‘I wanted to write a novel that felt really oral’ — an interview with Yara Rodrigues Fowler by Silvia Rothlisberger

Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian writer from South London. Yara was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2019, alongside several other literary prizes and awards. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the Society of Authors’ John C Lawrence Award. She is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women.

Stubborn Archivist is Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s debut novel. It is an experimental book narrated in third person and through conversations. A blend of prose and poetry, the book tells the story of a young woman from south London who was born to a Brazilian mother and a British father.  Hers is a story of growing up between two cultures, and how her Brazilian background defines the way other people sees her and treats her.

How did your family history inspire Stubborn Archivist?

The world of the book is very much the world that I grew up in South London: mixed British and Brazilian household. I was really keen to recreate all of those things again but with different events and making things much neater and more pointed. I guess telling a fictional story inside a landscape that was not just familiar to me but also that I hadn’t seen written anywhere else.

There is a parallel in the book between the main character’s age and your own age. Is there something generational that you wanted to transmit through the book?

I wanted to get across what it was like be growing up, not just British and Brazilian but also in London and at a time when the Brazilian diaspora was way less visible and there were actually less Brazilians in London.

Another thing that is really generational of the book is that it uses a lot of poetry, blank space and not that much punctuation. And the way it is punctuated: we are not sure if it’s someone thought, speech or conversation and I think that is something very influenced by being on the internet all the time. 

The dictatorships of Brazil in the 70s and 80s in mentioned in Stubborn Archivist as Isadora, the Brazilian mum of the main character, was an anti-dictatorship militant printing clandestine material in a church because quote from the book: “people were disappeared. My friends were tortured. I didn’t see my family for years. I was very young.” What was the aim of sharing this experience of political exile in your book? 

I have two perspectives on this:

1. At the heart of this book I guess is the story of this Brazilian family that has this big political rupture, which is around the dictatorship and around part of the family being very right-wing. It was important for me to show these two elements of Brazilian society and that there’s certainly this right wing, white supremacist very elite element of white upper-class Brazil.

2. After the election of Bolsonaro, how I feel about those parts of the book and when I was writing it: I would not have predicted that Brazil would be in the political situation that it is now. If I had, I might have made those bits louder or harder to miss.

Stubborn Archivist is narrated in third person and through conversations. How did you conceive this structure and narrator? 

I wanted to write a novel that felt really oral. As oral as possible. So that’s part of why it was conversations, I wanted it to be like this is how we receive these stories. This is how our archive of our history is constructed like it’s full of gaps and it’s oral.

And that the point of this book is not to convince you that sexual violence is bad or that the protagonist really did experienced sexual violence or an abusive relationship, it’s not really clear. The book only works if your starting point is that you believe her.

The name of the protagonist in Stubborn Archivist is unknown. We know it’s a foreign name that people find hard to pronounce but we never learn her name. Why did you decide to keep her name a secret? 

We know one of her last names which is Amado. It’s almost like a running joke in the book because people can’t pronounce her name but also her name is a springboard into like ‘oooh! Where are you from? mmmm!’. 

You know, it’s so boring! so I guess that’s just a little gift to her… to keep that private. 

Stubborn Archivist was written in English but it has a lot of words in Portuguese tell us about your decision to include words in Portuguese throughout the book

When I was a child and I was like ‘I would like to be a writer one day’, I would think about ‘but how would I write dialogue?’ I just didn’t read books that had fluency in two languages. How would I write the dialogue of families like mine when books don’t exist that are one line in English, one line in Portuguese. So, it was just what I had to do when I was writing that family.

And it was really important to me not to italicise like ‘Ooh! Foreign word coming out!’. Because that is not how we speak is not like when you use a pretentious French word or a Latin word. 

Stubborn Archivist book cover

Silvia Rothlisberger is a writer and journalist based in London. She hosts a radio show on Resonance 104.4 called Literary South. Silvia curates the literary events of The Festival of Latin American Women is Arts (FLAWA Festival). She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s], with a focus on Latin American literature and culture. @silviarothlis

*This interview took place during FLAWA Festival 2019 in front of an audience at Rich Mix London and broadcast on Resonance 104.4