Litro #165: Breaking Borders | In Transit

A writer must travel, it is usually said. A writer must leave his desk, discover other cultures and so on and so on. A writer must not be like Kant, who designed an entire moral system without ever leaving his small town. Kant wished to be universal. A writer wishes to be universal, but is soon told that universality is dead, all that is left is its putrefying corpse, the Western illusion of universality. So one should be local, and travel all around to understand that there is something out there called the Other. Or something like that. Anyway. A writer must travel, it is said.

*

The writer in question, which is me, but which will be called “the writer in question”, because it is also not me, made his very first passport in 2013, when he was 28 years old. That means he avoided international travel for 28 years. His first novel took place in the border between Mexico and the U.S.; he had never been to any of those two countries. Some of his short stories took place in Argentina, which he did visit, but hey, Argentina was driving distance and did not require a passport from the writer in question, which is from the South of Brazil.

*

In 2015, the writer in question was invited to a very famous and prestigious literary residency in the American Midwest. The writer in question accepted the invitation and arranged an unpaid leave from his full-time job in Brazil. The writer in question was, and still is, delighted with the concept of literary residencies. For a few months, he can close his eyes and pretend to be a successful First World writer, that is, someone who does not work on a full-time job totally unrelated to literature, that is, someone who is expected to do nothing but write fiction.

*

Once in a while, critics reflect: why are Brazilian novels so short? Why are Latin Americans so obsessed with short stories? Well, most of us do not have the free time to do the Franzen manoeuvre (which is: to write a 600 page novel no matter the subject).

*

His stay in the U.S. for three months was terrific. The writer in question was delighted with his free time, with the green leaves of grass, with the cute squirrels, with the idea of walking alone at night not afraid of being mugged. The writer in question was so pleased with the nature that he tried to read Walden sitting on the grass, only to discover that the U.S. also have annoying mosquitoes. Still, everything is so perfect and peaceful that he wonders how can anyone write while being so far away from chaos.

*

It was so funny: everywhere in the U.S., they asked the writer in question for ID if he wanted to order a beer. Once, in a bar, after seeing the Brazilian passport, the waitress told the writer in question that they usually didn’t get much of his kind there. It took him a while to understand that if in Brazil he was white, that means, he never suffered from the omnipresent racism, over there, in the U.S., he was a latino, and being a latino was not considered something very nice by a few people. Leaving the bar, walking through the streets, he saw four guys hosting a gigantic flag with the saying MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. They were drinking cheap, crappy beer. The writer in question considered taking a picture, but the four guys looked like douches who might also be aggressive. Walking through the Midwestern town, the writer in question considered how many douches did America have to actually be able to elect a former TV show host whose greatest election promise was to build a gigantic wall separating the pure americans from the dirty latinos.

*

Many Midwesterners think that Brazilians speak Spanish, not Portuguese, he soon discovers. Sometimes, trying to be nice, they say stuff like Buenos días amigo to the writer in question. The writer in question is also a translator from Spanish, and so he replies in Spanish, and everybody is happy. He only corrects someone when they say that they would love to go to Brazil, especially to its capital, Buenos Aires.

*

There were great people there, too. Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians, you name it. They asked the writer in question if he loved Brazilian music. If he loved João Gilberto. No. What did he listen to, then? Well, American music. Lots of American folk, also. Joanna Newsom. Bill Callahan. Like many Brazilians, he was fascinated with American culture.

In the middle of his literary residency, the writer in question makes an unpredictable discovery: Brazilian music is amazing.

He spends lots of coins in a jukebox machine playing Vinicius & Baden’s Afro-sambas.

*

One day he sits alone at the bar. A stranger starts talking to him. The stranger is clearly drunk and makes incomprehensible jokes. When the writer in question fails to understand the jokes, the stranger laughs, staring at the ceiling, and shrieks: “It’s the American humour!”

*

The writer in question reads John Ashbery’s The Vermont Notebook; supposedly, Ashbery wrote it effortlessly, spontaneously, while traveling. Short prose poems that sometimes sound automatic. “I wish it was that easy”, the writer in question thinks.

*

At the bar, the Cambodian writer tells a very sad story to the Swedish writer. The writer in question does not understand it; he is too busy being the funny Brazilian guy.

*

The writer in question is from the south of Brazil, a part of the country where people do not consider themselves Brazilians. In the U.S., listening to João Gilberto, taking daily showers, speaking loudly, complaining about the price of the fruits in the market, the writer in question has never been more sure that he is definitely Brazilian. He’s just not sure if being Brazilian is a good or a bad thing.

*

The writer in question makes friends from all around the world. They all promise to keep in touch, but they never manage to arrange a group Skype session because of the damn time zones.

*

In 2017, the writer in question goes on another journey, another residency, this time in Switzerland. Again, a cultural shock. In Geneva, small kids take the bus alone, walk alone through the city, people are helpful, and the cars stop for pedestrians. “What is this madness?”, the writer in question ponders. He does not see a single person sleeping on the sidewalk. The Rolex store is strangely crowded.

*

He stays in a very, very small town. 600 people. Nothing opens on Sunday or Monday. He’s never been to such a small place. At night, he drinks Swiss wine with a great Polish poet. The poet in question has a wife and two kids waiting for him in Poland.

After some weeks of isolation at the residency, the poet had to travel for a few days for an event in Krakow, where he reencountered his family, and then returned to the middle of nowhere, to that small Swiss town. He tells me that it’s not easy to explain the concept of a literary residency to his sons. Why does dad prefers to stay in the middle of the forest, surrounded by lots of cows and a few international writers, instead of with his family in Poland? It’s not easy to explain, he told the writer in question. He loves his family; it’s not like they disturb him. So why does he needs this time away from everything? So hard to explain.

The writer in question agreed.

*

Why one must travel? It’s all so pointless, the writer in question sometimes thinks. We are always carrying our own body, our own mind, anywhere we go. We might speak Portuguese, Spanish, English or French, but it’s always our mind that does the thinking, that creates the sentences, we are always stuck with our own thoughts.

In the U.S., alone at night, thousands of kilometres away from everyone he knew and loved, he found himself overwhelmed by the remembrance of a great friend of his who died ran over by a car. In Brazil, cars don’t stop for pedestrians. Even far away, thanks to the Internet, he can reread old e-mails and messages exchanged with his departed friend. He reflects that no matter how far away we are from home, memories always manage to find us.

*

In Switzerland, he walks through the forest, a beautiful, sprawling, gigantic forest, with a dazzling view of the phantasmagorical Swiss Alps. The writer in question is carrying another death in his luggage; his father’s. In the novel he is currently writing, people don’t die.

Strolling through the woods, the writer in question is suddenly afraid of getting lost. He has no GPS signal and he hasn’t seen a single human soul in twenty minutes. He remembers the Polish poet and his lack of explanation for this need for isolation and travel, and the writer in question wonders how far away we must go, how many countries we must cross, how alone we must be, to let all memories swarm us, to meet ourselves once again, to sit on our desks and write something worthwhile to a reader sleeping soundly ten thousand kilometres away.

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