Itamar Vieira Junior’s book Crooked Plow was recently released in English by Verso Fiction after its first publication in Portugal, where it won the Prêmio LeYa, and subsequent publication in Brazil (Todavia), where it won the Oceans Portuguese-Language Literature Prize and the Prêmio Jabuti. The book flooded my social media through Brazilian friends, family, literary outlets, news outlets, the New York Times, and even Brazilian presidential campaigns. I read it and loved it before ever realizing there would be an English translation. When I found out, I rushed to try and do this interview and was grateful for the opportunity to have a pleasant and thought-provoking conversation with a pleasant and thought-provoking writer.

Crooked Plow is a powerful and piercing book that follows the lives of two sisters, their family, and a disembodied spirit in the hinterlands of Bahia, Brazil. The sisters, who use the same voice after an accident takes the ability to speak away from one of them, grow and follow their own life paths confronting poverty, racial injustice, and the threat of being removed from the land they are profoundly attached to. 

Itamar Vieira Junior and I had a wonderful conversation in Portuguese online about his journey as a writer, the definitions and concept of race in Brazil and the US, the fight for democracy, and of course his beautiful book. This interview has been condensed, edited, and translated into English.

[Editor’s note: The original Portuguese version can be found here.]

David Martinez: How did your literary life begin?

Itamar Vieira Junior: It was natural. When I learned to read and write, I already started reading stories. I was highly encouraged by the school. My grandfather and father sometimes bought comics, and that started to engage me in reading, and from then on I started to read more often. And as I grew up, I read and wrote too. I felt like writing. It felt like it was my first profession, although people from my social class thought that writing was something for the elite. So I went in the other direction. I became a teacher. I studied geography, but I always continued writing. It was only when I was established from a professional point of view that I started to write more often. That’s when I started to publish. I published my first book—what I consider my first book—in 2012, over ten years ago. Now the fourth book is out.

For me, writing started about the same time I learned to read. I was very impressed with children’s books by Brazilian authors. I am thinking of Marcos Rey, also thinking of Lúcia Machado de Almeida, authors who awakened my interest in writing, in the stories they told. After I finished reading, I wanted to relive it in another way, which was by creating stories. I think they were fundamental to my formation as a reader and writer.

How was the translation process into English?

I did a lot of intense work with Johnny [Lorenz]. We spent more than a year. Johnny is very precise, very meticulous. He is quite the perfectionist. I believe he did a good job, due to his method, his engagement, his procedure as I saw it. I think it must have turned out pretty well. Sometimes we spent hours chatting about it online. We exchanged a lot of emails too. We also exchanged a lot of bibliography so that he could get to know a little about Jarê, a little about the panorama of this region, the history of what is narrated there in the novel. 

Today Crooked Plow is a great success in Brazil, but it was first published in Portugal.

It was published in Portugal because I didn’t have a publisher in Brazil. My previous books had gone out to small, independent publishers, and they didn’t circulate. They didn’t make it to bookstores. I decided that I was going to write a novel and try to publish it with another publisher, but I never got around to sending a novel to publishers because I always think that a publisher is something like a fixed game. They don’t read the submissions. For you to reach a publisher, you need to be friends with someone at the publishing house. I didn’t even risk it. When I had the book ready, I looked for contests. There were some in Brazil, but the deadline had already passed, so I couldn’t apply. And then I decided to send it to the first one that appeared, which coincidentally was the LeYa Prize in Portugal. The LeYa Prize is an award aimed at the Portuguese-speaking community and given by a large publishing group, Grupo LeYa, and I sent it. I confess that I did not have any expectations, and months later, I think six months later, I was notified that the book had won the prize. That’s when I began to realize how big the prize was. Although Portugal is a small country, the prize had great prestige. The press, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and people were interested in the story, the author’s story, the story that was being published. The book was published in Portugal in February 2019, and then, in August, it was published in Brazil by Todavia. But it had to go out there for people here to become interested and publish it.

It’s this concept of Vira-Lata Complex (Mutt Complex) that exists in Brazil. This idea that everything that comes from outside Brazil is better than anything that originates from Brazil. It was only after it was a huge success in Portugal that people in Brazil became more interested. That comes from colonial times.

I think it continues to be that way to this day. For example, from what I read, the book has sold close to a million copies, and I think that the more people say that the book sells, the more criticisms appear. Brazil is a special case regarding this vira-lata complex.

I think colonialism is a vogue topic today, and when we talk about colonialism it seems like it’s something from the past, but it’s not. I think it is part of our life in a very remarkable way, very present even today. It is the foundation, our way of inhabiting the world and the social relations that were formed during that time. These foundations are not immutable. They have been changing, but they are still essentially colonial. So, this is really symptomatic.

It reminds me a lot of Salomão in your book. He’s not white, but he wants to be, and it shows in his actions. It makes me think that here in the United States, as well as in Brazil, we give a lot of importance to European culture even though we are here on Indigenous lands and both countries were built by, and are made of, people from many places.

In Brazil it is still very strong. Brazil is similar to the United States because it is also a country that has many immigrants. After the abolition of slavery, even a little earlier, it received a huge contingent of Germans, Italians, Poles, Portuguese, Spaniards, and a lot of Asians too, mostly Japanese. All this influences this predominance. Even today in Brazil, universities, science, all of them are very much anchored in European paradigms. It’s very difficult to study colonialism, or local phenomena. Many people still use a theoretical body, a repertoire, which is still very much linked to European thinking.

Crooked Plow emphasizes Black memory in Brazil. It questions the concept of cultural and racial identity. How do you identify with all of this? I read in another interview that you took a DNA test.

Yes, this was some time ago. In Brazil there is an erasure of all this Black and Indigenous memory. I know that my mother’s family has a part of Portuguese immigrants who arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century. For this side of my family, we had a lot of documents, photographs, things about their history. For my father’s family, there was almost no history, and history fades after a few generations. I decided to do the test just to get an idea, because Africa is a continent, not a country. I wanted to get an idea of where my ancestors had come from. It was through the test that I discovered that they came from Costa da Mina, which is located between Benin and Nigeria. They came from ethnic groups there. It was important because I think it restores some of the memory of history that was brutally erased.

I read the other day that over 56 percent of Brazilians identify as Black.

This category used in the census is negro, which includes Black people, who in the United States are called pretos, which is already a different category. In the United States, negro is an offensive word, but in Brazil it’s not a problem, and this category is subdivided by color. There are pretos—Black in the United States—and pardos who are miscegenated, the mestiços. So the category of negro encompasses pardos and pretos. And when you add the two, you get more than 50 percent of the population.

The concept of miscegenation is not only about skin color, but also includes cultures and religions. Crooked Plow references Jarê a lot, which is similar to Candomblé—a Brazilian religion with diasporic African roots arising from Yoruba, Bantu, and Gbe beliefs—but it’s not the same thing. What are the differences?

Jarê would be an offshoot of Candomblé, a kind of mestizo Candomblé, because there are also elements of Catholicism. It also has elements of Shamanism, of Indigenous religious practices. So Jarê is a belief system that only exists in Chapada Diamantina. It is not practiced in any other region of Brazil. It is a belief system based on healing the body and spirit of those who need this religious practice. All the ethos, all of the wisdom, all of the ontology of the practice itself are very much concentrated in the figure of the healer. It could be a man; it could be a woman. In the case of Crooked Plow, it’s Zeca Chapéu Grande, who was inspired by many healers that I met or learned about. His role is important in a place where there were no doctors, so they practiced knowledge of herbs, tea, and roots. So, the practice of Jarê is very centered on the role of the healer.

Another reality presented in Crooked Plow is related to an underdeveloped Brazil, without basic resources such as electricity. Until recently, there were many places that did not have electricity.

I myself have known communities that, in the early 2000s, had just gotten electricity and even today there are a very few that do not have it for one reason or another. But before the 2000s, it was very common. It’s less common now because in the first administration of President Lula, which began in 2003, there was a great program called Luz para Todos (Light for Everyone), which aimed at developing the country, bringing electricity to localities that previously didn’t have it. It was a program that had many ways to install electricity. I went to work two years later, in 2005, in Maranhão, and I saw a lot of people still working on this program. It was very common before the 2000s to not have power. When these communities receive refrigerators, and when they can turn on the electricity, everything changes. There’s this sense of surprise that people like us who grew up with energy didn’t get because we’re used to it. But for those who didn’t have it, it was a sensation. When they got a television, everyone gathered to watch it. The refrigerator would be shared until everyone could have their own.

Speaking of the Lula administration, you helped in the recent 2022 campaign. How was this process for you?

It wasn’t too difficult for me. I was already involved in political campaigns before I was known. I saw no reason for that to change. I think we all have an active role as citizens who want to participate in political discussions. We must participate in what affects us. After the book, people started to be interested in what I thought, and that’s when I said that I can’t use this place that I occupy if it isn’t for something positive. I’m not going to change my social political engagement just because I’m in this place. I will continue on in the same way. So, for me, this is very easy. Of course, as a public person, we are more vulnerable to hate messages. But I think it has also improved. Outside the heat of the elections, I think things tend to get back to normal, this normality that was not part of our lives, at least in recent years. What we have now may not be our dream government, it may not be a wonderful government, but at least it has returned institutional normality to the country. Now we can deal with the real problems of the day, with our inequality, with the practical and real problems of any society. Before that, we lived four years just to defend the democracy that was at risk.

These political problems also happened here.

I think it was the same as in the United States as far as discrediting institutions by casting doubt on the local electoral system. It was a very similar process, very similar indeed. The United States must have experienced something similar in the last elections. I think a lot of people who didn’t manifest themselves politically before got involved asking others to vote. Here in Brazil, we lived through a very complicated period. Because the problem was not being on the left or on the right. Brazil has always balanced itself in these center-right and center-left governments. The problem was that the democratic government was really at risk. We had an autocrat who was the president, and he did everything to undermine the institutions, the parliament, especially the judiciary branch. So, a lot of people had to protest in the last elections. Not to mention that Brazil experienced this global pandemic, but here the repercussions were very different. The country had been very remiss. It was catastrophic indeed. And that left a very strong mark on people. Still, it wasn’t easy. The result was close in the elections and the victory was by a small margin.

David Martinez is a Brazilian American writer who has lived all over the United States, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. He earned his MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside Palm Desert. His memoir, Bones Worth Breaking, is available for preorder here from MCD/FSG.

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