Nowhere People (2011) – Paulo SCOTT

The And Other Stories machine often seems unstoppable. Like Marvel Studios, they have reached a point where their brand seems to almost guarantees success. It would be easy, then, for them to rest on their laurels and start pumping stuff out. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

On a highway in Brazil, a chance encounter will change the lives of a family forever. Feelign guilty about his lack of empathy, Paulo stops at the roadside to help a young Guarani girl, Maína. Quite by accident, he falls in love with her, and their brief but passionate relationship results in a baby. But Donato is soon separated from his parents, and moves to the city, where he is brought up by adoptive parents that can do nothing but their best.

I am, by no means, an expert on Brazilian literature (I am, in fact, struggling to name another Brazilian author I’ve read), but it seems hard not to read Nowhere People as a state-of-the-nation novel. In what is a comparatively slim volume, Scott tackles the big three—race, class and gender—in contemporary, and examines the ways in which the three issues collide.

The most important of those three, though, is race. Scott seems deeply concerned with the indigenous population of Brazil, and in particular, the ways in which the indigenous and non-indigenous populations interact. As with all postcolonial literature concerned with exploring identity, Scott’s main character, Donato, is a hybrid figure—neither completely indigenous, though seemingly unable to commit to a life in mainstream Brazilian life. His interrupted childhood has left him a confused young man, trying to understand his own place, as well as the history of his people.

Donato can only find a sense of relief in his performance art, which sees him stand outside buildings in downtown reclaim and reappropriate a traditional Guarani costume to silently protest the treatment of his people. It’s a stark contrast to his own thoughts as a child which, under the influence, of his white adopted father, saw him ashamed of his Indian heritage, believing the only way forward was assimilation.

This about-turn in values is perhaps symptomatic of a larger question facing the indigenous population in Brazil—and, indeed, all over the world. What is the best way forward for these marginalised groups? Do we ask them to integrate into the mainstream colonial culture, helping them understand our values and money? Do we leave them to their own devices (in Brazil, this has manifested itself in the Terras Indígenas)? And how do people who have been dragged from one side of this debate to the other reconcile their two halves?

Nowhere People is a novel that, the moment you put it down, demands to be reread. Its unfocused narrative shifts are disconcerting, leaving the unsuspecting reader alienated and confused. Once it settles down, however, it is a novel that has a lot to say about a country that is on the brink of becoming one of the world’s powerhouse economies. In an attempt to remind people of the cost of this great leap forward, Scott draws our attention to the nowhere people of Brazil—the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, forced to eke out a living on the side of a highway.

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