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Silviano Santiago: The cosmopolitan literary

The critic, novelist, and poet pioneered transdisciplinary and postcolonial analyses of Brazilian literature

Léo Ramos Chaves

Born in 1936 in Formiga, in the state of Minas Gerais, Silviano Santiago’s intellectual trajectory includes stints in institutions in Brazil, France, and the United States. The novelist, poet, literary critic, and essayist was one of the first to adopt a postcolonial approach to Brazilian literary studies.

In the 1970s, as a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ), Santiago disseminated the work of Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), whom he had met when he taught French literature at the State University of New York (SUNY), in Buffalo, United States. He was also one of the first critics to include colonial documents in his analyses of Brazilian literature, paving the way for the use of comparative literature as an approach to reading the works of Brazilian authors.

Santiago has penned around 30 books, including novels, essays, short stories, and poems. His works have been translated into English, Spanish, Italian, and French. A five-time winner of Prêmio Jabuti and Oceans-Portuguese Language Literature Prize, Santiago also won the 2019 Ezequiel Martínez Estrada essay prize, from Casa de las Américas, Cuba, for his book Uma literatura nos trópicos [Literature in the Tropics]. Last year, for the 40th anniversary of its original release, the book was rereleased by Cepe Editora, including previously unpublished essays.

In this interview for Pesquisa FAPESP, from his Copacabana apartment, Santiago speaks on the origins of key concepts in his thought, his interest in addressing issues related to aging, and the scarcity of research on emerging authors.

Age 83
Area of expertise
Literary criticism, novels, and poetry
Fluminense Federal University
Bachelor in Romance Languages and Literature from the Federal University of Minas Gerais (1959), PhD from the Paris-Sorbonne University (1968)
Written works
30 books, including essays, novels, and poetry collections

Shall we start by talking about your time as a student?
There are three years at the start of my career that I consider decisive for the development of my intellectual and teaching approach: 1960, 1961, and 1962. In 1948, when I was 12, my family moved to Belo Horizonte, where I obtained my degree in romance languages from UFMG [Federal University of Minas Gerais] in 1959. At that time, there were no master’s and PhD programs in Brazil. Generally speaking, you would apply to become a professor at a university and, if approved, you then received the title of doctor. Therefore, if you wanted to continue your training, you had to leave the country. I was interested in French literature and culture and got a CAPES [Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education] scholarship for a graduate program at the Maison de France, in Rio de Janeiro. It was taught by two Frenchmen and targeted degree holders with good grades from all over Brazil. I was the only approved candidate from Minas Gerais. In 1960, I moved to Rio. During the program, I resumed my study of French literature more carefully and boldly, researching authors such as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre [1905–1980] and poets Paul Valéry [1871–1945] and Charles Baudelaire [1821–1867]. I also got to know the literary scene in Rio after meeting writer and journalist Alexandre Eulálio [1932–1988]. This was when I took a liking to literature. The program lasted a year and a half. The top three students got a scholarship from the French government to study in Paris. I was one of them.

What was it like for you, in France?
1961 was another decisive year. I was admitted into the Paris-Sorbonne University with a PhD grant from the French government. My thesis was about the genesis of The counterfeiters, a 1925 novel by André Gide [1869–1951]. I had discovered a manuscript of that novel in Rio de Janeiro, which intrigued me. But the amount awarded by the grant was just 400 francs, which was not enough to live on. So, I began working on a Rádio Televisão Francesa (French Television Radio – RTF) program for Brazil, and I realized that two years were not going to be enough to complete my PhD. That was when a friend wrote to let me know there was a job opening for a professor of Brazilian and Portuguese literature at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, United States. I decided to apply and was hired. So, in 1962, I moved countries yet again. This means that between 1960 and 1962 I left the context of populism in Brazil, arrived in France during the Algerian War, and then moved to the United States a year before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy [1917–1963]. In the span of three years, I was fortunate enough to experience crucial historic moments both personally and professionally.

You were under 30 years old at that time. How did you face so many challenges in such a short time?
When I arrived in the United States, I was to start teaching Brazilian and Portuguese literature. I was not ready. My specialty was French literature. To do the job, I suspended work on my thesis and began studying. This period of my life is crucial to understand why my view of literature does not prioritize a national context. From early on, my contact with different cultural contexts made it clear to me that the best approach for literary criticism is comparative literature. I had had quality training in Brazil and in France; I then suddenly became a university professor in the United States, living in a society that was changing significantly, with social and student movements. On the other hand, I would watch how the situation in Brazil was developing and the circumstances that led to the 1964 military coup. I’d also follow the wave of protests that spread through France in 1968, with one of the largest mass strikes in Europe, which lead the then French president, Charles de Gaulle [1890–1970], to resign the following year. In other words, I was able to experience these changing societies intensely and in loco. They have all taught me much.

How did these experiences impact your view of Brazilian literature?
My approach to literary criticism is, on one hand, postcolonial, while on the other, inclusive. When I began preparing to teach in the United States, I had no expertise in Brazilian and Portuguese literature. My experiences in Brazil, France, and the United States caused me to look at Brazilian literature with a certain innocence. This motivated me to question the fact that my view of our literature ignored the colonial period entirely. As undergraduate students, we learn that our literary history begins in the eighteenth century, mainly starting with Romanticism and ignoring the colonial period. One of the most significant concepts in this is that of “development,” referring to the moment when the Brazilian literary system started being constructed, once a reading audience had been established and Brazilian authors began exploring the idea of a genuine national identity. According to this view, Brazilian literature began when local authors started reflecting on the country’s national identity. This concept of “development” has impressed me ever since. When I put together a course on the history of Brazilian literature at the University of New Mexico, in 1962, I decided to start with the Letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha [1450–1500], a document recording his impressions of the land that would later become Brazil. With this, I proposed an approach to our literary history that included nonliterary documents. In these classes, I introduced a literary interpretation of the letter, pointing out how it included a central metaphor, that of the seed, later used by many authors.

Which authors used this metaphor?
In the case of the Letter of Caminha, the seed represents the word of God and the evangelization of the natives. One can also interpret it as a certain disregard for agriculture since, according to the document, “anything will grow when planted here.” The seed metaphor is so important, in my opinion, that it appears once again a century and a half later, in the Sermon of the Sixtieth, by Father Antônio Vieira [1608–1697]. However, it plays a less central role, because—as it turned out—evangelizing the natives was not as simple as it once may have seemed. Including colonial documents in the study of literary history led me to observe how important it was to complement the study of the literature of Brazil with the examination of its culture. In this process, reading the 1955 book Sad Tropics, by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss [1908–2009], was very important.

We learn more about literary works when we remove them from their national context

Because it helped me realize that Brazilian literature must be regarded within the theoretical principles of comparative literature and from a transdisciplinary perspective. Anthropology helped us understand the colonial period more than sociology, which guided the Enlightenment readings of Brazilian literature that prevailed at the time and dictated that our literary history indeed began with Romanticism. I proposed a reinterpretation of this history, deconstructing one of the strongest concepts of Brazilian thought of the twentieth century—that of “development.”

How important was this concept?
It was first used by [diplomat, jurist, and historian] Joaquim Nabuco [1849–1910], in his 1900 memoir Minha formação [My Formative Years]. In it, the idea of formation was seen from the perspective of the individual. However, when [historian and geographer] Caio da Silva Prado Júnior [1907–1990] published his 1942 book Formação do Brasil contemporâneo [The Formation of Contemporary Brazil], containing his interpretation of colonial Brazil, he used the idea of formation to define the parameters of the historical and economic development of Brazil. From then on, the idea of formation began structuring knowledge in different areas through the linear notion of historical time. Formação da literatura brasileira [The Formation of Brazilian Literature], by literary critic Antonio Candido [1918–2017], and The Economic Growth of Brazil, by economist Celso Furtado [1920–2004], illustrate this. Thus, the concept of formation can be considered the dominant paradigm during the twentieth century. However, in the literary field, it ended up excluding a more detailed understanding of the colonial period. And what I proposed was to insert a reading of this period into so-called postcolonial studies, a set of theories that seek to analyze the political and artistic effects of colonialism.

Once you left behind the idea of formation, what concepts did you use to interpret literature?
The work to be done was delicate. I defended my PhD thesis at the Sorbonne in 1968. I then became a professor of French literature at SUNY and developed an interest in Derrida’s theories. In them, I found support for my own reflections on literature. Through Derrida’s term “différance,” I began proposing transdisciplinary readings and articulating postcolonial ideas. “Différance” is a neographism created by introducing the letter “a,” only visible when writing the word différence [difference, in French]. It translates the double movement of the linguistic sign, which at once both differentiates and differs, questioning the idea of an indisputable beginning or absolute starting point.

How do you apply this to literary theory?
From this and other concepts, in 1971, I created the term “entre-lugar” [in-betweenness], a tool I use to explore literary texts from a postcolonial point of view. I thus move away from the idea of formation and instead think of Latin American literature as established in this in-betweenness, that is, “in between sacrifice and play, in between prison and transgression, in between submission to the code and aggression, in between obedience and rebellion, in between assimilation and expression,” quoting my essay “O entre-lugar do discurso latino-americano” [The In-Betweenness of Latin American Discourse]. The idea of in-betweenness encompasses the notion that we are both included and excluded from the West, in a place where we deconstruct the legacy and violence of European colonization in the search for our literary uniqueness. I also became interested in the dependency theory, established in Latin America in the 1960s, to explain the features of its socioeconomic development. My reading focused on a fundamental element—Eurocentrism—which affects both Latin American and African literatures.

How were your literary analyses received by the Brazilian intellectual scene?
The essay “The In-Betweenness of Latin American Discourse” was originally written in French and read at the University of Montreal; it was then translated into English. In Canada and the United States, it caused immediate repercussions. I have a strength that also explains the rise of my career in North America: I am a good teacher. The repercussions of my work were much more significant in the context of teaching than of books. In classes, the concept was well received. I used it while teaching French literature at SUNY. I would use it to address, for example, African contributions to French literature. In addition, my thoughts engaged with the philosopher of the moment, Derrida. This piqued the interest of my students. In Brazil, this essay did not spread as easily. My book Literature in the Tropics, which contains this essay and whose 40th anniversary took place in 2018, was first published by Perspectiva after much struggle, thanks to the enthusiasm and help of my friend Sábato Magaldi [1927–2016], a theater critic and historian. It was mostly ignored and only one Rio newspaper reviewed it. But that didn’t bother me. I believe the questions I ask disturb the environment and can generate discrete forms of censorship.

Personal archives Santiago receiving the distinction of Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1997. Also honored were Dalal Achcar, Heloísa Aleixo Lustosa, and Franz KrajcbergPersonal archives

How did the concept resonate throughout Hispanic America?
Its impact was greater. I am the only Brazilian to ever receive the José Donoso Ibero-American Literature Award, in 2014, for my contribution to literary thought and creation in Latin America. Part of this recognition comes from my analyses using this concept. My criticisms of Eurocentrism were uncomfortable for some. Derrida himself went through this. I considered myself a disciple of his and so I was judged in the same manner. Derrida was later studied by the new generations. In the 1980s, [publisher] Rocco reissued Literature in the Tropics. Today, the book is available in both English and Spanish, while “The In-Betweenness of Latin American Discourse” has been translated into 12 languages. The book has spread in its own way.

Your postcolonial view diverges from more sociological analyses, which presuppose a more linear development of literary historiography. Do these two approaches coincide at any point?
We learn more about literary works when we remove them from their national context. This causes some disruption, but this disruption is not exclusionary in nature. The two approaches complement each other. For example, we can read an author like José de Alencar [1829–1877] from the perspective of Brazilian nationalism, but there is another possibility, one that questions the very search for a unified national identity. A notion of unified identity solves all ethnic issues through the stereotype of the mulatto. But the idea of a national identity for a country as complex and culturally rich as Brazil, which has experienced such violence as the genocide of indigenous people and the slavery of black people, must be inclusive, that is, we must think of “forms of identity,” not a single identity.

Personal archives Silviano Santiago (standing) with authors Wilson Figueiredo, Autran Dourado, and Jacques do Prado Brandão, in PetrópolisPersonal archives

In the United States, you met Derrida and the French philosopher Michel Foucault [1926–1984]. What was it like to be their colleagues?
I had a great relationship with both French and Brazilian intellectuals in Buffalo. For example, I brought filmmaker Glauber Rocha [1939–1981] to the university to give lectures and organize a film exhibition. I also brought artist Hélio Oiticica [1937–1980], a personal friend of mine, whose work was shown at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, one of Buffalo’s main cultural hubs. I wanted to place high-profile Brazilian artists on campus and I suggested that Abdias do Nascimento [1914–2011] be hired for the chair of African Culture in the New World, at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at SUNY, where he later became an emeritus professor. At the same time, the university wanted to disseminate new knowledge relating to French culture, so I started teaching structuralism, a philosophical movement that brought together authors from different areas. Later, the institution hired French intellectuals to strengthen the department, so I had contact with philosophers like Michel Serres [1930–2019] and Julia Kristeva, in addition to Foucault. I remember when the Black Panthers organized a strike and Foucault refused to teach the course he was intended to teach on campus, instead offering classes at the home of Professor Raymond Federman [1928–2009], a French-American novelist, poet, and essayist. I became head of the department, along with historian and literary critic René Girard [1923–2015]. It was an exceptional department, and Derrida was also a part of it at one point.

You returned to Brazil at the height of your academic career. Why did you decide to leave the United States?
For two reasons. One of them was that, as a department head, there was some pressure for me to become a United States citizen and I did not want to lose my Brazilian citizenship. In addition, I felt that I had already learned everything I could abroad. So, I asked the university for a leave of absence and returned to Brazil to work at PUC-RJ [Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro]. After a year and a half, in 1976, I saw that it was going well and went back to the United States to resign. I returned my green card. I didn’t want to be tempted to return.

At PUC, you disseminated Derrida’s work in Brazil. What was that like?
Students found Derrida difficult to understand. So, I proposed that they put together a glossary of the main terms and concepts from his work, to motivate them to get familiar with the material. I suggested the entries and they added the definitions. The resulting book was published in 1976. It was well received. In countries like Brazil, I consider teaching to be a more powerful weapon than books. I never stopped writing essays and novels, but I also never stopped teaching at institutions, having advised 50 master’s and PhD theses. At least 15 of them have since been published.

Your return to Brazil from the United States was another unusual turn in your career.
There is something about my career that I don’t quite understand. It is not determined by rationality, although I am a very rational person. I am devoted, studious, and hardworking, but I did not plan these changes. They just happened. I only had great mentors and protectors at the beginning of my academic life.

The idea of a national identity for a country as complex as Brazil must be inclusive

How do your careers as a novelist, poet, literary critic, essayist, and teacher nurture each other?
As a teenager in Belo Horizonte, I used to go to the Cinema Club, which would bring together people of different backgrounds, including visual artists, musicians, and playwrights. This experience broadened my views on art and motivated me to exercise not only my scholarly side, but also my creative side. I feel the need to express myself through different languages: the subjective language of poetry, the conceptual language of essays, and the dramatic language of novels.

Do you follow Brazil’s contemporary literature scene?
We are experiencing a process of inclusivity that has inspired a dangerous conservative reaction. During these times when the focus is on inclusivity, we must not make definitive judgments on quality. In my last writings on contemporary Brazilian literature, I tried to make assessments without judging quality. The line between assessing new authors and teaching is, for me, rather blurred. The best master’s and PhD theses I have advised were not written by those who were the best students from the start. We need to believe that some people need support to flourish, while others may initially seem to be the best but end up fading away over time.

After experiencing different national contexts and literary languages, what issues concern you today?
I have been interested in issues related to old age. Time is not so elastic anymore and living is more tiresome. People become more selfish because surviving is harder than living. When living, we are less cautious. When surviving, we are more so. Many things are no longer possible and the world shrinks. We begin blending into the world itself. I have tried to clarify these issues in three books, one of them still unpublished. The first is Machado, about the last four years in the life of Machado de Assis [1839–1908], which won the Jabuti Award for best novel in 2017. It is a survival novel—the opposite of a coming-of-age novel. Authors like Gustave Flaubert [1821–1880] and James Joyce [1882–1941] wrote books that portray the artist at a young age. I wanted to portray the artist in old age. Another book I wrote during that same period was Genealogia da ferocidade [Genealogy of Ferocity], which was about Grande sertão: Veredas, by João Guimarães Rosa [1908–1967]. Published in 2017, it was immediately translated into Spanish. In 2019, it was adapted for Portugal. Up until then, my readings of this novel by Rosa had been modest, and I felt I owed it a bold reading. I recently started writing my memoir. I intend to write as many volumes as I can, and the first draft of the first volume is ready, which may be called Menino sem passado [Boy without a Past]. It covers 1936 through 1948. In it, I describe the rough beginnings of my early life. The loss of my mother when I was one and a half years old is the dominant theme. Another theme is my interest in movies and comics. During these early times, I had more contact with art than with reality. As poor as comics can be in terms of quality, they are a wonderful source of knowledge. Through them, I experienced events like World War II, while living in a town of about 30,000 people.