'The Oppressive Weight of the British novel': An Interview with Yara Rodrigues-Fowler

by Stephanie Sy-Quia

Yara Rodrigues-Fowler’s debut novel, Stubborn Archivist, was longlisted for this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize and came out in the States in July. When trying to describe it, clichés abound: I could tell you that it explores growing up between two cultures (Brazil and London), that it mixes poetry and prose. What would be more apt is if I were to tell you that Stubborn Archivist runs rings around pronouncements such as these: in many ways it is a novel of refusals: a refusal to bow down to stereotypes of the multicultural bildungsroman, a refusal to fill in the gaps left by trauma, a refusal to translate either experience or language (it contains passages of unglossed Portuguese). It is a moving novel, and brings a quiet joy at pages’ end. I met Yara the morning after Notre-Dame caught fire. We sat in the cold of the British Library courtyard and drank coffee.

I want to start off with a question about form. Your novel flits between prose and verse. How did you reach the conclusion that this was a fitting solution for examinations of mixed cultural heritage?

There are so many factors when it comes to form. What came naturally to me as I started, what came to me as I went along, and then there’s the publishing industry and the pressures it puts on writers to produce novels and not weird hybrid form things. I will say that instinctively that scenes or characters felt most natural to me when I was expressing them as poetry. I think that’s partly to do with working, having come from and being influenced by Brazilian storytelling tradition — a lot of the literature of Brazil is in music or short stories (‘contos’ - tales). I was very interested in creating something that felt oral. It’s not just about the way the poetry and the dialogue looks on the page — it has an oral texture too. It was written to have a life read out loud.

But I was also very consciously acting against the tradition of the British novel. The idea that the linear, realist novel should be the default form is, for me, quite a European, English or Western/American default assumption. I did an English degree where we studied the Victorians and before that the Romantics. I felt felt the oppressive weight of the British novel as a tool both for domination: both imperial domination (think adventure novels), but also in terms of gender — so if you think of a book like Pamela, which is just a massive rape apologist chronicle — told from the first person (by Pamela) of all things! I was thinking of novels like that: beginning, middle, end; I’m your narrator, this is definitely what happened. I wanted to write something that felt interrupted, that disrupted that tradition, where the very textuality says ‘Hi, I’m a text! Someone’s put me together!’.

The title is also a reference to that: the process of archiving. All stories and archives include, or are shaped by, silence. If you look at Max Porter, the stuff that Bridget Minimore or Jessica Andrews are writing, you’ll see that the context is there already. And I think it’s to do with our digital lives — we punctuate so much less in conversations we have on WhatsApp, or online. I didn’t put speech marks in — again, lots of people don’t do that, but it’s the line between a thought, something you type out, something you say out loud.

When it comes to the publishing industry — the very firsty first draft that I went to my agent with was less than half as long. Editors were just like ‘No, you need to make this novel-sized.’ Then I made it bigger — and I’m happy with the stuff I added as it gave it more heft. But the question of what is marketed as a novel, what is allowed to be a novel, is very interesting. When I was writing it, I thought I was writing a short story collection or a novella originally, but a novel is much more marketable, particularly in the UK.

There are, as I see it, two sites of trauma in the novel: in the relationship with Leo and the friendship with Jade, but they’re very partially rendered. Why was that important to you?

Different reasons in those two cases. Another bit of trauma is the mother’s experience of the dictatorship, which again is partially rendered. In the case of Leo, I think it was very important to me to do it that way because (a) I was not interested in writing a rape scene at all, or scenes of emotional abuse. I’m not interested in making readers re-read or re-live that. This is not a text that is written to convince anyone that rape is bad or sexual violence is bad, or that it happens. It’s a text where you come to the text and you have to believe the protagonist, and that’s what the text demands of you as a reader. I wanted to centre survivors in what I was writing. Some people don’t need to be reading that in their leisure time.

In the relationship with Jade, the protagonist’s best friend, there is a break in that friendship. I wanted to show how often, in abusive relationships, a partner separates and isolates you from your friends. Sometimes they say ‘I’m jealous when you hang out with your friends, don’t hang out with them’, but sometimes it’s a less direct form of control, sometimes it’s about the shame in talking about what happened, or not having the words, or in feeling a huge distance in between friends. I wanted to record that — that inability to render fully what happened — and show that female friends are a safety network. When you leave a partner, you need other places to go.

Similarly, with the relationship between her hypersexualisation and the sexual violence she experiences: it’s not as simple as him forcing her, saying ‘Do this sexy Brazilian thing I saw in some porn’; it’s her wanting to be sexy and that’s very hard to get a handle on as it happens. There’s a long process trying to render what has happened and that leads to gaps. She’s grappling this very powerful gaze when she’s very young.

Yes! One bit that really chimed with me was when he tells her to grow her hair out. It was so banal, and violent at the same time. You can see the threat crouching in his demand.

Those early bits are very interesting, because I have read them out at events a lot now. When an audience is more drunk and I don’t give them any context, they laugh. And they should laugh, because in the moment, they do seem funny and fine.But if I read them at the beginning of the night when everyone’s more sober no one laughs. And if I say at the beginning ‘I will mention sexual violence’, no one ever laughs. It’s the ambivalence of loving someone who is abusive towards you, of desiring someone who is sexually violent towards you, that can feel confusing and shameful.

We have a hunger for depictions of trauma. There is something very carnivorous about it.

It’s not just about making people relive shit when they read; it’s also about showing on the page that these events and these violences don’t come out of nowhere, and they have far-reaching consequences. I wanted to put all of that experience on the page. I wanted that to be what people are reading: all the silliness and the complexity and the childishness of the protagonist as she heals, when she’s trying to be in her body again, and be sexual again, and the pain of it. I wanted to talk about all of the things that aren’t just the original violent incidents themselves.

I want to return to notions of gappiness. Did you ever encounter pressure to fill those gaps in?

Not from the editor I signed with at all, Rhiannon Smith, or from my US editor Pilar Garcia-Brown. Rhiannon was really great. But from other editors, yes. There were editors who were like ‘Can definitely get behind the voice, and the character and the ethnic-ness of it’, but had problems with the rather fundamental principle in the text of not translating or holding back.

This is another thing I wanted to talk about. Why was it important to you to have passages in Portuguese which were not glossed? There are some people who are acquainted with romance languages who can get the gist of what’s going on (as I did), but there will also be readers who will be completely at sea with this.

The reason I didn’t do that is because I don’t like italics. Italics are like ‘Ooh! Foreign word coming up!’. I don’t like that. The way we talk with children in the multilingual households that we live in is ‘bla bla in english, bla bla word in another language’. That is just how it is. I wanted to represent that and wanted to have in-jokes with people who are Brazilian, to invert the exclusion that Brazilian migrants experience every day [in the UK]. When I read certain books mainly from the US by Latinx writers, I have felt so included by them, even though I don’t speak Spanish. I can see what the words mean. I like that. I wanted to add to that tradition. It’s similar to what I was saying about sexual violence. If you add a glossary in, it’s like ‘Oh the answer’s at the back! Cool, done.’ I wanted to make it part of an endeavour of saying ‘Look at all you don’t know.’ I didn’t want to offer any easy explanations.

You’ve mentioned before how you would like this novel to increase the visibility of Latinx communities in the UK. Can you talk about the contours of the Latinx experience in the UK, grounded in the specificities of your own experience as someone of Brazilian heritage?

The first thing is that it’s a very heterogenous community. I was born here, my mum came to the UK 30 years ago and my dad is British. It’s complicated but I would say that I’m white, and certainly when I go to Brazil I’m white. That is not the experience of most Latin American migrants in the UK. When the protagonist of the book starts hearing Portuguese being spoken all the time in the street, that’s because there’s actually a huge influx of the number of Brazilians in the UK in that period. In the last ten years the number of Latin Americans has increased fivefold. And mostly it’s economic migration. There are lots of more economically privileged migrants, people who might come to work in big corporations or to do PhDs. But many Latin Americans migrants are working minimum wage jobs (sometimes earning below the minimum wage) and living in precarious housing, so there are many very different experiences of Latin American migration in the UK. Again, the experience of migrants who are white or white-passing will be very different from that of migrants who are Afro-Latinx, or indigenous, or mixed.

One big issue is the eviction of Seven Sisters Market, recognised by the UN as a site of cultural heritage, which is going to be sold off to developers and even a leftwing Haringey council isn’t stopping it, and now it’s going to the courts. There are similar things happening in Elephant and Castle. There’s also a campaign to get Latino recognised as an ethnicity category on the census. When you apply for UCAS it doesn’t exist. A couple of boroughs have it, I think Southwark and maybe Islington. By and large, no one is collecting data on Latin Americans (although there is some work being done by Queen Mary — where I’ve got my stats). Even when that category is added, even then, Latino is not an ethnic category — it’s not a racially or ethnically homogenous group.

One thing that’s very important to say about Brazilians in the UK, which I think comes out in the book, is that there are loads of very right-wing, fascistic Brazilians also. Brazil has a white ruling class and has since slavery was abolished. It’s a settler colony. It’s a big part of how politics in Brazil have always worked. This is reflected in the Brazilian population in London also: Bolsonaro would have won in the first round if you are just looking at the votes cast in London. It’s a really complex mix.

I am very interested in how you are received here because you are not a former imperial subject of this country’s. That troubles the relationship. Even though this country already has a hard time dealing with former colonial subjects, and that’s certainly been my experience. They’re like ‘What do we do with your rage? It has nothing to do with us. We’ve already got our hands full’.

Totally. In the book I’m writing now, and in Stubborn Archivist, a lot of it is about saying ‘Actually, there is a huge relationship between the UK and Brazil! And the UK and the Americas.’ Some people read the book and they say ‘Oh, a book in two halves, a person in two halves.’ No, actually. It’s one story, one history. The fact that England is rich and Brazil is poor is part of one story. There is one big global history that we need to reconcile ourselves to. It’s not that they are two things that never meet or don’t overlap. In the first book I was trying to show how huge-ranging the hypersexualisation of Brazilian women is and how it can even affect this white girl who was born in South London in the 1990s and is something that goes all the way back to colonialism and gets reproduced even in the bedtime stories she is told. I wanted to show that it’s not random; hypersexualisation didn’t come out of nowhere. It exists for a reason — it was a tool of colonialism. There is much more familiarity with Brazil in this country, but it’s football, parties, crazy sexy women. The UK did colonise different parts of Brazil at points. I’m putting that into the second book. During the dictatorship the UK was training torturers, but it was also accepting exiled artists. A lot of leftwing Brazilians feel very warm towards London. I feel constantly obsessed by this duality.

Something I experience a lot and which comes up in the book is that when I go to Brazil people are very rightwing and they will use their imagined idea of what Europe is to castigate Brazil. So they’ll say ‘things aren’t organized here, we’re not civilised, people are behaving on public transport in a certain way’. And it’s like ‘I’m from Europe and I call your bluff! This is bullshit.’ It’s so interesting how their connection to Europe as white Brazilians is something that is so present in their white supremacist rationale.

How do you feel when you see people talking about the form and the mixing of prose and verse? Does that slap of reductivism to you?

No. I’m honestly really grateful when people pay attention to the form and aren’t just like ‘a book about living between cultures’! My big fear with this book is that people don’t notice the sexual violence. Some people don’t. There was a very small review in the Observer (it got a very lovely, detailed review in the Guardian afterwards), which called it a book about ‘millennial romance’ and I thought ‘that’s awful’. It’s a book about sexual violence. I think my greatest fear is that it gets seen as a trivial, light book which is about women talking and identity. Or that they see the sexual violence and the identity as separate things. So when people talk about form I am grateful people are paying attention to the craft. A lot of women, and women of colour, don’t get the chance to talk about their craft. It’s ridiculous but most often people are like ‘Oh you’re such an oddity, this must be autobiographical’.

Your form hasn’t come out of nowhere. It is a natural endpoint of postcolonial poetics and historiographies in the past couple of decades. You touched on Max Porter and one of the reasons I find him so fascinating is that he has been hailed as having come out of nowhere.

Yes. Grief is the Thing with Feathers is interesting; it could have had another life as a long poem published as a chapbook. It’s very beautifully put together, but the fact that it was able to be marketed as a novel, able to receive prizes as a novel, be viewed as a novel. . . . is interesting.

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues-Fowler is published by Fleet.