‘Can My Novel Include a Country’s Stereotype Responsibly?’

Brazil needs you, but not in the way you think.

Dear Yanyi,

I hope you’re staying safe and sane out there! And congratulations on the Substack fellowship!

I have a question concerning writing about a specific place, particularly when there are stereotypes associated with that place and its people. I’m Brazilian and for a few months now I've been outlining, researching and writing the occasional scene for what I hope will be an English-language, contemporary novel set in Brasília, Brazil’s capital.

Like it has for much of the global south, the global north has a few stereotypes about Brazil and Brazilians that are either incredibly damaging -- corrupt, lazy, loud, over-sexed -- or paint a very limited vision of the country --  everything is beaches and rainforests or extreme poverty and drug trafficking. I’ve lived in the US for most of my 20s, and I’ve always pushed back when these stereotypes pop up.  

Now, here’s my conundrum. Corruption is a plot point of the work in progress. It centers on a family entangled in politics that is corrupt in a series of small ways. In sketching out scenes where corruption is discussed, I’m finding it hard writing them without worrying that I’m feeding into stereotypes about Brazil. At the same time, I don’t want to not describe corruption because it is an insidious issue. The TLDR of this would be something like: how do you write about a country’s problems when these problems are also a huge stereotype about that country?

I should add that part of my concern is that, due to my upbringing, I may be writing about Brazil from a gringo perspective. Like I mentioned, I have lived in the US for the last few years, but in addition to that, I spent my early childhood in a different English-speaking country and attended an international school in Brazil after we moved back. I bristle when others suggest I’m not really Brazilian, but I also feel like I’ve failed the litmus test for being able to write about Brazil and its problems as a Brazilian.  

Thank you so much for creating The Reading and for the care you put into every response. As you can probably guess, your letter to IDK from New Jersey about identity was especially moving and it made me take my own conundrum more seriously.  

Thank you so much and good luck on your move!

Boston (but back to Brazil in ~ 10 days!)

Dear FF,

Thank you for the good wishes. I’m heartened that IDK’s letter and its response resonated with you. My Aries sun says you two should start a writing group (and my Capricorn moon says to keep it going if you do).

So, before I say anything else, your instincts to be protective of Brazil are totally right. I won’t repeat the statistics of the publishing workforce or even the abysmal advance differences we saw this summer with #PublishingPaidMe, but if you plan on keeping one foot in with the Publishing Industry™, a lot of your first readers—agents, editors, and reviewers—will be white.

Although I can’t relate to your exact position, I also know a little bit of what it feels like to be born into a family that’s always telling you that home is in one place while you’re living in another. There’s a nostalgia created for a place you only remember a bit of, a yearning for the past that naturally attracts us to it in our adult lives.

I know what it feels like to be told that that home is not actually yours when you get there. I remember being clueless about how “American” my clothes were or feeling a heightened awkwardness in my elementary Sichuanese when ordering at a bakery in China. I remember arguing with my parents and being called “ABC” (American-Born Chinese) to emphasize how I’d been brainwashed by the West, even though I wasn’t born in the US.

Your instincts to protect Brazil from yourself are also right, but more complicated. Your time living in the US and the international schools you went to probably do skew your perspective, perhaps in the same way that only being able to read about China in English skews mine. Yet, it’s no fault of your own that going from the third to the second to the first world (to purposefully name that antiquated progression) are all about assimilation, with assimilation being a kind of reeducation, and reeducation being a slow and subtle way to drive a culture to extinction: what is the point of remembering if there’s nothing to remember?

When someone invested in nations, borders, or in-groups looks upon you and sees a nobody to fill with their history, their ideas, and their religion, they don’t know or care that you’ve come from somewhere. You’re the virgin forest or the noble savage; the wide-eyed adulator; the blank canvas upon which their vision will be realized; the “corrupt, lazy, loud, over-sexed” south to their disciplining north, though it has nothing to do with geography.

We, marginalized writers, escaped this dynamic by claiming, loudly and clearly, the wisdoms and histories of our ancestors. To speak out in defiance that we, in fact, do have a home. But that’s created another conundrum: we’re asked to hold twice the knowledge, do twice the work, and live twice—once for this homeland and once for our educators; once in the past and once in the future.

As you know, at the end of my letter to IDK, I asked what if “you were no longer a bridge, but an origin point?” In a story that’s influenced my own thinking about my body and borders, Gloria Anzaldúa offers a river with two opposing sides. She writes in a preceding paragraph,

El choque de un alma atrapado entre el mundo del espíritu y el mundo de fa técnica a veces la deja entullada. Cradled in one culture, sandwiched between two cultures, straddling all three cultures and their value systems, la mestiza undergoes a struggle of flesh, a struggle of borders, an inner war. Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision [1].

When I said “someone invested in nations” above, you probably imagined that white audience again. But I’m also talking about when my parents called me an ABC, when you didn’t pass the Brazilian “litmus test,” or when people are called “banana” or “Oreo” (x on the outside, white on the inside). In these other dualities, biology, race, property ownership, or place of birth as the marker of x-ness may have nothing to do with it. You’re right or you’re wrong. You’re in or you’re out.

These other groups don’t use the “legal” ways the world has determined borders, for they themselves may also be frequent border-crossers, but they create others, judging authenticity—that vague, changeable feeling in groups—as a flag for another nation.

Anzaldúa’s river naturally has two sides. And we, naturally, may believe that we can only stand on one. But just as Anzaldúa says that “[all] reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against” [2], unless we do the work to question the reactionary impulses within us, we will always center the oppressions within us.

Nation-building is how we’ve found each other. But to remake nations is not enough. I’ve been on the outskirts for a while, being thrice-removed from my identities. Once because I lived in the US in a Chinese home, twice because I am queer and trans in the gender-conforming world, and a third time because I am Asian in the United States. Wherever I turned, there was a reason I wasn’t welcome.

You feel bound up by your writing right now because you’re trying to belong, at once, to two different agendas. It is attractive, even, to have one around, giving you bullet points along which you can emerge correctly, but two is too much for reliability. Going up with one means being down on the other, you feel how dissatisfying this is, but you find it even more terrifying to be responsible for your own work.

It is easier, or perhaps habit, to pay attention to the needs of others over your own, perhaps even more when those others are a country. I’m going to tell you now that whatever you’re trying to do for Brazil, you will only be able to achieve for yourself. You asked about writing your story in the least harmful way, but what you’re really asking for is permission to be yourself at your messiest and incorrect. You’re asking for permission for Brazil to be a place not only of those stereotypes and their neat oppositions but also a place in which you see clearly and dream loudly. Where the people you love may not only exist but are also recognized in their lifelong complexities. It is terrifying to give yourself permission to hope. It is even more terrifying, and daring, to write it as your own.

Don Mee Choi, on borders and translation, says this:

I am not content to just go from Korean to English. I am not content to uphold the notion of national literature—the notion that literature outside of the Western canon is always bound to national borders. What this implies is that the so-called national literature simply needs to cross linguistic and national borders, as if such borders are entirely ahistorical and apolitical. Whenever poet Kim Hyesoon is asked whether her poetry represents her country—a question that is rarely asked of a poet whose work is perceived to be rooted in the Western canon—she never fails the answer that her poetry comes from the Republic of Kim Hyesoon. [3]

Last March, I arrived at the door of Performance Space in New York City to attend a marathon reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. Writers Ken Chen and Ava Chin were also there, puzzling over a page of Chinese characters that Ava had been asked to read. They both looked to me and asked, “Can you read this?” I can, over the years of soap operas and fragments of Saturday Chinese school, read a little, so I helped as best as I could, and we figured it out. Later, we found the pronunciations of the characters somewhere else in the book. It turned out to be in Cantonese, which Ava knew the entire time!

When you dare to write about corruption in Brazil, you imagine a Brazil that doesn’t live in fear of being judged for its complexity. Racism flattens and nations deport; lines are constantly being drawn in the sand of what you and I are not. And instead of proof of citizenship, who would we be if we were nations unto ourselves?

When we belong in a place that doesn’t yet exist, we belong in ourselves, our lived wisdoms and dreams. When we publish, what we write no longer remains ours alone, nor should it be. Whatever fragments we hold are whole in themselves. Writes yours to me. When you write to yourself, the picture you make is neither of the past nor the planned, but for a present where you are truly contemporary.

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[1] Page 78 from Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.
[2] Ibid.
[3] H/T to Maryam Parhizkar for posting this excerpt from Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode(2020) by Don Mee Choi this week.

Author’s note: On Friday, I announced The Writing, a Wednesday series focused on meeting each other and sharing tips about writing. This week, I’ll be online between 17:00–17:45 EST answering comments and hanging out. Hope you can make it!