Seeing full circles: The flipside of a literary festival
For in all countries, the natives have been so far conquered by naturalised productions that they have allowed foreigners to take firm possession of the land. As foreigners have thus everywhere beaten some of the natives, we may safely conclude that the natives might have been modified with advantage so as to have better resisted such intruders.
(Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species)
On a cold but sunny Saturday of early October 2014, there were only two trains from Kings’ Cross, in London, to Ipswich, a city in eastern England. As I arrive, I spot a man in his 50s waving from the other side of the track. The gentleman was there to drive me in a large Citroen van to the event I was attending. We were going fast through the heart of the Englishness. We ran entrenched between the ancient village of Saxmundham and the coastline town of Aldeburgh, heading towards the Snape Maltings complex. This lovely spot is where Flipside, a Brazilian literature festival, was taking place over the weekend.
Amid an inglorious silence, I glanced over that bucolic grass in despair. I wondered how life could be possible over the next two nights. No mobile signal to both of us forced an awkward communication. We started with a subject that I knew what was going to be the answer. It was like striking the ball that would lead to an own goal. I asked the gentleman what he knew about Brazil, the theme of the festival he was driving me to. He kindly answered:
“I saw some slums in a BBC documentary.”
Well, this is a good start, I joked.
At each mile we went on, the remoteness of floodplains displayed a vast stretch of wild grass, but not as rough as Brazil’s image to these people, as I supposed. The sentiment was growing in me, and it was about this kind of countryside comradery that envelopes anyone venturing into the small-town mystery. To be unknown in a place where everyone knows each other. We stopped briefly to catch another fellow who was also heading to the site. It was a young, talkative young Englishman who was carrying drumsticks. He said he was excited to listen to Lionel Shriver, who would be speaking at the festival. He said he had an acquaintance who was best friend with the American author’s husband. All this packed up our conversation, mine and the driver’s, about Brazil in an abrupt way, which was more than welcome.
We finally stopped by a large gate of a farm-like site. It had gracious magenta brick walls adorned with Norman doors which resembled those of an ancient horse stable. The rendezvous was in full gas. There was no time for introductions. As a volunteer, a young lady quickly briefed me. She was probably saying that for the 11.000th time that day. She said I was “appointed” as an “artist liaison”. My role was to “shadow” guest writers. They did not expect me to interact much with them. Okay, I said.
That two-day internship seemed to satisfy a kind of old curiosity of mine in rural England. Who were those mysterious people that claimed their capital was London? That was the city I lived but how come I had never lived close to them. The foreign bubble I inhabited did not allow that kind of experience. I knew they existed, but I wanted to flesh their existence out in a sort of Anthropological gaze. I turn the mirror to them.
In that relatively unknown UK event, I could orbit around notorious Brazilian writers that faced the talks they would give as their Cannes. I nonetheless expected them to be slightly more accessible outside their tropical habitat. In Brazil, literary festivals have fans and bodyguards surrounding writers like megastars. And yet, I was not still quite convinced I should have stopped there as everything seemed so tied up as a community. People looked each other in the eyes. They served foods on personal plates with their names. Even the standard t-shirt seemed to fit better in them.
In any case, I was there to follow the steps of a notorious British editor whom I knew a lot by name, Liz Calder. I had read very little about her past, but I was familiar with her backstage presence since my early years as a student. Back in time, she was some sort of cultural luminary. I always wondered how that lady in her late seventies could have become a star in that literary microcosmos in Rio de Janeiro.
To my surprise, at Snape Maltings, writers were also stalking her on corners. Her appearances were also fluid and swift, as depicted in the press. She was also escaping from the abyss of communality, in which I was also now physically involved. In-person, she had attentive eyes and an authoritative presence, but which did not subdue her tribe. I decided to go on with my voluntary experience and almost invisible role, despite my unfitting presence, much because I wanted to observe Liz Calder in further detail.
Calder brought Flipside to life at the Snape Maltings. Still, that event was originally a rib of the International Literary Party of Paraty or just Flip, known in the Southern hemisphere. Flip used to be one of the most important cultural events of Brazil. Her good relations and talent made her fame in the primary cultural circuits of the country. No one could grasp more about her intentions or dealings.
One popular narrative had Calder’s widely accepted as a patroness because she was an “important” broker for famous Western authors to a market of 200 million Portuguese speakers. Writers such as Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and Julian Barnes one day appeared in her list of protégées.
In the late 1990s, she was a director at Bloomsbury when they gave J. K. Rowling a chance. Calder’s warm acknowledgements appear in many titles: from history books about Ancient Egypt to cosmetic biographies; from video art to social history. On 02 September 1982, the London Review of Books published a letter from someone signing as Liz Calder:
“SIR: Your readers may be interested to learn that Edie by Jean Stein, co-edited with George Plimpton, so seductively described in his Diary by Ian Hamilton, will be published here by Cape on 28 October”.
From her early start as a publicist at Jonathan Cape to the status of literary semi-celebrity, it all makes a rather fantastic trajectory. Originally from the UK, having lived in New Zealand, then in Brazil, more than an exciting life, Calder has no single record of public failure. Years and years of press coverage bring no pitfalls up — a woman of books, whose story is not in the books. The truth is that far from the writers’ public persona, the administrative éands behind them is barely known. They are not less exciting, and, yes, they often hold the juicy gossip that could dismantle literature as sanctimonious ground and restore its mundane thirst for fame and vanity.
It is not clear whether it was a career shift towards the sun or a strong sense of opportunity or both, but Liz Calder first went to Brazil in 1964. It led to a four-year stay. In her youth, she had modelled for brands such as Paco Rabanne and the now vintage Biba. One of her early posters shows a sexy woman covered by a large pearl necklace. Fingers serve three shiny rings. In her arms, a sculptural and polished bracelet.
“She was a tanned and beautiful girl, and her ads had lots of highlights and won the columnists’ awards”.
That’s how some contemporaries in Brazil described Calder in magazines. She would occasionally escape to Brazil back to the UK but always returned with promising Brazilian literary names for translation. In Calder’s home country, Brazil was best barely known, at worst, home of illiterates.
In 2013, Calder told BBC less generous thoughts about her adopted country. It is intriguing that after living so many years in the country, her thoughts remain one of an average British person, ready to not tackling her ability to maintain stereotypes well conveyed in an immense sense of we:
“It’s a strange thing. It’s such a vast, vast and complicated country, in a way being settled in stereotypes. We think of it in terms of football, carnival, samba, and we don’t think of it in terms of literature, but it thinks of itself in terms of literature. But because [it is] so vast, it feeds for itself. It doesn’t need to sort of come out”.
At the British Flipside, the idea offered a fabulous retreat for literature and leisure, but not necessarily by labelling itself ‘another Brazilian event’. Those are probably things for London. Here, the festival’s logo represented a mix of exotic elements with the culturally acceptable. The image showed a group of people with books in their hands on the swing of a hammock strung between two coconut palm trees.
In time, small tents emulated the very British sense of multiculturalism. Gentle ladies with big hats on invited people to taste the traditional ethnic food with a few of their representatives hanging around. There were football matches among heterosexual authors and the unmissable capoeira. As far as I remember, I never saw any cricket match mixed with British literature in Brazil.
That weekend was particularly tense for Brazilians. They were going to vote for president in the 2014 presidential elections. The left-wing candidate Dilma Rousseff risked a landslide vote against her, and her party could vanish from power after twelve years (that wouldn’t happen). The political uncertainty appeared in many debates at Flipside.
A few British guests tried to argue with the passion whatever they thought was the solution. But as in any conversation about Brazilian politics, these are debates that usually end emptied by their exhaustion and without any hopes that non-Brazilians can fathom the issues without appealing to partial truths. Scholars, the so-called brasilianistas, are those to trade these impressions by unashamedly speaking only to themselves.
The public knew about their elective affinities throughout the event. Sessions with Colm Tóibín, Lionel Shriver, and Margaret Atwood were far busier than anything Brazilian. Suffering from the loneliness of the birthday child, Brazil had the homage but couldn’t throw the party on its way. Many discussions have not lived up to the clichés of cultural clashes between any culture represented there.
Either aware of these issues or not, Calder has repeated many times her shock with Brazilian shyness with its affairs, as she said to the Independent in 2013:
“The Brazilians have immense national pride in their literature, but they don’t seem to care that nobody else knows about it”.
This “nobody else” is unmistakably the English-speaking world. Contrastingly, though, Flipside aims at the pioneering vision that Calder has put forward in Brazil and that Brazilians allowed her to do so. She knows she comes down as the mother of the country’s first big, commercially feasible, elite-attended literary festival. This concept of coolness and smart glamour was new to South America at Flip’s kick-off in 2003.
As ordinary, s it could be, Flip has become a game-changer to how Brazilians engage with this globetrotter marketing strategy of book “festivals”, regardless of the country’s tiny readership.
Flip’s debut was controversial. The UK media told with its typical disdain what was going on. The Telegraph, imperially, said, “Hay-on-Wye goes to South America”. In Brazil, commentators reacted cautiously:
“Calder and her entourage walked out from the party straight into her millionaire beachfront mansion”.
Journalists called the “British dream adapted to South America”. Stories from this time were doubtlessly parochial. The suspicion of a White foreign woman but who happened to have total access to local White, wealthy influencers is not unusual. In contrast, local writers and producers still fought for their place under the sun of a then-booming economy.
The entire agreement between British and Brazilian literary celebrities to Calder’s Brazil project slowly set the festival’s mainstream contours. The option of placing itself in a specific atmosphere of a little, 18th-century colonial town was accurate. The event eventually got the buy-in of sponsors, writers, actors, musicians, and artists. They all embarked on a sort of exoteric immersion for three days a year, as far as it hit the headlines.
Examples of foreign success in promoting all things Brazil for Brazilians are not scarce. For instance, if the budget was tiny, it has got lots of public money today. If the festival was a flagship enterprise in its early days, it became a model exported to Brazil’s corners. If she was just another rich foreigner infatuated with the kaleidoscopic mess, she later became a foreigner carrying a medal awarded by President Lula.
All this is entirely Calder’s merit. However, one could legitimately ask the extent to which Brazil’s Flip connects (or if it should connect) with Brazil. Local demands of democratisation clash with a handful of powerful editors’ and their commercial ambitions.
At the end of my first day at Flipside, a festival staffer drove me to a lodge. Again, here we are back at dark, foggy, and suffocating rural lanes again. We cut through the most rustic and picturesque cottages seen only in the perfect Turner. Thirty minutes into labyrinthine ways, I left the sweaty but frozen auto to enter a tiny, old cottage house.
I just knew the first name of my absent host, Rosie. The lovely low ceiling building matched carefully adorned walls, entirely covered with photographs of adorable unknown people, whose faces fitted perfectly in blue baby frames, triangulating with vernacular, fake, and vintage furniture. The occasional and brutal noise from the rail tracks violated the deafening silence, but the brick-layered peace was there to stay.
Compared with the sunny, loud, rocky-paved, wild Portuguese baroque city of Paraty in Brazil, the contrast here was striking. This ancient British village is not undeserving of its captivating atmosphere of helpful people. It is only strange that both places seemed tied to a renascence through books, authors, and benefactors.
In the case of Saxmundham, a strange name that retains its Anglo-Saxon aggressivity, it remained unclear if Flipsidemeant anything for those participants, as Flip did for the thousands that attended Paraty every year. I do not imply that Calder intended to wake up the sleeping indigenous, saturated with their craft’s culture and books.
Leaving aside my solitude that evening by engaging with a pack of fish and chips sourced locally, I tried to convince myself that this was indeed the corner in which formerly adventurous and currently retired, upper-middle-class Brits came to complete their life trajectory. The difference was that Calder’s life now retreated to Paraty’s closest antithesis, while she was, perhaps lying to herself, that one day she had left England’s traditions behind.
Paraty had proved to work well in many ways. Calder told reporters how difficult it was to make the first Flip happen amidst uncertainties and budget shortage. The first edition attracted around six thousand people. Discussing the differences between Flip and Flipside with people over lunch, most of them agreed in their entirely different natures.
“It is hard to compare, but the image of the country contributes to people’s attendance. It’s expensive to come from London with the family.”
A Brazilian attendee told me.
Paraty, however, has an extensive tradition of widespread attendance from all over Brazil. Popular in the sense of grassroots, brown, black, working-class people. I saw that Flipside was far from being an inclusive event.
Despite the mass attendance, Flip’s problem was with its mainstream curatorship while pandering to Western culture as a paradigm that needed hailing. The traditional last-minute cancellations from its “global” celebrity guests hinted at this need to be back at the multi-billionaire publishing houses to pursue relevancy.
Aside from Calder’s friends brought by her interest, many American or European authors hit Brazil’s headlines for their sudden mood change for crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean after having enjoyed the publicity given and boosted their sales in the South American sub-continent.
Suppose these were marketing coups or the daring conditions. In that case, this list includes the late Antonio Tabucchi, but also with contemporary bestsellers, such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Michel Houellebecq, and, more recently, Roberto Saviano. He claimed to feel insecure due to his reporting on Brazilian drug gangs. Had he felt insecure attending one of the UK’s literary festivals a few weeks before?
Back on day two, the visitors I interacted with consisted of enthusiastic Brazilian or Portuguese literature students, Portuguese language teachers or translators, or random travellers with their families en route to the sea.
“Everyone here has some interest in getting published. She [Calder] is the name.”
I heard from a young Brazilian woman with whom I happened to have long conversations.
Many of the activities have ignited only thanks to the legion of village volunteers, including children and grandchildren of Calder’s close friends. They all seemed very happy and entertained. They also looked far too young to know anything about Brazil and why that was going on.
As my access to Flipside backstage grew more natural, I could spot Calder from afar and think why not have a chat with her. She had a happy face but distant eyes. That day she wore a long blue jacket and a smooth jumper, thick necklaces as if she was still modelling for Biba. Authors and event producers formed a natural contention belt around her, a sort of literary bodyguards. In the preface of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie thanks Calder for helping him to “untangle some knots”:
“The role of a great publishing editor is often effaced by the editor’s modesty. Without Liz Calder, Midnight’s Children would have something rather less than she helped it to become”.
The kind relationship between Calder and her group of author protégés included some points of no return. For example, Salman Rushdie’s departure from her inner circle is a story generally told with understated elegance. Rushdie gives his account on the autobiographical Joseph Anton. It seems not the regular contract break up, but a friend’s last chapter.
“The sweetheart deal was cancelled, Liz and Deborah were both deeply hurt, and the auction followed”.
The sweetheart deal is an irony for the financial turmoil that can poison the friends-with-benefits relation between editors and authors. More friends will mean more collaboration in a snowballing effect, but more famous does not mean more friend of someone you already know. It is normal, to say the least, to narrate disagreements, and ego wars, as these facts become more than just gossip. They are part of the raw material for other stories and book deals, profits, bankruptcies, or a kind of full circle. Editorial rejections also compose the intimate life of an editor. According to Carole Klein’s book, Calder once turned down a manuscript by the future Nobel Prize Doris Lessing.
Invited to the 2012 Flip, late Brazilian writer João Ubaldo Ribeiro refused to join. He was reportedly protesting against the market monopoly of authors from Luis Schwarcz’s print house. Schwarcz was one of the main Calder’s partners at Flip since its first beginning. In 2014, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo wrote that the beija-mão practice (hand-kissing) was the predominant reality at Flip. That analogy referred to Brazilian King John VI’s court, whereby subjects paid him reverence in exchange for favours and benefits. It was a disagreeable metaphor.
In 2014, indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa stormed a reading to protest against death threats against his Amazonian tribe. His act broke during a famous Calderian ritual, in which guest authors do a final public reading of their favourite piece. What did those public tensions mean to Calder herself? It’s hard to know. These signs assert that the “festival for friends” in Brazil comes slowly towards a loud, chaotic, popular gathering to be disputed by the local editorial players.
Far from the celebrity circus, Brazilian literary blogs gather much legitimate dissent against Flip and its façade of a publicly funded crowd while meaning financial profits for the few. The general argument challenges Flip’s undisclosed commercial bias.
Radical authors argue about the unfortunate use of public money (the festival has received funds from Brazil’s Culture Ministry). Others dispute the alleged commitment with emerging names, whereas those that hit the talks are generally well-established, deal-signed authors.
Brazilian Poet Nei Duclos wrote on his blog:
“It’s amazing that in a literary party there is no transgression. Everything goes as a mega commercial event. Flip is not useful to reveal anyone; it’s only to reiterate what the market has defined”.
Other authors have managed to create their alternative events, which turn out to be bitter and satirical. The most famous of these parodies is the Flip-Pobre or Flip of the Poor.
Living apart from Brazilian sensitivities and dismissing the pains around her festivals, Calder has hinted that she’s now miles away from Paraty. In her late seventies, she sold her beachfront house in Brazil and moved from London to Suffolk in 2008, creating a small publishing house with friends. If not retirement, that move suggests mild plans. “If you live long enough, you begin to see full circles wherever you look”, she wrote to the Financial Times in 2010.
Approaching my final hours at Flipside, I crossed the tents and spotted a woman in blue jeans. Her eyes revealed the fatigue from a highly fulfilled life, a sort of Charlotte Rampling in the 70s. I asked her if anyone would drive me back to the station. She was very considerate of my request and said that she would do it herself,
“if this is just to drop you at the station.”
While waiting for the kind lady alone close to my corner, I admired the Britten Studio, the concert hall founded by composer Benjamin Britten, now part of the Snape Maltings complex. I was stunned to see how the thick, dark, and hard-brick walls contrasted with the freshness from yellowish Japanese leaves, surrounded by miles of green, semi-flooded fields. It was an allegory to this projected image of Brazil. The whole thing smoothed out the country’s image so it could fit that people’s imagination.
Flipside was otherwise more about a community looking for itself. Calder’s ideas of showing Brazil abroad were indeed well-intentioned. It is more than profit-making. Nevertheless, one still found a heavy gloss of the British mythology about how things must exist purposefully, systematically, beautifully, and not as they do in their original state. In Calder’s mind, as in some British circles, one’s sense of life should be one of building bridges towards a clean-cut end. It is about assuming that one knows what the world needs as the world must speak English and enjoy the peace of a wet countryside.
Calder has achieved a goal of engaging her fellow villagers in hard work, giving them her purpose. As a sovereign queen, she kept on mediating the distant, wild world miles away, “the heart of the darkness” on behalf of her compatriots. While her big project was happening, she has inevitably fulfilled the Calvinist ideal of personal salvation by collective action. The problem with Flipside was at not avoiding the post-colonial echo that reverberated all around. Joseph Conrad would be proud, but not Stuart Hall.
“Liz wants to meet and thank you all for dinner with the authors.”
I heard from a senior volunteer. While I considered joining, the woman in jeans reappeared, and I offered no resistance to go at that very moment. On our way back to the village, the tight roads now appeared less tense. A gorgeous pinkish sky led my eyes to the rear mirror, wherein my eyes met the magnified driver’s ageing but beautiful face. Breaking the embarrassing silence again, she told her name was Rosie. She asked what I thought of her house. After a brief shock, I said, nice to meet you and paid many compliments to her beautifully decorated home once more.
Approaching my drop-off, Rosie showed me a pretty flower-in-the-window cottage very close to the roadside. It was Calder’s place in Saxmundham. They are friends since long ago, and in an emulated or real guilt, she confessed to being very tired on that day and could not give her best. The image of us leaving before the end resembled one of two non-loyalists escaping in a car. It was a great liberation.
I lamentably missed the talk with the emerging names of literature. I missed paying myself by getting some free drinks. I missed cultivating my network, maybe selling my work. Most importantly, I missed the real Calder. I would have missed producing this piece, which Calder would probably never publish.
Weeks later, I heard that next year’s Flipside would drop the Brazilian from its name and turn more Latin. In the face of a severe political and economic crisis that affects Brazil, perhaps it is time for Calder to go full circle.