Meet Yara Rodrigues Fowler: the debut novelist writing about untranslatable women

by Sara Semic

The British-Brazilian debut novelist writing about untranslatable women. Photo by Atri Banerjee.

The British-Brazilian debut novelist writing about untranslatable women. Photo by Atri Banerjee.

Writing in snatches in the evening and at the weekends while holding down a full-time job at a communications agency “was hell”, says Yara Rodrigues Fowler, the 26-year-old debut novelist whose book, Stubborn Archivist, was published last month. “I was really burnt out.” 

But though the publishing process may have been gruelling, the book has been met with glowing reviews, with Yara being chosen as one of the Observer’s ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and as one of ELLE’s ‘New writers we’re excited to read in 2019’; an auspicious start to her career as a novelist.  

 Exploring themes of identity, messy relationships, growing up between two cultures, and sexual violence, Stubborn Archivist is a tour de force that feels as pivotal for third-culture kids today as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was for a generation of immigrant children growing up in north-west London almost twenty years ago.

Written in a non-linear style, it deftly weaves together short pieces of prose and poetry to form a larger narrative that is both personal and political. Focusing on a young female British-Brazilian protagonist, the book spans three generations of women whose lives straddle Brazil and England.

The protagonist is never named and the English is peppered with Portuguese words, reflective of the way third-culture kids mix languages in real life. “I was really interested in the idea of untranslatability, and the power in not having to explain yourself, not having to provide footnotes and a glossary and not catering towards a certain gaze,” Yara says.

Growing up

Born in south London, where she is still based, to an English father and a Brazilian mother, Yara is well-versed in the pain of having to explain yourself to other people. Telling British Vogue about her parents’ international name choice for her, she said: “There was no way the English would get their heads around that. My parents never imagined I’d spend my twenties shouting WHYY-AAAY-ARRR-AYYY in crowded pubs.”

Yara’s mum arrived in the UK from Sao Paulo in the early 1980s, just before the end of the military dictatorship, and Yara remembers the house always being full of people as she was growing up. “It was very normal for other people to live in the house, which used to be other Brazilians but now as adults living in this city when there’s a housing crisis is often friends of mine or my brothers,” she says. “It’s quite a Brazilian thing to want to welcome people, but I think it’s also an immigrant thing to be willing to host people, because you know how difficult it is to come to a new country.”

It’s really important that we get our heads around the class and race structures that exist in Brazil and not render them invisible.

The notion of home and belonging is an important thread running through the disparate fragments of thoughts and conversations. In between each fragment of her prose-poetry is lots of blank space, which Yara says represents the vastness of the Atlantic (one of the passages in the book describes a flight over the “big open bellied loneliness of the Atlantic”), as well as the trauma of the dictatorship and sexual violence.

Challenging the status quo

Yara attributes her rejection of the default literary form to her time at Oxford University, where she read English and picked modules in postcolonial theory, studying them in combination with comment threads on Facebook groups dedicated to gender and race.

“I was thinking a lot about interrupting the tradition of the British realist novel which very much has a beginning, middle, end. I don’t think I could have written one of those. Also having read The Colour Purple and Beloved, I was thinking a lot about how realism is quite a disingenuous way to represent trauma because that isn't how the remembering process works.”

Blank space was also an important motif in Brazilian writing during the period of heavy censorship under the dictatorship. “You couldn’t just go and write a novel being like, 'this is what happened',” Yara explains. “You had to go and write a love song that was actually about something else, so the blank space is a motif in Latin American writing for that reason.”

While her fondness for Brazil is palpable, Yara doesn’t sugar-coat uncomfortable truths like the race and class politics that have enabled the election of somebody like President Bolsonaro. “It’s a country that’s been built on settler colonialism and slavery and the genocide of indigenous people and it's really important that we get our heads around the class and race structures that exist in Brazil and not render them invisible.”

Although the characters in the book are entirely fictitious, Yara is able to capture the world of white upper-class Brazilians living in Sao Paulo with such verisimilitude, because it’s a world her own family belongs to. “My Brazilian grandma doesn’t cook as she has a maid. [Not cooking] is definitely a class thing,” she says. “My mum can’t really cook either. It’s my dad who does the cooking in the family.”

Connecting through cooking

But for Yara, cooking Brazilian dishes (mostly self-taught from the internet), is a way of further connecting with her heritage. “I like the idea of knowing the food. Being from a richer Brazilian family, I take pride in knowing how to cook and carrying that labour and knowledge in myself,” she says. “I think food tells you a lot about a country and its history.”

If you understand your food and where it comes from, you get a better understanding of your history and the different systems of oppression that exist.

Brazil’s rich cuisine varies greatly by region, reflecting the country’s mix of native and immigrant populations. Tapioca, a kind of pancake traditionally eaten with meat and cheese, comes from the indigenous jungle plant Cassava, which is native to the north region and central-west region of Brazil. Moqueca, a spicy seafood stew that hails from the north-east of Brazil, has “a West African influence because of all the people who were enslaved and forcibly brought to Brazil”, Yara explains.

There’s also Feijoada, a big meat stew that stems from enslaved people putting together the cheaper cuts of meat. “The irony is that it’s desirable now to have the really weird bit of the cow and you can eat it in expensive restaurants,” Yara says.

“Also a lot of our puddings, like Brigadeiro, are really sugary, and that's also important because sugar was a huge crop and many people were enslaved in the sugar fields, so if you understand your food and where it comes from, you get a better understanding of your history and the different systems of oppression that exist.”

Just like the protagonist in the book, Yara fondly recalls making brigadeiros (a traditional Brazilian dessert made of condensed milk, cocoa powder, butter and topped with chocolate sprinkles) as a child with her mum and older relatives . “It’s really simple to make which is why I think it gets passed down so much,” Yara says. “It’s a staple of children’s birthday parties in Brazil because everyone likes them. I recently bought some for my editor to say thanks. It’s actually surprisingly hard to buy them in London. I had to find this guy off a Facebook group!”

Yara is already halfway through writing her next novel, which is going to be bigger and set between south London and the Recife in north-east Brazil. “It’s going to be about Brazilian women in south London again, but I think the perspective will be different.” And off she goes, helping make the Brazilian diaspora in the UK more visible, one book at a time.

Stubborn Archivist is published by Fleet (£14.99) and is available to purchase in any major bookshop.

Stubborn Archivist is published by Fleet (£14.99) and is available to purchase in any major bookshop.