Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Paulo Scott is the author of Phenotypes.
A blistering account of the racism and colourism at the heart of Brazil’s society, he tells us why this is a landmark moment for Brazilian and Portuguese literature.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize?
It is only the second time that a book of Brazilian fiction has been a finalist for this prestigious award. So this is an important moment for my career as an author, but also for Brazilian literature and literature written in Portuguese.
I feel very lucky because I know how difficult Phenotypes is to translate – expressions are used that are very specific to the south of Brazil, which is the most racist region in the country. So I think that Daniel Hahn [translator of Phenotypes] has done an exquisite job, which will bring English-speaking readers closer to the complexities of Brazilian racism, Brazilian colourism – this country that the whole world sees as a place of racial democracy, but which, unfortunately, is not.
What first inspired you to write Phenotypes?
The novel is inspired by a poem I wrote when I was 20 years old. A poem that expresses a lyrical self that comes from a conflicted identity, based on a non-place (or an in-between place) – something that is experienced by light-skinned black people, as is my case, people who are identified, in Brazil (this country which is not a country of white people), depending on the situation, as white people. The poem expresses a tragic look, a tragic subjectivity. In the novel, the anger that this subjectivity can express is the driving element of the narrative, structured by the protagonist’s narrative arc. In the initial conception, the intention was to write a novel, without easy answers, about anger in a society as unequal as Brazilian society.
It is a place where the future – and not just from an environmental perspective - will determine, in many aspects, the destinies of humanity.
What’s your earliest reading memory?
At home, on my mother’s lap: she was reading aloud to me and I was trying to decipher the letters pointed to by her index finger.
What authors have made the biggest impact on your work?
Machado de Assis, Graciliano Ramos, Clarice Lispector, Dionélio Machado, Luís de Camões, William Shakespeare, Jean-Paul Sartre, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, William Faulkner.
How does it feel to have your work translated for people in the English-speaking world to read?
Brazil is a unique country, it is the centre of a unique and very powerful expression on the American continent, in fact it is a place where the future – and not just from an environmental perspective – will determine, in many aspects, the destinies of humanity. Knowing that the impact of colonial perversity, still so present in the violent Brazilian civilizing project, can be explored, in an updated way, in contemporary novels written in Portuguese and can reach readers of the main publishing market in the world is tremendous luck. It is an important moment to establish dialogue and reflections on possible transformations.
Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.
I have a small collection of paper staplers. Paper staplers that have broken and which I can’t get rid of. In these times when we have practically stopped using paper documents, they surround me like small dinosaurs, an important part of some times, of some memories.
And an interesting fact about the book.
The Portuguese title Marrom e Amarelo (Brown and Yellow) is inspired by what my father called me and my brother. For him, my brother is Brown and I am Yellow.
Tell us about a book that changed your life.
Nausea, by Jean-Paul Sartre. I was fifteen years old when I read this amazing novel. It was the book that made me want to be a better reader and, if I was lucky, a writer.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t fear loneliness, learn to love what haunts you, and write (without expecting applause) what is most important to you