Interview with RLL professor Bruno Carvalho

September 17, 2018

By Tiago Genoveze

First of all, congratulations on your appointment as a tenured professor of Romance Languages and Literatures. You received your PhD at Harvard nine years ago. How does it feel to be back on campus in your new role?

It feels like a homecoming, after a wonderful nine years in the Princeton faculty. I have great memories of my time as a graduate student here. It’s particularly meaningful and inspiring to try to carry on some of the work done by my dissertation advisor, Nicolau Sevcenko, who passed away in 2014. Harvard looks like a very different place from the perspective of a faculty member, and I look forward to learning the ropes and engaging in various long-term projects in the years to come.

In 2013, you published the award-winning Porous City: A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro. Since then, a lot has happened in your native city – mounting public security and debt crises, the hosting of the 2016 Olympics, military intervention, the assassination of councilwoman Marielle Franco, etc. Can you say a word about how these events may have impacted the city, as far as culture is concerned?

On the one hand, it’s striking that Rio swung so rapidly from optimism and euphoria to the current moment of doom and gloom. On the other hand, the city’s history has been marked by a certain amount of continuity. Some sectors have consistently sought to undermine what I see as the positive side of Rio’s “porosity”: lively popular cultures, and an urban life marked by encounters with difference, mixtures, circulation, exchanges. In Porous City I argued that despite powerful and resonant conceptions of Rio de Janeiro as a divided city, of wealthy high-rises and poverty-stricken favelas, its cultural history was in many ways defined by porous spatial boundaries and multi-ethnic encounters. Part of the idea is that as an overarching analytical category, porosity offers an alternative to established narratives that perpetuate either the notion of a divided city, or the myth of a racially tolerant haven. Modern Rio has always been both porous and divided. The latter hasn’t been an accidental or natural development, but rather results from structural inequalities as well as initiatives like urban reforms. What I call “olympic urbanism” in a co-edited book on the 2016 Olympics has left the city even more spatially segregated, and represented a major missed opportunity to invest in a more equitable metropolitan region.

Rio’s crises now seem to offer no light at the end of the tunnel: paramilitary groups are gaining power, a failed War on Drugs shows little sign of abatement, the debt crisis deepens, the storied National Museum burned down, and a good portion of the population is turning to authoritarian magic-pill peddlers and demagogues. Marielle Franco represented new possibilities: in a political culture where members of political dynasties run as anti-politicians, she came from a favela, and embraced her role as a public servant. She often pushed not for more or less government but for better government. Despite this and other tragedies, and amid an erosion of democracy, Rio and Brazil still maintain a reservoir of vitality and dynamism. Those of us who work as cultural historians know that things can always get worse, but we should imagine that others like Marielle can emerge. Against the odds, there are many people striving to make Rio a better place.

You have published research on Brazil on topics as diverse as city planning, environmental justice, and race. In general terms, could you speak about some of Brazil´s (or Rio´s) challenges, failures, and successes within these topics?

That’s a huge question – where to even begin? Brazilian society became one the most urbanized in the world over the past century, through processes that were anything but smooth. Brazil has at once been relatively peripheral to modernity and a nexus of cultures, ideas, civilizational models. As we know it’s at once the proverbial country of carnival, and of a flag with the positivist slogan “order and progress”;” it’s the country of the planned modernist capital of Brasília, and of the so-called “informal” urbanism of favelas. I often approach Brazil in comparative and connective ways, looking for links with other global contexts. Brazil has generated multi-faceted experiences and knowledge that can be relevant to other societies in Asia and Africa now undergoing comparable urbanization processes.

Some of our main challenges, like socio-economic inequities, are familiar and continue to be shaped by legacies of slavery. Others are relatively recent, like the management of transportation, health, security, education, and water systems in metropolitan areas with populations greater than those of small countries – or large countries from merely a century ago. Brazilian urbanism invested early on in the automobile as a privileged mode of transportation – car fleets have in some cases more than doubled in this century, rendering our cities more hostile, less livable. On the one hand, contemporary urbanism has absorbed important lessons from the failures of utopian, authoritarian, modern urbanism – of the type much in vogue in early to mid twentieth-century Brazil. Urbanism has become in many ways more modest and contingent. On the other hand, the scale of contemporary ecological and urban challenges demands that we once again imagine transformations with wide-scale ambition. Brazil presents a fertile ground for this challenge – I have written about some practitioners who are rising to the occasion in an introduction forthcoming here. And last – my teaching and writing often reflect on the ways in which urbanity and nature have been conceived in opposition and complementarity. The relationships between the built environment and ecosystems in Brazil hold a crucial key to our planetary futures. To me safeguarding Amazonia might be the most important issue facing us all.

You recently edited Essays on Hilda Hilst: Between Brazil and World Literature. How did you choose to focus this collection of essays on Hilda Hilst? Also, considering that Portuguese is a somewhat peripheral language, are there any particular challenges that literary academics, translators, and critics face in studying the works of Brazilian authors, such as Hilst?

Credit here is owed to Hilda Hilst’s excellent translator, Adam Morris, who envisioned this volume and kindly invited me to co-edit. She deserves a wider readership, and we hope this collection of critical essays on her work – the first in English – helps to give visibility to her literature abroad. We actually addressed the question you pose in our introduction: Hilst might have judged herself as comparable to James Joyce or Samuel Beckett in terms of literary invention, but her relative obscurity among contemporaries, she was keenly aware, resulted from the additional marginalization brought about by the language in which she wrote. In a late interview, Hilst offered the following advice to aspiring writers: “To the young, it’s what I always say: ‘Write in English. Nobody knows Portuguese’.” Whether facetious or embittered, Hilst’s assertion contradicts an enduring devotion to a craft that should lead her readers to take an earlier declaration more seriously: “I have great love for language, for my own language, which I find very beautiful.” Elsewhere in this book we reflect on how “as an author in Brazil, peripheral in the order of global modernity, Hilst renders the world from a perspective in which the blind spots of knowledge, the impossibilities of literary pursuits, and the limits of development seem more central. Limits are more legible, as they tend to be at the margins.”

Do you have any concluding thoughts to share? Could you give us a glimpse into what you are working on these days?

Here in the US, I have participated in an initiative on how anchor arts institutions can help to mitigate some of the consequences of segregation – as a specialist on Brazilian cities, I think that comparative perspectives can help to de-provincialize how we approach urban contexts in the US. As a scholar I’m interested in intersections between urban form, racism, and identity, as much as in how cities can be not just sites of violence, segregation, and crisis but also artistic creation, diversity and exchange, dynamism. At Harvard, I hope to work on the development of institutional spaces devoted to urban studies that allow us to bridge disciplinary as well as regional divides. I am also co-editor of the book series Lateral Exchanges, focused on historical and contemporary issues in design and the built environment, the series intends to play a leading role in scholarly debates on how circulation and exchanges can erode, produce or maintain global asymmetries.

Currrently, I have a body of work on the Luso-Brazilian eighteenth century which has yielded two edited volumes as well articles on poetry and urbanity, and the history of racism in Brazil and the United States – this should culminate in a book titled Partial Enlightenments. My main research project now however is on “Imagined Futures.” I intend to look back at how different designers, writers and artists imagined urban and environmental futures since the 1870s, asking: how did unrealized urban projects impact the imagination and development of cities? How might the imagined futures of the past help to expand the terms of current debates about cities and the environment?