In an interview, Stênio Gardel talks about what it was like to be the first Brazilian to win the National Book Awards

30/04/2024

Stênio Gardel is the Brazilian author of the moment. The Ceará native won, alongside Bruna Dantas Lobato, the National Book Awards in the translation category. He is the first Brazilian to win the award, won for his debut novel, “The words that remain”. 

“I don’t just write for myself and I do what I can to make people know Raimundo’s story”, declared Stênio in an interview with the Brazilian Publishers website regarding his character, an illiterate man who at 71 decides to learn to read and write, motivated by a love letter he has kept for 50 years. The award-winning edition of the book was translated into English by Bruna, and published by New Vessel Press, in the United States, beating out experienced authors such as Pilar Quintana and Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.

During the unprecedented interview given to the website of the Program for the internationalization of Brazilian editorial content – carried out through a partnership between the Brazilian Book Chamber (CBL) and the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (ApexBrasil) –, Stênio spoke about how it was working with Bruna, the emotion of being recognized upon his debut, details of his creative process, and more. 

“I think Bruna’s translation captured the rhythm of the book very well, the spectrum of vocabulary and the narrative voices”, he told the report. Furthermore, he revealed his next success, the book “Bento Vento Tempo”, the story of a grandson who wants to help his grandfather recover his memories. The launch will be a cordel, a typically Brazilian type of publication, and a partnership with another award-winning artist, the brilliant Nelson Cruz, winner of Jabuti 2021 with “Sagatrissuinorana”. 

Below, you can see the conversation with the author in full.

BP – “The Words That Remain” is your debut novel. What was the process of writing this book like?

Stênio: First I planned all the chapters, to have an overview of the story. At that point, I had already chosen the events in Raimundo’s life. After staggering these events, I worked early every day for three weeks and by the end of that period I was 80 to 90 percent through the first draft of the book. The rest was completed with some general revisions in another two months. I write in silence, alone if possible and without worrying too much about how much I will write or about possible errors or narrative or language problems. I prefer to make these adjustments in later readings.

BP – What was the inspiration behind Raimundo’s story and his journey to learn to read and write?

Stênio: As a TRE-CE server, I served many voters who had to put their fingerprint in place of their signature on documents. I think these people made an impression on me because in those brief moments during the service, I believe they were thinking about many other moments in their lives, in their childhood and youth, when, for whatever reasons, they didn’t learn to write. To this was added the fictional image of a man sitting at a table with a paper to read, but which he cannot read. So, these images together raised some questions (who is the man, what does he keep, why is it so important) and as I found answers to these questions, the story and the characters began to build.

BP – What were the biggest challenges you faced when writing “The Words That Remain”?

Stênio: From the point of view of the writing itself, I think the biggest challenge was writing the scenes of violence, especially (spoiler………..) Dalberto’s death and the transphobia against Suzzanný. For countless reasons. I knew it was a difficult subject and any oversight could destroy the book, its themes and its potential messages. I would have to write violence to make people read no to violence and prejudice. It was a delicate path to follow. 

BP – Could you tell us a little about your experience as an LGBTQ+ author in Brazil and how this influenced your writing?

Stênio: All my experiences, memories, feelings, whether or not related to my sexuality, permeate my writing. As a homosexual, when writing Raimundo, much of his anguish, fears, suffering were also mine, as was his way and his process of understanding his own homosexuality, within himself and in the world. At no point, during writing, editing or publishing, did I experience any embarrassment for having written or for writing or changing anything. This in itself is already very significant, knowing that myself, publisher and readers work with this freedom to write, publish and read, but there is still a long way to go, we need to have even more LGBTQ+ authors and books with our experiences and world views.

BP – What was your journey as an author like until you achieved success with “The Words That Remain”? What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way?

Stênio: Before the novel I had written short stories that were published in collections with other authors. The arrival of the novel was the realization of a huge dream and everything the book has achieved and given me only adds to that dream. And, of course, I had to overcome some fears, such as submitting my text for other readings and being exposed to criticism and judgment. This is never easy, even in other areas. And also the exposure in the press, on social media, this is something I’m still getting used to, but it pays off because the important thing, and what fulfills me too, is getting the book to people. I don’t just write for myself and I do what I can to make people know Raimundo’s story.

BP – In addition to winning the National Book Award, the book was a finalist for the Jabuti Award and received other distinctions. What was it like to receive this recognition?

Stênio: Unbelievable, for a moment, for the moments immediately following the announcement. Even today I see it as something so gigantic that I need to make an effort or look at the trophy to believe it. Before publication, before I even knew if the book would be published by Companhia das Letras, I was looking for some legitimization that would tell me if what I was writing was Literature. This confirmation came immediately with the return of Socorro Acioli, after she read the first version, and everything that happened afterwards only reinforced and gave me the confidence that I am on the right path, which I sought so much, of writing literary texts.

BP – What was the experience of seeing your work translated into English and recognized internationally?

Stênio: Another unexpected and incredible achievement. I’ve always liked English, I studied it for several years, some American authors are among my favorites, like Faulkner and Steinbeck, so seeing my first novel published in their language is a tremendous emotion. Furthermore, I love the translation, the text by Bruna Dantas Lobato.

BP – What was it like working with translator Bruna Dantas Lobato to bring your work to an international audience?

Stênio: It was an experience rich in learning. I was able to read the proofs, provide comments, and discuss important issues in the book with her and the editor and co-founder of New Vess Press, Michael Z. Wise. I think Bruna’s translation captured the rhythm of the book, the spectrum of vocabulary and the narrative voices very well. I know that the stories (original text and translated text) are the same, just with words from different languages, and that to me says a lot about the success of a translated work.

BP – In addition to international recognition, how was the book received in Brazil? Do you notice differences in the way the story is received here and abroad?

Stênio: The novel had good reviews in major newspapers here in Brazil, while there, although also positive, the reviews were limited to smaller outlets. Here the book was a semi-finalist for Jabuti and a finalist for the São Paulo Literature Award. The translation won the National Book Awards in the Translated Literature category and was also among the semi-finalists for the Dublin Literary Award. Here I have more contact with readers, through events, reading clubs, I can hear what they say and feel about Reading the novel. I had similar experiences with the translation but in a much smaller number. I don’t notice many differences. Perhaps a small one is that illiteracy abroad is more surprising than here, since here we know that this is the reality of many Brazilians.

BP – Can you tell us a little about your upcoming literary projects? Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?

Stênio: Of course, I have a new book, very special, being published next June by Companhia das Letrinhas. It is a cordel with illustrations by the sensitive and brilliant Nelson Cruz, winner of Jabuti 2021 with Sagatrissuinorana. The book is called Bento Vento Tempo and is the story of a grandson who wants to help his grandfather recover his memories. It is already on pre-sale on the Companhia das Letras website and in virtual bookstores and on Amazon.