Writing Undergrowth

By Nancy Burke, in honor of Earth Day. Excerpted from Amazon Watch talk, November 2018: The Pertinence of Real World Storytelling in Today’s Brazilian Amazon

When I started writing my novel Undergrowth twenty-some years ago, I never envisioned that it would be anything more than historical fiction today. Lands were being titled to indigenous groups, the status of the Xingu Indigenous Park made possible through the hard work of the Villas-Bôas brothers and others was not in dispute despite the encroachment of mining and agribusiness interests at its periphery, and FUNAI [Fundação Nacional do Índio/the National Indian Foundation, the Brazilian government body that establishes and carries out policies relating to indigenous peoples] looked to be far more dedicated in its commitments to their mission and to the environment than SPI [Service for the Protection of Indians] had been. While most authors are thrilled to discover that their work is of increasing relevance in the world outside their imaginations, I have noted, in these past months, a growing sense of anxiety and dismay at the fact that this twenty-year project might have been written yesterday, and it certainly will be written again, in many forms, tomorrow.

The fact of its relevance throws into relief questions that I often have tried to address anyway when I have spoken about my book, even before all this political shit came down in Brazil: The role of fiction, the potential for its having an impact, and the rights of an author to tell a story by reimagining actual real-world events. Here’s a for-instance: Imagine writing a space-fantasy novel about . . . your mother! It turns out that in your story, she’s an ugly Goat God who eats empty beer cans and an occasional child on the Planet Zork, and spouts all the sayings you heard all your life in your mother’s exact words, but here for dark and mocking comic effect, and is eventually done in by a werewolf who resembles you in certain ways that your reading public might not know about, but your mother sure does. Looking forward to that first post-publication phone call? And what if you’re not writing an intergalactic comic novel about your mother, but have taken as your setting, say, a concentration camp? There are those who say, “what right have you to talk about the camps, to alter facts, to take other people’s stories and make them your own?” Even worse, what if your chosen setting is a place you’ve never been and aren’t even associated with, at least in any direct sense? To my mind, these questions can be boiled down to one über-question: What are stories?

Now this question might seem simplistic to all of us here, many of whom are likely in the arts, and many of whom are likely writers themselves. But I have to say that despite its obviousness, writing about a perhaps uncontacted tribe in the Amazon placed me in the midst of a moral dilemma that was sitting on my shoulder the entire time I was working on the book, and believe me, that was a long, long time. It is a question that I feel acutely when I write in conjunction with my day job as a psychoanalyst. Being currently over my ears in running an organization that argues for the central role of psychotherapy in the mental health agenda, I am mindful of two things: First, the safe harbor that a treatment must provide to the person in it, and second, the urgent need to write about the work of therapy as a practice whose entire worldview society seems as invested in steamrollering as they are in steamrollering the Amazon. There’s a connection there, of course. When people comment on how I have all these unrelated activities in my life, I’m always confused, because it seems to me that these are all of a piece: How do we elevate our best selves, and use that nuanced, ambiguous, messy, but ultimately truthful sense of what it is to be human in order to act as worthy stewards and celebrants of the world we’ve been given?

My point in bringing in that digression about psychoanalysis – we analysts and writers LOVE digressions! – is to draw from both worlds, that of fiction and that of my analytic work, to emphasize that we dwell in that intermediate space, with one foot in objective, verifiable, and consensual reality and another in our reactions to and interpretations of this reality as these are woven into the web of meaning we call our selves, and that we need both of these truths to live fully. Indeed, one of the things I am aware of in my office is that the most definable mark of trauma is the inability to tell stories that have one foot in the outer world of relationships and what we’d call reality and another in creativity or imagination. People who are traumatized come to my office and the offices of my colleagues with a need to recount events over and over, to state “what happened,” without being able to consider what the traumatizing event or events meant to them. They are literal. Their dreams are literal. Their interactions with people are flat, unemotional, and repetitive. And if their scars are so deep as to render them psychotic, the stories they tell about space aliens or people controlling them through the TV, while they look creative, are also quite boring, most of the time, predictable, with their villains and heroes saving the world from destruction. The importance of telling stories, in my mind, has to do with retaining our humanity in the face of trauma, of not allowing ourselves to collapse into the unelaborated details of what hurt us. Storytelling is our ticket out of the province of revenge, our pass to a world of respect, of beauty, of play, and possibility, both at the individual and the cultural level. In contrast to the truly fake news we’re being fed daily, whose sole purpose is to traumatize people and thereby to render them unable to think, we writers and researchers and field directors and ecologists are each holding important pieces of the flip side of the question I asked about stories a few minutes ago: What does it mean to be human, and how can we become wise stewards of the world of opportunities we are given through creative work?

I just want to say a few words about how I came to set my novel in this particular place, because people always ask and I might as well come clean right off the bat, and then I’ll go on with my reading. I’m often asked: Why Brazil? So here’s the answer: I don’t know. Next question? But really, in grad school, I happened to come across one of those amazing teachers who can teach anything, can animate any subject, and about whom it’s probably most accurate to say that sitting in his class was basically an exercise in trying to learn to drink from a fire hydrant: Terry Turner. A number of my friends had him as their dissertation chair, and I’d seen enough people walk into his office in terror and walk out in tears to wonder what this guy had going. Since he taught basically whatever he wanted, I noticed that he was scheduled to teach a class in French Symbolist Poetry, so I sat in on it. I think the school had a hard time figuring out how to cross-list the class, because it was basically a class on everything, and one thing that happened there was that he showed us a film of him among the Kayapo, a tribe he’d lived among, the subject of his research. There he was, standing amongst a group of dark-skinned Indians talking to them in a barrage of rapid-fire sounds of some sort while brandishing aloft a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That’s the kind of image that sticks with you. Nuff said? Anyway, that was a good enough launching point for my usual method of work, which, in fiction, involves doing some amount of research and reading on a topic and then putting the books away and letting myself have the pleasure of writing without feeling burdened by what they had to say.

Some people ask me for a summary of the book. I really don’t want to do that, but I would be honored if they decided to try to create a Cliff Notes of it, just sayin,’ and especially if they failed at it. The books takes place in the Brazil of the ’60s, among a group of sertanistas, employees of the Indian Protection Service, some of whom were more eager than others to protect the tribes they were supposed to safeguard (often in a way we hopefully will be uncomfortable with now, according to which there was at least some emphasis on helping these so-called savages to enter into the so-called civilized world), and some of whom were more eager than others to exploit the tribes and their land for mining and logging interests, or just for the power of it. I know that there is much controversy over the use of the word “genocide,” but it seems like an appropriate word to me for what happened to the people in those tribes, many of whom perished after being exposed to diseases against which they had no immunity, but many others of whom were killed deliberately. An investigative report on the situation, the Figueiredo report, garnered little attention until a well-known travel writer, Norman Lewis, published a devastating piece in the Times of London magazine in ’69 that horrified the world and led to the dissolution of SPI. Against that background, my characters are at least somewhat oblivious. They fumble around and try to do good, sometimes with disastrous consequences. This, as I see it, is the heart of tragedy – not to have a powerful person fall, but to have an ordinary person try to live well, as we all do, every day, in more ways than we can count, and sometimes cause events that are little understood and even less intended.

Now despite the fact that I’ve been told by several people in the publishing world that people don’t actually read at readings anymore, because audiences don’t have the patience for it, I truly love being read to, and I hope you do too. It’s really a shame that we grow out of that stage, and really great if we can recapture it in some form by reading to children, though my own children hated my reading to them because I always either cried or kept pointing out great lines, both of which they found, in their words, annoying. I’ve made an effort not to choose chapters that either give away the action or make me cry too much, so if you want to know what happens, I hope you’ll read on yourselves.

To support your local independent bookstore, order Undergrowth from Bookshop.org.