Charlotte's Web

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Rivers and Mirrors: World-Building in Nonfiction

1. 

On a sheep farm in the high desert of Oregon, I grew up devouring books about the countryside. I recognized my world of chores, manure and dusty roads in Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. During my Dungeons & Dragons phase, I wandered the fantastic rural landscapes of The Lord of the Rings and endless Dragonlance paperbacks. Later on it was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, and the logging community of Wakonda in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. I loved these books for their intoxicating sense of place. Just as people had secret histories, so did mountains, forests and rivers.

During my senior year of high school, like a plucky George Willard, I went looking for the grotesque in my own hometown as a correspondent for my local paper, The Bend Bulletin. Writing about the Wild West settlement of Laidlaw, I unburied the history of violence that predated the ski resorts and golf courses in the region.

Yet even as I plumbed the reservoirs of Central Oregon, I was obsessed with a distant place: Brazil, the country I was adopted from during the twilight of its military dictatorship in 1981. When it came to that story, I had little to go on but old Kodachromes and my parents’ recollections of their long, tedious journey to bring me home. Brazil was an abstraction, a heart-shaped splotch on the globe, an imaginary homeland that I filled with my own desires.

I was 25 when I visited the real Brazil for the first time on a solo backpacking trip to get to know my birth country—perhaps even find my birth mother. It was 2006. I still remember the jolt of the landing gear touching the runway in São Paulo. In that moment, the Brazil of my imagination crumbled.

2. 

By that time in my life, I’d traded journalism for fiction, but I was still entranced by writers who could bring an entire world to life with an elixir of lived experience, research, and unbridled conjuring. The blood-soaked borderlands of Cormac McCarthy. The antebellum Virginia of Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. García Márquez’s Macondo. Richard Price’s New York City. Annie Proulx’s badlands. What I admired wasn’t just the vivid atmosphere but how these writers established a worldview, a governing intelligence that arranged the landscape in service of a story, a theme, a politics of place.

When I first visited my birthplace, the story I wanted to tell myself—that the world wanted to tell about Brazil—was the triumphant tale of a country on the rise, emerging from a dictatorship to democracy. I spent that summer traveling the country by car, by bus, by boat, by plane, by foot. In my naivete, it felt as if Brazil were welcoming me home, but in retrospect I was as anonymous as any other gringo with a guidebook. Yet on an otherwise ordinary night at the bus station in downtown Belo Horizonte, I met my birth mother for the first time. She did welcome me home.

In the months and years that followed, I wrote maudlin fiction about Brazil, trying to render the city where I was born, the countryside where I grew up, trying to bring into focus a worldview of how I got from there to here and back again. Even thinking about that old work makes me cringe. The desperate wanting on the page. The desire to connect with my material, as if forging those links could make up for what was lost to me in real life.

Somewhere on the border between fantasy and fact, my imagination failed me. I needed to put aside the novel and return to my reporter’s notebooks.

3. 

Sad but true: There is only so much room in the English language for stories about non-English speaking countries. Within that shrunken universe, only so much room for Latin America. Even less room for Brazil. Despite being the world’s fifth-largest country by population and area and one of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies, in the Western imagination, it remains more or less an island, roughly the shape of Rio de Janeiro, full of soccer, samba, favelas and festive costumes and cocktails.

When it was announced that Brazil would host the World Cup in 2014—with the Olympics to follow in 2016—I sensed an opportunity to report on my home country in hopes of enlarging that picture in some small way. By the time I started covering World Cup preparations in 2013, the wheels were beginning to come off the wagon in Brazil, which was in the throes of its largest street protests in decades. Millions demonstrated against economic inequality and social injustice, with thousands of Brazilians across the country evicted or relocated in the name of order and progress, even as the government poured billions of dollars into lavish stadiums and vanity projects to rebuild Brazil’s cities in the image of the cosmopolitan first world.

When I visited in the Amazon rain forest in 2014, I saw a region transformed since my first visit eight years earlier. There is a story you can tell about the Amazon that is a tale of progress and sustainable development. This is the world of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a world of optimism and charts that trend toward prosperity. This is the world of Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul, in which all of us, or at least those with the freedoms of capital and travel, are connected through the wonders of globalization.

Depending on what you’re willing to ignore, that story is plain as day in the Amazon. Where once there were tribes relying on the barter system, now there are riverboats going up and down the river with ATM machines on board. Where once it was impossible to find a steady phone connection, now satellites orbit, beaming Instagram and “Pokémon Go” to tweens surrounded by 2 million square miles of rain forest.

In this worldview, the history of the Amazon rain forest is one that moves from savagery to civilization, from darkness to light.

4. 

It’s the kind of story that appeals to venture capitalists and those who believe there is no problem that cannot be solved with an app. It is a story of conquest in which this forest was discovered by Europeans who could only untap its utopian potential with guns, germs and steel.

How can a writer rebuild a world that has been erased by colonists, that has been built on the bodies of the oppressed, designed to mirror the sophistication of European capitals, complete with baroque theaters and bike share kiosks? What right does an outsider have to even try telling a different story?

Though I was born in Brazil, the country will always be foreign to me, and I will always be a foreigner on its streets and rivers. The foreign correspondent is tasked with translating a distant part of the world for the folks back home. Rarely does that mean bringing home good news. Joan Didion’s Salvador exposes the sinister aftereffects of U.S. interference in Latin America. Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder investigates the brutal murder of one of Central America’s leading human rights activists, Bishop Juan Gerardi, bludgeoned to death in “The Crime of the Century” in Guatemala.

Telling the story of the contemporary Amazon rain forest means looking past the utopian rhetoric of presidents, generals, and captains of industry and digging for the dystopian elements they are trying to plaster over. Some kids chase monsters in “Pokémon Go”; others run from monsters in police cruisers. College kids post selfies on Instagram; death squads coordinate their movements on WhatsApp. The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam brings thousands of jobs, billions of dollars and a new skate park to a tiny town on the banks of the Rio Xingu; the kids who congregate at the skate park could never afford a skateboard. They run up and down the half pipe until they are winded, left to look out over the river where they used to swim with dolphins.

5. 

The work of the foreign correspondent, like the work of the foreign multinational company, is extractive. Arrive, discover, return with something of value—and blood on your hands. As much as journalism has changed, if it bleeds, it still leads.

In the last five years, I’ve written tens of thousands of words on Brazil. Very few positive words. Yet a country can be two different countries, a world can be two different worlds, depending on where you look, who you listen to, what you choose to omit. In life and on the page, we choose what to record and what to ignore, what to amplify and what to leave behind.

In Brazil, here is what doesn’t lead: my nieces’ birthday parties. The White Stripes rocking out the Teatro Amazonas. Cold beers piling up on plastic tables as the entire outdoor bar sings along to Zé Ramalho’s cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Paddleboarding on the Rio Negro as sea planes buzz off into the sunset. Grilled tambaqui with a squeeze of lemon and good conversation. A forest so enormous that it reminds you that the human world is nothing, and nothing we build will last.

I blotted so many rays of light from the world I built in my book. The beauty of Brazil is so spectacular that looking directly at it can render you blind to its history of genocide, exploitation, oppression—its history of history repeating itself. The Third Bank of the River is a world built from forgotten scraps. The title is borrowed from the classic short story by João Guimarães Rosa, a fabulist tale of life, loss and death set in a riverside village. On my river, nothing is invented, but everything is chosen. It is the history of the country where I was born and the country where I was raised. In both Americas, our histories are right in front of us, reflecting each other like the river at dawn, when the water is a calm, rippling mirror of the forest.

Image: Flickr/Breno Passos

Remember This Fondly: On Reading Roald Dahl to My Son

My son turned six in March, and among the many presents he received on his birthday—Hot Wheels tracks, Lego sets, a bag of eerily gelatinous sand—was Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. This gift came from me, intended as the latest in a string of Dahl books that my wife and I have read to him in recent months: Matilda, The Magic Finger, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though I’d never heard of Danny before buying it, its description seemed right up my son’s alley: a young boy and his dad exact vengeance on a wealthy twit by stealing all his pheasants. Who doesn’t like pheasant theft?

We’d steered him towards such storybooks about a year ago, when we introduced E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to his steady diet of picture books. I wasn’t sure how he would take to Charlotte, with its rural setting and homicidal barnyard talk (“Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer…there’s a regular conspiracy around here to kill you at Christmastime”). But, like Templeton the rat slurping at a rotten egg, my son happily ate it up. He also enjoyed White’s Stuart Little, though it nearly bored me into a coma. But what I found dull and episodic, he thought of as cool. After all, Stuart is a mouse who drives a wind-up car.

After years of reading picture books to my son, this transition has been, like so many as a parent, an instance to make me stop and see that the kid is growing—like a lost front tooth or the need to buy bigger shoes. To be sure, he still likes children’s books; Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss remain very easy sells. But he approaches these longer, sparsely-illustrated stories with a new and eager seriousness, as if each is its own small project. When I ask him if he’s in the mood to hear Charlotte’s Web or Danny, it’s like asking if he wants to head outside to tinker with the car. “Sure,” he’ll say after a pause, his head cocked in consideration. “Yeah, let’s read it.”

Unlike the way he interacts with an Elephant and Piggie book or If I Ran the Zoo—a kind of wouldja-look-at-that sort of romp—his engagement with White and Dahl has been vastly different. There’s so much more to follow in these books, and so much he can’t understand. “I eased my foot off the accelerator,” says Danny as he tries to drive a car. “I pressed down the clutch and held it there. I found the gear lever and pulled it straight back, from first into second. I released the clutch and pressed on the accelerator.” What six-year-old (or, for that matter, 36-year-old) can keep such action straight? And why would my son sit still for it? If that scene had come in a Willems book, he would have squirmed like a worm on a hook. Any sustained lull in a picture book usually spells doom; a mild desperation comes over me when things aren’t “fun” enough, and I can feel my son growing restless.

But with White and Dahl and others, a lack of entertainment has not been a problem. Their books send my son to a different mental area—a deeper, spongier chamber. With no foxes in socks or bifocaled elephants, he’s forced to focus inward, where he creates the pictures himself. This is, of course, no revelation; it’s what reading is. But to see a child venture into this place for the first time has been both heartening and strange. What is he seeing in there? An animated version of Quentin Blake’s artwork? A chaotic Peter Max jumble? Something more cinematic? There is no way to know.

And it ultimately may not matter. I’m beginning to think that when my wife and I read these books to him, the story itself is somewhat beside the point. I suspect that the real draw, for him, is not just the chance to find out what happens in the next chapter, but to nestle in beside us on his football-shaped beanbag chair. Because Dahl doesn’t just make our son think differently; he draws him to us. There’s something about having to direct the action himself that makes him nudge in closer as we read. It’s as if, finally forced to explore a story without the guidance of pictures, he wants us to be near—like when he’s walking through the house after it’s gotten too dark to see.

My fondest memories of my father have to do with the same moment in my own childhood, when he read me Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. My dad had been in a classic-book-of-the month club, and his Mark Twain volumes were sturdy, slipcovered editions with plates of N.C. Wyeth art. I doubt I understood much in these books beyond their characters’ bare actions—the fence-painting, the river-rafting, the girl-irritating—and I remember almost nothing from them now. But the feeling of being on my dad’s lap, his voice deep and sonorous above me, has stuck with me through the years. His reading enabled a warmth and a closeness that otherwise wasn’t much there. He could’ve been reading the dictionary, and I would have sat there, rapt.

Because of this dynamic—the storybook’s drawing of the child to the reader—I feel closer to my son when we’re reading Roald Dahl. For all the talk of the importance of reading to your child—often eat-your-peas harangues that have more to do with a fear of future failure than enjoyment of the actual act—the emotional and physical closeness that reading facilitates doesn’t get much play. But given my own Mark Twain memories and what happens on the beanbag chair, I’ve come to consider such closeness to be vital and unique. I can think of no other time that my son will sit, his head propped on my shoulder, for a half an hour or more. That I can sense the drama popping in his mind as I read is an obvious added bonus. Reading storybooks has put us at the neat intersection of stillness and excitement.

My wife is currently reading him Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, which, as I understand it, takes Charlie into 2001 territory. Meanwhile, we’re closing in on the end of Danny the Champion of the World; we should finish in a couple of days. It’s a quiet, almost sad little story about fighting your own insignificance. But, of course, my son just likes to hear about pheasant poaching and making a rich guy mad. As I’d hoped when he unwrapped it on his birthday, he loves Danny, and begs pathetically for more when I stop reading for the night. Sometimes I give in and read another page or two. All I ask in return is that he’ll remember it fondly 30 years from now.

Image Credit: Flickr/solarisgirl.

Book Business Savvy

The bookstore business is supposed to be dying, but Ann Patchett begs to differ. She discussed her independent shop, Parnassus Books, and the future of bookstores for The Daily Beast’s “How I Write” series. “I can’t remember the last time I was in a bad bookstore. The future of independent bookstores is strong. We need to be small. The day of the 30,000 square foot bookstore is over, but the day of the 3000 square foot bookstore has arrived.” Patchett was also interviewed for The New York Times “By the Book” series, where she said Charlotte’s Web had such an impact on her as a kid that she got a pet pig and became a vegetarian.

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