Ana Maria Machado, Brazil

History and Stories

We may begin our talk by acknowledging that there is no way out. If we agree that the human species may be defined by our use of articulate language and if one of the most important functions of that language consists of transmitting lived experiences from one generation to the others, as well as the sharing of acquired knowledge and experience among different individuals, it follows that narrative is essential to mankind. Telling the others what has happened is crucial to our survival as a whole. What is told may be a fact – and be part of business or management reports, of History, of journalism. It may also be fiction – and be part of literature. In other words, what is told may be History or stories. But on this first level, both of them play the same role for mankind: they allow experience to be shared with the others, instead of being kept inside one individual only.

By doing so, we also begin sharing a collective knowledge about survival strategies, a common search for the meaning of being alive, a set of similar questions about the mysteries of existence, a whole series of possible answers to those questions or the need to play together and to have fun with many kinds of different materials – including words.

So, the logical consequence of this reasoning shows us that we need to tell and to be told stories. The more, the better. They help us in our search and, at the same time, they refine and improve our understanding of everything we come across during our lifetime.

As I was born and raised in Brazil, I was very lucky to be part of a culture that is made of so many different contributions that we do not reject nor distrust what comes from other people. Personally, I was also lucky enough to go to school and to be raised in a reading environment, because my family considered books to be very valuable. Although we didn’t have the means to buy many things, we used to borrow a lot of books. And as a child I had a very wide stock of stories within my reach.

To begin with, we had a very rich tradition of non-written stories. Through the practice of listening to oral storytelling, since my first childhood, I was familiar with the folktales that come from European, African or Indigenous roots and constitute our common national heritage. Through the reading of books (not only those I read but also what my parents and grandparents had read), I was acquainted with the classics for children and young readers. Many of them came from other cultures, such as those which had been written by Andersen, Perrault, Grimm, Wilhelm Busch, Carlo Collodi, James Barrie, Lewis Carroll, Hoffman, Stevenson, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Louise May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Eleanor Potter, Karl May, Selma Lagerloff, the Countess of Segur, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, Edmondo De Amicis, Rafael Sabattini, Michel Zevaco, Emilio Salgari as well as adaptations of Swift, Defoe, Cervantes, the Arabian Nights, Victor Hugo, Greek mythology, Medieval legends with heroes such as the king Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood, the emperor Charlemagne and the 12 peers of France, and so many others… I just mention some of them now, in the order they come to my mind, to recall how wide was the book world a Brazilian child had in translations at our disposal in the 40s and 50s. And there was Tarzan, and Beau Geste and the Sheik, and King Solomon’s Mines, and Heidi, and collections of fairy tales from Russia, from Poland, from China, from everywhere. And there were our Brazilian authors, fewer but as attractive as the others. Poets like Olavo Bilac and Bastos Tigre or prose writers such as Monteiro Lobato, who was very popular, sold amazing quantities of excellent books, at the same time humorous and intelligent, transgressive and enticing. Lobato left a high quality example for all of us, being very influential on the way we took books seriously in the country.

But above all, it was wonderful reading his books. Like the vast majority of literate people in my generation in Brazil, I am sure that the person I became owes a very significant debt to the joy of having had the chance of reading him at an early age – as my children did and so do my grandchildren now.

So, nowadays, when I see that very often the market or the reading policies tend to avoid translated children’s books or works that were written in other times, aiming to give children only stories that have some kind of nearness to their immediate reality (or that were written by people from cultures which are very much similar to their own), I can’t help but pity those young readers. They don’t know what they are missing. But adults who take those decisions should know. They may even seem to be well-intentioned, by trying to match children and books that fit them perfectly, but they are impoverishing the children in the next generation, by depriving them of a part of their common cultural heritage and also by limiting their access to different voices and blocking their contact with other realities to which they are entitled – no matter how different they may be from their own country, time, culture or way of life.

My personal experience, in my generation and my country, was different. As I grew up, I was so used to different kinds of narrative that I couldn’t imagine life without them.

The natural consequence was that I tried to enlarge their supply. I looked for them everywhere: in stories and in History. And also, as every curious child does, in the conversations grown-up people exchanged around me, while I pretended to be just playing nearby, but was also paying attention to everything that was said. Thanks to overhearing all that, little by little I was also building up a stock of family stories, very mixed up and not very clear, but certainly important in the development of my imagination and my sense of belonging.

In them, there were European, Indian and African characters, many of them my ancestors or relatives.There was a 10-year old Portuguese boy who emigrated alone to Brazil in the belly of a ship. There was a great-great-grandmother who lived in the lands of a coffee plantation and made business with the general store in the nearby town, selling products like manioc flour which had been made by runaway slaves hidden somewhere in the forest – because she was their only known representative and the merchants knew that fact and respected it. There was a small red-Indian orphan boy who had been found ill in the jungle, cast out by his group, and had been brought home to be raised by the family of the man who found him and to become one more of his children. There were forbidden loves and arrow wounds. There was a peasant who furnished fruit and vegetables to the emperor’s palace. There was a woman who challenged her father and wrote articles in the local paper, fighting for women’s right to vote. There was a Portuguese woman ancestor known as The Lady Sailor, who went to the sea with a male crew. From the same European village, there were also strong hints of Jewish and Arab interbreeding in faraway Iberic intercrossings.

True or partly false through imagination and exaggeration in family lore, all those stories were woven into each other. They assured me that I was just a drop in a human ocean, made of stories as mixed as the different ethnical features in my family, where the fact that two of my brothers and three of my sisters had blue eyes didn’t prevent a funny mistake that happened again and again, every summer holidays. As we played on the beach, we matched perfectly the village fishermen children, who were direct descendants from Africans or native indigenous people. Each of us could be taken for the other. Many, many times, one parent would address one of us from a distance, maybe to call us home for a meal or shower time or to scold for some mischief, only to soon find out that it was not his/her child, among our bursts of laughter. We were all identical from a distance, interchangeable – to our delight.

Our hair looked the same, our skins had very similar colours, we were nearly the same size. This repeated experience always confirmed what we already knew: the whole History belonged to us, for we belonged to everything around us, to those differences that poured in every direction in those lands and that sea, as much as we belonged to whatever reached us from the night of times.

But of course I was curious to know more about different lands and times. So no wonder that, when the time came for me to go to university, I first thought of studying Geography and History. Both of them seemed to be able to show the most of possible expansion – in place or time. But I soon changed my mind, dropped that course and decided to study Roman Languages, where literature could bring me different answers to the same questions, but always with something in common: they were narratives and they widened my horizons.

Guimarães Rosa, one of the most important Brazilian novelists, once said something very puzzling, that left me wondering: he stated that stories don’t want to be History and sometimes they are against History. What did he mean with that? Rosa himself explained it partially. First of all, he stressed that stories, especially short stories, are stronger when they are new and unexpected, when their plot tells something unheard of and original. In a sense, they are like jokes and must surprise the listener. He compares them to a match that is struck and gives some light but soon is useless. But that is not all. Their effect may remain. In the practice of art, stories grow. They widen the territory of logics and they invite the reader to another level of reality, opening to new and more magical systems of thought. They dive deep in search of personal meanings, individual experiences that reflect the light from different angles and multiply what is seen. By doing so, they transform those single meanings into collective meanings, because they are placed in the field of our similarities, no matter the singularities of each people, time or culture. In other words: according to that viewpoint, stories deal with emotions, conflicts or psychological realities that are essential part of the human condition.

On the other hand, History (being a science) is not focused on originality of things that happen just once. Even when it examines a fact that seems to be unique, it tends to analyse its circumstances in search of something that could almost be called historical laws – certain political, economical, social or cultural constants. It tries to understand causes and conse¬quences which are at play in society, collective meanings of human experience. It searches trends, patterns, recurrent features, underground structures, under-surface variables.

There is another difference: History deals with facts from reality, that happened indeed. This limits the scope of what it may tell or describe. Literature, on the contrary, is free to invent whatever anyone wishes in the stories that are told. This gives them different dimensions. Literature is not compelled to a factual and direct veracity – only with the meaning and coherence of what it tells. One of them is a science, the other is an art, although many historical texts may also have literary qualities.

In spite of that, History and stories share a fundamental aspect: both of them are narratives. As such, they play a fundamental role in human development. They are part of an essential feature of mankind: the ability to use articulate language in a linear chain of words and clauses, in order to tell something. When they do so, they help in a quest for the meaning of this experience of being in the world, that we all share.

Some anthropologists define human species, essentially, as an animal that tells stories, as McIntyre reminds us . Hannah Arendt completes that notion, stating that we are storytellers that aspire to truth, because only truth bestows depth and density to the meaning of narration. The important thing for us now, when we quote her, is not to get her remark wrong, for when she speaks of truth she is not referring to reality, as if truth and reality were synonyms.

Her opinion doesn’t mean that only what seems to be real is true. Often deep truths are hidden under the mask of unreal situations, of magical, fantastical or dreamlike appearances. Such cases are generally told by stories, not by History. But in both cases – facts or delirious visions – what matters is that they can be told.

According to Arendt, narrative is the appropriate way of approaching facts realistically because it reflects temporality, the time quality in which we inhabit. That is the reason why, in her opinion, no philosophy, no analysis, no interpretation, no matter how deep, can compare in intensity and richness of meaning to a well-told story.

And there is an extra soundness in that process: although stories are the inevitable consequence of actions, there is in that process an almost paradoxical aspect. The ones who fully understand and reveal the meaning of those actions are not the agents or actors who perform them or receive their direct consequences, but the narrators, those who grasp and tell those deeds . Furthermore: the whole process is not finished as long as it is not submitted and completed by those who read or listen to that narration, or watch its dramatical transposition to the stage or the screen.

Only then may it achieve its whole meaning. One of the main reasons for that is because the reader, listener or spectator has an advantage over those who take part in the action: he/she sees the work in its totality, while each actor or participant sees only a part of it, and only from his/her own angle and so, by definition, is always partial.

In other words, when a narrative is ordered to become a story, it develops toward an end or a goal. This gives sense to what is being told, and works by means of a retrospective understanding, in which memory helps to build meaning. That is why it is so important to have narratives that keep alive what happened in the past. It is a powerful way of avoiding that horrors and crimes be forgotten and evil becomes a common feature. Telling what happened is a way of preventing the collective loss of memory, always the first step to ensuring that ethics survive and that being good may be kept as an ideal and desirable pattern. Narratives help in the task of cutting down the chances of being morally anesthetized, a possibility that springs from forgetting. At least this is Hannah Arendt’s strong suggestion.

Many philosophers agree with that opinion and stress that narration is the human way to give meaning to what happened, because of the plot that the narrator has to weave in order to tell a story. The act of telling itself, being linked to the culture of the teller, gives shape to the senses and signification of the things that are being told, towards an aim. Things that only get their full meaning when the whole is taken into consideration.

Even when we observe very small children, we can notice that the growing complexity of their narrative abilities (or understanding of what is told them) follows step by step the development of their consciousness and intelligence and is shown in their language skills. From small expressions side by side, the child goes to clauses that are simple but complete, one following the other or connected by additive words (such as and, so, then, etc). Later, little by little, the existence of different circumstances that may interfere with the action is perceived, and language reflects them. Children begin using terms that acknowledge adverse forces at play (like but), recognize alternatives (whether, either ... or), conditions to be fulfilled (if), times that are not present (when), consequences of actions (so much ... that), causes (because), simultaneity (meanwhile), concessions that are made but don’t avoid the action  (although, in spite of ...), etc. Little by little, more and more circumstances can be dealt with, including this very notion of graduality. All those ways of ordering one’s thoughts are part of narrative language. The more a reader is acquainted with those categories, the more he/she will be able to organize and give meaning to what is experienced, and the more chances he/she will have to develop intellectually.

George Steiner, one of the most important contemporary thinkers, remarks that grammar is “the articulate organization of perception, reflection and experience, the nerve¬structure of conciousness when it communicates with itself and with others”. In that view, some aspects of language only develop because they are connected to essential aspects of humankind, which distinguish us from other species. Among them, memory, the consciousness of death and the awareness that life, the species and the world go on after our individual death. Facing this fact that Steiner calls “the scandal and incomprehensibility of individual death”, language in a certain way tries to deny that mortality – even if it is only in a very limited way. It then creates and develops certain mechanisms that have a tremendous semantic strength around hidden cores of potentiality – such as the future tense (the ability to discuss possible events on the day after one’s death) or the use of subjunctive and if-clauses (ways of trying to alter the world and refuse the brutal inevitability of facts). Steiner calls those linguistic turns “passwords to hope” and reminds us that “hope and fear are supreme fictions, empowered by syntax.”

If we recognize this, it logically follows another important difference between History and stories. Stories deal with verbs that may be in the future tense, and they may also use subjunctive and if-clauses. History narratives cover only the past. The latter tell what happened, the former tell what might happen. But our thirst for the future demands to be also fed by means of relations with the past and with the moment in between (the present).

This must be done by two different ways: by the knowledge of what has indeed happened and by the logical ordering of plots that gives it some sense. We have a need to exorcise the threatening role of chance, which leaves us in anguish and defenseless. We try to reason along a line that tells us that if facts are not due only to chance but are consequences of previous causes, then some of them may and should be avoided. We are not always at the mercy of unpredictable fatality, every moment on the verge of being victims of the unknown. Our consciousness needs to be fed with enough nourishment to be able to play its role of making sense and synthesis. The ordering action of what happens in a logical narrative process, which we call plot, articulates the meanings of those happenings and gives them a purifying effect. Fiction then goes ahead and lends History the linguistic elements it uses, so that historical narratives can also be coherent, selective, organized, as if they were also plots. Meanwhile, literature keeps its freedom, to tell its stories as wanted, open to endless possibilities, expanding frontiers and boundaries, exploring new fields that thrive in logical and linguistical experiments, breaking known patterns, building new models, facing the challenge of a continuous dialogue with the established canon. A canon that is always reinvented in that process, in a movement of constant creation.

In my work – both for children and for adults – I never wrote anything that could be classified exactly as historical fiction. But I have often built narratives where there is a kind of counterpoint between history and fiction. I take the inspiration from some historical facts that happened but I change them into fictional matter. They become a kind of plausible back¬ground, where I can give life to my invented characters, although once in a while those characters may interact with some men and women who had a historical existence. But almost always they are disguised in my stories, with a few exceptions – like Christopher Columbus in Mysteries of the Ocean Sea.

But in general, I just take historical models as models, to create other characters, fully mine. What interests me always, in such cases, is a counterpoint movement between yesterday and today. I like to examine how the past has formed us, how we became its heirs, how we can break with it or in what way we may continue it. In short, I like to explore questions around the issue of how History may help us to understand what we are today and where we may be heading.

It will be easier if I give some examples, examining one of my recent books – From Another World, published in English by Groundwood and being launched now in Danish and Swedish by Hjulet (as Slavepigen / Slavflickan).

It is a contemporary story. The characters are teenagers that spend some holidays in a country hotel built on the premises of what had once been the siege of a coffee plantation in Brazil, both the masters’ big house and the slaves’ quarters. Little by little they find out it is a haunted house. Not haunted by an ordinary ghost, one of those we all read about in ghost stories, that live in an English castle. It is the ghost of a girl their age, who had lived as a slave in that place, in the 19th century. No contemporary terror movie can compare to the horrible realities of slavery – that’s what they realize along their meeting with the girl ghost, and are challenged to face the consequences of that historical reality we all have to live with in our days, as descendants of people who once tolerated slavery or were submitted to it. No matter when it was abolished, the fact is that the effects of that historical nightmare left their imprints in the current divisions of the contemporary world. The characters in the plot live in our days. Their experience, as told in the novel, may seem to be just a teenager adventure mixed with fantastic aspects. But the whole plot develops in a dialogue with a real historical element – the existence of African slavery in Brazil’s past, where it was introduced by Europeans to replace a frustrated attempt in using native slavery, in order to produce goods for the European market, according to European ways of living and thinking. We are all together in that.

This does not mean that I think that every plot in every book should have clear historical references. Several of my books, probably the majority of them, don’t show this aspect. But I am sure that time and place are important for me, as I live and as I write.

The place aspect often develops as a dialogue between where the story happens and the rest of the world, because I firmly believe that we are not islands. Although I consider that it is very important to stress and reinforce the specific cultural features that distinguish every human group and to show how worthy they all are, I am also convinced that it is even more significant to show how much we have in common that makes us all brothers and sisters.

The emphasis of how much we are alike allows us to recognize ourselves in the others, to exchange ideas and to live in peace, in spite of all the cultural differences. Those different features, then, may just become very attractive in that perspective, as complementary aspects to what we are.

As for the time aspect, I know it is always important in my work, although I seldom think about this before beginning to write a book nor decide beforehand that I’ll focus on a certain historical period. Just as what happens with place, landscape or scenery, I realize I tend to work with different times side by side and make them respond to each other, in a kind of dialogue or counterpoint. In that way, I try not to be completely cut off from the present, while not forgetting the references of past experiences. I’ll give some examples.

Bisa Bia, Bisa Bel
(in English Me in the Middle, published by Groundwood; in Swedish Isabel, published by Opal) tells the story of a girl who finds a portrait of her great-grandmother at her own age. Magically, when she tries to keep it inside her blouse, near her skin, the image becomes a transparent tattoo that begins living within her, while invisible to the others. Along with that girl that lived many decades ago, Isabel goes through amusing and moving situations in her everyday contemporary life, in a society where roles are changing. Then they receive a visit: from the girl’s future great-granddaughter, from another century, a yet unborn girl to whom some day she will be the invisible companion no one will see or know.

De Olho nas Penas (in Danish Øjne på verden, published by Hjulet, and in Swedish Sorgens Ögon, published by Gidlunds) deals with the story of a culturally mixed Brazilian boy who was born in exile and tries to understand why he is not totally European nor African but also Latin-American. The plot takes him in a mythical journey in the company of a magical bird with whom he flies in the night, through different continents and times, visiting myths, legends and a History that helped to form his identity.

O Canto da Praça (The Song of the Plaza) follows two boys, a girl and an old man in times where war threatens mankind and new weapons are developed, in the Middle Ages, in future intergalactic space and in our day. Stories and History are mixed while delving into a long human tradition of looking for peace while war is raging.

In my novels for adults, the critics have already remarked the constant presence of this kind of dialogue between different times and counterpoints between different visions of the world. It is not the case of going into that here, this is a congress about children’s books. I just mention the fact to stress that at this point in my life, after 40 years writing fiction, I realize that those remarks are true: those aspects are often present in my work. Many times I was not even aware that I was doing that, those dialogues just came naturally. My only conclusion is that they keep on popping up in what I write because they correspond to something that is deeply true in the way I am. I do this as a writer because I do this as a human being – including as a reader.

When I read, I am always establishing some kind of relationship between different times and cultures. I read Homer, Cervantes or Shakespeare with delight and admiration and I bring that reading to become part of my life as a Brazilian woman in the 20th and 21st centuries. The strangeness I feel when Melville’s pages take me along, chasing Moby Dick in cold seas, or the familiarity I experience when sailing with Stevenson in tropical waters in search of a treasure island are part of my life and follow me along the South Atlantic ocean shore in Rio de Janeiro where I walk every morning. The thrill of the medieval Japanese boy helping to fight tyranny in Katherine Paterson’s The Master Puppeteer or the suffering experienced by the boy forced to play so that the African slaves could exercise in their trip to America, in a book like Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer, or the risks Alki Zei’s character runs to challenge dictatorship in Greece in The Tiger in the Window, or the terrible everyday situation little Parvana has to face in her Afghanistan devastated by war and fundamentalism in Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner, they are all deeply connected to Anne Frank’s suffering or to the fights for freedom everywhere, including my country under the military dictatorship. As much as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit show Tolkien’s worries with the spread of evil during World War II, they are a testimony to the presence of History transformed into stories. The nightmare imagined by George Orwell in Animal Farm or the consciousness of responsibility left open by Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince may find their echo when young South American, African or Asian readers of today open other books and face their future. Stories bring new possibilities for History. Everywhere.

Everything is linked. That is what I would like to remind us all here today. Stories and History. Old tales and modern narratives. Books written no matter where. Our own reading of one of them is an act that gives them life and may assure the survival of humanism in a world where technology cannot erase the sense of community that exists among all men and women, from every society, from every period of History.

Of course the role played by local and foreign backgrounds, characters and historical references in books for children is very important. To stress what the young reader sees at home and around his/her everyday routine is a way of helping to understand where he/she comes from. The references to one’s culture stress the sense of belonging and accentuate the differents aspects of national and local heritage. Books for children can be a mirror to show how beautiful are one’s surroundings and cultural inheritances, how one should be proud of them, how unique they are and where they stand, facing the rest of the world.

 The unique beauty of each language, especially, is an aspect that children’s literature is equipped to introduce since a very early age, by underlining word plays, allusions, suggesting the richness of a common field in oral and written tradition. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa once said “My country is my language”. We all know what he meant by that. There are even historical cases of people who have been deprived of a territory but kept their identity through the permanence of a language, where culture was preserved.

In a global world, where mass media tend to go over individual differences, and where those who are economically stronger try to crush the weaker ones who dissent from the imposed patterns and models, it is impossible not to worry about the threats to the survival of different voices and viewpoints. Human diversity is as important as natural diversity, as everyone who is concerned with the environment is aware of. And they stand on a sense of local cultural belonging.

Children are entitled to develop this feeling through stories and good books that spring from their own cultural heritage. They play an important role in building up a sense of identity or in relieving cultural tensions and should be an essential part in a young reader’s emotional and intellectual development. But we should also be concerned with the risks of falling into the trap of stressing the differences too much and transforming culture in a way of building barriers between people and cultures. When a child reads a book which strongly expresses her cultural background, she may feel something like “how wonderful we are...”, yes, and that is good. But not something like “we are better than the others...”

Cultural background should come naturally in a story and help one to feel at ease with oneself and one’s culture. But sometimes, nowadays, it seems to be so intentional that it risks to express some kind of resentment or hurt feelings – often justified, no doubt, but out of place in children’s literature. For this misuse may contribute more to set fire to a boiling anger than to develop human understanding.

Risks of becoming a kind of propaganda are always a danger when political or ideological intentions begin playing a part in the genesis itself of what should be a work of art. Children’s books walk always on a tight rope, because of the common assumption that they are akin to education. All of us who deal in the area should keep our eyes wide open, to avoid those hidden ghosts of manipulation. We have no right to pretend to be innocent, it is morally unforgivable.

Setting stories in History or in the cultural diversity of the planet cannot be used as a pretext to enhance isolation or intolerance. Books are not written to be only mirrors, but windows. Peace, justice, equality and mutual respect are built on the basis of acknowledging what we have in common, in spite of of the variety of our wonderful and rich differences.

The meanings of stories are more important than disagreements of historical authorities. History as a whole is made by human beings that communicate and trade, by cultures that borrow and lend to each other – not only by instant reactions, political slogans, ready-made labels and ideas, campaigns and sharp orders from those who are in power.

In the 18th century, Goethe already was conscious of this when he came with the notion that there is an universal literature, Weltliteratur, that would be a kind of symphony made by the art of words as a whole. A language art that could unite in harmony all the different individual voices and sounds and never miss the beauty of the whole. More recently, Erich Auerbach reminded us of how important it is to be able to avoid literary homogeneity and standardization – for they threaten the development of humanism. In order to be able to prevent that danger, an essential step lies in our ability to develop sympathetically and subjectively the practice of entering into the life of a written text as seen from the perspective of its time and its author – as Edward Said reminds us . We must know each other, pay attention to foreign voices, believe that we gain something when we understand those who are not identical to us. Be it for children, young people or adults, stories and History should go along and walk together to reinforce humanism and resist against all forms of injustice and violence.


Ana Maria Machado, 31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark. September 2008