Juliana Barbassa is a person I've known through the grapevine for years since she arrived in Rio as the Associated Press correspondent. I didn't meet her in person until two years ago, when I was in Rio at the tail end of the massive street protests. I was fascinated by her trajectory and her unique eye for reporting in Brazil.
Barbassa was born in Brazil, but grew up all over the world because of her dad's oil company job, living not only in Rio but also in Iraq, Malta, Libya, Spain, France, and the United States. She went to UT Austin for undergrad and to UC Berkeley for graduate school. She joined the AP in 2003, and became the AP Rio correspondent in 2010.
Back in 2013, Barbassa was kind enough to invite me over to her beautiful home in Flamengo, where I also met her dad and now-husband Christopher Gaffney, every Rio journalist's favorite curmudgeon and one of the top experts on global mega-events. We talked about the protests and the World Cup and Barbassa's career and what it was like to go from writing for a wire service to writing her first book. We also talked about her experience going to grad school for journalism, which in retrospect I credit her for inspiring me to do.
That meeting confirmed what I suspected: that Barbassa is someone special when it comes to understanding Brazil and being able to translate its cultural idiosyncrasies. She's able to capture the nuances of a native while also providing the perspective of an outsider.
And now, finally, you can see the result of Barbassa's hard work with her new book, coming out July 28. (Pre-order your copy of the book here.) Below, see my impressions of the book, my Q&A with the author, and when you can meet Barbassa during her book tour.
My Thoughts on the Book
Called Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, the book explores what's been happening in Rio over the last few years in a way that I really think has never been captured as well as she does. The reporting is incredibly deep and thorough, from poring through documents to an exhausting number of hours spent in the field.
Overall, the book is exquisitely written, a blend of a memoir and some of the best reporting you will find on Rio de Janeiro. Some parts are heart-wrenching (see the chapter on the mudslides), and some parts are laugh-out-loud funny (don't miss the anecdote about the Mexican entrepreneur and how he got his Brazilian visa.)
Not only does she get into the nitty gritty of security, gentrification, evictions, environmental degradation, and mega-event preparation, but she digs deep into the history of Rio's ongoing conflict. She revealed things that were new even to me, including a Rio policy that helped drive killings by police.This book should be required reading for any journalist who plans on covering the 2016 Olympics.
And instead of devoting a whole chapter to 500 years of Brazilian history, as is common in English-language non-fiction books about Brazil, she elegantly weaves historical facts into the narrative about what's happening now. And when she explores historical sites few people even know about it, you feel like you're there with her.
Barbassa combines the reporting with her own story of living in Brazil and around the world, making it an even more intriguing read. (Warning: if you have ever lived in Brazil, her chapter on trying to find an apartment may give you PTSD flashbacks.)
And even though during her time in Rio she went from being single to getting married, her relationship isn't part of the book. For this I really admire her, since this is usually a big part of female-written memoir-style books. It's clear that her time in Rio was a personal journey about coming to terms with her birthplace.
In other words, read this book ASAP.
Barbassa and Gaffney are now living in Switzerland, but Barbassa is heading to the U.S. for a book tour this month. Meet Barbassa and get a signed copy of the book on the following dates:
- JULY 29: Porter Square Bookstore, Cambridge, MA
- AUGUST 4: The BookMark Shoppe, Brooklyn, NY
- AUGUST 5: Americas Society, New York, NY
- AUGUST 7: Books & Books, Coral Gables, FL
Q&A with Juliana Barbassa
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?
I was taken back by the early history of the Comando Vermelho. When I first became aware of the gang in the late 1980s, they were already a powerful, violent entity making headlines with boastful interviews, a cinematic prison escape, or bloody confrontations with police. But they had that motto, Peace, Justice and Liberty. It seemed incongruent.
Reading about the gang’s early days in the Ilha Grande prison from books like “Quatrocentos Contra Um” or Carlos Amorim’s “Comando Vermelho” made me curious about the environment that shaped these men and their aspirations. I sought out those who were there or remember that time, like the Professor, dug for old news clippings, and finally, searched what’s left of the uncategorized prison archives, trying to understand who they were, how they lived, what influenced their thinking.
In particular, I spent hours going through daily prison logs, fascinated by the the minutia of everyday life in this terrible place - who fought with whom, which prisoners were punished for smoking marijuana, gambling, fighting, what there was to eat, what each man brought with him when he came in, who got visits. Much of it was mundane and unvarying, but the accumulation of details made them, their needs, their cells more real.
I enjoyed most the occasional finds that came from from the hands of the prisoners themselves -- a crude playing card made from the page of an encyclopedia, part of a seized deck, that was stuck inside one of the thick log books; the letters from inmates to those on the outside. The best examples of those were in the little museum that now exists on the site of the demolished prison: they have missives written by gang members on the inside asking their ‘brothers’ for some help with the prisoners’ Christmas celebration. These things were reminders of a time when the Comando Vermelho was an entirely different creature.
Was there a part that got cut that you especially liked?
Of course! There were long sections cut out to streamline the story. Within them were characters who deserved whole chapters to themselves -- in another book. One of my favorites was the section about Flávia Froes, an attorney whose list of clients reads like a who’s-who of Rio’s drug traffic dating back to the 1990s. She dredges up references to class warfare to frame the conflict between the state and gang members convicted in horrific murders.
But she’s not a lefty, bleeding heart sort; she’s tough, and she plays her over-the-top Carioca sexy to the hilt. The first time we met she was picking her way around crack users in trash-strewn alleys wearing six-inch stiletto heels, rhinestone studded jeans and a corset, her long blond hair swaying down to the middle of her back. But when we made our way to the heavily-armed dealers standing guard over tables stacked with baggies of crack, they respected her: it was all, “yes, ma’am,” “no, ma’am.” What makes her interesting as a person, and as a character, is that you’re left wondering how far she would be willing to go -- how far she has gone -- for her clients.
During the days of chaos that preceded the take-over of the Complexo do Alemão, when someone was carrying orders from imprisoned gang leaders to their soldiers on the outside, a judge ordered her arrest. Forty officers and a helicopter were sent out, but she got wind of it and went on the lam without a computer or a cell phone, untraceable. Later the charges were dropped for lack of proof, and Flavia was back, jaunty as ever, but there are many who never got over their doubts.
How did the book-writing experience compare to your work with the AP?
Daily news has specific requirements -- you work under deadline, keep your articles short and to the point. That’s the nature of news. It often meant having to do grab-and-run interviews, leaving before the conversation got really interesting; other times it simply meant leaving much of the nuance out of the final article.
My motivations for writing this book were many, but at the core was a desire for more time to report and more space to write. This came, in part, from my relationship to Rio. I wanted to bring the city to readers, but I also wanted to get into it myself, really get into it. Covering the city as a correspondent gave me breadth of experiences; reporting the book allowed me to return to the same person or place and see various layers. It gave me depth.
What do you miss most about living in Rio?
Living with my windows wide open all the time, except when it stormed. But then I miss the spectacle of those extravagant summer downpours. Friends and family, of course, particularly my nieces and nephews. The açaí from Tacacá do Norte in Flamengo. All the fruit. And the fresh fruit juice. The sweet man with the white handlebar mustache who sold vegetables at the farmers’ market in front of my building, and greeted me with a hug and a kiss every week. Running on the sand. The weather. I even miss the heat!
If you could write another book, what would it be?
I have some ideas. We’ll see!
Images courtesy of Juliana Barbassa.