela, I am just abandoned furniture in a junk room”: Carolina María de Jesús’ diaries starting in 1955 became a media and literary success when journalist Audálio Dantas “discovered” her in the favela and had her writings published as Quarto de despejo (Junk room) in 1960. For the first time in Brazil, a black favelada was able to produce and sell a poetic text about her daily routines and her dreams. Her diaries and poems with literary intentions and reflections about life and society focused on her endurance to get food for her children and the social relations in the favela.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth, a German documentary from 1971 about her life was shown at Instituto Moreira Salles in Gávea, Rio, followed by a conversation between the above Audálio and professor Marisa Lajolo. Were Carolina Maria’s diaries real literature if such concept exist anymore? What was the suspicious reception by the elitist literary society of the time of an outsider’s success if not a reflection of the impermeable Brazilian society condemning class and race to an illiterate junk room? Things have changed in the last 50 years and now the Academia maintains a broader and more including idea of art, but society keeps on seeing moradores de favela as disrupting elements in a personal and desired imaginary of a middle and upper class white Brazil.

What a strange sensation is to attend an 18-minute documentary in German with Portuguese subtitles and real but older and already successful Carolina Maria de Jesús playing the role of herself when picking paper 15 years before from trash cans on the streets of São Paulo. A voice in off reads her diaries; and images of the favela and their dwellers alternate with the late poet’s comments about the changes in her life after the publishing of her books.

Here, some extracts of her writings and an audio:

31 de maio Sábado – O dia que quase fico louca porque preciso arranjar o que comer para sábado e domingo […] Fiz o café, e os pães que eu ganhei também. Puis feijão no fogo. Quando eu lavava o feijão pensava: eu hoje estou parecendo gente bem – vou cozinhar feijão. Parece até um sonho! … Ganhei bananas e mandioca na quitanda da rua Guaporé. Quando eu voltava para a favela, na avenida Cruzeiro do Sul 728 uma senhora pediu-me para eu ir jogar um cachorro morto dentro do Tietê que ela dava-me 5 cruzeiros.

Are you also a Communist old relic?

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Somebody said that one’s homeland is where one spends her childhood. In the case of Emilia, Sunt o Babă Comunistă’s main character, it’s her youth, when thanks to Ceaușescu‘s regime, she got a permanent job in a factory and even received an apartment for free. The film, from 2013 and opening the Romanian cinema festival at Cinema Doré in Madrid, depicts life in a provincial town far from Bucharest around 2010, when the ex-dictator’s body is being exhumed to check his DNA. Many years have passed after his fall and execution in 1989, but his name and controversial legacy are still on everyone’s lips, especially for the economic crisis, the exhumation news and a movie that is being filmed in town depicting a frustrated visit of the “First Romanian communist comrade” to the factory. Director Stere Gulea, famous in his country for his movie Morometii, a 1988’s adaptation from a popular novel from between Wars and being shown today in the cinema series, successfully contrasts the conflicting feelings and ideas of Ceaușescu’s supporters with their younger (and not so, like the teacher and seamstress) detractors’. Even Emilia, who still proudly keeps her Communist Party membership card hidden behind a religious image, recalls the nonsensical cult to the personality that the ex-dictator cultivated; images in black and white take us to her past, which is been observed by old Emilia as a black-and-white spectator, same as in another memorable film dealing with the end of the Soviet time in the Balkans, Ulysses’ Gaze, by Theo Angelopoulos. Ceaușescu’s anecdote is just another but related one of the stories narrated in the film, actually showing the daughter’s visit from Canada with her boyfriend, an unavoidable  childish and politically correct North American young man. Alice, played by Ana Ularu, an attractive actress with exotic facial features, is the one in the couple down to earth and strong enough as to face realistically their economic problems. And again, modern-time values are questioned when the crisis in the capitalist West requires help from the remainders of Communism for the former to survive.

P.S.: And surprising the resemblance of the Romanian “baba” actress with a Spaniard, the also actress Concha Cuetos.

“Bajo 30”: youth is not bliss

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The other day, a presentation of a short-story and fragment-of-novel anthology written by authors under 30 took place at the bookstore-winery Tipos infames, in Madrid. Nowadays, most of the books collecting stories by presumably a generational group of writers, is more a marketing idea than a real entity with common literary interests, influences, themes, style and final product. And, in the end, as Guillermo Aguirre, one of the YOUNG writers said, literature is something written by a guy in underpants at home to be read by another guy in underpants at home (let’s change the male-oriented “guy” for the more politically correct “person”), and he is not interested in more; neither am I, but here I am, surrounded but twenty-many and thirty-few happy literary wannabies talking about political and cultural power and forgetting to address their own texts, as if that question were something banal. In the anthology, apart from a few jewels, like poetic and experimental Juan Soto Ivars’ text, or Cristina Morales’s perfect example of autofiction in the line of Vila-Matas, with an ironic criticism of extreme and nonsensical feminisms, many of the rest in the pack look more like an useless and uninteresting exercise of style promoted by a writing school’s teacher, funny stories by cool guys imitating the beat generation or even children literature; not the real content and stylistic literary pieces that you expect to find in really promising authors. Two other passable ones are “Romperse”, by Aixa de la Cruz, the story of a vigorexic young man vomiting blood after extensive bulimic episodes, and the unpretentious and well structured “Delfines” by Aloma Rodríguez, in which the narrator recalls her grandfather’s funeral intercalating her memories from the past with him.

At Residencia de Estudiantes with Ana Miranda

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Tonight at Madrid’s Residencia de Estudiantes, Brazilian writer Ana Miranda shared with us the secrets of the inspiration for her historical novels, at least the ones related to poets:

She once had a dream where she was climbing a tower’s stairs to find on the top an old woman with a long white braid who told Ana Miranda that she had been Baroque poet Gregório de Matos’ lover; when a few days afterwards she found a book written by a historian about Padre Vieira’s “murder” and Matos’ support, she knew she would write Boca do Inferno in the context of late XVIIth century Salvador de Bahia, which would get her the prestigious Jabuti prize.

Still recovering from a heartbreak, she happened to re-read Gonçalves Dias’ desperate love poems and decided that she would write a novel about the Romantic poet, Dias & dias, Brazilian Academy Prize.

One day she found at a second-hand bookstore the second-edition of the only book of poems by the pre-modernist Augusto dos Anjos and, surprisingly, bought it very cheap; on her way home, a baby bird fell from a tree to the floor in front of her, dying quickly; after burying it, she thought of the similarities between dos Anjos’ short life without the possibility of writing more books and the poor baby bird losing its life ahead: that was the germ of her novel A última quimera, National Library Prize.

CHRISTMAS IS OVER IN KYOTO, AT LAST!

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One week after the New Year’s Eve is enough time to recover from the hangover of bonenkais (friends and colleagues dinners), shinnenkais (New Years’s banquets) and commemorative celebrations at Christmas time in Japan; and maybe to talk about them. After a dinner with friends on Kiyamachi St. –when I found out how important is for a Japanese woman her future father-in-law’s scalp- and some salsa dancing at Rumbita, the Joya no Kane -108 tolls on the Buddhist temples’ big bells to celebrate the New Year and clean the same number of human sins- got me on Shijo Street on my way to Yasaka Jinja, the most frequented Shinto shrine in Kyoto on those days. Of course, since Japanese like to do most things together at the same time, the street was blocked by flocks of Japanese young people willing to pay homage to Shinto gods asking them for a year of pecuniary success and love or just to hang out around there. I decided not to wait what at freezing temperatures plus snow could be considered a Japanese purgatory and headed for my next destination, an electronic music club in the northern part of the city.

 

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On my way to Metro, I happened to pass by a small tera (Buddhist temple), where a few people were eating toshikoshi soba, (buckwheat noodles, longer than usual and consumed on New Year’s Eve) around an improvised bonfire. My curiosity was stronger than my fear of finger frostbite and I stopped by to take a look at what was going on. Ipso facto I was invited by the friendly priest’s daughter to join a line of Japanese neighbors and stoically wait my turn to toll twice by myself the big bell with a heavy piece of wood. When I finally threw a few coins to a box and gave two small sticks –given previously to me by the young woman- to the very yasashii (kind) priest, I felt that neither my mistake with the name of the train station and the subsequent walk in the cold nor my curiosity-killed-the-cat peeping at the temple were accidental but with a purpose.

And I was in those high thoughts while holding the wood to hit the bell when something inside my left pocket started to vibrate like crazy. As if waking up from a mystic ecstasy, I realized that it was my cell-phone receiving a call from a dear one and decided that our dependency on technology to communicate with others is ruining our lives; but I interpreted the disrupting phone call as a sign of good fortune, hit the bell twice, thanked the Shinto priest and finally went to the disappointing, smoky, dark and noisy cave.

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A few hours later I would wake up at home to drowsily connect to the Internet and have via Skype the you-know-which 12 grapes with my family in Madrid.

On January first I finally made it to a jinja, Shimogamo, where I bought an omikuji (a written fortune), just to laugh at myself because I got the worst possible one: bad luck in everything imaginable for the coming year. I refused to hang it on a pillar next to the altar in order to get rid of the bad omen: actually I just don’t believe in them; and it makes such a great memento!

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Japanese Halloween, Spanish Conferences and Student Theatre Festivals

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Life in Japan might sometimes look a little bit dull but there are moments when there are so many options where to choose from that it’s exactly the opposite, and you feel that your schedule becomes an elastic cord that is going to break sooner or later.

For the Japanese, as well as for the Spanish –I just learnt about the Celtic and Christian origins of the celebration-, Halloween is nothing else than a date in the calendar when they can put on a costume and go out crazy, like in Carnival. In Kyoto, a foreign and local mixed crowd of youngsters and not so young ones go to the Kamo River, to one of the three Irish pubs downtown or to more or less private parties. There are also the big clubs’ parties –World and Metro- and the healthy ones like the salsa-dancing Rumbita, where birthday parties are celebrated with a non-stop-dancing-in-costume ritual for the honoured person.

Last weekend too, the Halloween-celebrating one, the yearly Hispania Gakkai’s Spanish Language, Literature and Culture Conferences was held in Osaka, and there I went, to the University of Kansai, to listen to 20-minute presentations about Don Quijote, Pedro Páramo, Carmen Martín Gaite, Cortázar, surrealism, etc. and to enjoy a banquet with colleagues whom I only meet once or twice a year.

And Sunday was also the starting point for the three-day Student Festival at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, with super entertaining theatre plays. At 10:30, the German club presented Die Bremer Stadtmusukanten, with an almost professional staging and very clear dialogues; and at 13:30, the Spanish club performed El país de las maravillas, a funny and creative mixture of Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Little Hood, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote, with some of my former students in the cast and the advice of Isabel la Católica from Palencia. Most of those students have spent the last 3 months meeting and rehearsing daily for the play and a few of them, like Rie and Eriko, cannot avoid crying of emotion and sadness now that everything is over.

UN FILÓSOFO EN KIOTO

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Hoy hemos tenido en Kyoto Gaidai al tremendo escritor, profesor de filosofía de instituto de barrio y comunicador nato Eliacer Cansino, que además acaba de ganar el Premio Nacional de Literatura Infantil y Juvenil con su última novela “Una habitación en Babel”. Afable, siempre con la sonrisa en los labios y mostrando un interés casi juvenil por todas las cosas suyas y ajenas, en un español clarito y despacito para que se enteraran los estudiantes japoneses, nos ha contado acerca de sus creaciones literarias y su manera de ver el mundo.
Para Eliacer Cansino, la infancia es un momento especial porque en él se puede vivir el presente de forma más plena sin preocupaciones sobre el pasado o el futuro. Además, es cuando se percibe de forma más pura el mensaje de los primeros libros, sin la mirada crítica del lector adulto, que tiende a proyectar su propia vida, imagen y experiencias en ellos. La filosofía y su trabajo de profesor de adolescentes en un instituto de un barrio obrero de Sevilla le han proporcionado material o al menos la inspiración para el libro que le ha valido el prestigioso premio la semana pasada, y que trata sobre la relación entre un profesor y un joven estudiante inmigrante africano en España. Y ese es su actual método de trabajo –responde Eliacer a la pregunta de mi estudiante Satoru-: a partir de un ejemplo concreto o de una anécdota, le sale un libro, con el que intenta transmitir su propuesta moral que supone el valor de la dignidad humana y una cierta esperanza para el futuro; porque los jóvenes deben tener esperanza. Con ello, este filósofo escritor parece huir de los relativismos excesivos y del nihilismo de la sociedad actual.
Pero donde el escritor se ha extendido más ha sido al hablar sobre su obra “El misterio Velázquez”, por el que ya obtuviera el Premio Lazarillo en 1997: ahí se mezclan el trabajo de investigación sobre la época más la libertad del autor para completar los rincones oscuros que los historiadores no han logrado iluminar. Y Cansino le da protagonismo a un personaje ignorado en su tiempo, y lo rescata del olvido mediante la literatura, ya que para él, ésa es una de sus funciones (y con esto el escritor responde a Kumiko).
Su traductora al japonés, Kazumi Uno, traductora también de “Soldados de Salamina” de Javier Cercas, me comenta al final de la conferencia los retos que se ha encontrado para traducir sus libros, especialmente cuestiones de tipo cultural, ya que el público objetivo japonés que leerá esas traducciones necesitará aclaraciones acerca de nuestra sociedad e historia, aclaraciones que Uno prefiere incluir de forma natural en el texto, ya que las notas distraerían al joven lector y no le permitirían sumergirse de lleno en la historia del libro.
Un verdadero placer tener eventos como este en la universidad y poder conocer a personas tan interesantes que te hacen reflexionar sobre las cosas con la mirada de aquel niño que eras hace 25 ó 30 años.

HAFU PROJECT

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ハーフ Hafu project was born in London and started as a photo exhibition of faces from people with different “bloods”. I remember when a couple of years ago they arrived in Japan, where one in thirty births are from parents one of them not being Japanese (in Tokyo International marriages are now one in ten). The photographic project ended up like a film project in the hands of young directors Lara Perez Takagi and Megumi Nishikura, both half Japanese, too. In June they were portrayed on an article at The Japan Times as an emerging community.

Last night, at the Institut Franco-Japonais du Kansai , there was a preview of the amount of footage they have filmed so far, along with music and a nice talk with a friendly crowd from and not from Kansai. The mini-film-documentary depicts different cases of half-Japanese and their stories of adaptation to Japanese society with more or less success: we have David, mother from Ghana and Japanese father, who was raised in an orphanage in Japan and considers this country as his actual home. At some point in his life, he decided to know his African roots, went back to Ghana and started building schools for poor children there raising funds in Japan.

There is also a relatively affluent family in Nagoya with a Mexican mother, Japanese father and 2 kids, the older one being bullied at school and too quickly diagnosed by his teachers as slow. In many cases of children raised with different languages there is this problem of keeping up with the other kids at school –at early stages there is some confusion as for languages and it has also being proved in neuro-psychological experiments that multilingual people are slightly slower at selecting vocabulary because they have more options from where to choose when speaking or writing-. If you add that to the emotional stress of being bullied, in many cases those kids drop school before even finishing high-school. These two parents have decided to send him instead to an International School in Nagoya, where he will have more possibilities of success. –But not all parents have the economic resources to send their kids to an International school –I tell my co-worker and friend Andrew, who had just strategically sat next to a beautiful half-Japanese young woman. –Yeap -he quickly replies- but those kids will never go back to the Japanese society. Once you enter an International School, there is no way back.
I think about his statement and agree with him, although maybe it’s not a bad thing to be on the edge and take advantage of the part of the society you like and at the same time have access to an International one until Japan becomes more plural and global.

This Hafu project promotes this kind of discussions, and talks about identity, hybridity and so on.
Good luck to the Hafu team.

P.D.: By the way, they are still recruiting characters for the movie. They need a half-Japanese person who looks completely Japanese from the outside but has been raised among two or more cultures.

Contradictions in China

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China is, no doubt, a country of contrasts, one more mark of most developing countries in the world. You have the relatively rich coast and the poor countryside. But even in wealthy Shanghai and Beijing, you find poverty on the streets. They passed from a tightly controlled economy to an open market and frantic business after Deng XiaoPing. And now, everyone wants to be rich, everyone wants to live Western style. But they are too many, and the competition is hard. After Mao and the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals and good manners were equal to bourgeois vices, and everyone rushed for survival without paying attention to that. Nowadays, that the standard of living is gradually going up, their ways have not paired the economic development yet, and then you find people spiting on the floor in front of you, not respecting lines or pushing around, hotel clerks and taxi drivers quite rude and so on. But at the same time, a new generation of young Chinese not so limited by censorship –although it still exists, especially on the Internet, they might not be able to read these lines-and indoctrination, get little by little to adapt themselves to a more global and friendly world. I met so many families and young students willing to exchange pieces of language and culture with a foreign traveler…The hatred-love relation with the West and the complex of inferiority should be replace by one of a more mutual respect and help. And maybe they should look back to their ancient culture’s precepts of ethical standards and social norms advocated by Confucius.
As for politics and democracy, as long as people see how their standard of living goes up, they don’t care too much about it. But if the economy happens to get stuck one day, the Government will be in real trouble. Traveling around China and feeling the hugeness of the country in terms of population and territory, I understand the desire of the Communist Party of having everything tied up. If they didn’t, China would probably fall into chaos and/or regional civil wars. Now it’s a non-free but at least somehow harmonious society, and with low delinquency. But they will have to open the system; it’s a matter of time.
I think China has a real problem with pollution and should take strong measures to control it. Cities are not only sky-scrapers, factories and cars, but also people on the streets who have the right to breathe fresh air. The EXPO 2010’s theme is precisely the green cities. It’s a good and brave start, being aware of their own problems, but now they have to really face them, maybe at the cost of their own high-speed economic development. At least most scooters are electric. They should do the same with cars, if their objective is that everyone own one; and control their factories’ Co2 emissions.
As for China’s cities, the more livable and “civilized” is Beijing, followed by frantic Shanghai with its many contradictions –Pudong and the Bund vs. the slums downtown-. Mid-size cities like Nanjing can be nice in some areas, hostile in others; same as for Qingdao –good city to meet Chinese national tourists from all around China-, with a relatively well-taken care of beach front but a more abandoned downtown.
After this 2-week-trip to China, I don’t think I’ll go back in the short or medium term, but when I do, I hope I will find a better place to live.
Here you are a few videos. Enjoy:
Qingdao beach
Nanjing Kung Fu Noodles
Chinese exotic food
EXPO 2010 China’s pavilion
Traditional music at Shanghai’s Yuu Gardens
Shanghai’s storytelling
Miguelín, the Spanish gigantic baby at EXPO Shanghai 2010
Spain’s pavilion at EXPO Shanghai 2010

Slumdog Millionaire at Ritsumeikan University

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A man with a fast and precise talk, the diplomat and eventually writer Vikas Swarup came to Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan, on Monday at the request of the tireless and persevering English teacher Andrew Dowling. In spite of the unusual of the occasion, very few Japanese professors and/or administrators attended Mr. Swarup’s lecture about his book –turned into a Hollywood-awarded movie- and India (maybe they were at one of those long meetings they like to celebrate in the evenings). But, anyway, around one hundred and fifty students were able to listen to and meet the celebrity. I’m not sure how much of the diplomat’s polished English did they even understand, but for sure it must have been a good experience for them.
He talked about the process of writing –supported by an “absent wife”- when in London in an astonishing short two-month period; about the publishing; and about the adaptation into a successful movie (even before the book had been for sale).
The questions about his own life –not belonging to the slums but depicting them in his novel- as a middle class educated Indian man, and about the use of English to show characters who speak in different Indian languages and dialects were answered by him with frankness and humility: his objective is not to explain complex Indian society but just to tell a story and entertain the readers.
The part of the lecture when he addressed India’s economy, culture and growing political weight in the world sounded more of a boring diplomat’s politically-correct speech than an intellectual’s opinion, but even though, when he talked about the novel, its characters and the movie themselves, it was well worth it. Thanks, Andrew, and happy birthday.

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