Brazilian women are writing better than their male contemporaries now. Who to read and why.

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Image by Stefany Alves

Translated by Hannah Bowers and Sophie Lewis

We are witnessing a unique moment in our cultural history: for the first time women are writing better than men in Brazil. There is an outstanding generation of active women writers and all of them are relatively young, which means that they may have more ambitious, more mature works yet to come. Every new work, rather than reproducing the qualities of the previous ones, poses new questions. Some are not successful, having ventured into unknown territory. This feeling that it is more adventurous to write prose as a woman in a country so traditionally machista in its literature is confirmed by the plurality of themes and focuses these women have achieved.

The best words are always complex and their use is a delicate process. However, literature is a more precise science than the poetic rapture so commonly cited as its primary domain: there is the use of language; the construction of a narrator and of a structure which makes the thoughts and feelings of this narrator sensible; the theme which the writer proposes; and the authenticity with which she embraces her thematic universe, which unfolds in a series of disjuncts between what the narrator thinks and what they could think, and between what they feel and what their world lets them feel. There are also the handling of time and space, and the ways the foundation of this fictional universe can dialogue with its contexts, whether these include our own society or even a literary tradition.

In the science of literature women have mastered more narrative techniques than men. Their books demonstrate this. Rather than the typical, everyday masculine character of recent Brazilian fiction – middle class, distressed, divorced, sophisticated, alone – the narrators created by women writers tend to be far more three-dimensional, multi-faceted, unstable. They are not always women; yet they are always more vivid and alive.

From a personal point of view there are four female, contemporary writers whose work I particularly admire.

The most formally creative writer today in Brazil is Elvira Vigna (b. 1947). No two of her books are the same and each one could fit into a different genre. However, in her latest novel, O que deu para fazer em materia de história de amor (‘What they managed to do for a love story’) we can see the source of her poetry: Vigna is interested in how stories are constructed, and principally in who gains what in each alternative. Her stories deal with death and violence, and the text is always the result of a battle about who retains dominance through speech/their voice. In Coisas que os homens não entendem (‘Things men don’t understand’) a woman returns to Brazil from New York to tell a past lover the truth about a murder, but he already knows everything and prefers not to talk about the issue; in Nada a dizer (‘Nothing to say’) a couple gets divorced and, by discussing the failure of their relationship, they end up destroying the stories that they had in common. With Vigna, narration is power.

Another author who stands out for me is Claudia Tajes (b. 1963), whose novels and short stories make up the most entertaining and dramatic dissection of Brazilian sexuality. In Tajes’s works, the men are lost without their typical masculine roles (Vida Dura / Life is Hard), and the women live their sexuality in the excitement of reaching for all the possibilities that consumer society offers them (Louco por homem / Mad about Men). Far from the banality this theme suggests, Tajes brings congenial humour to her examination of the solitude and inadequacy concomitant with a ‘freedom’ that promises a great deal but ends up making all gestures and intentions hollow. One of the funniest and most original works in contemporary Brazilian literature, her A Vida Sexual da Mulher Feia (‘The Sex Life of an Ugly Woman’) plays with our erotic values and systems, ultimately subverting them completely.

The most obsessive woman writer in the country today is Beatriz Bracher (b. 1961). Azul e dura (‘Blue and Hard’), a drama in which a woman has to settle the debts for a car accident for which she went unpunished due to being from a wealthy social class, is a sophisticated fictional game of interpretations and counter-interpretations. At a symbolic level, the book’s violence opens the way for another line of enquiry: the legacy of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Bracher examines this legacy in Nao falei (‘I didn’t talk’), which tells the life of a teacher tortured during the dictatorship, and in Antônio, which reconstructs the rise and fall of a family – in both she explores the outcomes for those who suffered as well as for those who profited.

Among the more impressive younger women writers – including Carol Bensimon (b.1982), Tatiana Salem Levy (b.1979), Carola Saavedra (b.1973), all of them rigorous and imaginative storytellers – I find Andrea Del Fuego most appealing. Her only published novel, Os Malaquías (‘The Malaquía Family’), which tells the story of three orphan brothers lost in the Serra Morena mountains, shows a preoccupation with the role of the reader that is rare in contemporary writing. Del Fuego creates a rural and magic-realist novel while also making an enormous effort to escape from the clichés of these two vast traditions. The effort becomes a distraction and does cut short some of the book’s possibilities. Nevertheless, the novel functions on a rare level: it is one of the few among contemporary Brazilian fictions that turns its reader into an accomplice.

Hannah Bowers has just graduated from the University of Oxford where she studied Spanish and Portuguese.

Sophie Lewis is a London-born writer, editor and translator from French and Portuguese. Recent translations include The Earth Turned Upside Down by Jules Verne (Hesperus) and The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé (Pushkin). She is Editor-at-Large at publisher And Other Stories, and moved to Rio de Janeiro in January 2011. She edited this issue of Litro.

Vinícius Jatobá was born in Rio de Janeiro. He has written and directed several short films, including Alta Solidão (‘High Solitude’, 2010) and Vida entre os mamíferos (‘Life among the mammals’, 2011). He has just finished his first novel, Pés descalços (‘Barefoot’), and is completing Apenas o vento (‘Only the Wind’), a collection of short stories.

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