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Eliane Brum: contemplating the Amazon, the centre of the world, through writing

Journalist Eliane Brum works to convey 'the values ​​and language of those who have remained as nature'


This interview was first published (in Portuguese) on Amazônia Latitude, as a podcast and a text. It has been translated and reproduced with kind permission of Marcos Colón and Eliane Brum.

The Amazon is the centre of the world, it is one of the most important regions on the planet and must be preserved and protected. This idea has been championed by the most awarded journalist in Brazil, Eliane Brum, also a documentary filmmaker and writer. She is the author of almost a dozen books, some of which have been published in other languages, such as English, Spanish, and Italian.

Among her best-known works are the books A vida que ninguém vê, O olho da rua and her most recent book, titled Banzeiro òkòtó: Uma voyage à Amazônia centro do mundo.

Eliane has covered the Amazon as a journalist for almost 25 years and has lived in Altamira, Pará, since 2017. As a journalist, she is one of the founders of the Sumaúma platform, launched in September 2022, which shares stories from the Amazon in Portuguese, Spanish, and English.

In this latest episode of LatitudeCast, we talk to Eliane Brum about the importance of contemplating the Amazon, the centre of the world, through writing.

Check out the LatitudeCast episode with Eliane Brum now:

Marcos Colón: I wanted to start this chat by asking you to introduce yourself to our listeners and talk a little about your relationship with literature and the Amazon.

Eliane Brum:
I think my relationship with literature began before I learned to write. And it is also very marked by oral literature.

I was born in a city in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul, Ijuí, but with a family strongly rooted in the rural area. Most of my relatives were small-scale farmers. I’ve listened to stories since I was little, so orality has always existed, it was what first drew me to literature.

When I was five or six years old, there was an episode that I think really marked my entire career. There’s a lot to be said around this idea that we are created in childhood. The woman I am today is the daughter of the girl I was.

I was born during the military dictatorship, in 1966. My father was the son of illiterate parents. He was the first person in all generations who learned to read and write, and he founded a university together with others.

And this university, at the time of the dictatorship, was obviously considered subversive. It was strongly rooted in the community, in a rural district, and it was based on Paulo Freire’s principles. The timetable was decided upon with the community, and it respected the harvest time. Then the mayor of Arena took the community aspect away from this community university and took ownership of it. The night this happened was the first time I saw my father humiliated and destroyed. I was always very sensitive, I noticed people a lot, and seeing my father, who was my hero, like that, was very impactful for me.

Then, that day, we returned home and everyone was very quiet – my two older brothers, my mother, my father. And I kept thinking: ‘No one is going to do anything, so I’m going to have to do it myself’. Thanks to my childhood imagination, I immediately concluded that I had to set fire to the city hall, since it was the symbol of it all.

There had been a fire at the health centre just recently, which was a big deal for the whole city. It was the first time I saw a fire. So that was very present in my head. I knew it was risky and that my family wouldn’t agree, but I was being raised in an environment where we had to do what was necessary, even if it was difficult.

While everyone was having dinner, I grabbed a matchbox from the kitchen. My mother always said: ‘don’t touch fire, don’t touch dust’. I wasn’t allowed to touch the matches, because it was too dangerous. So I hid them in the pocket of my dress and tucked it under my pillow. I did’t sleep that night because I was so nervous about what I was going to do. And there was another challenge too: I lived on one side of the city’s central square and the city hall was on the other side. I was only allowed to reach the part of the square closest to my house, because the other side, as all the children in the city knew, was where the bogeyman lived, and he ate little children.

At dawn, I left my house with my heart in my mouth. I passed the bogeyman’s house —we didn’t cross paths— and I finally arrived at the city hall, very scared. Then I struck the first matchstick. I remember this scene: I’m at the city hall, I strike the match against the wall and nothing happens. I use up the entire matchbox and nothing happens. I return home disappointed.

Marcos Colón: I remember an interview you did on TVT Network, in which you said that your first vision of the Amazon was not of the green of nature, but of a world of language and words. What was this first impression of the Amazon, based on language, like, and why was it so significant in your fight to eliminate the hardships that the Amazon faces today?

Eliane Brum: The language of the Amazon reached me in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul, before I ever went to the Amazon, which is another story. When I was around eight or nine years old, an Indigenous person from Xingu arrived, called Pedemar Marajoara Porã. He traveled around Brazil, giving lectures about his life as an Indigenous person. And my brothers, who are much older than me ––because I have a sister who died between me and them, so there is a gap–– they went to listen to his lecture and were fascinated, and then they discovered that Pedemar was staying in a hostel in a shabby house. He was very poorly accommodated, poorly looked after. My brothers immediately invited him home.

He was an Indigenous man from Xingu whose mother had been murdered by miners. He was around 60 years old, although he didn’t know his exact age. He lived at our home for a while. And he took care of me. He told me stories about the Amazon in his Amazonian language, he sang to me, he taught me how to sing. But there was something very disturbing: he recited the Hail Mary in his own language, wrote it in beautiful handwriting, spoke it in colourful words. That was what made him palatable to society. This curiosity of an Indigenous man in a city was palatable to society, to the women from Ijuí who stopped by his house asking him to recite them Hail Marys. I already felt and saw that this was violence.

That white society, immensely racist, called Indigenous people such as the Caingangue who live very close by, and the Guaraní, “bugre” [savages]. They did not accept them in the city, except on the streets.

This violence was disturbing to me because I loved him, and he loved me too. He took care of me like no one else took care of me.

After he left, I saw him appear in newspapers and the like, but I never saw him again. That’s how the Amazon came to me.

And also with the rich farmers in the city… I heard them bragging at barbecues about expelling Indigenous people from Mato Grosso. They were “buying land”, but we know today that this was land-grabbing. They spoke of the violence they committed as if it were absolutely normal, because they did not consider Indigenous people to be people, they were ‘the bugres’; ‘let’s get these bugres out so we can move in’, they’d say.

I didn’t go to the Amazon until 1998, back when I was a special reporter at Zero Hora. I was sent to do a story about the Transamazônica, without an agenda – the way I like it. I like to study a case, but I’m always up for getting lost and finding where the story is. So me and the photographer Carlinhos go walking along the Transamazônica, we go knocking on doors along the road, all kinds of doors, and talking to all kinds of people. They opened their doors to us in an act of trust.

I wrote a report in which their voices entered without any quotation marks. I made my first gesture in trying to reach the Amazon; I’m still trying to reach it today.

Eliane Brum in the centre of the world, the Amazon in Pará. Photo: Azul Serra/Azul Serra, DAILY LIFE

Marcos Colón: As a journalist, as a woman, I wanted to hear you speak a little bit about this language that I call ‘territory language’, because it is so difficult for outsiders to understand. When an Indigenous person fights for their territory, they are fighting for the life they have made for themselves on the land. In this process, women have a primary role. How did this territory language come to you?

Eliane Brum: It arrives like enchantments, like worlds, and always in the plural. I would perhaps say they were ‘territory languages’, because there are many.

In my book Banzeiro òkòtó, I don’t use the phrase ‘of the forest’ [to talk about those who live there] because the ‘da’/’of’ comes to show property or belonging. In my perception, I think that even more than that, they are forest: they don’t own the forest, and they don’t conceive of themselves as owners of the forest, nor as belonging to the forest. It’s a deeper relationship. They are the earth, where they bury the placenta, where women bury their menstruation.

We are in a time of climate emergency, it is very obvious, but it does not seem obvious to most people. What brought us to the abyss of the climate crisis and global warming, is something absurd, bizarre: it is language. It is a Eurocentric, white, patriarchal, binary language. Obviously, this language will not be the one to bring bring us out of the abyss, to stop global warming. All these attempts to transform the forest into an economic asset, which comes from this same language, it is obvious that this will not take us out of the abyss.

Therefore, we argue that we need, urgently, (and this is the great challenge) to put at the centre the values ​​and language of those who have remained as nature.

On this path of understanding the languages ​​of the humans who inhabit the forest, these other humanities came to me, which are what we non-Indigenous people call flora, fauna, and fungi. I think this also changes the language and removes humans from the centre, understanding ourselves rather as the human species.

We understand, as we get closer to nature and the people who are nature, we understand how ridiculous this is. When you understand that fungi have been on this planet for a billion years and also created the Amazon Rainforest, and are in constant communication through their mycelia, their hyphae, with other beings… we start to see how ridiculous it is for people who have been in this world for such a short time to think that we are the centre of it.

Marcos Colón: You have been advocating this concept of the Amazon as the centre of the world for a long time and, of course, perhaps the most relevant expression of this is your book Banzeiro òkòtó. Everything you propose deconstructs us and builds us again. What was it like being able to put this idea on paper from within the Amazon? Could you also talk a little about the issue of how to create literature from a different perspective in which non-humans can be at the centre?

Eliane Brum: Banzeiro talks about my journey, my process of Amazonization. But in this book, I am the bridge, which I think is the role of those who write and of journalism: to be a bridge body to amplify the voices of others, in this case from the forest.

For me, writing is not an act that takes place outside of myself, I don’t think it is for anyone. But I have a very visceral, very bodily relationship with writing. When I say that I write so I don’t die, it’s not rhetoric. In the same way that it is not rhetorical to say that the Amazon is the centre of the world. It’s a concept that I expand on, but it comes from many thoughts. I don’t think we create anything alone.

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The pain in the world, which I’ve always heard all around me, pains me. I think I’ve always been a listener. I woke up one Sunday morning when I was nine years old, the whole family was asleep, I lived in the city and I hated living in the city. I looked out the window and that fine rain, falling on the concrete, gave me a very deep feeling of melancholy, and I thought I wanted to jump out of that very window. Then I picked up a pen, a piece of paper, and wrote my first poem, my first piece of writing, and it saved me. As long as I can write, I can live.

We created Sumaúma, which comes from several movements: from Refugiados de Belo Monte; from Amazônia Centro do Mundo–– that absolutely transformative event that we organized in Terra do Meio, in Altamira––; and from another movement that we created during the pandemic, Liberte Futuro, in which we said that we needed to use our imagination as an instrument for creating the future. Today, I see it as the creation of the present.

Creating Sumaúma took me away from writing a little, even though it seems contradictory. But it is something that completely takes over our bodies, our lives. I needed to take care of this creation, of other people’s texts, of obtaining financing. I didn’t write for a year, nothing but editorials, and it had a profound impact on me. I stopped crying, and I didn’t understand why. I went more than a year without crying, not for beauty nor for sadness.

Today, what moves me a lot is understanding how we listen to those who are more than human. I did my first report on fungi, and as soon as I started writing, I started crying again. Then I understood that I was blocked by words inside me, blocked by everything that didn’t become words outside of me. I, who have an aversion to dams in the Amazon like Belo Monte, had built, because of not writing, a dam within myself.

Edyr Augusto : I live here in the Amazon, in Belém do Pará, I’m here all the time. You know, we’re in a pre-COP era here. What can you say about this, what will COP mean for the Amazon? Is the Amazon saved?

Eliane Brum: COP30, in 2025, in the city of Belém, will be the first Amazonian COP. I think the big dispute we’re going to have in these next few months, this next year, is how we make a COP in the Amazon a truly Amazonian COP. Because the worst thing that could happen to us is that Belém and the Amazon are used as a backdrop, that this territory is emptied of its voices, its meanings, its people, its humanities, and instead becomes a stage.

And we, those who are on the frontline of this war against nature, those who are allies of the people of nature, need to fight to not allow this to happen and to really make this COP a truly Amazonian COP. This is only possible with a powerful presence, not just on the streets, applying pressure, which is very important, but also in the negotiations, which is what is not happening today at COP.

In Belém, part of the infrastructure for the event is being financed by Vale, a company which is responsible, in addition to so much destruction in the Amazon, for perhaps the two biggest environmental disasters in our socio-environmental history: Brumadinho and Mariana.

Belém is the capital of Pará, which is one of the states with the highest levels of violence, the most deforestation, one of the epicentres of the destruction of the forest, and Governor Helder Barbalho, despite her environmentalist discourse, is closely aligned with land-grabbing, mining, and predatory agribusiness. So this dispute is already being carried out by quilombola communities, riverside Indigenous movements and organizations, but it needs many more allies for it to be a truly Amazonian COP.

Micheliny Verunschk : You went to live in the Amazon to be closer to both the Indigenous people and the forest and to monitor climate change at its peak. Is there any chance of return — despite all these tragedies, the worsening climate crisis, and environmental issues?

Eliane Brum: I think returns are always impossible. My idea of ​​time is not planological, nor is it linear. It is much more circular, as is the case with the people I have most contact with. It has a circular shape that does not close, it is half spiral, half òkòtó [òkòtó is the Yoruba word for a shell that spirals outward into infinity]. So I think there could be a return, but it would be a return to another possibility, it would expand the world of possibilities in a return to ourselves.

I say at the beginning of Banzeiro òkòtó that I follow stories about people arriving in the Amazon for the first time, non-Indigenous people coming from other cities, with only urban experiences. In general, people get sick in the Amazon, they blame the water, insects, these unknown viruses. But later I came to understand that what happens to people is an overdose in the body. They come from a world that separates them from nature, a world of cement, of buried rivers ––as is the case in São Paulo––, living between blocks of concrete, where they sit, often in front of the computer, for hours, because the body doesn’t matter. It’s just this object that you use, so you put it in a kind of coma.

Suddenly they come to a place where the body is summoned. There’s no way it can’t be a body here. From the sun, the senses, the noises, the earth, the water, everything is body, everything mixes. Even the carapanãs, the mosquitoes biting you. There will always be something brushing against you, mingling with you, making contact, always something alive communicating with you.

People feel an overdose of senses in the body. The body comes into existence. And they are forced to remember that they are a body, and then they get sick. But, in reality, they were sick before. Getting sick is the beginning, perhaps, of healing.

Photo: Eliane Brum’s Personal archive

Diane Whitty : You made it clear that being translated was a painful experience, that your words are your body. Even in Portuguese, touching them hurts. Even more so in this interlingual crossing. Since then, your books have also been translated into French, Spanish, Polish, Italian, and Bulgarian. Has this accumulation of experiences with translation and with more translators changed your perception of your experience as a published author? What is that experience like for you today?

Eliane Brum: I have enormous gratitude for the translators who translate our words and make it possible for them to reach other worlds. To pour someone’s words into another language is only possible by inhabiting another body. So these people like Diane inhabit me for months and months in order write –– because they are writers too. I think it’s very fair that in Brazil we achieved what doesn’t happen in other countries, that the translators’ names are put on the cover of their books. When Diane translates Banzeiro òkòtó , she is writing, because she has no other way of translating. It is risky, and an act of immense courage, to allow oneself to be inhabited by another language for so long.

I talk a lot with my translators about what it’s like. I was with my Italian translator a while ago, and his wife was telling me that there came a time when she became jealous of me. He said he doesn’t pick up books that are too long, because it could end his marriage.

Diane in particular is my great love. It’s crazy really because we’ve never met. Our bodies have never met. It’s a very close, long-distance relationship. It’s incredibly generous. She is meticulous. She sees meanings that I hadn’t noticed before.

Marcos Colón: What do you want to write about today?

Eliane Brum: Today, I would write about rape. In the way I always write: through my body and being expanded by other worlds. I have two pieces of writing that I want to do. A journalistic book, a reportage based on 22 years of investigation, which hasn’t yet come to be written, and two pieces of writing that are disturbing me internally: one about rape and another about what fascinates me most right now in journalism, ‘more-than-humans’. In The Fungal Amazonia, the first chapter is called Failure, because it is about an experience of failure, but a necessary one, one of search, of movement. It is interminable.

The act of listening in journalism requires you to say goodbye to your judgements, your worldview, your prejudices, and to approach the world, which is the other, as empty as possible, and to allow yourself to be inhabited by this other, to wear that other’s skin. And then you make your way back, so of course all this passes through your body, how you inhabit a body that is so different from your own, like that of fungi.

It’s a wonderful kind of anguish, but still distressing, understanding how much our body limits our experience. This is one of our problems as humans, we think that the human experience is the universal experience. Living in the forest, I see bodies that are so much more interesting than human ones, which, I suspect, allows for much more interesting, profound, and fascinating experiences. This is the challenge for my writing today.

I see the Amazon being treated as a body to rape, and no one made this clearer than Bolsonaro, in his brutish brutality, when he said that the Amazon was a virgin that everyone wants. This patriarchal logic, the logic of rape… We cannot understand the destruction of the Amazon and all its biomes without understanding this logic of the body. The Amazon as a body to rape, and how this is felt through my body, through the rape of women.

Verenilde Pereira: About 70 years ago I was born on the banks of the Rio Negro, which metaphorically and concretely is now dry, but it will return. My origins led me on a path of resistance regarding Amazonian issues, Indigenous environmental issues, when the Amazon was not even on the global agenda. As a writer, it struck me how you say ‘I listen to the dammed lives of the Xingu and fail to convert them into words. Failure is a condition of those who write.’ My question is: was there any failure in this book? Do you consider there to be any gaps in the book, something that you didn’t consider, or did anything remain ungraspable, in a very deep, very distant way?

Eliane Brum: Really, I understand failure as a presence which needs to be pronounced and acknowledged by the writer, even if it is obvious that the words don’t fit, that life escapes us… this is present in some way in almost everything I write. Failure is the permanent companion of those who write, it is present in every line of every book. Sometimes, like when I wrote about fungi, it hurts. Because I see how far I am from being able to grasp the experience of another body completely radically different from mine.

Banzeiro òkòtó is a book that in Portuguese has an ending, but in other languages, it ends without an ending, which is both an expression of the fact that stories continue to be told, retold, transmuted, and also a physical recognition of failure. This is Diane’s idea, who understood that it didn’t make any sense to have an end point. But at that point, the edition in Portuguese had already been sent off. So we decided to make this much-needed change, to insert this absence, in other languages.

I don’t re-read my books, because they would be a source of suffering that I don’t want to experience. For me, the book is written first inside me, and then when it becomes a word, it is outside of me, it starts to have an existence outside my body. This is fundamental for me to be able to live.

Each reading is also another writing of the book. I’ve experienced many more things after finishing the book that could be included in it. But a book captures a moment. And Banzeiro is a story of a lifetime and many lives.

At one point in the book I write about agriculture and about ‘subsistence farming’, which is what we call farms that exist not for commercialization, for making money, but for living, families growing and farming in order to eat. And after I finished writing the book, the riverside people I live with showed me that it is not a ‘subsistence farm’, but that it is an ‘existence farm’. So there are things about the language in the book that I would like to change.

Verenilde Pereira: But it is still a painful process, dealing with words. In 2018, you said that translation was a painful experience, and that your words are your body, that people messing around with your words hurts you.

Eliane Brum: It is an act of extreme trust. Just as I am very grateful to the translators who make all this possible, I think it is important that each one of them knows that they are receiving an act of extreme trust, and that what’s in their hands is not merely a collection of words, it is the writer’s body.

I suffer more when I’m translated into English, because it’s a language I understand, so I have a deeper insight. It’s less painful when I’m translated into other languages ​​where I have no way of knowing. So I trust them blindly, in a way, because I have to take the editor’s word that that translator is excellent. But I will never know. I find this very disturbing, but I am building a relationship of conversation with my translators, of sharing about our lives, our opinions, our experiences, which helps me to like them. This helps me to suffer less, but we do need to take risks.

Rita Carelli: Is literature a river in which your voice converges with other voices? Is it a path, which continues advancing? Is it a home, where you enter, lay your hammock, rest? In the midst of so many things you dream and achieve, what place does literature hold for you?

Eliane Brum: For me, literature is body, but in my understanding of body, as the forest has taught me to understand it. It is a body in relation. There is no such thing as an individual, closed body. In this sense, literature, however authorial it may be, is always collective.

Literature is my body that needs to talk to other bodies, needs to be in relationship with other bodies. Therefore, the words need to flow from me, like a river, which cannot be stopped, because when it stops, when it dries up, I dry up.

Marcos Colón: Thank you very much for your words, which pierce us, envelop us, make us reconsider. I would say that more than bringing us points of view, your words bring us points of life.

Eliane Brum: I thank you very much, because I don’t have many opportunities to talk in this way, about words, about literature. Increasingly, the interviews are about the fires, the climate crisis… We talked about all of this, but we spoke about it from another place, which I think is very important, and allows me to rescue myself. I am very grateful that you sought out these important people, who honour me with these questions and help me understand myself.

Eliane Brum is Brazil’s most awarded journalist, according to a survey carried out by Jornalistas & Cia. She has published nine books, and is the director or co-director of four documentaries. In 2021, she received Columbia University’s Maria Moors Cabot Lifetime Achievement Award.

Production:  Marcos Colón & Vanessa Moraes
Podcast review and editing: Filipe Andretta
Text editing (Portuguese): Isabella Galante
Art and digital publishing: Fabrício Vinhas
Direction: Marcos Colón