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28 October 2022

Yara Rodrigues Fowler: “I wanted to disorient the Anglophone reader”

The author of the Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel “there are more things” on revolutionary politics, Margery Kempe and cannibalising colonisers.

By Ellys Woodhouse

Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British-Brazilian author and activist, born and raised in south London. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Sunday Times young writer of the year award for her debut novel, Stubborn Archivist (Fleet), and she was named by the Financial Times as one of “the planet’s 30 most exciting young people”.

Her second novel, there are more things, is shortlisted for the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize. When Catarina moves into a rented flat in Mile End, east London, she finds little in common with her new roommate, Melissa, besides their Brazilian heritage but their friendship blooms as they experience the political turmoil of 2016. The story, written in vivid prose, spans continents and generations to ignite feelings of radical hope and give a glimpse at the possibility of a better future. 

Ellys Woodhouse: The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Yara Rodrigues Fowler: It invites us to notice and question the conventions that dictate what a novel “should” look like. Or, to use the language of the Goldsmiths Prize, breaking the mould shows us that there is a mould. And once we start noticing this, we notice all the choices and decisions that created the book (paper or electronic) in our hands. We often forget it, but a lot must happen for a private notebook or word document to become a commodity for sale. The labour of many workers and a very particular mode of production is involved. Novels that make their materiality visible – that show us the broken mould, the seams, etc – are an invitation to consider all of this. 

The novel mostly takes place in London in 2016 and 2017, but also flits back to 1970s revolutionary Brazil. What was it about these political time periods that interested you and why were they worth comparison?

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Like Melissa and Catarina, the main characters of there are more things, I was born at the end of the Cold War. The USSR had collapsed and Brazil’s military dictatorship was over. Politically speaking, the options were centre-right and centre-left. Then, when I was 16, there was a global financial crash. And in 2016-17 things started happening that I had always been told were impossible: the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil (and the mainstream return of pro-dictatorship politics), Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the relative electoral success of Jeremy Corbyn.

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I started to wonder what else was possible. I reached back to the revolutionary movements of 1970s Brazil to tear the political horizon back open. I wanted to remind us that well within living memory much of the planet was organising for liberation under socialism, and so successfully that dictatorships were created to stop them. The juxtaposition of these two periods, I hope, stokes a sense of revolutionary desire and possibility, a romance of international sisterhood and liberation across the generations.

[See also: Why Diego Garcia won the Goldsmiths Prize for fiction]

Melissa becomes more interested in her own political and cultural identity as her friendship with Catarina grows. Could you tell me about the importance of the characters’ relationship in influencing their political beliefs, and more widely how these kinds of communal influences are important in shaping our politics?

Although technically Melissa and Catarina do share an identity (“Brazilian woman”), their material experiences of the world, in terms of race, class and migration status, are very different. They invite each other into this difference and so their friendship is formed, as they build a home together and become politically active. Their bond is made from solidarity, not identity; what they do, not what they are.

The abolitionist organiser Mariame Kaba says: “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” This is really the spirit of the novel: that liberation is something we make together, and that dancing, good meals and friendship are not distractions but necessary, joyful parts of building a better world.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing this book.

Elza Soares’s song “Comigo”. My translation of the lyrics is the epigraph of there are more things, along with a quote from Anne Carson’s Sappho.

The book opens with an author note that instructs (rather than asks) the reader to play the songs or read certain passages aloud. Why was it important for the reader to have a multi-sensory experience, and why as a writer was it important to be imperative about that?

The imperative was an experiment – I thought most people wouldn’t bother. I’m always surprised at how seriously people take it. I hoped to create this multi-sensory experience (there are recipes in the book too) to connect the world of the book to the world of the reader. When you hear music you begin to move your body, begin to think, “Can I dance here?” Same goes for chanting out loud. This connection between the fictional world and the real world is important because I do not want my readers to finish there are more things and then carry on with their lives as before. I want the novel to agitate you and fill you with revolutionary desire. 

London and Anglophone literary cultures are prevalent in the book – even the novel’s title comes from Shakespeare. You have said that when writing your first book you felt an “oppressive weight of the British novel” that you consciously acted against. Do you still feel that weight, and how do you act against it?

It would be impossible to get away from, and I wouldn’t totally want to. The Brazilian modernist poet and novelist Oswald de Andrade posited that we cannot escape the coloniser’s culture – he was writing, for example, about Brazilian people speaking Portuguese – we can only cannibalise it as the Guaraní, an indigenous Brazilian group, reportedly cannibalised missionaries at the time of colonisation.

So that’s my task, I think. To swallow the classic British novel whole and make something else with it, while, on the other hand, preserving with the utmost care that which has been censored and suppressed.

There are long passages in untranslated Portuguese (some of which are translated many pages later). What made you decide to withhold translation?

I wanted to disorient the Anglophone reader, to force them to experience, for a few moments, what migrants in the UK experience everyday. By refusing to give a translation, I wanted also to hold back the illusion of a final word, because there is no perfect translation, no definitive meaning for any text. 

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

The publishing industry is incredibly consolidated, meaning that a large part of it is owned by a few very big companies. This is very bad for diversity in literature because it means that a few books are chosen to receive large marketing budgets each year, with relatively little competition. Investment in novels that do anything experimental or innovative is disincentivised, as they are presumed to risk profits and be too difficult for readers (a very patronising assumption).

As a reward for “risky” fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize helps protect diversity in contemporary literature. The Goldsmiths Prize does not consider novels from the US, which also helps prevent a few novels from dominating the English language market.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

The Booke of Margery Kempe. A 14th-century mystic tells her life story, including her conversations with Jesus, travels around Europe and constant crying. Margery was illiterate but had scribes write for her, and at times tells us they are not doing a good job. The original manuscript was lost but a copy was rediscovered in the 1930s. Arguably it’s the very first autofiction in English.

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The winner of the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize will be announced on 10 November. The winning author will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November.

You can purchase the shortlisted books from Bookshop.org here.

[See also: How #BookTok is changing literature]