Set in Brazil’s poorest region, this is a tender yet gripping story of two sisters bound together by a history of violence

Whether you’re new to Crooked Plow or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide, featuring insights from critics, our judges and the book’s author and translator, as well as discussion points and suggestions for further reading. 

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published


A fascinating and gripping story about the lives of subsistence farmers in Brazil’s poorest region. Deep in Brazil’s neglected Bahia hinterland, two sisters find an ancient knife beneath their grandmother’s bed and, momentarily mystified by its power, decide to taste its metal. The shuddering violence that follows marks their lives and binds them together forever. 

The main characters


Bibiana narrates the first section of Crooked Plow. With Bibiana’s twin sister rendered mute, she is left to translate her thoughts, gestures and expressions. ‘That’s how I became a part of Belonísia, just as she was becoming a part of me . . . we felt like Siamese twins, sharing the same tongue to make the words that revealed what we needed to become,’ she says. But Bibiana becomes tired of her role, translating for her sister, and flees in search of something more. 


‘Having lost my words, ashamed of what I’d done to myself, I closed myself off to the world,’ Belonísia says, her tragic accident as a child leaving her without a voice and consequently bullied in school. As an adult, she marries an itinerant worker, Tobias, who abuses her and takes advantage of her silence. 

About the author

Itamar Vieira Junior was born in Salvador, Brazil in 1979.

He holds a doctorate in Ethnic and African Studies. Before Crooked Plow, he published a collection of short stories entitled The Executioner’s Prayer, which was nominated for Brazil’s biggest literary award, the Jabuti. Crooked Plow won the prestigious 2018 LeYa Award in Portugal.

Portrait of author Itamar Vieira Junior

About the translator

Johnny Lorenz is a poet, translator of Brazilian literature, literary critic and professor of English at Montclair State University. His translation of Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life was a finalist for Best Translated Book Award and his translation of Lispector’s The Besieged City was listed as one of the ‘Best Books of 2019’ by Vanity Fair. His honours include a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, a Fulbright, and, most recently, an NEA grant to support his translation of the award-winning novel Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior. Lorenz’s book of poems, Education by Windows, was published by Poets & Traitors Press. His scholarly essays have appeared in Luso-Brazilian Review, Latin American Literary Review and Modern Fiction Studies.


Portrait of translator Johnny Lorenz

What the critics said

Oliver Basciano, Art Review

‘While Crooked Plow carries in its DNA the early books of Jorge Amado, the famed modernist writer who also took Bahia as inspiration, many of Vieira Júnior’s themes are drawn from his day job of 15 years at INCRA, a government agency dedicated to rural land-reform and the legacy of the quilombos (the settlements established by runaway enslaved people). At one point, Bibiana’s boyfriend notes the slippage of identity in response to the vagaries of Brazilian law: “we started calling ourselves Indians. Because we knew there was a law, even if it was regularly violated, that forbade Indians to be expelled from their lands.” In the final third of the book, the story takes an even darker turn, one that again reflects wider Brazilian history, as the disenfranchised begin to grapple not just with state violence and economic exploitation, but with that of criminal parastates in which the lines between legitimate business and gangs, politician and kingpin, are blurred. This is a saga that tells not just the story of two siblings, but the enduring dysfunction of a nation.’

Angel Gurría-Quintana, Financial Times

‘Since the publication of Crooked Plow, Vieira Junior has been hailed as an heir to a tradition of Brazilian storytellers from the north-east including Jorge Amado, Graciliano Ramos, José Lins do Rego and Joaõ Guimarães Rosa. A geographer and ethnographer by training, Vieira Júnior conducted academic research into the plight of Afro-descendant communities in Brazil’s north-east. Yet the prose is far from academic. It is rooted, instead, in the voices and languages of the sertão, in the names of the animals and plants, in the oral storytelling traditions of ancient communities, in the richness of the spirit world. That is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. An impressive first novel by an important literary voice.’

Kirkus Reviews

‘Among the laudable feats Vieira Junior accomplishes in this novel is the way it gradually moves from a highly specific story to one with implications for a region’s entire working class. In a book that often concerns itself with voices both singular and collective, it’s a stirring progression. This is a stirring, lived-in novel of struggles both personal and societal.’

What the International Booker Prize judges said

‘Bibiana and Belonisía are two sisters whose inheritance arrives in the form of their grandmother’s mysterious knife, which they discover while playing, then unwrap from its rags and taste. The mouth of one sister is cut badly and the tongue of the other is severed, injuries that bind them together like scar tissue, though they bear the traces in different ways. Set in the Bahia region of Brazil, where approximately one third of all enslaved Africans were sent during the height of the slave trade, the novel invites us into the deep-rooted relationships of Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous peoples to their lands and waters – including the ways these communities demand love, gods, song, and dream – despite brutal colonial disruptions. An aching yet tender story of the origins of violence, of how we spend our lives trying to bloom love and care from them, and of the language and silence we need to fuel our tending.’

Group photo of the International Booker Prize 2024 Judges; William Kentridge, Natalie Diaz, Eleanor Wachtel, Romesh Gunesekera and Aaron Robertson.

What the author said

‘While writing, I was very moved by the characters, especially the sisters Bibiana and Belonísia, and those who surround them. In the last chapter, there’s a moment when the narrator says: “Riding Belonísia’s body, I could feel that the past never deserts us.” The past is still present in our daily lives, and in the history of the Americas; colonialism has instilled a way of inhabiting the world that is very predatory, one from which we haven’t yet freed ourselves. And this is where we find the roots of racism and many of the collective struggles we face today: in an established system that ranks certain lives as having more value than others.’

Read the full interview on Words Without Borders.

Questions and discussion points

The loss of one of the sister’s tongues draws on a long lineage of literary history featuring women without tongues. Discuss what this could be said to symbolise, and in particular, how it intertwines with gender roles within the novel. 

Bibiana narrates the first section of the book, but after the sisters’ accident, the prose is carefully positioned in such a way to avoid revealing which of them has lost their tongue: ‘the one who was the other’s voice, the sister who spoke for both,’ Vierira Junior writes. It is only revealed at the very end of this section which sister has been rendered mute. Why do you think the author chose to keep the mute girl’s identity a mystery for so long?

Bibiana and Belonísia are young daughters of indentured farmworkers, just three generations out of slavery, which was abolished in Brazil in 1888. Despite this, their Afro-Brazilian family still work on a plantation, unpaid. Discuss why, despite no longer being enslaved, little progress has been made in liberating the family, or others like them. 

Crooked Plow is a novel written in three parts, with the first two sections being narrated by each sister whereas, in the final section, an ancient spirit tells the story. This section begins in first person, but then switches to second person. What did these perspective switches offer you as a reader, and do you think the novel benefitted from the adoption of these techniques? 

Many reviews have called Crooked Plow a work of magical realism. Writing in the Oxonian Review, Cate Farr called the label an ‘awkward fit,’ adding that this catch-all term distracts from ‘the complex insights and aesthetic effects opened up by the narrative’s interest in possession, kinship, doublings, and blurred agency’. Would you agree Crooked Plow is more than a work of magical realism? If so, why? If not, why not? 

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