Author Q&A:
Geovani Martins

The Sun on My Head
(Faber, £10.99)

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Martins’s debut book is a collection of 13 short stories set in Rio’s largest favela, where Martins himself has lived. The characters in his books are the men and boys he knows, who struggle with the violence of growing up on the wrong side of the Broken City. With themes of masculinity, corruption, guilt and poverty, the book came together through writing workshops run for residents of the neighbourhood. It was well received in Brazil and is now published in English.   

The Sun On My Head is your first book. What inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve always really liked reading. Starting to write came naturally. I remember writing my first verses at eight or nine. I haven’t stopped since then. In my teenage years, I wrote songs and dreamed about becoming a songwriter. It wasn’t until I was 22, when I participated in FLUP (the Urban Peripheries Literary Festival) that I stumbled upon the possibility of writing fiction. That was the first time in my life that I saw a writer talking about their creative processes and publication. It was also where I met lots of other people living in favelas who liked to write, just like me.

Tell us about your process when writing. How did you focus with all the teeming life of the favela around you?
I usually follow three stages when I’m writing. Firstly, I set the scene writing by hand in a notebook, only thinking about telling the story. In the second stage, I bash this text into a typewriter. This is the part where the more detailed work on the language of the text begins. In the final stage, I type everything onto a computer. It’s a revision process, but I also end up inserting things and filling in gaps. In terms of focusing on the favela, it was like this: I was born in a favela and I grew up in them, constantly moving house. As such, I often experienced that feeling of being the outsider, looking like the one arriving midway through a movement that already has its own rhythm. I got used to paying attention to the many different ways of speaking found in each region of the city; all of this helped. The only problem was, until the age of 22, when I went to FLUP, I didn’t know how to view these things as literary material. After FLUP, where I met lots of other authors who also came from the favela and wrote about those specific realities, I began to notice all this rich drama which I had had access to this whole time. To me, having written The Sun On My Head represents a sense of having understood and accepted my own identity, my place in the world.

Although the poverty and violence are relentless in your stories about the favelas, they sometimes set up a feeling of impending doom only to back away from it. Was it important to you to keep the reader hooked in this way?
Being black and poor in Brazil has always been very dangerous. That’s a fact, and the figures prove that any of us could be next [to be murdered]. My characters are constantly under this shadow. It doesn’t stop them having their moments of happiness, hope or any other feeling. While I was working on the book, I understood that the stories would get much stronger when I was able to work with that tension coming from outside. Everything was more urgent, more important.

Are children forced to grow up more quickly in the favelas or are they able to retain part of their innocence?
The children of the favela face a series of difficulties and realities prematurely, which definitely affect their childhood and innocence. But I think that in most cases this doesn’t crush them, and it can transform them. Innocence and playfulness exist, but all this comes from another place.

Some of the slang in the stories would ring true even on the streets of northern England. Do you think there’s a sort of global youth these days that transcends national boundaries and did you have any involvement in the translation process?
I think that the internet has really contributed to this sort of thing happening. However, I don’t believe there is a global youth, bearing in mind that us Latin Americans and Africans consume a lot, in terms of art and entertainment, that comes from Europe and North America. It means that when we are young, we are much more influenced than we influence, when it comes to globalisation. I find this process interesting, understanding how we appropriate certain things, adapting them for the local context, creating new meanings, and making them ours as well. In terms of translation, I have spoken to all my translators, some more, others less, and tried to collaborate as well as I can. It was complicated explaining certain expressions, some of them straight from Rio, which weren’t known about even in other areas of Brazil. At the same time, it was really interesting.

The book was extremely well received in Brazil. How has life changed for you and how do you think this will affect your writing?
My life has completely changed. The time when I finished writing the book and sent it to the editor was complicated for me. Everything was very difficult: rent, food, transport, all the simplest and most urgent things. I now live in a very comfortable house [also in a favela]. I don’t worry about food or other daily basics. This helps me concentrate more on my work as a writer, definitely, not to mention being able to buy books, study languages, take courses – basically the chance to invest more in my intellectual abilities. Apart from the financial aspects, there’s also been a huge change in terms of my routine. I started going to new places, travelling quite a lot to talk about my work, meeting people who were inaccessible only a short while ago. All this affects my work, and even distances me in some ways from the streets, from my characters’ worlds. This worries me at times, this lack of dead time, to chat, to sit in a bar. But I think that due to the impact the book has had, it’s natural for this time to be full of commitments in different places, but then things will calm down and I’ll be able to go back to the street, to my friends and my characters.

How has life changed in Brazil under President Bolsonaro?
To begin with a concrete example, the number of people murdered by the military police is on track to beat all the records already, in this first year. And the government and the part of the population who voted for them aren’t ashamed of this, just the reverse; they were elected for this reason. Brazil has always been a much more dangerous place for black people, indigenous people, homosexuals, women; in other words, all the groups marginalised by Brazilian society. This is even without a government who are anti-culture, anti-education, anti-science, anti-art, and this is why they take measures that directly or indirectly affect the whole population. What hurts me the most about all this is thinking about the number of people who voted for this political project. Of course, there was a large group of people who were deceived by false news stories, as well as a big group of people influenced by religious leaders who supported Bolsonaro during his campaign, but even so, the number of people who voted for him because they agreed with his racist, misogynistic, classist, homophobic views is very high. It’s worrying, but I can’t say it’s surprising. The numbers don’t lie. Brazil is a racist, homophobic, misogynistic country, full of preconceptions and violence. All of this about the “cordial man” and racial democracy was nothing more than a story told by those who believed in control as the best way to maintain the status quo. But these people are in the past, and their children are fearless and have no shame in revealing their hatred for people of a different race, class, gender or whatever. It’s all very painful, but at least now all this filth is out in the open, it’s going to need to be dealt with. I don’t know how it’ll end, but I can guarantee that the fight will be ugly.

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