FlipSide literary festival: Brazil's turning over a new leaf... in Suffolk

South America’s premier literary festival Flip is heading our way. Holly Williams reports

Brazil’s biggest literary jamboree, Flip – Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty, or Paraty International Literary Festival – has drawn thousands of visitors to the small, absurdly picturesque historic seaside town of Paraty every summer for the last 10 years. Featured authors get a publishing boost from the huge amount of media coverage (Flip can be hold-the-front-page news in Brazil), and the festival commands respect on the international stage; this July visiting authors included Lydia Davis, John Banville, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Geoff Dyer, and Tobias Wolff.

Flip was the first literary festival in South America, and is now a cornerstone of the cultural year in Brazil, but it was established by a British woman: Liz Calder, a powerhouse publisher who co-founded Bloomsbury and worked with Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Anita Brookner. As president of Flip, she’s now bringing things full circle, with a spin-off festival – FlipSide – at Snape Maltings in Suffolk next month.

As a young woman, Calder lived and worked as a model in Brazil; she’s held a deep affection for the country ever since. In the Nineties she began going back, looking for writers to publish in the UK, and when visiting Paraty, on the coast between São Paulo and Rio, she hit on the idea of starting a festival there: “Having seen other festivals, like Hay-on-Wye, it seemed to me that a location that itself attracts people is the best kind, because when you’ve enjoyed the feast of literary events, you can go out and have a nice time.”

After attending this year’s Flip, I can vouch for the success of this approach; the charming old-fashioned squares where people sit at night, discussing events over a caipirinha, or the beautiful beaches you stretch out on, a freshly author-signed book in hand, are as much a part of the appeal as the programmed talks.

Snape Maltings, an arts hub near Aldeburgh, may not be quite as tropically enticing as Paraty, but it shares a quaintly coastal atmosphere. The well-connected Calder, now living in Suffolk, has, as with the first Flip (which featured Barnes, Don DeLillo, Eric Hobsbawm, and Hanif Kureishi), corralled a corking line-up for the inaugural FlipSide. There’s an emphasis on cultural exchange, bringing Brazilian writers not only into focus but also into dialogue with Britain. The programme features “encounters” between Milton Hatoum and Ian McEwan, Bernardo Carvalho and Will Self, Adriana Lisboa and James Scudamore, as well as a “translation duel” between Margaret Jull Costa and Stefan Tobler.

“We’re partnering, in some of the events, a British writer with a Brazilian writer. It’s a mentoring thing, an introducing thing,” explains Calder. The Brazilian author Adriana Lisboa speaks warmly of FlipSide’s cultural exchanges: “For me, they’re probably its best part. It’s always a breath of fresh air to get out of our little ghettoes to see what’s going on: what people  think  in other parts of the world, what authors’  expectations, fears and hopes are.”

I ask Calder if she had always planned to bring Flip to the UK. “Not at all. It really has only been quite recently – partly to do with the Olympic legacy, the whole of Brazil coming into its own on the international stage. This is another way of continuing to disseminate more information about Brazilian literature. The Brazilians have an immense national pride in their own literature, but they don’t actually seem to care that nobody else knows about it.”

Certainly 2013 seems a good year for raising the profile of Brazilian authors; not only is Brazil experiencing an economic boom – highlighted by international events such as the 2016 Olympics and the 2014 World Cup – but recent protests there also flagged up to the rest of the world what a fast-changing country it is. Brazil’s literary scene also appears to be engaged with such issues too; at this year’s Flip, not only were several events added for swift reactions to the protests, but protesters were even demonstrating outside.

Asked if such international attention is having a trickle-down effect on interest in the Brazil’s cultural output, the novelist and literature professor Milton Hatoum commented: “Most likely. But the clichés about Brazil are still very strong: football, carnival, samba and violence. To reach the true culture and complexity of such an enormous country you have to cut through the stereotypes. Brazilian music, literature and cinema ought to be better known, but I’m not sure that the foreigners who come to Brazil for the World Cup and the Olympic Games will be interested in our culture. A lot of people – and I’m one of them – are critical of our hosting these mega-events.” However, he added that he hoped FlipSide might help attract British attention to Brazilian culture “in a way that goes beyond the stereotypes”.

Such thoughts were echoed by Lisboa. “My main concern is that the focus seems to be mainly on Brazil’s ‘exotic’ side. It has been always about soccer, carnival, samba and, more recently, drug wars and urban violence. Brazil is much more than that. What is also cruel is to expect that Brazilian authors write always about ‘Brazilian subjects’. An American or French writer won’t necessarily write about their own countries. They will write about whatever they want. ”

There will be plenty of all that at FlipSide – concerts celebrate the bossa nova music of Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, there are films about Tropicalia legends Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso; you can workshop Brazil’s famous dance martial art capoeira, or listen to a talk on Britain and Brazil’s mutual obsession with “football and futebol”. There are even street food stalls selling bean stew, feijoada, and the classic caipirinha cocktail. But, as well as embracing these well-loved cultural clichés (there is a reason such things are so enduringly popular), the festival is clearly set to open a fresh new Anglo-Brazilian dialogue.

FlipSide will hopefully introduce British readers to new voices, new writing and new perspectives from Brazil.

‘Crow Blue’ by Adriana Lisboa is published by Bloomsbury next month; Milton Hatoum has written for ‘Other Carnivals: New Stories from  Brazil’, published by Full Circle and launched at FlipSide. FlipSide is at Snape Maltings, Suffolk,

4 to 6 Oct; flipsidefestival.co.uk

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