Bruna Verissimo: Slave of Reality, Freed by her Dreams
In his captivatingly raw ethnographic fiction entitled After Life, Tobias Hecht illustrates an emotionally troublesome account of mental illness, aspiration and the experiences of life on the streets of a decaying city in Northeast Brazil. Over the course of many years Hecht relives Bruna Verissimo’s early childhood, her initiation into the world of prostitution and her coming of age against all odds. Following an explanation of the differentiation between a conventional ethnography and an ethnographic fiction, an analysis of the novel itself will establish why Hecht chose the to write the way he did. After identifying the result of his choice, the essay will conclude with the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.
Although discovered through anthropological research, the truth of an ethnographic fiction is evidently uncertain. While making use of certain conventions of ethnographic fieldwork and writing, an ethnographic fiction also effectively employs literary devices, as is the case in Hecht’s publication (Hecht 2006). Whereas an ethnographic fiction takes liberties with reality, a conventional ethnography genuinely defines it. Writing Women’s World’s by Lila Abu-Lughod is more of a conventional ethnography than it is an ethnographic novel. Although Abu-Lughod challenges the single story of Muslim women while successfully unveiling variance within culture, she makes public, stories that Bedouin women may not approve of with the goal of contributing to the greater good of critical ethnography. Hecht’s ethnographic account differs in terms of ingenuity; as he gives up his stance as a researcher and allows his subject to lead him entirely.
Hecht had originally intended to write a biography of Verissimo, but with interviews spanning over a decade, he could not ignore the fact that much of what she told him was untrue. As night fell, Verissimo often became her own ethnographer. With Hecht’s tape recorder in hand, she invented informants, interviewed herself, and answered in distinct voices. With the truth impossible to distinguish from invention, Hecht followed Verissimo’s lead, in translating a tale that didn’t necessarily happen, but might have.
Her life, as Hecht reveals in his introduction, offers unique vistas onto both individualism and Brazilian society (Hecht 2006). As one of the few surviving members of her generation of youth, she socializes with everyone, knows of the society well, and for that reason, is an ideal subject to Hecht. Although images appear throughout her testimony that clearly belong more to the realm of literature than to the social sciences, Verissimo’s account is raw and relevant (Hecht 2006). Whether or not her testimony is true, Hecht’s decision to follow in her imaginative footsteps allows readers a first hand feel for Brazilian street life. As he defines in his introduction, “the only way to do justice to Bruna’s life was to yield to her inventions” (Hecht 2006).
Hecht defines Verissimo as a reluctant archivist of the dead, “a collector of fleeting reminders that childhood can be an all encompassing beginning, middle and end” (Hecht 2006). Verissimo’s account of life illustrates the brutality inhabiting the streets of Recife and the mark it leaves on the very few street children that survive. In part two of the ethnography, Verissimo recalls the first time her stepfather raped her. “He pulled my hair, slapped my face, and ripped my clothing, the clothing that covered my body, but that I had bought by uncovering my body” (Hecht 2006). Due to unbearable treatment, Verissimo felt unsafe in her mother’s home. Due to the similarly unbearable treatment of street children in Recife, there was no place where she felt entirely safe.
As a result of her childhood, as it seems is the case to Hecht, Verissimo got involved with prostitution at an age when her contemporaries had scarcely started school. Beginning in her youth, and spanning to her experiences as an adult, Verissimo is accustomed to a life of violence. As she recalls, the police once threatened to call a clients wife while Verissimo sat in the passenger seat. The police car drove away, the client told Verissimo to get out of his car. After she asked him to take her back to where he found her, he shouted, “I found you in hell, I’m not going back there… Get out” (Hecht 2006). She recalls getting out of the client’s car and not knowing where she was. Rain and tears poured down her face as she walked. “Sometimes the tears loosen the dirt on my face,” she once described (Hecht 2006). Verissimo’s raw recap allows readers to visualize the scene, and to feel sympathy in a way that could not be felt as easily through a conventional ethnography. As a result of the violence she experiences, Verissimo tells Hecht she harms herself. “I cut my arms when I miss things I have never known… One day I cut the vein that runs from my wrist to my heart” (Hecht 2006).
Part two of the ethnography reveals expected gender roles, plenty of which Verissimo attempted to adhere and felt left out by as a child. Unachievable gender expectations is likely another reason she resorts to self-harm. As a child, Verissimo would kick dogs or throw stones at birds, “do things that boys did, even though I didn’t want to” (Hecht 2006). Verissimo recalls her brother trying to tell her not to flip ‘his’ wrists the way ‘he’ would or to play with dolls the way ‘he’ did. “My sister was different,” she explains. “She would even give me her underwear. But when she left the house, she no longer wanted me to be the way I am” (Hecht 2006). After her sister had children, Verissimo explains, “she didn’t want her children to be around me” (Hecht 2006). Her sisters reasoning was she didn’t want them imitating Verissimo’s feminine appearance.
Throughout the novel, Hecht exposes his own vulnerability. Part one of the ethnography entails his experience in Recife. Referring to himself as Zoe throughout, he describes her descent into depression. Although a researcher herself, Zoe scorns her own profession, and that of journalists, similarly to Verissimo. Neither Zoe nor Verissimo feel at ease with the concept of researchers and journalists achieving success out of the suffering of others. Zoe suffers depression in part as a result of the ‘double existence’ she feels she lives. “During the days in alleys that smell of human waste and where squalid dogs nap fitfully, at night protected from the insects, the dirt, the smells of a decaying city” (Hecht 2006). She compares the city center to a cauldron of chaos and decay, an equivalent to the physical manifestation of her mind (Hecht 2006).
Following Zoe’s arrival she loses 15 pounds. She would sit in her hotel room staring at the clock while trying to calculate the number of babies who die in the time it takes the second hand to make its way from the top of the dial to the bottom (Hecht 2006). She felt no relief in her privilege as a foreigner, and for that reason, she didn’t feel right about the research she intended to conduct. Feeling overwhelmed, Zoe breaks down in a psychologist’s office. “I have to rest,” she insists. Tears well in her eyes, “making the book-lined walls a welter of fading colors…the chaos of it all,” Hecht writes. “The spines of so many books in so many colors, the books at odd angles, words written by a dead author, the rusting paper clips that have no place on a bookshelf. A hand on her and she cannot contain the scream” (Hecht 2006). Hecht portrays his own descent into depression through an imaginative character, while allowing Verissimo to portray her experiences in the same way. By labeling his novel an ethnographic fiction, Hecht allows for an emotionally descriptive narrative to take place.
After Life is ethnographic in the sense that it takes liberties with reality, and is backed by anthropological research. Fictional aspects allow readers to visually relive not only Verissimo’s life, but also the depression Hecht experienced as a result of his ‘allergic reaction’ to Brazil. In this case, powerful emotions are effectively exerted in exchange for the insurance of fact. The reader is able to grasp through After Life, an organic interpretation of Brazilian society.
While ‘vero’ means true in Italian, ‘issimo’ is the superlative suffix in both Italian and Portuguese. Although the last name Bruna chose for her female identity means the truest, or the absolute truth, the truth of her life is blurred throughout the novel. For the most part, the strengths and weaknesses of Hecht’s ethnographic fiction are similarly blurred, and can be identified in either category. To begin with, a substantial amount of what Verissimo told Hecht happened to be untrue. In a taped exchange between Verissimo and a girl named ‘Michele’, the improbably high voice of the ‘girl’ suddenly became Verissimo’s. Although truth is sought after, especially in terms of anthropology, using her tainted testimony can also be considered a strength, as it allows readers to settle in her mind, and therefore interpret her inner most thoughts.
The fact Hecht became so emotionally involved with his study can also be considered a strength and weakness. Despite his intentions, he did not end up writing an ethnographic biography of Verissimo. Instead, Hecht’s subject rewrote him in a sense, as she becomes a researcher herself. In the third part of the ethnography, Hecht grapples with his findings. He thinks Verissimo considers him a client, someone seeking something from her, and who depends on her collaboration, someone in need of her story. The relationship that evolves between the researcher and his subject exhibits vulnerability on both ends. Despite maintaining what she most wants in life is to leave the street, Hecht is unable to wrap his head around why Verissimo spurns real opportunities to do so. Her choices evidently upset him throughout. After observing Hecht over the course of his research, Verissimo is unable to identify why he takes an interest in her, whether he wants to help or whether he is attempting to fix something inside of himself. At times she admits she wants to fill the void she knows Hecht feels. These confusions complicate the ethnography, but they also add an undeniable sense of life to his work.
Hecht, Tobias. After Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006. Print.