Fiction | Brazil

The fight of the quilombolas

Politics clashes with everyday life in Brazil, in a story of sisterhood, race and religion. Itamar Vieira Junior's debut novel thrives on this colourful mix

Portrait of the author, a young man smiling at the camera.

Brazilian writer Itamar Vieira Junior is a geographer and ethnologist – and a descendant of the quilombolas, an afrobrazilian community whose ancestors were escaped slaves

Água Negra, a fictional country estate in the interior of the Brazilian state of Bahia, is the setting for this amazing debut novel, "My Sister's Voice". The fazenda is run by a community of quilombolas or descendants of escaped slaves.

The novel begins with an accident: two children from Água Negra, sisters Bibiana and Belonísia, injure themselves while playing with a knife they found among their grandmother's belongings.

Belonísia, the youngest, cuts off her tongue, and from then on, she is mute. Over the years Bibiana becomes her voice, and the two sisters are the narrators of the story until, in the third and final part, another, supernatural, entity takes over. This is only one of many enchanting peculiarities of this book.

“The novel revolves around the community on the fazenda: about its cohesion, its fractures, and ultimately, about its growing awareness of its own lawlessness”

Belonísia and Bibiana are in a way the protagonists of the novel and their lives form two parallel threads through the multi-layered plot: Belosínia has to stand up to a cruel man and finds unexpected strength, while Bibiana does everything she can to become a teacher for the children of Água Negra.

But the novel is also about the community on the fazenda as a whole: about its cohesion, its fractures, its customs - as well as its growing awareness of the lawlessness in which they live as black farm workers and farmers, decades after the abolition of slavery.

They forfeit their right to live on the land when they become too weak for the drudgery of the plantations. "The same slavery as before, only disguised as freedom", as Bibiana puts it. In the end, as an activist, she gives voice not only to her sister but to the quilombolas' uprising.

However, the didactic chronicle of Afro-Brazilian empowerment never dominates, but rather emerges casually from a stimulatingly stubborn narrative flow.

Although no dates are given, the fact that the land rights of the quilombolas were only incorporated into the Brazilian constitution in 1988 suggests that the plot probably stretches from the early 1950s to the late 1970s.

“The author himself, a geographer and ethnologist, lived for years in a Quilombola community”

The rituals of Jarê, a variant of Candomblé, a religion that combines Catholic veneration of saints with a spiritualism rooted in West Africa, play an important role for the novel and its structure.

The sisters' father is responsible for leading the ceremonies on the fazenda as a healer, and in general, the “enchanted” are an integral part of the community. As politicisation creeps in, a certain scepticism towards the Jarê spreads.

But a newly emerged “enchantress”, who at first takes possession of an old woman - “Despite Dona Miúda's age, the enchantress performed nimble turns in the room, sometimes as if she were throwing a fishing net over the bystanders, sometimes as if she were an angry foaming river” - seems to be able to influence the future of the fazenda.

“The Voice of My Sister” (in the original “Torto Arado” or “Crooked Plough”) describes how spiritual forces can become social forces. And although their traditional significance is fading, it is they who make this story possible.

The author himself, a trained geographer and ethnologist, lived for years in a Quilombola community and researched the history of his ancestors there.

The only downside to reading it in German is the fluctuating quality of the translation. Again and again, wooden, almost bureaucratic turns of phrase are mixed into the otherwise sensual, musical language.

Better proofreading would have improved the language but, fortunately, even this does little to diminish the power and magic of the novel.

“Crooked Plow” by Itamar Viera Junior was published in English by Verso. The German translation under the  title “Die Stimme meiner Schwester”was published by S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 2022.