Category Archives: Writer

Honouring Jorge Amado in today’s Brazil

Exhibition curator and academic Ilana Goldstein describes her exhibition about the life of one of Brazil’s leading writers, Jorge Amado. According to Amado, “We did not want to be modernists but modern.”

A video glimpse of the exhibition “Jorge Amado and the Universal’

Jorge Amado (1912 – 2001) was one of the the most well-known Brazilian authors – in Brazil and abroad. Most part of his 33 books are translated into 49 languages and he has been adapted many times to soap-operas (television), films (cinema), theatre plays and cartoon.

Some scholars and critics from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have been sceptical about Amado, saying that his literature is too popular, too easy to read. But despite his apparently funny and easy style, his novels are well constructed, he was a very cultivated person (friends with Picasso, Neruda and Sartre, for example) and really concerned with national problems and issues – which underlie his fiction.

The exhibition was a celebration of the 100h Birthday of Jorge Amado. It was on in São Paulo untill the end of June and then toured to Salvador, Bahia, maybe Recife, Frankfurt and probably other cities, not yet confirmed. The show is sponsored by Santander bank, using the Lei Rouanet, a federal law which allows sponsors to pay less Income Tax (saving almost the same amount given to the cultural project).

The rooms of the show

1. The tile wall in the entrance

Getting out of the lift, the visitor will see a big tile wall. It has two senses. First of all, it alludes to the traditional architecture of Salvador. Old colonial buildings are traditionally decorated with blue-and-white tiles. The houses of Jorge Amado and all his friends (artists, writers from Bahia) in Salvador are also decorated with tiles, but replacing the traditional Portuguese drawings by sentences and quotes carefully chosen, that welcome guests.

The second reason of the wall to be in the entrance of the show is to suggest that the public leave behind all its prejudices and all television images linked to Jorge Amado. The surprise effect is obtained through the reading of the sentences, which deal with history, the mission of the artist, ethics, universal questions. The quotes are not signed, so that for some seconds the person asks himself/herself: am I in the correct floor? “Are these sentences really from Jorge Amado? They have nothing to do with the clichés I have always had from him…”.

2. Characters room

The first room is devoted to Amado´s characters. Nine LCD screens show 3 minute-films about nine selected books and its main characters. The names of these chosen characters are written in the wooden walls around the room. But this is just an “appetizer”, for Jorge Amado has created more than 5.000 characters! Our way to represent that huge universe was writing the names of other 200 characters in the colourful back wall of the room. The small ribbons remind the typical souvenir from Bahia: “fitinhas do Bonfim”.

The scenography of this room and of the rest of the exhibition is composed by urban “ready-made” objects: washbowls, market boxes, book shelves etc. Nothing is fake, little was fabricated for the show. They remind the popular and collective daily life of Bahia, which was the main source of inspiration for Jorge Amado. The scenographical choice has a reason. The writer said he didn´t make up things: he used to write about people he had known and situations he had experienced in the streets of Bahia, of course adding imagination and poetry to them.

3. Politics room

In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Jorge Amado was very engaged in left-wing politics. He became a member of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), he travelled to many socialist countries in East Europe, and he was even elected as a congressman in 1946. As a congressman, he proposed two very important legislative changes: one in the the Copy Right Act and the other in the Religion Act. He was responsible for approving the cult freedom in Brazil. Even if he was an atheist himself, cultural diversity was very precious for him. He had seen Afro-Brazilian temples being invaded and destroyed by the police in his youth and that really touched him.

During 25 years, Amado´s fiction was influenced by his political concerns. Strikes, poverty, hunger are common elements of the books in this moment. Amado has also published a lot of newspaper articles in this period, working as a journalist and as an editor. This fact explains the scenography of the room.

But in 1954 he found out all the crimes committed by Stalin. At the same time, he was tired of the rules the Party imposed to communist writers. So, he decided to get out of the Communist Party and to devote himself exclusively to his literature. The first book of this second period of his work and life is Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, published in 1958. His fiction changes a lot then, becoming funnier and lighter. Gabriela receives many prizes and sells very quickly.

4. Mixtures and blends

The third room of the show deals with the cultural mixture characteristic of Brazilian society. In the United States, for example, people classify themselves as blacks or whites. But in Brazil the identification process is much more complex. First of all, people don´t think about races, they think about colours. And they don´t think in a dualistic way. In 1976, the government let the question “What is your colour?” open in the census. The result was a list with 136 different answers, comprising from “dirty white” to “light black”, from “sun tanned” to “pale”, from “green” to “blue”. This funny and impressive list is reproduced in one of the room walls. Jorge Amado was very sensitive about this Brazilian feature and in his novels we have found dozens of different manners of describing the colour of the characters as well – which are reproduced in the opposite wall.

A second important element in this room is the religious syncretism, represented by the various religious elements coming from Afro-Brazilian cults as Candomblé and Umbanda, but also from Catholicism, Judaism and Islamism. In Amado´s books, some characters combine different beliefs and all these religions appear in a respectful way. It was another way for the writer to spread his message of tolerance and cultural exchange.

5. Sex and tricks

Love, sex, prostitution and sometimes pornography or sexual violence are frequent elements in Amado´s fiction, specially after Gabriela (1958). It is a way to celebrate the pleasures of life but also to talk about social relations in another manner.

The neon lights in this room contain names of brothels that appear in Amado´s novels. Brothels were central institutions in Brazilian society in the 1rst half of the XXth century. Housewives were shy and repressed. Men were almost authorized to visit whorehouses – including Amado´s father, uncle and the writer himself. Men made business, discussed arts and decided politics in these places. Extracts from Amado´s book dealing with these subjects are shown inside the light boxes.

A second subject present in this room is the “jeitinho brasileiro”, or “the Brazilian way”. Since colonial times, as the historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda has already written in 1936, Brazilian tend to erase the limits between public and private spheres, avoiding to follow rules, using the law only when it seems interesting, asking personal favours instead of achieving formal rights. On one hand this brings much flexibility to our society. On the other other hand, it is dangerous for the development of the country, because everything that is official and formal tends to be disdained and only what is connected to friendship and affection seems to be desirable. Some of the texts in the light boxes bring parts of Amado´s books that translate this “Brazilian way”.

6. Bahia square

This is the last and biggest space of the exhibition. Some of its highlights are:

  • The photographic wall with pictures of Bahia, displaying its beautiful side (nature, food, street parties) and its sad aspects as well (poverty, architectural destruction, dirty).
  • The bottle wall, containing Dendê oil in dozens of plastic bottles. Dendê oil is a central ingredient in Bahia´s recipes, very appreciated by Jorge Amado. At the same time, the disposal of so many bottles allude to the sea, very important in Amado´s novels. Amado´s sentences describing the sea are glued on the bottles´surfaces.
  • The cacao seeds walls, where the LCD screens are. They allude to Amado´s childhood in the south of Bahia. His father was a pioneer cacao farmer in the first years of the XXth century.
  • The “Jorges” room, separated from the rest, where hundreds of biographical documents are hanging, from family pictures to passports and diplomas, from book covers to letters sent to him by other writers.
  • The artworks wall, where original prints from three Brazilian artists are displayed: Renina Katz, Calasans Neto and Carybé. All three have translated the literature of Jorge Amado into the visual arts.

After all, one of the impressions we think the exhibition will leave is the mutual relation between representations and reality: Bahia/Brazil has become similar to Jorge Amado’s portrait and, at the same time, the writer looked and acted like one of his characters.

Interview with John Mateer – a home for poetry in the South

‘Written from the rim of the far flung South African diaspora, these poems by John Mateer roll back the tide of forgetting, giving us one glimpse after another of a multifarious and beloved homeland.’  JM Coetzee

This interview refers to a poem African City which can be found here.

Where is your home?

This should be an easy question to answer. Yet, as I formulate what to say, I realize that I don’t have a simple answer. Usually I would prefer not to answer a question like that, but due to the nature of your interest in the South, let me explain some things about my background. When I was a child, in 1977, my parents and I emigrated to Canada. My father found living there difficult, partly for health reasons – he suffered badly from asthma – and partly because he had set up a company in South Africa which seem to have better financial prospects than what he had in Canada. So we returned to Johannesburg, and it was shortly after that that my father started preparing for us to emigrate to Australia. We only left for Australia when I was 17 and had already received my conscription papers. That was in 1989, towards the end of the Emergency period. That was in retrospect exactly the wrong time to go: Mandela was released the year after! When people ask me why our family moved to Australia there is a complex of issues, too many to spell out in this interview. But at the back of them all were concerns about the inequality of that society, and at that time – it is easy to forget – South Africa was a warring state, both within its borders and on the borders with Mozambique, Angola and, to a lesser extent, Botswana. If I ponder why we went to Canada in 1977, I think both of the Soweto Uprising and of South Africa’s invasion of Angola that was only called off because the CIA were afraid it would creating a flash-point between the US and Cuba. That is not all. Being someone whose life was shaped by an awareness of the violence of racism in South Africa, being in Australia, while it is a much more peaceful country, nevertheless leaves me in a state of disquiet; the nature of White Australia’s relationship to the Aboriginal peoples makes me feel that this country itself is, if only on a symbolic level, but I don’t think it is only symbolic, in conflict with itself. Through my art-criticism and certain parts of my poetry I have been confronted with a special kind of silencing that occurs here, a silencing which is concerned to rein-in disruptive discourses or people. The current director of the South Project once told me, after I had described to her a number of the ways my writing, both critical and literary had been hindered here in Australia, that she would really like me to write a book about all the subjects you can’t write about in Australia! So, in answer to your question, I am not sure how at home I can feel here. Perhaps this is a post-traumatic feeling… Sometimes when I think of my father I think of the evening when he was preparing his company-tax and he came to me, I was a young child, and explained that he had paid the same amount of money that a tank cost the army. He was astonished and disgusted. It was only after his death that I found out he had in his youth been involved in liberal – in the good sense! – politics.

As a poet, you seem to place great importance in the public act of reading. Do you write each poem as a test, awaiting the results of its reading?

There is a larger question here, related to the dynamic nature of the poem, of the literary artefact. I stress the event of reading aloud as much as reading privately; both are events, which through their performance have certain histories and practices. In the Western World – if we may include Australia – there is a greater familiarity with the idea of silent reading than with the performance of the voice. This has been changing, but largely this remains true. I see the importance of the “public act of reading”, as you put it, in that it is an event of voicing. Whether this is good for the poem and the poet is open to debate – I suspect it isn’t – but that is a separate and complex issue… But it is this idea of the voice, elemental and vulnerable, a form of “bare life” to use Giorgio Agamben’s term, that is crucial here. It has less to do with the consequence of the nature and meaning of the poem than it has with the existential fact of one’s own presence, and, therefore, the world represented by that presence. That presence can’t fail if it is attended to with the hope of encounter. In a less philosophical sense, the question that must arise in the context of ‘performance’ must be the degree of success of the communication, though that is something, perhaps, not to be gauged, rather experienced.

Is the ‘haunting’ something that is always open a sense of cultural difference, or can it sometimes close cultures off.  How do you avoid the pitfalls of the gothic when composing poems about the South?

Haunting. This experience appears in a number of my poems, poems written in various parts of the world. I am not sure how to respond to the first part of your question, except to say that many people in the West don’t believe in the reality of the spirit-world – though I am sure they are outnumbered by those who do elsewhere! – and so if one speaks about hauntings and spirits and the Ancestors they might simply think these are tropes. I remember once speaking at the Free University Berlin and explaining that to understand certain things about South Africa one needs to acknowledge that the spirit-world and religion, including African-styles of Christianity, play an essential role in many people’s live, and that, for example, Soweto is quite a haunted place. One need not simply believe me: there is a very good book, Madumo: a Man Bewitched by Adam Ashford, on this subject. I also told them that I agree with the photographer Santu Mofokeng when he said that South Africa would have had a civil war with terrible bloodshed had it not being for the calming presence of the African Zionists. The students looked at me with a degree of disbelief, and their professor, in whose class I was ‘ a guest speaker’, somehow made what I had said sound more academically respectable. The reality there, I suppose, is that academia is about studying life not living it. In that sense, it might close off cultural difference. As to the question of the gothic. This is not at all a concern for me because that literary category is one that would be imposed on the kinds of experiences I am talking about and have written about. I hardly think you could accuse Amos Tutuola of being Gothic! If anything, I believe still thinking along those lines, being concerned in that way, shows the extent to which non-Western experiences aren’t accepted as being authentic in themselves.

To what extent is the world of poetry a flat space? Do you feel able to move around as a poetic consciousness in any part of the world, or do you tend to locate yourself in a particular terrain? What would that be?

I am not sure what you might mean by “a flat space”. I sometimes think that when readers look at my body of work, with poems written in many parts of the world, that they imagine I am leading some kind of scattered existence, that what I have been doing is incoherent. Actually, what I have been doing in the last decade or two, is developing a sense of the post-colonial world; by that I mean I have mostly travelled in places that were colonized or responsible for colonization, whether the US or Portugal, Austria or Sri Lanka, and very often within the hemisphere defined by the Portuguese Empire, though I must admit this is far from complete! I see my travelling, since my visit to Sumatra in 1998, as a way of following in the wake – I was going to say footsteps! – of poets and pilgrims, trying to witness the way traffic and commerce produces connections between certain worlds and walls of silence between others. South Africa is the country of my birth and youth, so it has a special meaning here, whereas all the other places I see as places of encounter. One of the problems literary critics seem to have with my work is that is doesn’t suit any of their categories, especially national categories, with the exception of Portugal, where there is a strong tradition of poet-travellers: Luis de Camões, Camilio Pessanha, Rui Knopfli and Gil de Carvalho. One of the reviewers of my book Elsewhere concluded very pessimistically saying that she thought I was – to use a metaphor – at the end of the road, that my work was full of miscommunication and silence. It was an observation inattentive to the mechanisms of certain kinds of silence, how silence can speak in an encounter just as powerfully as the silence of a place can. A Portuguese critic, much more sympathetic to my work, told me what most interested her in my work was the way silences, often as evidence of historical memory, interrupted the everyday, the norms of place. When you ask me about how I might situate myself, I have the feeling that you might be wanting to return to the question of homeliness again… Let me say this: Last weekend I was present at the unveiling of Yagan Memorial Park, a place where, after 177 years, the remains of one of Australia’s legendary Aboriginal figures were laid to rest. There, in that place, and in a few other places around the city of Perth where I am ‘based’, I felt there was a respect for reality of this place, his land, its histories and peoples. It’s at moments like that that I feel a homeliness, though it might not be mine. Elsewhere, at other moments in other places, places that might have been damaged, I often write poems.

Can you recommend a Xhosa poet?

I was going to ask, Why Xhosa? And when you say that, do you mean the language of the ‘ethnic group’, because Xhosa writers might not write in isiXhosa… But there is one whose work I like, who comes immediately to mind, who did write in isiXhosa: St J Page Yako. Let me quote his “The Contraction and Enclosure of the Land”:

Thus spake the heirs of the land
although it is no longer ours.
This land will be folded like a blanket
till it is like the palm of a hand.

John Mateer has published books of poems in Australia and overseas, and a prose travelogue about Indonesia. He has been writer-in-residence in Kyoto, Beijing, Coimbra, Medan and at Ledig House, New York. In 2006 he was a participant at the Iowa International Writing Program. He has given readings in many countries, most recently in Austria at Schloss Leopoldskron/Salzburg Global Seminar as well as at PEN International’s Free the Word festival in London. His latest books are Ex-white/Einmal-Weiss: South African Poems (Klagenfurt: Sisyphus, 2009), The West: Australian Poems 1989-2009 (Fremantle Press, 2010) and Southern Barbarians (Sydney: Giramondo and Lisbon: T41, forthcoming).”

Thoughts on ‘Siútico’ by Oscar Contardo

OSCAR 6586 BN alta

OSCAR 6586 BN alta

Oscar Contardo

Chile has a lively publishing industry that produces serious non-fiction on cultural themes, often Latin American, particularly Chilean. Given the issues of language and subject, these works are rarely read outside Latin America. The leading art theorist Ticio Escobar, for instance, is hardly translated into English at all.



Sometimes there are books that are both uniquely Chilean but potentially also universal in their particularity, at least to fellow countries of the colonised South. Oscar Contardo’s Siútico: Arribismo, abajismo y vida social en Chile (Santiago: Vergara, 2008) seems at first inscrutable. The title itself is a word only found in Chile. The other words are hard to find in English – ‘upism’, ‘lowism’? Yet its analysis of the way a colonial class attempts to distinguish itself from the upwardly mobile, first by elitism and then by a kind of poverty chic, has compelling parallels to the social dynamics in other colonial cultures.

¿Puedes explicar lo que la palabra ‘siútico’ significa?

“Siútico” es un chilenismo de origen oscuro y etimología incierta. Apareció a mediados del siglo XIX como un adjetivo burlón para señalar personas —sobre todo varones— que pretendían ser tomados por elegantes sin pertenecer a la clase alta chilena. Es una palabra cuyo sinónimo más cercano en castellano es “cursi” o “arribista”, pero que por el hecho de ser chilena encierra matices propios de nuestra sociedad. Chile en el siglo XIX era una sociedad agraria, socialmente muy rígida en donde las riquezas nuevas de los mineros del norte sacudieron las costumbres campesinas, sobrias de la elite del “valle central”. Así como la palabra expresión inglesa “snob” le debe mucho a la revolución industrial y al surgimiento de una burguesía en Inglaterra, la palabra “Siútico” en chile le debe otro tanto a los nuevos ricos de los minerales de plata descubiertos a mediados del siglo XIX y a una cierta (y pequeña) clase media burócrata.

Can you explain what the word ‘siutico’ means?

“Siútico” is a Chilenism of obscure origin and uncertain etymology. It appeared in the mid-nineteenth century as an adjective to indicate ridiculous people — especially males — who claimed to be taken by elegant without belonging to the upper class in Chile. It is a word whose synonym is closest in Castilian “cursi” or “arribista”, but due to the fact of being Chilean it contains nuances particular to out society. Chile in the nineteenth century was an agrarian society, socially very rigid, where the new wealth of miners of the north challenged the peasant habits, the sober elite of the “Valle Central”. Just as the word “snob” owes much to the industrial revolution and the emergence of a bourgeoisie in England, the word “Siútico in Chile owes as much to the new rich of minerals of silver discovered in the mid XIX and a certain (and petty) middle class bureaucrat.

Has escrito sobre el fenómeno de la abajismo. ¿Qué es esto?

El abajismo lo describo como un fenómeno que ha atravesado de distintas maneras la historia de Chile. Se trata de una expresión que describe la identificación de ciertos personajes de la elite con la vida propia del pueblo llano, de las clases medias y bajas. La historia de la izquierda chilena está salpicada de ilustres apellidos de clase alta. En su mayoría hombres (el ingreso de las mujeres al espacio público es reciente) que abrazaron la causa de los desamparados desde la política (el mismo Salvador Allende, Carlos Altamirano y otros tanto). Esto tuvo su vertiente religiosa sobre todo a partir de los 60 con sacerdores “obreros” como el padre Puga o el Padre Aldunate. Los últimos síntomas de abajismo tienen menos carga ideológica y una mayor tendencia estética: es el turismo de clase que emprenden jóvenes en antros de bariios populares. La “vida del pobre” es vista como algo interesante, “trendy”, verdadero. Hay una línea piadosa del abajismo que toma ciertas nociones del “cura obrero” pero en donde los elementos revolucionarios aparecen diluidos por el neo asistencialismo. Esto se ve mucho entre alumnos de ciertas universidades caras (no hay universidades gratuitas en Chile) que organizan trabajos de verano o jornadas de ayuda durante los fines de semana en barrios marfginales. Son una suerte de “visita a la realidad” frecuentemente auspiciadas por organizaciones católicas.

You write about the phenomenon of abajismo. What is this?

I described it as a phenomenon that has taken different paths in the story of Chile. It is a term that describes the identification of certain characters in the elite with the life of ordinary people, from middle and lower classes. The history of the Chilean left is peppered with famous names of high class. Most men (women’s entry to the public is recent) embraced the cause of the disadvantaged from politics (as Salvador Allende, Carlos Altamirano and both). There was an especially religious dimension from 60s, with priest “workers” such as the father Puga or father Aldunate. The latest symptoms of abajismo are less ideological and more inclined aesthetics: it is the young class tourists who visit the dens of popular suburbs. The “life of the poor” is seen as something “trendy”, true! There is a pious version of abajismo that takes the certain notions of “worker priest”, but where the revolutionaries are diluted by the new welfarism. This is seen widely among students of certain expensive universities (there are no free universities in Chile) who organize summer jobs or day jobs during the weekends in marginal neighbourhoods. They are a kind of “reality tour” frequently sponsored by Catholic organizations.

¿Crees que puede haber una forma válida de abajismo? Algunos ejemplos?

Sobre esta pregunta está implícito el juicio de que hay formas válidas y otras que no. La verdad a mi no me interesa entrar en ese esquema, sino en el análisis del fenómeno. Yo creo en la libertad de la gente en adherir a causas legales y en expresar sus inquietudes sociales de la mejor forma. También creo que dada la importancia del problema social en Chile (pobreza, desigualdad, discriminación) es necesario tener posturas críticas sobre el punto.

Do you think there can be a valid form of abajismo? Any examples?

On this question is the implicit view that there are valid and others not. Actually I do not interested in engaging with this proposition, but in the analysis of the phenomenon. I believe in the freedom of people to adhere to legal reasons and express their social concerns in the best way. I also believe that given the important social problem in Chile (poverty, inequality, discrimination) it is necessary to take critical positions on this matter.

Abajismo es algo único en Chile?

No, no lo creo. Se da de manera difrenete eso sí. En Latinoamérica debe haber variaciones que tienen que ver con la propia historia del país, su demografía, economía y desigualdades. Latinoamérica tiende a ser mirada como un todo sin distinción básicamente porque es “mirada” desde fuera. Es una región de sociedades que comparten muchas cosas, pero que difieren en otras tantas. Creo, sin embargo, que la desigualdad y la discriminación son dos ejes comunes que se expresan de manera distinta.

Is abajismo something unique to Chile?

No, I do not think so. But it’s style is different. In Latin America there must be changes that have to do with the history of the country, its demography, economy and inequality. Latin America tends to look uniform as a whole because it is basically seen from the outside. It is a region of societies that share many things, but they differ in others. However, I believe that inequality and discrimination are two common axes that are expressed differently.

¿Qué tiene la respuesta a Siutico sido?

El libro ha sido un éxito que no me esperaba. La crítcia lo recibió muy bien, y lleva casi un año entre los más vendidos. Mis compatriotas tienen una cierta inclinacíón por leer libros en donde puedan reconocerse, sobre todo en sus pequeñeces, odios y venganzas. Debería existir un género sobre el tema. Un apartado en las librerías que se llamara “en qué consiste ser chileno”. El rol del código secreto, el sobre entendido, la crueldad disfrazada de buen tono, el aislamiento geográfico como factor de asfixia histórica, el racismo galopante y a la vez negado, el aburrimiento como valor y el pánico por la imaginación.

What has the response to Siútico been like?

The book has been more of a success than I expected. The critics received it very well, and it is nearly a year among the top sellers. My compatriots have a certain inclination to read books where they can be recognized, especially in the little things, hatred and vengeance. There should be a genre on the subject. A paragraph in the book is called “what it takes to be Chilean.” The role of the secret code, on the understanding, cruelty disguised as good tone, geographic isolation as a factor of its stifling history, rampant racism and at the same time, boredom as value and panic in the place of imagination.

¿Tienes previsto proyectos similares en el futuro?

Similares creo que no. Estoy un poco intoxicado con el tema y necesito sacarlo de mi sistema para no terminar estallando en la calle.

Are you planning similar projects in the future?

I don’t think anything similar. I am a little intoxicated with the theme and I need to get it out of my system so as to not end up in the street.

Mexico and China – another North in disguise?



Chinese President Hu Jintao (2nd L) holds talks with Mexican President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa (4th R) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, July 11, 2008.



Fans of the Chinese and Mexican national teams root for their teams during a soccer match between Mexico and China at Qwest Field.

Romer Alejandro Cornejo Bustamante is Professor of El Colegio de Mexico specialising on China from a Latin American perspective.

1. Can you briefly describe your research

Tengo dos proyectos de investigación, uno es sobre las relaciones entre China y América Latina, con especial énfasis en México, y el otro es sobre los cambios en el sistema político de China.

I have two research projects, one is on the relations between China and Latin America, especially Mexico and the other is on changes in the political system of China.

2. For Mexico, how does the relation to China differ from that towards USA?

Difieren mucho, primero en términos de percepciones, en México ha existido un movimiento racista anti chino en el pasado y aún quedan reminiscencias de ello. Se conoce muy poco sobre China y en todo caso se asumen las posturas que predominan en la prensa internacional. El racismo ha revivido ante una relación comercial  extremadamente deficitaria para México, en muchos sectores hay una percepción de amenaza. En el caso de Estados Unidos la situación es contraria, predomina una gran admiración por el vecino del norte. Gran parte de la elite política y económica ha estudiado, vivido o tiene inversiones en Estados Unidos. Se acepta sin muchos reparos su calidad de potencia mundial. En el pasado la construcción del nacionalismo tenía, entre otros elementos, el anti Estados Unidos, pero esa construcción por muchas razones se ha esfumado.  La relación económica es muy estrecha y con excedente para México.

They differ widely, first in terms of perceptions. In Mexico there was a racist anti-Chinese movement in the past and there are still vestiges of it. Very little is known about China and we mostly take the position prevailing in the international press. Racism has been revived since the extreme commercial deficit in Mexico; in many areas there is a perceived threat. In the United States the situation is contrary, where there is a great admiration for the neighbor to the north. Much of the political and economic elite has studied, lived or has investments in United States. It is accepted without much hesitation as a world power. In the past, the construction of nationalism had, among other things, been anti-US, but for many reasons that focus has vanished. The economic relationship with the US is very close and with a surplus for Mexico.

3. Do you see particular concepts that emerge from Mexican thought that have
relevance beyond Mexico?

No. Por lo menos no en las ciencias sociales, éstas son una calca de las de Estados Unidos y Europa, aún en los estudios subalternos. Tal vez en la creación literaria y artística haya creaciones de relevancia, muy probablemente en lo que concierne a la cultura de frontera, a la asociación entre cultos religiosos y actividades fuera de la ley, en la cultura de las bandas delictivas.

No. At least not in the social sciences, they are a replica of the US and Europe, even in subaltern studies. Perhaps in literary and artistic creations there is relevance, most probably in terms of border culture, the association between religious worship and activities outside the law, in the culture of gangs.

4. What do you think is the usefulness of ‘south’ as framework for
intellectual dialogue?

Creo que es extremadamente útil. Por ejemplo en el trabajo que actualmente hago sobre la relación entre China y América Latina, el diálogo con mis colegas es sumamente difícil pues en su mayoría tienen una perspectiva desde el “norte” con respecto a China, concebida ésta como un “sur” irracional, incapaz, poco creíble y amenazante porque lo ven como un “sur” empoderado. Desde mi perspectiva, China es “norte” venido a menos y en proceso de reivindicación. Esa perspectiva me facilita mucho la comprensión de las decisiones de la elite de ese país. Además la perspectiva del “sur” me remite a planteamientos filosóficos y antropológicos en la explicación de la conducta humana individual y políticamente. Recomiendo repensar algunas cosas a partir de esta película

I think it is extremely useful. For example, in the work we do today on the relationship between China and Latin America, the dialogue with my colleagues is extremely difficult because most have a view from the “north” with respect to China. They conceive it as a “southern” – irrational, incapable, not very credible and threatening because they see it as a “south” power. From my perspective, China is “north” fallen on hard times and in the process of reclaiming its place. That perspective gives me much understanding of the decisions of the elite of that country. Besides, the prospect of the “south” to me refers to philosophical and anthropological approaches to the explanation of human behavior individually and politically. I recommend to rethink some things from this movie

Nikos Papastergiadis considers a ‘spherical consciousness’

Nikos Papastergiadis is Professor of Cultural Studies and Media & Communications at the University of Melbourne. His recent publications include Spatial Aesthetics: Art, Place and the Everyday (Rivers Oram Press, 2006), Metaphor + Tension: On Collaboration and its Discontents (Artspace Publications, 2004) and The Turbulence of Migration (Polity Press, 2000). He has taught at the University of Manchester and was a co-editor of Third Text. Nikos has been at the forefront of thinking about the political and creative nature of South in articles such as ‘South-South-South’ Complex Entanglements: Art, Cultural Difference & Globalization, ed. Nikos Papastergiadis (Rivers Oram Press, 2003).

What role does South play in contemporary thinking?

The idea of the South has a long history. In the recent past it has been revived as a possible frame for representing the cultural context of not just regions that are geographically located in the South, but also those that share a common post colonial heritage. In this essay I explore the affinities and tensions between the south and parallel terms such as third world, antipodes. I argue that the South can extend the existing debates on cross cultural exchange, and provide a useful perspective for representing what I call a ‘spherical consciousness’ in contemporary art.

How does the current flow of ideas around South connect with the post-colonial discourse fostered by journals like Third Text?

From the outset in 1987 the art theory and art historical journal Third Text contested the terms, questioned the structures and challenged the history of western art. The tone of writing has varied from the academic, poetic to the polemical. While the journal was founded to develop a third world perspective on contemporary art and give voice to artists who have worked in a postcolonial context, and despite the shift in editorial policy which is more sceptical of post-colonial theory,[1] the journal continues to provide an invaluable documentary function that recovers and repositions the artistic practices that was either ignored or marginalised by the dominant art historical institutions. It also plays a leading role in presenting new methods for measuring the value and meaning of art. Art history is more than capable of discovering new entrants into its own canon, but the capacity to re-think the terms of entry and the field of relations that constitutes art is not generated from within, but through an interplay with different theoretical and cultural perspectives. The postcolonial critiques of Orientalism, hybridity and the subaltern that were first developed in literary and historical accounts provided vital stepping stones in this reconfiguration of art historical methodologies. A key challenge that confronted this discourse was to develop new ways of seeing and interpreting the differences between and within cultures. For instance, the introduction of the Derridean concept of supplementarity and Homi Bhabha’s interpretation of the process of cultural translation provided new means for understanding both the tensions that arise from the interaction between different cultural practices, and the emergence of novel forms of expressions. In short, this approach not only provided more evidence of emergent practices and the historical legacies of art from the South, but it also prompted the invention of critical tools for overcoming the classification of the South as exotica, periphery and primitivism.

What do you see as the relation between the geographic South and the Global South? Is it purely coincidental?

I understand the concept of the South as a loose hemispheric term that refers to a series of places that share similar patterns of colonization, migration and cultural mixture. For me the South is also expressive of a cultural imaginary that looks outward from its own national base and against the grain of its colonial past. This appeal to a more open-ended identity is, in one critic’s eye, a betrayal of a deep imperial history.[2] In other words, any use of the language that draws from metaphoric associations with the cardinal points of cartography risks being embedded in the naturalistic discourse of magnetic polarities.

In my mind the South is a more ambivalent concept.  It oscillates between a clarion call for antipodean rebelliousness and the stigmatic expression of the cultural cringe. Throughout Australia’s incomplete pursuit of republicanism the image of the Southern Cross has been a recurring symbol of resistance. It has been the trump card against the cultural imperialism of the North. Refusing to be defined by a measure that favours the North the Southern cultural chauvinist inverts this logic and declares that everything of value is already and always in the South. Peter Beiharz notes that the choices are not confined to the bad options of superior recognition according to metropolitan exclusivity or the provincial self-identification through splendid isolationism. He takes inspiration from the fact, and not just hollow boast, that distance from the North has enabled Australia to figure as the ‘world’s social laboratory of policy experiment.’ Indeed throughout the twentieth century Australia has been at the forefront of reforms and innovations in the three pillars of social welfare—wage arbitration, women’s right and multiculturalism. However, Beilharz’s narrative of the emergence of Antipodean civilizational tropes is bittersweet. While he duly notes that earlier achievements were influential in the Fabian social democratic debates, he is also painfully aware that Paul Keating’s realignment of the Labour Party with neo-liberalism paved the way for Tony Blair’s ‘third way’.[3] Keating’s own southern cultural imaginary that promised to take shape through a nascent republicanism and closer integration with Asia, was soon transformed into the target of populist scorn for the successive generations of political leaders.

In Central and Latin America a similar pattern of ambivalent identification is expressed in examples that stretch from Borges short story of the South as a frontier metaphor, Joaquim Torres Garcia’s corrective claim that the ‘North looks South’, to the analysis of cultural inferiority complexes in the writings of Octavio Paz, Gilberto Freyre and Eduardo Galeano, and more recently, the speech by Hugo Chavez in which he quoted Mario Benedetti’s poem ‘The South also Exists’.[4] Such enduring pathos for regional solidarity alongside the persistent failure to build a common cultural framework prompts a number of questions. Is the concept of the South the best frame or point from which to start, once again, as if for the first time, the endless task of collective identification? Is there any point at which the path of identity splits from the imperial past? Can such a wide spherical concept inflect the debates on planetary and cosmopolitan identity with a different historical texture and geo-political valency?[5]

How does living in Melbourne influence the way you think about the South?

I grew up in Middle Park. My strongest childhood memory is looking down the street and seeing an open horizon—the sea. My idea of the spherical consciousness starts from that view.

How can Australian universities connect with the South?

Less greed and more curiosity. Alan Davies made the call a long time ago. More than two decades ago the Australian political scientists Alan Davies suggested that ‘we should spend less time in awed upward contemplation of the great metropolitan centres and a good deal more looking sideways at the experience of like small nations, whose solutions should be better scaled to our problems, and whose definition of their problems are more likely to help us understand our own’.[6] He imagined a form of cultural exchange that would reveal insights and develop skills that would be more worthy of emulation because their fit would be closer to our own experiences. The transferability of knowledge would not be a form of adopting and applying models, but in the grasping of what Davies called the ‘nuances of likeness’.

[1] Rasheed Araeen, ‘Re–thinking History and some other things’, Third Text, Spring 2001, No 54, p 93

[2] Margaret Jolly, “The South in Southern Theory: Antipodean Reflections on the Pacific”, Australian Humanities Review, Issue 44, 2008, 79

[3] Peter Beilharz ‘Rewriting Australia’ Journal of Sociology 40, 2004

[4] Kevin Murray ‘Uruguay also Exists’

[5] See Paul Gilroy After Empire London, Routledge, 2004, and Ulrich Beck ‘The Cosmopolitan Manifesto’ World Risk Society, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1999

[6] Alan Davies, ‘Small Country Blues’ Meanjin Volume 44, Number 2, 1985, p 248

Peter Beilharz

Peter Beilharz is Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University where he edits Thesis Eleven, an interdisciplinary academic journal on theories of modernity. Here he offers his perspective on the way south.

My planned research includes a co-written book on the life and work of the founding mother of Australian sociology, Jean Martin; a book on the peculiarities of Australian modernity across the twentieth century; a shared book on the history of rock music in Australia; and a study of the work of Robert Hughes, to follow on my book on the work of Bernard Smith, Imagining the Antipodes. All this work is animated by the idea of thinking about the antipodes, rather than the south; and by the idea that culture works through cultural traffic . These concerns cross over with some of the agendas of our journal, Thesis Eleven. The Thesis Eleven Centre pursues some of these interests with collaborators in India, the Philippines, Thailand, and New Zealand. We would be very pleased to take them into South America. In addition, I have cause to consider my own location in all this – Australia and el Norte – as we construct the hundredth issue of Thesis Eleven, and begin to narrate our own stories, and as I work with Sian Supski , who is writing about my own work in its antipodean inflexions .

I find Bernard Smith’s thinking both interesting and innovative. Innovation often happens on the edges, and goes unnoticed . For Smith, the antipodes matters as a relationship rather than a place: wherever we are, we are always here and there at the same time. And then, culture is best understood not as emanation of place  but as the negotiation of these relationships .

I can see the effectivity of the idea of the South as a political slogan, but it has limits that cause me to have reservations. Culture does not map neatly onto geography . Much of the south is in the north culturally, and the other way round. What interests me is the traffic between peoples, cities and regions. We have a great deal to learn by looking sideways. I would like to see more dialogue on a southern axis, across Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa. But all these worlds are co-constituted by other worlds, and cannot be separated out from these entanglements any more than el Norte can be understood without reference to us. In this context I do not have especial priorities – everything should be open for discussion, where stories can be told in a comparative way, and actors can feel comfortable talking about experience or intellect in ways that get the sparks of imagination flying.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos maps the abyss



Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a professor in the Sociology department University of Coimbra, Portugal. He specialises in issues of law and globalisation, particularly as they relate to the Lusophone South (Mozambique, Brazil, Angola, etc). de Sousa Santos combines his academic life with an active political engagement in World Social Forum.

His essay Beyond Abyssal Thinking offers a broad framework for southern perspectives. It begins with a critique of northern epistemology, which he characterises as a methodology for dividing the world between regions of order and chaos. He offers the example of Amity Lines, agreed on by the Spanish and French in the 16th century as distinguishing those areas where rule of law would apply from the realm beyond where each was free to pursue their interests unhindered. De Sousa Santos links cartography with law and colonisation as part of a fundamental distinction between civilised and savage, cultural and natural and legal and lawless.

As an alternative to this ‘’abyssal thinking’, de Sousa Santos offers an ‘epistemology of the South’ which practices knowledge that is ecologically linked to its context. This grounds thought in both its cultural context and its ethical dimension – as a form of intervention more than representation. de Sousa Santos locates within this epistemology a ‘subaltern cosmopolitanism’ reflecting the diversity of cultures on the periphery (this evokes the ‘world’ that is used to identify non-Western art forms like ‘world music.’)

While de Sousa Santos’ opposition between Northern and Southern epistemologies may seem melodramatic, he is at pains to us it  as a way of opening questions rather than proclaiming answers. His essay concludes with the following questions:

How can we identify the perspective of the oppressed in real-world interventions or in any resistance to them? How can we translate this perspective into knowledge practices? In the search for alternatives to domination and oppression, how can we distinguish between alternatives to the system of oppression and domination and alternatives within the system or, more specifically, how do we distinguish between alternatives to capitalism and alternatives within capitalism? In sum, how can we fight against the abyssal lines using conceptual and political instruments that don’t reproduce them? And finally, a question of special interest to educators: what would be the impact of a post-abyssal conception of knowledge (as an ecology of knowledges) upon our educational institutions and research centres?

Useful references

  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos ‘A Map of Misreading: Toward a Postmodern Conception of Law’ Journal of Law and Society (1987) 14: 3, pp. 279-302
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos Law and globalization from below: towards a cosmopolitan legality Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges, 2006
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos (ed) Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies London: Verso, 2007

Interview with Raewyn Connell

Professor Raewyn Connell explains the thinking behind her book Southern Theory.

What were your aims in writing "Southern Theory"?

Fourteen years ago, when I began this work, I aimed simply to correct a historical error – the textbook belief that sociology was invented to explain the new industrial society of Europe. I found that the creation of sociology was in fact closely bound up with the cultural problems of imperialism (sociology originally concerned "progress" and centred on a contrast between "primitive" and "advanced" societies). Without intending to, this piece of historical research opened up other questions about the relations between social science and world society.

By the time the book was written, I had two main aims and one subsidiary. First, I wanted to show how mainstream ideas and frameworks across the social sciences, which are usually taken as universally valid, actually embed the specific viewpoint of the global North. I wanted to show in some detail just how this viewpoint works, for instance in shaping concepts like "globalization" or in the ideas of celebrated theorists. I wanted to show how the uncritical importation of Northern perspectives gives a strange twist to the way social science operates in the global periphery, in countries like Australia.

Second, I wanted to show that there are real alternatives. Southern theory isn’t just a pipe-dream, it actually exists – though mainly in texts that are not widely read. So much of the text of Southern Theory is a matter of gathering up social analyses from different parts of the periphery, and thinking about them as social theory – that is, taking them as seriously as we usually take Foucault, Habermas, or Bourdieu. I wanted to get names such as Hountondji, Shariati, Das, Nandy, Garcia Canclini, Mamdani, and others into wider circulation, and persuade readers that the debates they are involved in are crucial for social science. I wanted to argue that the periphery generates important issues and ideas, it doesn’t just receive them. I tried to show that in another way too, by discussing the land as a key issue for understanding society – an issue highlighted by the history of settler colonialism and the land rights struggles of indigenous peoples.

If I could make progress on those two aims, a third became relevant. I wanted to stir up a discussion about what a democratic social science would look like, if we thought about it on a world scale. Discussions about epistemology and the structure of knowledge usually happen in a separate box from discussions about globalization and world politics. But they have to be brought together, if the argument in Southern Theory is broadly correct. In the final chapter I have a go at that problem; it’s sketchy, but at least it’s there.

What has the response been, in the North and South?

It is early days yet, for reviews in academic journals; but the first that have appeared, a review symposium in a UK journal and a regular review in an Australian journal, are very positive. I have been invited to speak on these questions at conferences and departmental seminars – mostly in my own fields of sociology and gender studies – and people in the university world have responded with interest. The International Sociological Association is an important forum for me.

I can’t say that Southern Theory is a runaway best-seller, yet! There have been no reviews in Australian mass media, which disappoints me. But I think it is gradually getting known. A quotation from Southern Theory has been used by an artist as the theme for a poster, exhibited in Germany. The Australian Sociological Association has recently awarded it the Stephen Crook Memorial Prize for the best monograph in Australian sociology 2005-2007 – I shed some tears at the presentation. I have had supportive email messages from people in the periphery, who find the book helpful because it names problems that they also faced, i.e. it validates their experience. Some scholars, in the metropole as well as the periphery, are sending me papers in which they are already building on the ideas of Southern Theory in their own fields. That is particularly exciting for me, as I believe that the growth of knowledge is very much a collective work.

Of course there are criticisms. One is particularly interesting. When I gave a seminar on the ideas at a US university, there was criticism from one colleague who was disturbed at the risk involved. If graduate students were persuaded by Southern Theory to spend their time reading Shariati, Nandy, Hountondji and other exotic authors, they would be distracted from the business of learning the mainstream professional knowledge on which their careers depended. This is a real issue, I take it seriously. There are risks for social scientists in the metropole, in the kind of global re-shaping of social science that I think is necessary.

What do you think are some of the questions raised by the book?

One of the most difficult, constantly raised in critical discussions and reviews, is what is meant by the "South". I say several times in the book that there is no single Southern perspective, and in fact show that in great detail. But it is still a nagging question. The geographer’s "South" is not exactly the same as the "South" in UN trade debates, or the "third world", or the "less developed countries", or the economists’ "periphery", or the cultural theorists’ "post-colonial" world, or the biologists’ "southern world", or the geologists’ former Gondwana – though there is some overlapping along this spectrum. I mainly talk of "metropole" and "periphery", but there is enormous social diversity within each; recognizing the polarity is only the beginning of analysis, not the end.

It seems particularly difficult to think of Australia as "South" – though the name actually means South-ia – probably because it is a rich country in world terms, and likes to think of itself politically or culturally as part of the "West", heaven help us. Partly because of the dominance of the misleading concept of "globalization", which I dissect in the book, we don’t have well-developed concepts for understanding the power of periphery-metropole relations or the complexities of the periphery. So there is work to be done, understanding the economics of primary-exporting economies such as Australia’s, the culture of post-settler-colonialism, and the ways ethnicity, class and gender are shaped in the different societies of the periphery.

Another question raised by the book, at a very practical level, is how knowledge circulates in the periphery. Southern Theory is published in Australia and the UK, in English; and there will be a small edition published in India. There has been some discussion of translations into other languages, but no publisher has undertaken that yet. How would its arguments get known in Latin America, in Africa, or in China? Mainly, by the book being discussed by scholars in the USA and Europe! In fact, the best chance I have of the book becoming known in the global periphery, is if it gets used as a textbook in social theory courses in the metropole. The fact that we still rely on the metropole to circulate ideas around the periphery is a problem discussed in the book, and I don’t know what solutions there may be.

How are you following this line of thought?

Firstly, by discussing the ideas of Southern Theory in as many forums as I can, and trying to get social scientists to read the theorists introduced in it. That would be a success in itself.

Next, I’m trying to apply the perspective in other fields of my work. For instance in 2009 the second edition of my book Gender is being published, which makes more use of Southern research and theoretical work than most of the English-language literature in this field. I have been working on a global sociology of intellectuals, some of which lies behind Southern Theory in fact, and which I hope to sharpen up in the light of the book and responses to it.

Finally, I’m doing what I can to encourage other people, including students, to work on these problems. I don’t think Southern Theory is more than a beginning – a rank beginning in some of the areas it touches, given the problems of language. And of course it’s not the only thing in its field! There have been discussions of these and related issues in Latin America, in Africa and in Asia; so in the papers I write, I try to spread awareness of other texts and debates. The broader the process that unfolds, the better.

Raewyn Connell is University Professor at University of Sydney

Epeli Hau’ofa (1939-2009)



Tongan writer and cultural theorist Epeli Hau’ofa passed away on Sunday 11 January 2009.

Hau’ofa was born in Papua New Guinea in 1939 of Tongan missionary parents. He was educated in a variety of countries, eventually receiving his PhD at the Department of Anthropology, Australian National University. His positions included Keeper of Palace Records in Tonga, Head of Sociology Department and Head of the School of Social and Economic Development of the University of the South Pacific.

In 1997, he was the founding Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture in Suva. This became an important cultural base for exchange and expression in the Pacific.

Hau’ofa was a novelist of satiric fiction, such Tales of the Tikongs and Kisses in the Nederlands. His most recent publication, We are the Ocean, included essays about the nature of the Oceanic, and how the sea connects Pacific peoples together, from the east coast of Australia to California.

In 2004, he visited Melbourne to give a presentation at South 1, the inaugural meeting of writers and artists from across the South. His expansive notion of the Oceanic provided an important platform for connecting together the island people participating, particularly from Rapa Nui.

His conversation with ABC radio host Philip Adams at the time dwelt on his pride in cabbages. The fruits of Epeli Hau’ofa will be enjoys for many years to come.