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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Goin’ even more south

The last time I was away from my family on a long-term academic gig, it was 1993, and I was Professor Michael, International Man of Mystery, traveling to Brazil on three weeks’ notice.  I was a fourth-year assistant professor with just a handful of articles to my name, and I had no idea why I’d been picked for the gig.  So before I left, I spoke to the late Phyllis Franklin, former executive director of the Modern Language Association, who informed me that I would be the first member of the MLA to be sent abroad by the State Department since 1986.  For 1986 was the fateful year in which the MLA offered an honorary membership to Wole Soyinka, and invited him to come to the annual convention in New York.  Reagan’s State Department, invoking the McCarthy-era McCarran-Walter Act, refused to grant an entry visa to Soyinka.  Fortunately, however, between the time of the MLA’s invitation and the convention itself, Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  So he wouldn’t be coming to New York after all!  He would be going to Stockholm.  Problem solved, right?  Wrong.  The State Department, Franklin told me, demanded that the MLA rescind the invitation to Soyinka even though he would not be entering the country.  The MLA, to its credit, refused to do any such absurd thing, and as a form of 1980s culture-war payback, from that point on, the U.S. Information Agency refused to send American scholars abroad if they were members of the MLA.  Apparently, I represented the Chill in Relations.

Here’s how I described my adventures in the pages of the Village Voice Literary Supplement more than a decade ago.


It’s late December 1992. I’m slogging through final exams, graduate students’ seminar papers, letters of rec, book reviews, and the accumulated semesterly dreck that washes up in my office every four months.  I’m dropping off to sleep.  The phone rings.  It’s for me.  Washington, D.C.  The U.S. Information Agency.  They want to know if I can go to Brazil.  Very funny, I think, making a mental note to cultivate less facetious friends in the future.

Three weeks later I’m in the world’s second largest city, hurtling down the Rua Washington Luis at 110 km/hr on the way to conduct “consultations” about New Historicism at the University of Santo Amaro.  São Paulo contains somewhere between 16 and 25 million people, and it appears that all of them have very good highway reflexes.  Traffic patterns?  Let’s put it this way:  Imagine yourself doing 60 or 70 on a crowded Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—with bus stops.

So it really was the USIA, and they really were offering to send me to Brazil on three weeks’ notice.  Last time I was out of the country I was ten, and Nixon was president.  I didn’t even know the USIA did these things.  Nor did I expect to be asked to “represent” the United States abroad anytime soon.  My excitement at living in a megalopolis again after ten years’ exile from New York, and my pleasure at being transported to summer in January, are only slightly mitigated by the terror I feel when I realize I have absolutely no idea what I’m supposed to do.  And I can’t speak a word of Portuguese.

“Consultations” on New Historicism:  I figured on a faculty seminar.  I thought I’d do a half-hour presentation by way of intro, and then field questions.  It turns out quite otherwise.  I’ve been given charge of a “minicourse” for entry-level graduate students from all over Brazil who’ve come to take a three-day crash course in theory.  Structuralism and psychoanalysis in the morning, and the visiting scholar from the U.S. in the afternoon.  I suddenly realize I’m looking at three three-and-a-half-hour lectures on something I’m not a specialist in.  And just to up the anxiety ante, the lectures will be taped for the benefit of students whose English needs work.  The course opens on Monday at 2, and for the first order of business I’m asked to leave the room so that the dean can negotiate the price of the course with the students.  All I have to do is deliver.  At least they’re not determining the price of the course after I’m done.

At the end of the day I’ve divested myself of everything I know:  the history of historicist criticism in the U.S., 1930-90; the differences among Marxism, hermeneutics, and new historicism; summaries of New Historicist scholarship on the period of the American Renaissance; the difference between Bakhtinian and Foucauldian senses of “discourse.” Considering that I opened up by knocking over my water, this isn’t bad.  Considering that the whole thing may have been completely unintelligible, I want never to show my face at U. Santo Amaro again.  Over the next two days, though, things warm up:  prepare talks on Foucault’s History of Sexuality in the morning, entertain guests that night.  Assign Catherine Gallagher’s essay from Hap Veeser’s collection, The New Historicism.  Repeat everything you’ve heard or read about new historicism in the last five years.  Borrow friends’ work liberally.  Throw in some stuff about Robinson Crusoe, the legal definition of “news” in 18th-century England, and Crusoe’s stint as a South American plantation owner (hmm); also do Native Son; photojournalism; the Panopticon; plot summaries.  Stir and serve.  By Wednesday I’m doing deconstruction and feminism ‘cause they weren’t done in morning classes, using coxinha (spiced, breaded chicken nuggets) and covinha (dimples) to make Derrida’s and de Saussure’s point about phonemic arbitrariness.  Well, why not?

At coffee break one student says it’s cheaper to fly to Miami from São Paulo than to Belem in Brazil’s north (where she’s from).  Do tell, I say.  I’d wondered why my Miami flight was packed with families returning from Disneyland.  “Oh yes,” she says.  “This is our summer break, you know.  I wanted to go to Disneyland myself, but I decided to come here for this course.” I guess that’s oddly flattering, but as for me, given the choice between going to Disneyland and hearing me deliver this “course,” I’d choose the Goofy I know over the Goofy I don’t.


It’s Bill Clinton’s Inauguration Day. I’d been reading in Portuguese as best I can about Bush’s last days, tracking O Globo, the Rio paper, to find out if my country is going to war again.  Cessar-fogo? If this means cease-fire, then who was firing on whom?  Is Bush really going to leave office in the middle of a military strike?  Just down the street there are demonstrations outside the U. S. embassy.  Nirvana and L7 are playing in Rio.  I turn to reading about Brazil’s own new president, Itamar, who is reputed to make Reagan look like a Nobel laureate in economics by contrast.  I’m checking the exchange rate, which changes daily.  Dealing with the inflation is like jumping on a moving train:  14,000 cruzeiros to the dollar when I arrive, 17,000 when I leave two weeks later.  It affects absolutely everything.  Every price I see is erasable, and everything gets rounded off anyway because nobody has change for a 5000. Tem troco?  Não tem troco.

That night I’m invited to an inauguration party by folks from USIA and the Consulate. O Globo television shows up at the party not long after I’ve become Gennifer Flowers:  we’re playing that game where you have to ask other partygoers questions in order to find out who you are.  My interlocutor, the first person I’ve spoken to in four days who’s unambivalently happy to be in São Paulo, is (for the moment) former U.S. trade rep Carla Hills; I’ve had the misfortune to see my Flowers tag just before someone put it on my back, but I play anyway, trying to think of questions I’d ask if I didn’t know I was Gennifer Flowers.  After half an hour or so of thinking up various ways to cover the party, the O Globo TV crew decides that they will give Carla and me the winning clue about who we are!  And we will be surprised on television!  But first we have to explain to them who we are, so they can give us the winning clue!  And we have to pretend to be conversing with each other, or the whole thing will look staged.  It isn’t easy explaining Flowers and Hills to the camera crew, and I’m not sure how much is being lost in translation.  Meanwhile, partygoers come up and say hello to us—well, to her, she’s with the USIA and her real name is Jennifer—but we say we can’t talk because we’re supposed to be conversing for O Globo television.

The TV crew go through a few takes.  The people who brought me here are preparing to leave.  I’m asked to be surprised for the cameras four, five times by the revelation that I am Gennifer Flowers, and gradually, for the first time since I’ve arrived in Brazil, I lose the ability to fake it.


It’s January 21. Having finished my whirlwind stint at Santo Amaro, I’m now to deliver two lectures at the University of São Paulo.  USP has more than 50,000 students, which makes it larger than most Big Ten schools.  My principal hosts have studied with Fredric Jameson and Homi Bhabha; as we drive onto the campus I see a billboard for a Barbara Kruger exhibit.  It looks as if I’m in the International Critical Community for the next two days. 

My talk is about the relations between disciplinarity and critical theory, from deconstruction to cultural studies; it was actually prepared in advance (unlike everything else I’ve done to this point), it seems to go well, and there are plenty of questions afterward.  People ask about “the canon,” and assure me that there is little dispute over the boundaries of Brazilian literature, which everyone seems to talk about in terms of regions:  there’s the typical literature of Rio Grande do Sul, of Bahia, of Pará.  So who’s Brazil’s most widely read American writer?  Without hesitation, four people say Sidney Sheldon.

One of my hosts, Maria Elisa, offers to drive me around São Paulo so that she can show me a district she calls either “the truth of capitalism” or “the place where I took Fredric Jameson to show him the truth of capitalism.” It turns out to be not far from the inauguration party, natch, on a set of bluffs that juxtapose extravagance on the order of Bel Air with destitution on the order of nothing you’ve ever seen:  the Brazilian favelas, shantytowns built of wood, nails, cardboard, tarp, cholera, and three decades of exploitation by the business/military consortium that had once envisioned Brazil as a world power by the year 2000.  The Bel Air homes all have sentry boxes, just like the townhouses and high-rises around my hotel in the Jardims district (the rough equivalent of the Upper East Side).  Unlike the guards I’ve seen in my solitary rambles around Jardims, Bixiga, and Cerqueira César, though, these sentries glare menacingly and display their arms as we drive by.

“This isn’t the truth of capitalism,” I say.  “Capitalism is supposed to prevent you from seeing this.  I mean, I heard that it’s supposed to be the most opaque of social forms.” Maria Elisa disagrees, knowing the terrain better than I.  “Capitalism doesn’t care what you see as long as you’re unable to do anything about it,” she replies.  “Do you think anyone cares if the people living here see the contradiction?” Now, São Paulo is home to one of the world’s largest banking communities, a group of people for whom the runaway inflation is the basis for innovative investment strategies.  I realize that capitalism has no necessary interest in opacity, any more than it has an interest in clean water:  all the water in Brazil is undrinkable, and that’s good news for Minalba, the bottled water folks (you can get your Minalba com gas and sem gas), just as it’s a window of opportunity for the makers of water purification devices.  At home in Champaign, car dealers are among my town’s well-to-do; in São Paulo, where cars are sold for three to five times as much as in the US, they’re magnatas.  And how are the faculty faring?  “We have to keep adjusting our salaries because of the inflation,” Maria Elisa says.  “But in the end we make around $12,000 a year in US dollars.” I whistle.  “Yes,” she continues, “but then again, we all have maids.”

Maria Elisa drops me off at my hotel.  “Now, we couldn’t tell from your résumé how old you were,” she says, “and we didn’t know if you’d want to go out at night and have fun.  But when we saw you were young we got some graduate students to pick you up at 9 tonight, and they’ll take you to hear some forró and samba.  Does that sound all right?” Sounds fine to me.  In the meantime I grab a dinner of espeto corrido, or “running meat.” For as long as the plastic card on my table is green side up, I will be served by every waiter in the place, all of whom are travelling table to table with one of 30 kinds of meat on four-foot skewers.  If you time your plastic card manipulation correctly, you can single out specific meats as they run by your table.  It’s a lot of fun, if somewhat hard on the arteries.  In the restaurant’s foyer are charts detailing the genetic derivation of the beef.  ”Da genética à carne:  a diferença você vê—e sente.” This is serious stuff.

Next stop, nightclubs.  Forró is the music brought to Rio and São Paulo from the rural, impoverished, and beautiful regions of northeastern Brazil; multicultural and polyrhythmic, its closest cousin seems to be zydeco.  The dancing is as it is reputed to be:  fierce, intricate, precise, and done largely from the waist down.  There are no amateurs on this dance floor.  “The people here,” the students tell me, “are our work force.  They’re the people who served you your coffee this afternoon.” Aha, class analysis.  São Paulo has the largest Japanese population of any city besides Tokyo, the largest Italian population outside Italy, and large German, African, and (of course) Portuguese contingents.  There’s no more “typical” a Paulistano than there is a typical Los Angeleno or New Yorker, and I myself have passed easily (except in the sushi bar, where I was incomprehensible).  Yet there’s still a correlation between skin color and socioeconomic status, here as in the rest of the world.  And, I’m told, a growing neo-Nazi movement, desperate for a definition of racial “purity” in a society so obviously polyglot.

We move to an empty, cavernous nightclub about the size of the Roseland Ballroom.  On stage, people in overalls are playing samba with instruments no more complex than washboards and jugs.  The disparity between the setting and the performers is striking, at first.  But by the end of the night, the place has offered its customers three bands, the last one headed by a small, lithe, gorgeous, androgynous man (Prince sem facial hair) with a twelve-piece backing troupe that’s some kind of cross between Carneval, Las Vegas, Gilberto Gil, and Gloria Estafan.  (Between a pair of incredible samba tunes they play Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.") My escorts have gotten sick; amidst profuse apologies, they go home, leaving me with Claudio, a friend they’d met in the club (the next day I’m told that some clubs have been reputed to put methyl alcohol in their caipirinha pinga).

Claudio introduces me to a woman he’s just met, who spends the hours from 1 to 3 am trying to teach me to samba, and though I pick up no more than the rudiments, I begin to think that this is how people should be treated if they’ve explicated literary theory for four solid days.  Claudio is concentrating on picking up this woman’s friend.  I’m not sure where this is going to leave me.  I’m certainly not going to hit on my dance partner, and I don’t know Claudio from Adam.  I also don’t know what part of the city we’re in, but it doesn’t look like a good place to get a cab.

I decide I will not worry about this until tomorrow.


Saturday, January 23.  As if to punish me for having a good time in my new surroundings, the forces that control my destiny have whisked me out of São Paulo and deposited me in what appears to be the Topeka of Brazil, a/k/a São José do Rio Preto.  I’m pissed.  My USIA sheet said I had the weekend to myself.  It didn’t say I’d have the weekend to myself in a Holiday Inn by the highway in the stifling interior of the country.  I still have the option of hanging out by the pool in the middle of January, but by now I’m spoiled:  I’d rather spend my time in the big city, where everything had begun to seem familiar, reassuring, unfathomable and scary at once, and where I’d actually developed some proficiency at hailing cabs and talking with drivers about car and gasoline prices in broken Portuguese.

The occasion is the annual Senapulli conference for Brazilian scholars of English and American literature.  I learn that the lineup is me and two British scholars, Stephen Connor and Gillian Beer.  I gulp:  these two are well-known.  They’re really smart.  And their government invited them back in September, which means they have some idea what they’re doing here.  At the conference table you can pick up Stephen’s recent book, Postmodernist Culture, which has just been translated into Portuguese; Gillian Beer will show up on Sunday with bound copies of her Cambridge inaugural lecture on Darwin, the “missing link,” and the history of genetics as science and metaphor.  All I’ve got are my dimples and some spiced, breaded chicken.  With the aid of these I have to come up with another four-part minicourse as well as my plenary lecture on Wednesday, the notes for which are somewhere in the hard drive of the laptop I borrowed from novelist Richard Powers.  It looks like I better get to work.

I finish my feijoada, Holiday Inn version, which consists of rice, black beans, and unidentifiable jellied meats served in bubbling cauldrons, and head upstairs.  As I pass the phone banks, the staff waves me into one of the booths, using the international “you have a call” hand signals.  I pick up the phone.  “Professor Michael?” says a woman’s voice, proceeding into rapid Portuguese.  “Um, não falo Português,” I reply, whereupon my caller tells me, in halting English, that she has spoken to my mother, that I am to stay where I am, and that she will meet me this afternoon.  “What time is good for you?” she asks.

I’m growing used to being befuddled, so I say six.

“No, that is not good, I am leaving at four.  I will come by in half an hour.  Can you meet me then?” I don’t see why not.

As it happens, of course, she is looking for another Professor Michael, a Michael Bresau to whom she needs to talk about a kibbutz in Israel.  She is very embarrassed when I appear in the lobby.  I explain who I am and what I’m doing here, and she asks all about the Senapulli conference.  I show her the program.  She writes down a dozen names and four or five session titles, saying she will try to make it back for the conference but may have to leave the country.  I nod.

Then she turns to me.  “Where in the United States are you from?” We draw a map, I point out Champaign.  “It is near Chicago?” Yes, it is.  She has a friend in Chicago, a lawyer named James Mark.  Do I know him?  No, I’m afraid not.  “Ah!” she says, her eyes brightening as she takes out another piece of paper and writes down more talks and titles.  “I know what I have to ask you!” The conversation suddenly turns, as these things always do, to Cat Stevens.  “Have you heard of Cat Stevens?” she asks excitedly.  Before I can say yes, she sings the opening bars of “Father and Son,” following this with “Morning Has Broken.” I am asked whether I didn’t think his recent television appearance was very sad, what with the Gulf War and his forgetting of America—but at this point I’m clearly not following the narrative very well, so she writes “Ché Guevara” underneath “Cat Stevens,” inviting me to draw the obvious connection.

Well, we’ve been at this for 45 minutes, and it’s time for her to go, but first she writes down three addresses for me.  The third of these is in Buenos Aires, where she’s now studying.  She’s working on Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, for which she has to travel to Argentina, because she wants to work on surrealism, and—as she tells me confidentially—you just can’t find any good surrealism in Brazil. 

Just then, the lobby phone rings again.  It’s for Professor Michael.  I am to stay where I am.  I wonder if my mother knows about this.

But this time I’m prepared.  “I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong party,” I say.  “This is Gennifer Flowers.”

Posted by Michael on 03/02 at 09:10 AM
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