May 12, 2016

Water in Yomibato: Guest post by National Geographic writer Emma Marris

I traveled last November to Manu Park in the Peruvian Amazon with writer Emma Marris to guide her among the Matsigenka people for a story she published this week in National Geographic. In this post from the science blog The Last Word on Nothing (reproduced with permission), Emma describes her visit to the water purification system recently inaugurated in this remote village by the charity organization Rainforest Flow.

Text: Emma Marris
Photography: Glenn Shepard

Durable, hygienic drinking taps, sinks and bathrooms were installed near the Yomibato village school by Rainforest Flow.
Last November, I went to the Peruvian Amazon on assignment for National Geographic.  I focused on a group of indigenous people, the Matsigenka, living inside Manu National Park.

One of these people is Alejo Machipango
[1], a hunter, farmer, and member of the water committee for the village of Yomibato. Alejo is about 32, but I would have guessed his age at 22. He is married and has several kids. He is a jokester. He likes chewing coca, drinking manioc beer. He takes his arrows with him most places, just in case. I saw him shoot at some birds, but never hit one. And he always laughs when he misses.
Alejo with his arrows, just in case.

One day, Alejo takes me to see the spring where Yomibato gets its water. The water system in the village was installed by a charity called Rainforest Flow between 2012 and 2015.

A few generations ago, the Matsigenka used to be more dispersed on the landscape. Each family lived apart, and households moved often. The whole community would gather together once a month, on the full moon, and have a big party with manioc beer. But many families decided to move to Yomibato to be near the school and clinic. As the community grew to several hundred, the local river and streams became contaminated with bacteria and waterborne illness became a chronic problem.

The slow sand filtration treatment tanks, with water committee members.

The newly-installed water system itself is a very simple slow sand filtration setup. Water is piped from a spring away from the main village to a series of three portable geomembrane tanks[2] filled with sand and rocks. Microbes living on the sand gobble up bacteria, viruses, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and parasites. The water is stored in a 30,000 liter bladder tank that is essentially a big tough geomembrane pillow, then is distributed throughout the village through pipes. The whole system is gravity fed, so there are no pumps, no electricity required, no moving parts. It is also light and easy to transport by canoe. It was designed by hydrological engineer Humphrey Blackburn. The water committee clean the filters every couple of months and repair pipe breaks, and that’s about it.

We cross the river by canoe, stop to look at the filters and reservoir, and then start climbing the foothills of the Andes towards the spring. When we get there, the spring itself looks like nothing. A wet spot in the ground. A pipe with holes in it is buried below the surface, I am told.

We sit down to rest in the hollows made by the huge buttressed roots of massive fig trees. Alejo says he knows a tree nearby that is fruiting, and he and his friend Alex disappear, then reappear with their T-shirts filled with brown seed pods, about five inches long. They are called azucar huayo in Spanish; koveni in Matsigenka
[3]. The water committee hack them open with machetes and begin eating the sweet brown fluffy stuff inside. It is almost too sweet.

Alex with azucar huayo.

I ask Alejo about laying the 16 kilometers of pipe the project required. “Everybody came to work,” he says. “The women came. We all suffered a lot.”

I ask him if it was worth it. Sometimes, I think, development projects are more about what rich people think a community ought to want, rather than what they actually do want. “If we had to do it again, we would.” Alejo says. “One of my children died of diarrhea, and I had it many times.”

He says this so matter of factly that I don’t say the kinds of things I would say if someone back home told me their child had died. I suppose that in a place where people have a dozen kids and where childhood mortality is relatively common, it is possible that the etiquette is a bit different. But in truth, I am stunned that this happy-go-lucky guy who looks like a teenager has lost a child. And as a mother, I feel that vaguely sick feeling you get whenever you hear about any child dying.

I wonder if he is on the water committee because his child died, or if he just thought he’d make a little money without having to leave the village—which is the way most people make money in Yomibato, if they need some for soap or cooking pots or gasoline. But I don’t know how to ask him any more about this dead child.

Nancy Santullo, founder and director of Rainforest Flow.

The American woman who runs Rainforest Flow, Nancy Santullo, sees clean water as a basic step on the road towards empowering indigenous communities that have historically been victimized by outsiders: paid less than non-natives for their work, denied benefits owed to them as citizens, abused by those sent to help them

She is on a spiritual quest to make the Matisgenka strong and confident. Alejo already seems strong and confident, but I don’t know. His smiles may cover a shell thicker than the koveni

We walk back along the pipe, and it is a hot day, like every day. When we get to the first house of the village, I stop and take a long cool drink from the tap.

Access to clean, safe water has transformed health and sanitary conditions in the project communities, benefiting children especially.

Find out about Rainforest Flow's water projects in indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon at

Read more about the Matsigenka people and Manu Park in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic:

by Emma Marris
photography by Charlie Hamilton James

by Susan Goldberg
photography by Glenn Shepard


1.  As a young boy, Alejo appeared in the Discovery channel documentaries Spirits of the Rainforest (winner of two Emmys) and The Spirit Hunters, both filmed in Yomibato in 1992. Alejo's grandfather, Mariano Vicente, a storyteller, shaman, and "star" of the films, passed away in 2012. The Spirit Hunters , narrated by James Earl Jones, streams free online at Culture Unplugged.
2.  Slow sand filtration is a centuries-old technology used by many small towns as well as by the U.S. military on extended combat missions and the U.N. in disaster relief efforts. Read more at
3.  Azucar huayo (or jatobá in Brazil) is a legume seed pod from the tree Hymenaea courbaril L.


September 30, 2015

The Vampire Pipeline: Unhealth and undevelopment in the lower Urubamba

The Vilcabamba mountain range, last holdout of the Inca empire in the 16th century, looms in the distance as a man in a cotton tunic and baseball cap scrolls through the photographs on his laptop: dozens of people, adults and children, gravely ill from what was ultimately attributed to a rabies outbreak, but which many Matsigenka people of Camaná in southeastern Peru blame on a leak in the gas pipeline which passes near their village.

“Lots of people died. Children! Fourteen years and below, he said. They took them to Lima and they died there. The doctors came and said ‘It’s not gas, it’s not gas, it’s the bat-illness that bit them.’ I said, ‘What if you’re lying?’”

Young girl from the community of Camana who died, presumably of rabies, in May 2012. Photo taken by a community member and used with permission.

 “In 2012 the pipeline broke. They said it didn’t break, but it just leaked a little. In the month of March, at the beginning. They said ‘Don’t worry, the water is safe, the contamination isn’t coming downstream.’ But then it started raining and the floods bought all that contamination down here close to the community. 

Ohohoh!," he shook his head and then continued in the staccato cadences of the Matsigenka language, It messed up the river… At first I didn’t notice it, I was eating armored catfish and they had a strange smell. And then I thought, ‘It has come down here after all. People are going to get sick. We might die.’ And then my wife got sick. And the doctors came and said it was rabies. The bat-illness that bit her. I said ‘No way! It was gas!’ Has a bat bitten my wife? She was never bitten by a bat. I built my house carefully. You don’t get rabies so easily.”

A 600 km pipeline carries natural gas from the Camisea gas fields—among the largest natural gas deposits in all of South America—from the Urubamba region in the upper Amazon, across the Andes to refineries near Paracas Marine Reserve on the Peruvian coast. The pipeline supplies over 40% of Peru's natural gas, representing a contribution to the Peruvian economy of about 28% of GDP.[1] The Camisea gas fields are located in the heart of the territory of the Matsigenka, an indigenous Amazonian people of about 12,000 who live in the lower Urubamba, Manu and upper Madre de Dios rivers; some Matsigenka in the Camisea region maintain little or no contact with the outside world. And yet because of Peru's subsoil mineral laws, the Matsigenka people have no direct ownership stake in the gas deposits, which are leased by the government to private companies.

In March 12, 2012, the pipeline administered by Transportadora de Gas del Perú (TGP) near the Matsigenka Native Community of Camana on the Rio Picha (an affluent of the Lower Urubamba) leaked into a small stream known locally as Tsirompia. According to the people of Camana, not only did fish die and become contaminated with a strange odor, but also large animals such as tapir and peccaries that drank contaminated water also died and were found lying in the forest or along the river.

Water samples collected on March 13 by a team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate showed unsafe levels of petrochemicals at two of eight collection points, namely, the points closest to the site where the leak was detected. Unsafe levels continued at these two points through March 18, and a final collection on March 22 showed a return to safe levels at one of these points, although no data is given for the second point.1 The health team concluded that, by the date of its return on March 23, the water in the region was now safe.

Yet a number of people fell ill beginning late March through mid-April, and by May 10 five children had died. According to media reports at the time, the people of Camana blamed these illnesses and deaths on contamination from the gas leak.

A health team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate in May concluded that the deaths did not result from water contamination but rather were probably due to rabies transmitted by vampire bats.
[2] In all, eight suspected cases of rabies were documented of which seven (all children or adolescents 14 years old or less) proved fatal. The only survivor was an adult woman, the wife of the man interviewed above. One of the fatal cases was confirmed as rabies by autopsy, and two additional cases showed indications of rabies by indirect laboratory results. The exact cause of the initial five deaths could not be confirmed due to lack of blood or tissue samples, however the report classified them as “probable” rabies cases.

However during my visit to the community in April of 2014 as part of an independent evaluation of social, economic and environmental impacts of gas development in southern Peru, many community members suspected that some or perhaps all of these illnesses and deaths were not a result of rabies, but rather consequences of the gas leak in March.

We stopped eating fish for months. There were even cases of children who became malnourished because their parents were afraid to feed them fish.”

As one man said, “There has not been one case of rabies for years and years. There’s a gas spill, and suddenly people start dying. It’s not rabies: it’s the gas. It’s been another two years since then and not a single case of rabies: it was the gas!”

August 11, 2015

Surreal Specters: Martin Gusinde and The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego, reviewed in the New York Review of Books

The surrealists’ 1929 Map of the World depicts Tierra del Fuego as larger than Australia: Martin Gusinde's photographs show us why.

When Martin Gusinde was ordained as a priest in Germany in 1911, he hoped to travel to New Guinea to work as a missionary among exotic tribes. Instead, his superiors sent him to Chile to teach at the German school in Santiago. Within a few years, however, he found his calling at Chile’s Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology, carrying out expeditions to Tierra del Fuego in the far south of Chile and Argentina

Photography was an important aspect of Gusinde’s scientific and humanistic endeavor, and The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego is the first book to address this work in its own rightHis portraits especially reveal a tension between Gusinde’s ethnographic training and his humanistic (and artistic) instincts.

Ulen is a clown­like male spirit, whose role is to entertain the audience of the Selk’nam Hain ceremony (1923) © Martin Gusinde/Anthropos Institute/Editions Xavier Barral

Gusinde’s expeditions predate the surrealist movement and the irreverent 1929 map showing Tierra del Fuego as disproportionately large; but his first monograph, including 250 images, was not published until 1931. And yet even if only by coincidence, there is something bewitchingly surreal about Gusinde's photographs of the Hain initiation ceremony, in which young Selk’nam men are hazed by a pantheon of spirits that are revealed, in the final moments (forbidden to women), to be kinsmen in elaborate masks. Several photos show naked male figures standing barefoot in the snow, their bodies painted in bold white stripes on dark ochre and wearing eerie, phallic headdresses

In 1923 Gusinde photographed the last Hain ritual before the Selk’nam were decimated by a final wave of measles and forced to assimilate. 

The last fluent Selk’nam speakers died in the 1980s,
[1] and Herminia Vera, who spoke the language as a child, lived until 2014: at ninety-one, she was born the same year Gusinde photographed the final Hain ceremony documented in this book. But Joubert Yanten, a linguistically talented mestizo man (he goes by the tribal name Keyuk) has sought to encourage a cultural revival

In a recent interview with the New Yorker[2]  Keyuk explains the etymology of the group’s name: “The word ‘Selk’nam’ can mean ‘We are equal,’… though it can also mean ‘we are separate.’” Gusinde’s camera captures the essence of this fundamental enigma of the ethnographic encounter.

Read the full review at The New York Review of Books

by Martin Gusinde, edited by Christine Barthe and Xavier Barral
with text by Marisol Palma Behnke, Anne Chapman and Dominique Legoupil
English edition: Thames & Hudson; French and Spanish editions: Editions Xavier Barral
Photographs © Martin Gusinde/Anthropos Institute/Editions Xavier Barral

     [1] Rojas-Berscia, Luis Miguel (2014) A Heritage Reference Grammar of Selk'nam. MA Thesis, Dept. Linguistics, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen.
     [2] Thurman, Judith (2015) “A loss for words: Can a dying language be saved?,” The New Yorker, March 30, 2015.

June 30, 2015

Agony and Ecstasy in the Amazon: Excerpt from 'Broad Street'

Never tell a Matsigenka shaman his tobacco snuff is anything but katsi, “extremely painful.”

I learned this lesson the way I learned most of my lessons during fieldwork and in life generally—the hard way. Many years ago, in a village at the headwaters of the Manu River in the Peruvian Amazon, my friend Shumarapage initiated me into the pungent delights of seri[1], a fine green powder of tobacco and ash that Matsigenka men blast up one another’s nostrils to dispel fatigue, treat colds, build bonds of friendship, share shamanic powers, or just get plain smashed.

"Tobacco is the shaman’s soul. The more 'painful' or 'pungent' (katsi) the tobacco, the more powerful the shaman."

That first time, Shumarapage punished me with an intentional overdose. “Just one more puff,” he kept saying, until ten hits later I was lying in a puddle of green snot and vomit while a crowd of men, raucous on manioc beer, laughed all around me (the Matsigenka have a rather harsh sense of humor). Among the Matsigenka, such an episode is nothing to be ashamed of: on the contrary, guests are expected to overindulge as a sign of appreciation. And so despite this traumatic initiation, I soon came to savor the sharp sting of tobacco, crave the euphoric rush of nicotine, even appreciate the purifying bouts of retching that sometimes follow an overindulgence. 

Matsigenka men usually share tobacco at dusk, as the cooking fires begin to flicker against the black wall of the surrounding forest and crickets, frogs, and nocturnal birds tune up for an all-night symphony. A pair of men, usually brothers-in-law or other close kinsmen, sit facing one another on a dingy cane mat in the sandy plaza between thatched houses where women cook, gossip, nurture and laugh while children sleep or play.

The men are often grimy and tired, having just arrived from their slash-and-burn gardens or a hunting foray. They may chat softly for a few minutes about the day’s toils and revelations—peccaries plundering the manioc crop, tapir tracks along the stream—or they may be too tired, and so remain silent. One of them reaches into a coarsely woven net bag slung across his chest and removes the shell of a giant snail (Megalobulimus sp.), known as pompori in Matsigenka, which can be as white and polished as porcelain from years of use. He extracts a cloth wad from the shell’s orifice, careful not to spill any of the precious green powder stored inside. He raps the shell with his knuckles, tilting it slightly downward so the powder sifts down from the coiled innards towards the mouth.

"Green tobacco powder is mixed with the ash obtained from burning the bark of an exceedingly rare tree species known simply as seritaki, 'tobacco bark'.[2]"

The tobacco’s owner brandishes his seritonki, or “tobacco bone,” an L-shaped tube made from two leg bones of the curassow, a pheasant-sized game bird with silky black feathers and a hooked, bright red beak. The bones are secured with sticky brown resin and twists of handspun cotton. Then follows a brief but animated conversation as the two men decide who will go first—which is to say, who will start out on the receiving end of the seritonki

“You first!” says the tobacco’s owner. 

“No, you first!” says the other man. “Your tobacco is very painful! I’ll never get used to it.”

“You first!” insists the tobacco’s owner. It’s like watching two gentlemen bicker over who will hold the door.

“All right, I’ll go ahead, but just two nostrils’ full,” the second man acquiesces. He rubs his nose and scratches his head in anticipation.  

May 30, 2015

A Welcome of Tears, and Farewell to Chief Mro’ô

When you cry for someone you’ve lost, you cry for everything you’ve ever lost.

Although it is perhaps the most universal human emotion, grief weighs uniquely upon each of us, and we each must find our own way through the wastelands of loss and bereavement, shadowed by the patterns and compulsions of our distinctive personalities, families and societies. Modern American society seems bent on classifying, five-stepping and pressing on through grief; other societies across the globe give witness to a wide diversity of strategies, from strong repression
[1] to cathartic indulgence.[2]

The Kayapó people of Brazil enact the lingering toll of grief through the ritual “welcome of tears,”[3] in which friends or family members who haven’t seen each other for some time cry, wail, embrace and wipe tears away as they remember loved ones they have lost since their last meeting. This custom attracted international attention in 2011, when a photograph of Kayapó chief Raoni in tears was circulated widely with a caption stating (incorrectly) that he was crying over the approval of the Belo Monte dam project. In fact, he was enacting the tearful ritual of greeting with a relative

Kayapó chief Raoni greets a relative in the traditional "welcome of tears"

When a young Kayapó filmmaker called me at 2 AM on the second of January this year to tell me that the chief of Turedjam village, Mro’ô, had died, I thought I must have misunderstood. This just couldn’t be: Mro’ô is younger than I am. I had seen him a little more than a month before, if ever preoccupied with the burdens of leadership on a violent frontier, still alive, healthy and happy, surrounded by his grandchildren at an idyllic small village where one of his daughters had moved. 

Mro'ô Kayapo, 1969-2015

When I had last seen him, Mro’ô was proud to learn that yet another of his many ambitious dreams would soon come true: three Kayapó film makers, including one novice cameraman from his own village, had been invited to travel in March of 2015 to represent his people’s concerns and show images from Kayapó culture at an international event on digital media in the United States. I had come to Turedjam in late November of 2014 with anthropologist/journalist Felipe Milanez to convey the good news to the people of Turedjam, and to begin the complex and time-consuming arrangements for obtaining passports and U.S. visas for the Kayapó film makers who would be traveling.

A soft-spoken yet determined leader, Mro’ô had first approached me at the Goeldi Museum in Belem during my first month curating the ethnographic collections there in 2009. He was visiting the museum with French anthropologist Pascale de Robert, and asked me for help to obtain ongoing support for this exchange with the Goeldi Museum. He was especially eager to equip and train a cohort of Kayapó youth to use video cameras and digital editing equipment to record Kayapó culture, both material objects preserved in the Goeldi Museum collections, and the living culture of traditional dances, songs, orations and ceremonies that still take place regularly in modern Kayapó villages : “The old people are all dying,” he had said. “We need to register our culture so that our children and grandchildren will not forget.” 

January 21, 2015

Indigenous Engagement with Digital and Electronic Media: InDigital Conference at Vanderbilt University, March 26-28

A cartoon by Gary Larson from 1984 shows natives in grass skirts rushing to hide TV, VCR and telephone before the anthropologists arrive. As these devices have become smaller, cheaper, and more widely available, the penetration of electronic media into indigenous cultures has only grown.

Native peoples of the Amazon and elsewhere in Latin America have become engaged consumers of electronic media, while also making use of video cameras, cell phones and laptops to create and transmit their own artistic and cultural productions and political views. The results can be complex and surprising, ranging from videos about traditional ceremonies to catchy electronic music and even a native-language cover of the Beatles. Among the works made by Kayapó film makers I trained as part of an indigenous media project at the Goeldi Museum in Brazil are films documenting tug-of-war at an interethnic sports competition; a professional soccer game in Rio de Janeiro; the “Miss Kayapó” beauty contest at a local fairground; and a concert by the indigenous pop star Bepdjyre, who composes his own lyrics in Kayapó but sets them to popular Brazilian dance rhythms.

Bepdjyre's stage show includes Kayapó girls showing off sensual dance moves gleaned from watching TV and DVDs.

This conference, sponsored by Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee University, brings together anthropologists, media scholars and indigenous filmmakers to reflect on the appropriations and interpretations of digital media by indigenous peoples, and to discuss the transformations this use of technology is bringing about.

The "Miss Kayapó" beauty contest captured by film maker Tatajere.

Faye Ginsberg of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University will give the keynote address at the event. Indigenous filmmaker Takumã Kuikuru and Brazilian anthropologist Carlos Fausto present their documentary “The Hyper-Women,” which follows a village on the Upper Xingu River as it strives to rescue, rehearse and host a traditional song festival before the last woman who knows the repertoire dies. The film has won several international awards including the Jury Prize at Brazil’s prestigious Gramado Festival, Best Film at the Curitiba International Film Festival and Best Documentary at the Hollywood Brazilian Film Festival. Kayapó film makers Bepunu and Krakrax will show works produced on their own village-based laptop editing suites as part of the Goeldi Museum media project, and Richard Pace of Middle Tennessee University will present results of a study financed by the National Science Foundation on the uses and impacts of satellite TV, DVD players and cell phones in a Kayapó village.

Conference registration is open through February 16. For more information, visit

Updated from the original posting by The New York Review of Books.

November 28, 2014

Infinite Grace: An interview with Caetano W. Galindo on his translation of "Infinite Jest" into Brazilian Portuguese

David Foster Wallace lives! How else could one explain the long-distance friendship that grew up between myself and a person I have not yet met in person, and would probably never have met at all if it were not for our shared obsession with Wallace’s fiction? As an anthropologist based in Brazil, I got hooked on Wallace while reading Infinite Jest on the tiny screen of my iPod during an expedition to a Kayapó indigenous village. Caetano Waldrigues Galindo is a James Joyce specialist who teaches linguistics at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, and who has just finished translating Infinite Jest into Brazilian Portuguese: he kept a blog about the year-long process.

Graça Infinita: Caetano W. Galindo's translation of Infinite Jest into Brazilian Portuguese.

Companhia das Letras, Brazil’s premiere literary publisher, has just released a luxurious edition of Graça Infinita, Galindo's Portugese translation of Infinite Jest. Companhia das Letras first introduced Wallace to Brazilian readers in 2005 with their publication of José Rubens Siqueira’s translation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Galindo has translated more than thirty books in all, including James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Stoppard and Ali Smith, and is now busy on Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King

To celebrate the release of Wallace’s landmark novel in Brazil, I interviewed Galindo—still virtually, via email—for The MillionsHere, I post some highlights; for the full interview, see "Infinite Grace: The Millions Interviews Caetano W. Galindo":

You seem to prefer translating works and authors that are not only essentially "untranslatable," but also notoriously verbose: Joyce, Pynchon, now Wallace. Are you a masochist, or do you just enjoy intense mental activity?

Well, apart from Ulysses, all I've done is translate what my editors give me to do. Ergo, I cannot be considered a masochist: they're the sadists! But yes, this is the kind of literature I like, and thus what I read—and "write"—best. I think my publishers have found this to their liking. And yes, I really do enjoy the acrobatics. It’s kind of like chess: it’s much more fun to play against someone who's better than you are, even though you may end up losing. I like being forced to reach, to face problems I would not have conceived myself. I enjoy trying to recreate puns, acronyms, styles-within-styles, multiple voices: you know, all the hard stuff. What can I say? Back to the masochism hypothesis…

How did you first learn about David Foster Wallace's work? What else of his have you read? Why did you decide to start with Infinite Jest

I got to know about IJ when I was deep in my Ph.D. thesis on Ulysses. It was a time in my life when I thought nothing post-Ulysses was worth the effort: I was a real bore back then! “Badness was badness in the weirdest of all pensible ways,” as good ol' Jim J. would have it. Then I heard about this huge book, and many people I respect said I should check out. And so I did. That was 2005. I got hooked. After that I read pretty much everything Wallace wrote, and everything people were writing about him. When I sat down to translate IJ, I had read the whole book twice, and was deeply familiar with Wallace's voice and “tricks.” As a matter of fact, my fascination with the book was probably what landed me the job as a translator for Companhia das Letras. André Conti, the editor at Companhia das Letras who kinda headhunted me for them, is a big Wallace fan. From the moment I was hired in 2008 we had this dream of publishing IJ in Brazil.


What did it feel like to spend so much time, so deep inside such a complicated plot, and such a complicated mind?

It was a fascinating process. And in this book in particular, the sensation of being "inside" someone's head (pun intended) is really overwhelming. I love the book even more today, after having unraveled and re-raveled its inner workings. I could feel the plot: I could almost touch it. But you have to remember I was not working on a regular daily schedule. When I could, I clocked 10 hours. But then, the next day, I wouldn’t have time to translate at all, since I would have papers to grade, or other things to write, or students needing help, classes to teach. I think that helped keep me safe. Wallace's (or Incandenza's) mind seems to be exactly what the book is: a beautiful labyrinth. Enchanting. But dangerous...

"Enchanting. But dangerous..."
Infinite Jest IV: A short film (with J.L. Matney), inspired by the fatally addictive "Entertainment" at the heart of the novel, created as part of a multimedia exhibit series in New York and Virginia.

What do you make of IJ’s notoriously indeterminate plot? Did your interpretations or understandings affect your translation?

As for the plot: well, I'm a translator. The guy designs a labyrinth. I reproduce the design with my own bricks and mortar. It's not my job to point any ways out, if there are any! As a reader, I do have my interpretation, but that's not what matters. As I tell students all the time, the translator's job is not to find an interpretation, but to try and find all interpretations, and keep these possibilities open for this new reader who's going to have only the translation as a guide. But, back to plot, you basically follow the original steps. No biggie. There's one thing I regret, though. A student of mine, Ana Carolina Werner, pointed it out to me. The final two words of the book, referring to the tide being "way out," also suggest the possibility of exit, escape. But there was no way to keep this double entendre in the Portuguese.


In the European Portuguese translation, the title is rendered as Piada Infinita, while you translate it as Graça Infinita. Explain. Doesn’t graça have mystical overtones, in the sense of religious grace?

Well, that's the one I was afraid of… So here goes. First, there is the question of Brazilian vs. European usage. Both piada and graça refer to jokes, or anything that is funny. But graça also has an extended meaning cognate with English “grace,” both in the sense of religious grace and physical gracefulness. In Brazil we have an expression, ‘não tem graça’, which means both “that’s not funny” but also, “that’s not nice”; there’s also ‘sem graça’ which means “awkward,” or literally “without grace.” Europeans use piada in almost exactly the same expression, não tem piada, “that’s no joke, that’s not nice.” So in Portugal, piada has a more extended range of meanings, somewhat like graça in Brazil, whereas piada in Brazil means only "joke." So we couldn't go there. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the expression "graça infinita" was used by Millôr Fernandes in his Brazilian translation of Hamlet. We were toying with the title Infinda Graça, which uses an older, more archaic word for "infinite," and which sounded good to my ears. But the Hamlet factor was a good argument, and we ended up with Graça Infinita. Finally, you are right, graça does sound religious-y. We didn't have that many choices to begin with, and I don't think this "mystical" undertone is wrong. Is it? There may be no “God” figure central to the novel’s narrative. But, sorry! I really do like this idea that the ineffable, the mystical (as good old Ludwig W. would have it) is always there, always lurking, always tempting. So I stand by our choice!

What about Infinite Jest do you think will appeal to Brazilian readers? Is there any Brazilian author who could be considered a "soul-mate" to Wallace, in some sense? Has Wallace exerted a notable influence on Brazilian literature? What Brazilian authors, contemporary or otherwise, would you recommend to Wallace fans?

I think Graça Infinita (let me use my title, now that I’ve justified myself!) is of immense interest to anyone who is thinking about or wants to think about what it means to be a human inhabitant of this particular nook of world history. I hope readers in Brazil can see that, and can find in the book all it wants to communicate to us at this deep, human, level. As for a Brazilian “soul-mate”... well, here in Brazil we have yet to arrive at such gargantuan hubris! Our best writers, right now, seem to be more concerned with short-ish studies. But we do have a new generation of very promising prose writers. Among them we find lots of readers of Wallace. People like Daniel Galera, Daniel Pellizzari. Wallace’s influence is felt in a number of ways. Wallace is probably the best prose stylist since Pynchon or DeLillo. But like both of them, he is also a deep thinker. And what he said, through his fiction and in his essays, is already a big influence on a whole generation of writers, even here. Brazilian authors I’d recommend? Hmm.... There’s always the great Machado de Assis (I suggest Epitaph of a Small Winner)... João Guimarães Rosa, most definitely. The João Ubaldo Ribeiro of Viva o povo brasileiro. Someone more contemporary? The André Sant'Anna of O paraíso é bem bacana. Me... :-)

Have you read translations of IJ into other languages?

No. I'm only human!

Read the complete interview at The Millions.

Special thanks to Matt Bucher, C. Max McGee, and Nick Maniatis of The Howling Fantods.

Graça Infinita by David Foster Wallace, translated by Caetano W. GalindoSão Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2014, 1144 pp..


See also from this blog: 
Rainforest Wraith: Reading David Foster Wallace in the Amazon

October 17, 2014

The Kopenawa Galaxy: Review of ‘The Falling Sky’ by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert

To look across a Yanomami village on a clear night is like seeing the universe in a mirror. Above, the stars glisten like living eyes, their vision unimpeded by smog and incandescence. Below, hearth fires flicker around the rim of the open circular enclosure, each point of light being the sun for a familial solar system orbiting the village galaxy. Beyond the protective ring of the village lies the immense forest whose blackness mingles with the edge of the sky.

A Yanomami man paints his face in preparation for an inter-village feast.

The Falling Sky, by Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa and French anthropologist Bruce Albert, takes its title from a creation myth of the Yanomami people who live in the border region between Brazil and Venezuela. The primordial world was crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed “back” of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged, and where they remain to this day; they still call the forest “the old sky.” A new sky was erected, held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.

The Falling Sky is several things. It is the autobiography of one of Brazil’s most prominent and eloquent indigenous leaders. It is the most vivid and authentic account of shamanistic philosophy I have ever read. It is also a passionate appeal for indigenous rights and a scathing condemnation of the damage wrought by missionaries, gold miners and white people’s greed. The footnotes alone harbor monographs on Yanomami botany and zoology, mythology, ritual and history.

Most of all, The Falling Sky is an elegy to oral tradition and the power of the spoken word. As denizens of the “Gutenberg galaxy”[1], we take for granted the superior fidelity and durability of the printed word over speech in transmitting knowledge through time. In his singular voice, Kopenawa, talking of xapiri spirits, turns this notion on its head:

I do not possess old books in which my ancestor’s words have been drawn. The xapiri’s words are set in my thought, in the deepest part of me… They are very old, yet the shamans constantly renew them… They can neither be watered down nor burned. They will not get old like those that stay stuck to image skins made from dead trees. When I am long gone, they will be as new and strong as they are now.

As both narrator and first author, Kopenawa addresses the reader directly: “You don’t know me and you have never seen me. You live on a distant land. This is why I want to let you know what the elders taught me.”


A Yanomami shaman's apprentice in yãkoana trance.

Yanomami shamans use a powerful hallucinogenic snuff, yãkoana, made from the resin of the nutmeg relative Virola elongata. By taking it, the shaman “dies” or “becomes other” and experiences the spirit world firsthand. Kopenawa renders these visions with images of haunting beauty:

The xapiri float down through the air from their mirrors to come protect us… Their mirrors arrive from the sky’s chest, slowly preceding them. They suddenly stop in the air and remain suspended… When they arrive, their songs name the distant lands they came from and traveled through. They evoke the places where they drank the waters of a sweet river, the disease-free forests where they ate unknown foods, the edges of the sky where, without night, one never sleeps.


[Of the gold mining that has wreaked destruction on his people and their territory], he remarks: “The things that white people work so hard to extract from the depths of the earth, minerals and oil, are not foods.” Drawing on myths and shamanic experiences, Kopenawa develops his own understanding of the destructive forces unleashed by mining. Digging deep underground threatens to “tear out the sky’s roots,” the metal foundations erected by the creator god the Omama demiurge to hold up the cosmos. He concludes that minerals are in fact “fragments of the sky, moon, sun, and stars, which fell down in the beginning of time.” These hot, dangerous “sorcery substances” were hidden by Omama in the cool depths of the earth. “Tearing these evil things out of the ground” and smelting them unleashes disease-ridden vapors. Epidemic illnesses are represented in the spirit world as cannibal beings living in “houses overflowing with merchandise and food, like gold prospectors camps.” 

These illnesses make not only the Yanomami sick, but the sky itself: 

The sky… is getting as sick as we do! If all this continues, its image will become riddled with holes from the heat of the mineral fumes. Then it will slowly melt, like a plastic bag thrown in the fire… If the sky catches fire, it will fall again. Then we will all be burned, and we will be hurled into the underworld like the first people in the beginning of time.


Of the “Merchandise Love” that he sees at the root of white people’s greed and destructiveness, he states with prophetic moral clarity: “Merchandise does not die… When a human being dies, his ghost does not carry any of his goods onto the sky’s back, even if he is greedy.” Kopenawa also perceives how the shamanic path has set him apart from ordinary Yanomami: “If you do not become other with the yãkoana you can only live in ignorance. You limit yourself to eating, laughing, copulating, speaking in vain, and sleeping without dreaming much.”

The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon is mentioned briefly at the end of the book. However, especially in Chapter 21, where Kopenawa contrasts Yanomami traditional revenge killings with the Western phenomenon of total war, Chagnon’s controversial legacy  looms large, as does Albert’s own editorial hand. This chapter seems to recapitulate, in Kopenawa’s voice, the same arguments Albert has leveled against Chagnon in heated scholarly debates.[2] As a cultural anthropologist, Albert sees Yanomami warfare from the native point of view: an integral part of mourning practices that aim at erasing all traces of the dead person (including cremated bones) and quickly sating grief-fueled rage through revenge on the individual killer or sorcerer. Chagnon’s widely cited sociobiological theory reduces Yanomami warfare to a Darwinian contest among males to capture women and procreate.[3] Albert and others[4] have used Chagnon’s own data to refute the central claim that “fiercer,” more homicidal Yanomami men have more offspring.


There is little doubt from Kopenawa’s own words that the Yanomami value bravery, revenge and the warrior ethos, though many other things besides. In his frank language, Kopenawa refers often to his kinsmen’s preoccupation with “eating vulvas”; the fact that the verb “to eat” is a euphemism for both intercourse and killing suggests that the Yanomami, like many people, see sex and violence as somehow related, if not in the causal sense suggested by Chagnon's hypotheses.

Kopenawa concludes by reflecting on the profound cultural changes that have turned this warrior ethos outward towards new threats: “The words of warfare have not disappeared from our mind, but today we no longer want to harm ourselves this way.”

The new Yanomami warrior-shaman armed with a hovering laptop (Image: Sergio Macedo).

Read the full review in the Nov. 6 issue of 
The New York Review of Books

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman
by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert
Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 622 pp., $39.95


Read more from this blog: An Ax to Grind: Napoleon Chagnon, the Yanomami and the Anthropology Tribe

[1] M. McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962).
[2] B. Albert, “Yanomami ‘Violence’: Inclusive Fitness or Ethnographer’s Representation?” Current Anthropology, Vol. 20, No. 5 (1989).
[3] N. Chagnon, “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population,” Science Vol. 239, No. 4843 (1988).
[4] B. Ferguson, “Materialist, Culturalist, and Biological Theories on Why the Yanomami Make War,” Anthropological Theory Vol. 1, No. 1 (March 2001).