Seeing full circles: The flipside of a literary festival
For in all countries, the natives have been so far conquered by naturalized productions, that they have allowed foreigners to take firm possession of the land. As as foreigners have thus everywhere beaten some of the natives, we may safely conclude that the natives might have been modified with advantage, so as to have better resisted such intruders.
(Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species)
In a cold but sunny Saturday of early October 2014, there were only two trains from Kings’ Cross, in London, to Ipswich, a city in eastern England. At my arrival, a man in his 50s came was waving from the other side of the track. The gentleman would drive me in a large Citroen van through the heart of the Englishness. We ran entrenched between the ancient village of Saxmundham and the coastline town of Aldenburgh heading towards the Snape Maltings complex, where the Flipside, a festival of Brazilian literature was going to take place in that weekend.
Amid an inglorious silence, I looked at all that bucolic grass in despair. I wondered life would be possible in the next two nights. No mobile signal forced an awkward communication with him on a subject that I knew what was going to be the answer. It was a strike that would absolutely lead to an own goal. I asked the gentleman what he could possibly know about Brazil, the theme of the festival he was driving me to. He kindly answered:
“I saw some slums on a BBC documentary”.
Well, this is a good start, I joked.
At each mile we went on, the remoteness of floodplains couldn’t hide anything but wild grass, but not as wild as Brazil's image according to these people. As we arrived, the rendezvous was in full gas. No time for introductions. As a volunteer, I was briefly left aware on my assignment: I was appointed "artist liaison". My role was to "shadow" guest writers. I was not expected to interact much with them, they told me.
That internship seemed to satisfy a kind of old curiosity of mine for rural England. More than that, amid a relatively unknown event, I could orbit around notorious Brazilian writers, as I expected they could be more accessible outside their tropical habit, often surrounded by body guards and hundreds of fans.
Suddenly, I felt I was paying particular attention to the steps of British editor, Liz Calder. I knew little about her, but the elusive presence of that lady in her late seventies suggested who was the real star in that micro cosmos. Writers were talking on the corners, but her appearances were transitory and central, while she was obviously escaping from communality. She had attentive eyes, and an authoritative presence, but which did not subdue her tribe. I decided to go on, despite my unfitting presence, much because I wanted to observe her in more detail.
Calder brought Flipside to life at the Snape Maltings, but that event was originally a rib of the International Literary Party of Paraty. Flip is one of the most important cultural events of Brazil to this date. Calder’s good relations and talent made her fame in the main cultural circuits of Brazil, but little can be grasped about her persona.
One popular narrative has Calder brokering famous Western authors. Writers such as Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and Julian Barnes would appear in the list of her old protégées.
In the late 1990s, she was a director at Bloomsbury when believed in J. K. Rowling and her Harry Potter. Warm acknowledgements to Calder are found in a variety of titles, from Egyptian antiquity to biographies, from video art to social history. 02 September 1982, the London Review of Books published a letter from someone signing as Liz Calder:
“SIR: Your readers may be interested to learn that Edie by Jean Stein, co-edited with George Plimpton, so seductively described in his Diary by Ian Hamilton, will be published here by Cape on 28 October”.
From her early start as a publicist at Jonathan Cape to now semi-celebrity, it all makes a rather fantastic trajectory. Originally from the UK, having lived in New Zealand, then in Brazil, more than an exciting life, Calder has no single record of public failure. Years and years of press coverage bring no pitfalls. A woman of books, whose story is not in the books. The truth is that far from the writers’ public persona, the administrative élite that stands behind them is barely known. They are not less exciting and, yes, they often keep the juicy gossip that could dismantle literature as sanctity and restore its mundane appearance.
It is not clear whether it was a career shift towards the sun or a strong sense of opportunity or both, but Liz Calder first went to Brazil in 1964, leading to a four-year stay. She had initially modelled for brands such as Paco Rabanne, and the now vintage Biba. One of her early posters shows a sexy woman covered by a large pearl necklace. Fingers serve three shiny rings. In her arms, a sculptural and shiny bracelet.
“She was a tanned and beautiful girl, and her ads had lots of highlights and won the columnists’ awards”.
That’s how some contemporaries in Brazil describe Calder in magazines of the time. Back to the UK, she would occasionally escape to Brazil, but always coming back with promising Brazilian literary names. In Calder’s home country, Brazil was at best barely known, at worst not spoken for its literature.
In 2013, she told the BBC some of her thoughts:
“It’s a strange thing, it’s such a vast, vast and complicated country, in a way being settled in stereotypes. We think of it in terms of football, of carnival, samba, and we don’t think of it in terms of literature, but it thinks of itself in terms of literature. But for because [it is] so vast, it feeds for itself, it doesn’t need to sort of come out”.
At Flipside, the idea was offering a cool retreat for literature and leisure, but not necessarily by labelling itself as ‘another Brazilian event’. Those are probably things for London. Here, the festival’s logo gathered a mix of exotics with the culturally acceptable. A group of people with books on the swing of a hammock strung between two coconut palm trees.
In time, small tents emulated national familiarity by inviting the traditional ethnic food representatives, football matches, and instructors made the best, so the locals cold learn capoeira. As far as I remember, I never saw any cricket match mixed with British literature.
That weekend was a particularly tense for Brazilians. It was 2014, and they were going to vote for president. The leftist candidate Dilma Rousseff risked a landslide vote against her, and her party could vanish from power after twelve years (that wouldn’t happen). The political uncertainty appeared in many debates, but a few British guests tried to argue with the passion demanded by Brazilian politics. Such debates ended up emptied or attended by scholars or by the so-called Brasilianistas.
In fact, the public knew about their elective affinities. Sessions with people such as Colm Tóibín, Lionel Shriver, and Margaret Atwood were busy. Suffering from the loneliness of the birthday child, Brazil had the homage but couldn’t throw the party on its way. Many discussions have not lived up to the heat of cultural clashes. Calder has repeated in many times her shock with Brazilian shyness, as she said to the Independent in 2013:
“The Brazilians have immense national pride in their own literature, but they don’t actually seem to care that nobody else knows about it”.
This “nobody else” seems the English speaking world. But here, contrastingly, Flipside primarily aims at the pioneering vision that Calder has put forward in Brazil. Not by chance, she is seen as the mother of the first big, commercially-feasible, tailor-made literary festival of the country. This concept of coolness and smart glamour was new to South America at Flip’s kick-off in 2003.
As ordinary as it could be, judging by its media importance, the Flip has become a game-changer to how Brazilians engage with this globetrotter marketing strategy of “festivals”, regardless of the country’s tiny readership.
Flip’s debut was controversial. The UK media told with disdain what was going on. The Telegraph, imperially, said, “Hay-on-Wye goes to South America”. In Brazil, commentators reacted cautiously:
“Calder and her entourage walked out from the party straight into her millionaire beachfront mansion”.
Journalists called the “British dream adapted to South America”. Stories from this time were doubtlessly parochial, but they happened to encase the disdain for a foreigner, but who happened to have total access to local influencers. Whereas many local writers and producers still fought for their place under the sun of a then-booming economy.
The full compliance of British and Brazilians literary celebrities with Calder’s Brazil project was slowly setting the mainstream vocation for the festival. The option of placing itself in a specific atmosphere of a small, 18th-century coast town was right. The event eventually got the buy-in from writers, actors, musicians, and artists, all embarked into a sort of exoteric transit that last for three days a year, made the headlines.
Examples of this success in the public opinion are not scarce. If the budget was tiny at first, today it has got lots of public money. If the festival was innovative, it then became a model exported to all corners of Brazil. If she was just another rich foreigner, later a foreigner carrying a medal awarded by President Lula. That’s entirely Calder’s merit, but one could legitimately ask the extent to which Brazil’s Flip really connects (or if should connect) with the local demands of reading democratization, as it mirrors its commercial ambition from a handful of powerful book editors.
At the end of my first day at Flipside, a festival staffer drove me to a lodge. That was the time to penetrate in dark, foggy, and impossible rural lanes again. We cut the most rustic and picturesque cottages seen only in the perfect Turner. Thirty minutes into labyrinthine ways, I left the sweaty, but frozen auto to enter into a tiny, old cottage house.
I just knew the first name of my absent host, Rosie. The lovely low-ceiling matched carefully adorned walls, fully covered with photographs of adorable unknown people, whose faces fitted perfectly in blue baby frames, triangulating with vernacular, fake, and vintage furniture. The occasional and brutal noise from the rail tracks violated the deafening silence, and the brick-layered peace was there to stay.
The comparison with the sunny, crazy, rocky-paved, wild Portuguese baroque Paraty was striking. Not for demerit of this ancient, British heritage village on its captivating charm, but because both seemed tied to a renascence through books, authors, and benefactors.
In the case of Saxmundham, it remained unclear if Flipside would ever reach the mission of filling these roads with smiling people, as Flip does to Paraty every year. Nor it meant that Calder intended to wake up the sleeping indigenous. Leaving aside my agony of solitude during that evening of fish and chips, I tried to convince myself that this was just the type of place in which formerly adventurous and upper-middle-class Brits came to complete their life trajectory. The difference was that Calder’s life now retreated to Paraty’s closest antithesis, assuming that she, one day, had left England’s traditions behind.
In fact, Paraty had proved to work well in many ways in its manner. Calder told many reporters how difficult was for her to make the first Flip happen, amidst uncertainties and budget shortage. The first edition attracted around six thousand people. Drawing some comments on the differences between Flip and Flipside with people during the lunch, most of them agreed in their entirely different natures.
“It is hard to compare, but the image of the country contributes to people’s attendance. It’s expensive to come all the way from London with the family.”
A Brazilian attendee told me.
Paraty, however, has a big tradition of popular attendance from all over Brazil. Popular in the sense of grassroots, brown, working-class people. That was not necessarily what I saw at Flipside. Apart from its mainstream elitism, the problem with the Flip was not necessarily at audience penetration, but with the opposite, the traditional last-minute cancellations from its much-hailed celebrity guests. Leaving alone writers who are Calder’s friends, many authors hit Brazil’s headlines for their sudden change of mood for crossing the vast Atlantic ocean towards the South American sub-continent.
If these were marketing coups or the daring conditions, this list includes the late Antonio Tabbucchi, but also with contemporary best sellers, such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Michel Houellebecq, and, more recently, Roberto Saviano.
Back on day 2, the visitors with whom I interacted consisted in enthusiastic Brazilian or Portuguese literature students, Portuguese language teachers, or translators, or travelling families en route to the sea.
“Everyone here has some interest in getting published, she [Calder] is the name.”
I heard from one of my fellow volunteers. Many of the activities happened only thanks to the children and grandchildren of Calder’s close friends, and they all seemed very happy and entertained, but far too young to know anything about Brazil and why that was going on.
As my access to Flipside backstage grew more natural, I could spot Calder from afar and think why not have a chat with her. She had a happy face, but distant eyes. In that day, she wore a long blue jacket and a smooth jumper, with thick necklaces, like that of the 1960s. Authors and event staffers formed a natural contention belt, her set of literary bodyguards. In the preface of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie thanks Calder for helping him to “untangle some knots”:
“The role of a great publishing editor is often effaced by the editor’s modesty. Without Liz Calder, Midnight’s Children would have something rather less than she helped it to become”.
The kind relationship of Calder with this group of protégés included some points of no return. For example, the departure of Salman Rushdie from her inner circle is a story generally told with an understated elegance. Rushdie gives his account on the autobiographical Joseph Anton. It seems not the regular contract break up, but a friend’s last chapter.
“The sweetheart deal was cancelled, Liz and Deborah were both deeply hurt, and the auction followed”.
The use of sweetheart deal is an irony for the financial turmoil that can poison the ‘friends with benefits’ relation between editors and authors. In such snowballing effect, more friends will mean more collaboration, but more famous does not mean more friend of someone you already know. It is normal, to say the least, to narrate disagreements, and ego wars, as these facts are also more than just gossip. They are part of the raw material of other stories, and then other deals, profits, bankruptcies, or a kind of full circle. Editorial rejections also compose the intimate life of an editor. According to Carole Klein’s book, Calder once turned down a manuscript from the future Nobel Prize Doris Lessing.
Invited to the Flip 2012, late Brazilian writer João Ubaldo Ribeiro refused to join. He was reportedly protesting against the market monopoly of authors from Luis Schwarcz’s print house. Schwarcz is one of the main Calder’s partners at Flip since its first beginning. In 2014, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo wrote that the “beija-mão” practice (hand kissing) was a reality at the Flip, mentioning the rather undemocratic fact. That was a smart analogy to the King John VI’s court in Brazil, where subjects paid him reverence in exchange of favours and benefits.
In 2014, indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa stormed a reading to protest against death threats against his tribe. His act broke during a famous Calderian ritual, in which guest authors do a final public reading of their favourite piece. What did those public tensions mean to Calder herself? It’s hard to know. At least, these signs point out that the “festival for friends” in Brazil comes slowly moving towards a loud, chaotic, popular gathering.
Far from the celebrity circus, Brazilian literary blogs gather much legitimate dissent. The general argument challenges the Flip’s undisclosed commercial bias.
Radical authors argue on the unfortunate use of public money (the Flip comes receiving funds from Brazil’s Culture Department). Others dispute the alleged commitment with emerging names, as those to hit the talks are generally well-established, deal-signed authors.
Brazilian Poet Nei Duclos wrote on his blog:
“It’s amazing that in a literary party there is no transgression. Everything goes as a mega commercial event. Flip is not useful to reveal anyone; it’s only to reiterate what the market has defined”.
Other authors have managed to create their alternative events, which turn out to be bitter and satirical. The most famous of these parodies is Flip-Pobre or Flip of the Poor.
Living apart from Brazilian sensitivities and publicly dismissing the pains around her festivals, Calder has hinted that she’s now miles away from Paraty. In her late seventies, she sold her beachfront house in Brazil, and moved from London to Suffolk in 2008, creating a small publishing house with friends. If not retirement, that move suggests mild plans. “If you live long enough, you begin to see full circles wherever you look”, she wrote to the Financial Times in 2010.
Approaching my final hours at Flipside, I crossed the tents and spotted a woman in blue jeans. Her eyes revealed the fatigue of an extremely fulfilled life, a sort of Charlotte Rampling. I asked her if anyone could drive me back to the station. She was very considerate of my request, and said that she would do it herself, “if this is just to drop you at the station”.
While I awaited her, I admired the Britten Studio, the concert hall founded by composer Benjamin Britten, now part of the Snape Maltings complex. I was stunned to see how the thick, dark, and hard-brick walls contrasted with the freshness from yellowish Japanese leaves, surrounded by miles of the green field. It was an allegory of how the projected image of Brazil had also been smoothed out in those days so it could fit that people’s imaginary.
Flipside was otherwise more about a community looking for itself. It is true that Calder’s ideas of showing Brazil abroad were well-intentioned, and more than profit-making. Nevertheless, one still found a heavy gloss of the British mythology on the way things must exist and not as they do in their original state. In Calder’s mind, as in the British mind, one’s purpose in life should be one of building bridges but those that lead to a clean-cut end. It is about assuming that one knows what the world needs as if the world has to speak English and enjoy the peace of a wet countryside.
Calder has achieved a goal of engaging her fellow villagers in hard work, giving them her own purpose in spite of their apparent estrangement. As a sovereign queen, she kept on mediating the distant, wild world on behalf of her compatriots. While her big project was happening, she has at the same time the wish to build a robust communal rapport, which fulfilled a certain Calvinist ideal of personal salvation by collective action. The problem with Flipside was at not avoiding the post-colonial echo that reverberated all around. Joseph Conrad would be proud, but not Stuart Hall.
“Liz want to meet and thank you all for dinner, with the authors.”
I heard from a senior volunteer. While I considered if I would join, the woman in jeans reappeared, and I offered no resistance to go at that very moment. On our way back to the village, the tight roads now appeared less tight. A gorgeous pinkish sky led my eyes to the rear mirror, wherein my eyes met the magnified driver’s aged, but beautiful face. Breaking the embarrassing silence again, she told her name was Rosie. She asked what I thought of her house. After a brief shock, I said nice to meet you and paid many compliments to her beautifully decorated home once more.
Approaching my drop-off, Rosie showed me a pretty, flower-in-the-window cottage, very close to the roadside. It was Calder’s place in Saxmundham. They are friends since long ago, and in an emulated or real guilt, she confessed being very tired at that day and could not give her best. The image of us leaving before the end resembled one of two non-loyalists escaping in a car. It was a great liberation.
I lamentably missed the talk with the emerging names of literature. I missed to pay myself by getting some free drinks. I missed cultivating my network, maybe selling my work. Most importantly, I missed the real Calder. I would have missed producing this piece, which Calder would probably never publish.
Weeks later, I heard that next year’s Flipside would drop the Brazilian from its name and turn more Latin. In the face of harsh political and economic crisis that affects Brazil, perhaps it is time for Calder to turn to go full circle again.