This week, I had a chance to catch up with Alex Castro, one of my favorite Brazilian bloggers. He has a keen and critical eye for some of the most sensitive social issues in Brazil, including racism, machismo, and domestic workers. After living abroad, he also writes with an fascinating perspective on social differences between the United States and Brazil. He writes his own blog, Liberal Libertário Libertino, as well as contributing to Papo de Homem. He's also written several books, including short stories and novels. He also was one of the founders of the hit Tumblr Classe Média Sofre, a crowdsourced blog that pokes fun at Brazil's middle class. It's become a cultural phenomenon in Brazil, falling somewhere between Lamebook and White Girl Problems, but providing more insight into social idiosyncracies.
We chatted about his return to Brazil from New Orleans, emblematic of Brazil's increasing reverse brain drain, his various projects, and his thoughts on Brazil's changing role in the world.
What were you doing abroad?
I was living in New Orleans. I was a Ph.D. candidate at the department of Spanish & Portuguese at Tulane University. As such, part of my duties included teaching classes on the Spanish and Portuguese languages, plus the odd Brazilian literature and culture classes. My dissertation is about slavery (or the lack thereof) in Brazilian 19th century literature.
Can you tell me about why you decided to move back to Rio from New Orleans?
I came back because a man who is a living god to me once said: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. // I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. ... / I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, / Hoping to cease not till death." And even though he has never died, because he cannot die, I know for a fact that he suffered a stroke 18 years after writing those words.
So, when I turned 37, last year, still in perfect health, and hoping not to cease till death, and not knowing how long would I have before my heart attack, I decided to return home and live the life of a writer. Because if even HE died, what hope can I have? On the contrary, I have to RUN and LIVE. I realized that I was and had always been a Brazilian writer. So even though I had lived in New Orleans for 7 years and could write in English, I had never felt the urge to write to New Orleanians about Rio but, on the contrary, I was always coming up with new things about New Orleans and the U.S. to tell Brazilians. I realized that, in my head, I was always talking and writing to Brazilians. They were my core audience, and so it made no sense to stay away.
Throughout the years, there had always been events and stuff that I was invited to and couldn't attend because I was in New Orleans. None of them by themselves were a major deal, but the career of a minor independent author is made of baby steps, so I felt my incipient (actually, non-existent) career was at a standstill. Now, for example, I'm going to Belo Horizonte in April for a roundtable about e-books. So I came to Rio and I'm now making a living as a writer, writing and editing for Papo de Homem, translating for Editora Record, and trying to finish my dissertation and my novel.
Tell me about your book, Onde Perdemos Tudo.
It's actually an old book, written in the early 90s. But I think it withstood the test of time, so here I'm publishing it. It is the only one of my books to be actually published by an actual publishing house. All my other books were self-published. It's composed of five short stories about loss, all kinds of loss, from losing a friend to losing your wife, or your career.
Why'd you go the self-publishing route with the other books and the publishing house route with this one?
It wasn't a choice. Nobody wanted to publish the other ones. For Onde Perdemos Tudo, I had a publisher interested in my work and an able literary agent who got her interested. Still, unless you're a best seller, one can make a lot more money self-publishing.
How has the book been received?
It's very hard to break through. It has been positively reviewed in blogs here and there, but nothing in the mainstream press. It's as if the book has never existed. But I have a loyal following of readers, and so it keeps selling. It can be frustrating, but it's the only way. Baby steps, as I always say. But at least now I'm here to network and promote the books.
In Papo de Homem and your blog Liberal Libertário Libertino, you write a lot about racism and machismo with a critical eye. Why are these issues important to you?
That's a very good question. I really don't know. I guess I had a very very privileged, sheltered upbringing, something that I only realized very late in my adult life. So I felt the need to.... give back? Finally look at other people other than myself? That sort of thing. Also, the American academic environment was the main catalyst, that's for sure. If I had stayed, maybe I'd be reading Veja. I remember I rather liked Diogo Mainardi, if you can believe that.
You have a really unique perspective that's sometimes hard to find in Brazil, particularly with racism. How did your views on that issue evolve?
People say that I'm bringing racial conflct into Brazil and I argue, Yes! We need more racial confrontation! One of the major problems in Brazil is the fact that we never "confront" the issues.
You've also written quite a bit about domestic workers, which is also something of a taboo topic in Brazil. What got you interested in this?
Well, actually it was my interest in slavery. I think domestic workers, as the profession has established itself in Brazilian culture, is a direct relic of slavery. Only a former unapologetically slave-owning country such as we are could ever have such a slavery-like institution as our live-in maids. So it is a bit of the past alive in our daily lives up to today.
On the subject of your blogs, given your perspective and knowledge of these issues, why is it more important for Brazilians to be your audience, rather than an international one?
It's the other way around. It's not that talking to Brazilians is more important than talking to an international audience, but rather that I feel I have something to tell, teach, show to a Brazilian audience that I don't have to an international one.
Let's talk about Classe Média Sofre, but I noticed you don't seem to have your name on the blog, at least not very visibly. Is there a reason for that?
Well, for starters, it is a collective and collaborative enterprise, so it's not mine per se but I'm one of the founders and co-creators. Since then, everyone else has left, other people have gotten involved and left again, and now, pretty much, I'm the only one left managing the business. But the site still depends of the anonymous collaboration of hundreds of people every day. I'm more of a curator than anything else. I try to keep it faithful to its original vision, but mostly the only reason I'm the visible face of it is because I'm a writer, so I need the visibility and it does help me to sell some books. Actually, if it weren't for that, the site would either still be 100% anonymous or, more likely, I'd have gotten bored and left with everyone else. Still, it's the one thing I've done that I'm actually proud of.
Can you tell me about how the blog got started, and why you thought it would be worthwhile?
Its major inspiration was White Whine and Louis C K, when he says something like this. So a friend and I had the idea, and we started looking for examples. They were so numerous that it took us a day to fill several pages, and two days later we were already receiving more contributions than we could handle. On day 4, I kid you not, on day FOUR, we got our first complaint that the tumblr was no longer as good as it once was.
It caught on pretty fast.
Yes, it was amazing. And people were already self-censoring their worst bullshit pretty fast too. It was inspiring.
The blog's been featured around the web and it's literally become a cultural reference. Why do you think it hit a nerve?
Well, on one hand, lots of people feel really really defensive about it. They take the site as a personal attack to them. On the other hand, for several other people, the blog gave them their first way to vent their frustration at some of the most whiny, elitist comments their friends make. You can bet people will say that there's nothing more classe media sofre than giving this interview in English! I especially love it when people accuse us of being "middle class too," and of course we are. What did they think we were? Millionaires? Favelados?
What's the absolute worst thing you've posted on there?
There can be no worst. You can always sink lower.
Ok, so your favorite?
"Pior dia da minha vida: acabou o chocolate." [Worst day of my life: the chocolate is gone.] Simple yet perfect.
Can you tell me your thoughts on the complexo de vira-lata and the obsession with everything foreign/in English?
Brazilians are obssessed with Brazil to an extent that only Americans are obssessed with the U.S. We are truly kindred peoples, yours and mine. I'm pretty sure, given the power, Brazilians would have done every single thing Americans have. Brazilians are as proud, egocentric, and naive as Americans. We have our own version of manifest destiny (the Bandeirantes), etc.
I've never seen any people as interested about what people are saying about them abroad. In a way, in Classe Média Sofre, we talk about both sides of this coin. So, in a very schizophrenic way, what comes from abroad can seem very important or not at all important. And of course, I'm guilty as charged, because I travelled, and I studied abroad, and I could have studied anything, I could have dedicated myself to ancient Greece or pure mathematics, but here I am thinking about Brazil and writing about Brazil. It's kind of a curse, but it was also my choice, so I don't in any way exclude myself from this. I'm part of it.
Brazil is undergoing so many changes in terms of its place in the world. Is there a chance it could become more insular and inward looking like in the U.S., or is this fascination with other countries here to stay?
I think Brazil is in fact getting more powerful as a country, so other countries will tend to seek Brazil's opinion or support more often, and consequently, Brazilian politicians and statesmen will be forced to be more versed in international affairs than their predecessors, and consequently, the Brazilian voter as well. You can see that starting. These past years, Honduras, Cuba and Iran were more talked about, even during elections, than I had ever seen before. In elections before 2010, foreign affairs had never had any relevance at ALL.
When I started teaching Portuguese in the U.S. in 2005, most of my students were there because they had a Brazilian signficant other, or a Brazilian parent, or liked bossa nova and City of God. Period. When I left, in 2011, most of my students were actually seeking employment, business or research opportunities in Brazil. There were lawyers and business majors; most of them had not watched City of God, but they knew about Petrobras, pre-salt and biofuel. It was a complete revolution in less than 6 years. Several of my former students are now either working and living in Brazil, or living in the U.S. but working as "Brazilian liasons" with companies that do business in Brazil.
I think it's exciting and I'm a part of it. I'm part of a large reverse migration of Brazilians coming back from abroad these last few years, exactly because of all these opportunities, but it's important not to let this go to our heads.
The United States was once a country that was actually a beacon of democracy and of high ideals, before it stated having imperial dreams and conquering Mexico, the Phillipines, Cuba, etc. Brazil was an actual empire-empire once. People were afraid of us in the 19th century (my main area of knowledge). Brazil used to topple Uruguyan presidents in the 19th century the same way Americans did to Central American ones in the 20th century. Besides, we do tend to be overconfident and overindulgent. Raising people from poverty should continue to be number one priority.
So you don't want history to repeat itself, in other words.
Actually, that particular history has no chance of repeating itself, I think. But we can be stupid and overconfident in several new ways now.
What are your hopes for the future now that you're back in Brazil?
My main priority is being a writer. That's all I know how to do. Write, write, write, until I die. That's my only ambition. Get some writing done. Publication will take care of itself, or not. But time is running out and I need to get some books out of me. That's it.