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March 28, 2014 8:06 pm

Brazil’s book festival rewrites the rules

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As its economy has opened up to the world, so too has its culture
A view of Paraty during Flip, or Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty©Foto Arena

I first heard of Paraty in the mid-1960s while I was living in São Paulo. People spoke of a mysterious, idyllic fishing village on the Atlantic coast, halfway between the city and Rio de Janeiro, unreachable except by sea and inhabited by fishermen and artists. It sounded like a lost paradise. A road was finally built in the 1970s but I didn’t visit the town until the early 1990s. It was a sleeping beauty: elegant Portuguese colonial houses gently crumbling, no cars, cobblestoned streets, a stunning setting between forested mountains and a huge, tranquil, island-strewn bay.

In the mid-1980s I was involved in setting up the publishing house Bloomsbury in London, and, in 1988, I met a young Brazilian publisher, Luiz Schwarcz, who was setting up a publishing house in São Paulo. With Companhia das Letras, he raised the production and design standards of Brazilian publishing, bringing out beautifully produced books by the finest international writers. He also introduced me to Brazilian writers such as Chico Buarque, Rubem Fonseca, Milton Hatoum, Paulo Lins, Patricia Melo and many more – writers I then published at Bloomsbury.

It was through Luiz that I met Mauro Munhoz, a visionary architect who was trying to find a way to bring to Paraty a means of sustainable prosperity. The town, with its restaurants and bars and colonial houses converted into hotels and pousadas (guest houses), seemed to me the perfect location for a literary festival. Luiz and Mauro were enthusiastic but generally Brazilian publishers were sceptical. “No one will go to Paraty,” we were told. “It is too far away.”

Author and musician Chico Buarque at the 2009 Flip festival©LatinContent

Festival spirit: Author and musician Chico Buarque at the 2009 Flip festival

But we persisted. Over three years we scraped together enough funds to put on a small festival. We invited Don DeLillo, Julian Barnes, Eric Hobsbawm, Brazilian children’s author Ana Maria Machado and Hanif Kureishi. We announced their names, set the date for August 2003 – and to our astonishment the media attention exploded. Our early expectations were for 200-300 visitors. Front-page stories in the newspapers fuelled a huge demand for tickets and, by the opening day, we were thronged by a crowd of 6,000. At the last minute we succeeded in securing sponsorship from the national electricity company, Eletrobrás, and a marquee and screen were erected in the town square to take the overflow from the main venue, the Casa da Cultura (capacity 160). The people of Paraty rose to the occasion: the bars, restaurants and pousadas buzzed. Hobsbawm was chased down the street by fans.

Over the past 11 years, Flip, as the festival is known, has gone from strength to strength. More than 280 writers from all over the world have sampled Paraty’s hospitality; the number of visitors averages 25,000 over four days. Previously, the town relied on tourist spending over the combined periods of Christmas, New Year and Carnival for almost all of its annual income. The takings over the four days of Flip now exceed that. It has become the biggest event in the town’s calendar, and a rare example of a literary festival changing the economic landscape.

All this has happened at a time when Brazil has gone from slumbering power to major world player. And as its economy has opened up to the world, so too has its culture. Where previously it denoted football, samba and street violence, its literature, cinema and art are at last being taken seriously.

Established writers are enjoying wider international acclaim – Melo recently pipped John le Carré to win the international category of the German Crime Fiction Award. More than 70 Brazilian writers appeared at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, when Brazil was the “Country of Honour”. Granta’s Best of Young Novelists series recently published a Brazilian edition, and some of the authors featured in it – Daniel Galera, Tatiana Salem Levy and others – are finding international readers. Last autumn we launched a new literary festival, FlipSide, which opened to more than 4,000 visitors at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, with another planned this year.

When we set up Flip, it was with the rather lofty hope that we might help bring the world’s attention to the hidden treasures of Brazil’s literature. One way or another, some of those treasures are, at last, being discovered.

Liz Calder is co-founder of Bloomsbury Publishing and Full Circle Editions. She is also president and co-founder of Flip and FlipSide

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