Interview with Veronica Stigger

(Photo by Eduardo Sterzi)

“My novella is a description of the world insofar as every trip — when taking the people out of their comfortable and safe positions — provides a renewed contact with things, with the world. To describe is, in this sense, to discover, to transform in words what one discovers, i. e., to write (literature).”

Veronica Stigger (Porto Alegre/Brazil, 1973) is a writer, art critic, and university professor. Stigger is the author of 12 books of fiction: 9 for adults – O trágico e outras comédias (2003), Gran Cabaret Demenzial (2007), Os anões (2010), Delírio de Damasco (2012), Massamorda (2011), Minha novela (2013), Opisanie świata (2013), Nenhum nome é verdade (2016), Sul (2016), and Sombrio ermo turvo (2019) –, and two for children – Dora e o sol (2010), and Onde a onça bebe água (2012), co-written with the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. With her first novel, Opisanie świata, she is awarded the Machado de Assis and São Paulo prizes (the latter for young authors) and the Açorianos Award (for long-form narrative). With Sul, she received the Jabuti prize.

Veronica Stigger kindly answered my questions about Brazilian literature and Opisanie świata, her novella translated into English in PEN/Heim Translation Series by Zoë Perry and is currently available for publication in English.

Your novella Opisanie świata was translated into English in 2016. How is the reception of your work in English so far?

Opisanie świata was translated by Zoë Perry, but it has not yet been published in English. However, the book has been studied in some universities. Professor Marília Librandi-Rocha, for example, had included my novella among the books she had studied in her course held at Princeton University in the first semester of 2019. Librandi-Rocha, by the way, had invited me to be one of the keynote speakers of American Portuguese Studies Association’a (APSA) Congress in 2016.

Zoë Perry, the translator of your book, is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Were you also involved in the translation process? If so, could you elaborate on your role in the translation?

No, I was not involved in the translation process. I trust in Zoë’s work, and she knows that if she needs me, I am at her disposal.

The title of the novella seems untranslatable. What does it mean? 

It means “description of the world”. And this is how Marco Polo’s travel book Il Milione is commonly translated into Polish. I thought it was the perfect title for the book I intended to write, a book whose action took place in the travel of the protagonist from Poland to Amazon. My novella is a description of the world insofar as every trip — when taking the people out of their comfortable and safe positions — provides a renewed contact with things, with the world. To describe is, in this sense, to discover, to transform in words what one discovers, i. e., to write (literature).

The novella is set in the 1930s, a significant period for Brazilian literature and art with the emergence of modernismo. Also in the world, along with modernism in art and literature, historically it is a period between the wars. Could you please elaborate on the reason why you portrayed this time? 

The novella is set on the eve of the Second World War. On the one hand, there is a technical reason for this choice. I would like that the majority of the book took place during the travel, and, for that, it was necessary that the trip would be long: by train and, then, by ship. On the other hand, I had studied two artists when I began to write Opisanie świata: Roman Opalk (from whom I took the name of my protagonist and whose series of prints gives me the title of the book), of Polish origin, and Maria Martins, a Brazilian sculpture who has a series of works about Amazonian myths. This series brought me back to the beginning of the 20th century, especially the 1920s and 1940s. It was almost “natural” to choose this period to develop the novella. I wished to make an old book, i. e., a modern book, i. e., a book that shuffles the usual notions of time and history — both history in general and history of literature. Leaving in brackets the immediate link with our time, I preferred to return — through the most varied types of appropriation (from literal quotation to pastiche, etc.) — to the very brief, interrupted tradition of the modernist novel. In this sense, Opisanie świata is a homage to Brazilian modernism.

There are mentions of different languages in the novella as well as a polyglot character. Could you please explain briefly why the protagonist is polyglot and why the novella also deals with languages?

The novella deals with language since the title. I believe that our defining condition is that of the foreigner, that is, that of the one who is in transit, who is on move, who is displaced. With the exception of one or two characters in Opisanie świata, all the others are displaced from their cities of origin — and to be displaced from the place of origin means, and most of the cases, to confront another language. Perhaps this interest in the figure of the foreigner stems from the fact that I myself have been displaced from my city of origin: I am from Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil, and I have been living in São Paulo for 19 years. When I had chosen to leave my city, to which it is already impossible to return (the Porto Alegre that I left behind in 2001 no longer exists), I realized that we are all foreigners. If there is such a thing as a human condition, it is not defined by belonging, but, on the contrary, by foreignness. With the Polish title, I would like to put the reader — at least for a while — in this foreign position.

The character goes to the Amazon from Europe, not to Rio or São Paulo. Would you like to briefly open up that layer of the novella for the reader? 

As I said before, I was studying two artists in my post-doctoral researches: Roman Opalka and Maria Martins. One day, when my husband and I were talking about my researches, he asked me: “Why don’t you write a novel that starts in Poland and ends in Amazon? That was enough to start thinking about the story. Then I started to imagine that the main plot could be the return of a Polish man to Brazil, of someone who had already been there. There was only missing the reason for him to return. After thinking a lot (and years have been passed), I had the idea: he comes back because he discovers that he has a son in the Amazon and that this son is sick and wants to meet him. And that is how the book begins: with the son’s letter asking the father to come to Amazon to know each other.

There is an increase in the translation activity from Brazilian literature into English, maybe because of the translation fund as well. Are there any untranslated works in Brazilian literature that you would like to see in English?

Cobra Norato, by Raul Bopp.

You also write children’s fiction. What would be the kid lit titles you would recommend to American publishers for translation? 

I have two books for children. I wrote them by invitation of the editors. It is not my speciality.

Editor’s Note: Here you can read an excerpt from Opisanie swiata in English.

About The Editor:

Basak Bingol Yuce is a world literature scholar, journalist, and literary translator based in the US. She holds a PhD degree in comparative literature from Binghamton University. One of her areas of study is Brazilian literature. Dr. Yuce’s journalistic work focuses on literary and international journalism. She is a regular contributor to Turkish media outlets. Dr. Yuce translated books and articles from English, French and Portuguese into Turkish, among them the works of Clarice Lispector, Terry Eagleton, Antonio Candido, André Aciman, Ken Bruen, and Harold Bloom.

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