In Conversation: Juliana Barbassa

Juliana Barbassa is an award-winning journalist currently living in Switzerland. Her book, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink, based on her years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Brazil, was published by Touchstone/Simon&Schuster in July 2015.

Juliana Barbassa profile

Dancing with the Devil in the city of God is a very enticing title! Tell us a bit about how you came up with it.

Thank you! It’s good to hear. The idea of “Dancing with the Devil” was born of this sense that Rio, and Brazil, were engaging in a huge gamble by taking on this series of mega-events (the Pan-American Games of 2007, the World Cup of 2014, and the 2016 Olympics.) The country was going through unprecedented good times, and Brazilians were eager to show this off to the world, but I had the sense that much could go wrong, both with the staging of the games themselves, and with the country as a whole—with the economy, particularly.

Indeed, this great unraveling of Brazil’s promise started to happen even as I was finishing the manuscript, and it has only worsened since.

The City of God part came not from the favela by the same name that exists in Rio—I thought most who don’t live there wouldn’t have heard of it anyway—but from the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue that hovers over the city. You can see it from just about anywhere, and as I struggled to come to terms with Rio and its hard edges I found myself looking up at that impassive face: What did he make of this mess? Did he care? Was that blank face even watching?

A resident holding a baby hides behind a door as an armored police vehicle patrols during an operation at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010. Rio's most dangerous slum that was the backbone of the city's biggest drug gang was taken by 2,600 police and soldiers Sunday, an unprecedented accomplishment by authorities in their fight to secure this seaside metropolis that will host the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

A resident holding a baby hides behind a door as an armored police vehicle patrols during an operation at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010. Rio’s most dangerous slum that was the backbone of the city’s biggest drug gang was taken by 2,600 police and soldiers Sunday, an unprecedented accomplishment by authorities in their fight to secure this seaside metropolis that will host the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

As a journalist, you’ve doubtless written hundreds of thousands of words over the years. Did this latest book emerge from those writings?

It certainly started out that way. My first few chapters in particular were drawn directly from my reporting. When you’re out gathering information, you pick up so much more than you can fit into a straight who-what-when-why-where news article—broader questions about what it all means, anecdotes that reveal nuances of a situation or place but are too long for a news piece, connections to a wider context.

In my case, I was also returning to country where I was born. For the first time those I interviewed spoke the language of home, the language that for years I only used with my family. All this added a very personal layer that of course had no room in my reporting. Writing was essentially a way of working out what this moment meant for Rio, for Brazil—and also of processing the clash of reality with my expectations, what I saw as a journalist with what I felt as a Brazilian returned home.

An interesting thing happened along the way: the book went from hewing closer to straight reporting to a more personal perspective. Somewhere along the line—in the book this happens when I talk about the World Cup—I went from referring to Brazilians as ‘them’ to speaking about ‘us.’ It was unintentional. A reader pointed it out to me after it was published. The book takes the reader through a physical journey through the city, but through my personal journey as well.

Students walk to school past military police officers patrollong in the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday March 27, 2012. Military police officers are replacing army soldiers patrolling the area at the slum complex. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Students walk to school past military police officers patrollong in the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday March 27, 2012. Military police officers are replacing army soldiers patrolling the area at the slum complex. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In some ways it sounds like every travel writer’s dream to encounter gang wars and subsistence life in the run-down apartments of a city undergoing immense change, and yet moving to Rio was clearly a huge challenge, both personally and professionally. Was it the possibility of this kind of experience that drew you to journalism as a career in the first place? 

To a great degree, yes. I believe journalism has an essential role to play in a functioning democracy—holding government accountable, bringing wrongs to light, all that—but it’s also true that for me as for many of us, the job is addictive.

The adrenaline rush that comes with running toward whatever disaster everyone else is running away from, the insane focus of reporting breaking news in real time, being right there to see human beings at their best and at their worst … you feel alive and in the moment and relevant. There’s nothing like it, even when it costs you, as it often cost me to report on Rio. What you learn along the way—about the issue, the place, about people in general and about yourself—is priceless.

The challenge is always to render what we see as factually but also as vividly as possible to readers, so they can share the experience or just have the information to reach their own conclusions.

In this Sunday, July 14, 2013 photo, youth play alongside a polluted river in the Varginha area of the Manguinhos slum complex where Pope Francis is expected to visit during his trip next week to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In one of the key events of his trip, the church’s first Jesuit leader will venture into this rough slum that sits along a violence-soaked road known by locals as the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In this Sunday, July 14, 2013 photo, youth play alongside a polluted river in the Varginha area of the Manguinhos slum complex where Pope Francis is expected to visit during his trip next week to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In one of the key events of his trip, the church’’s first Jesuit leader will venture into this rough slum that sits along a violence-soaked road known by locals as the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

I’ve enjoyed immensely your ability to evoke a sense of place with your words—it’s something many writers of fiction are striving for daily! How much, if at all, do you draw on the craft of fiction-writing, and where do you see the cross-overs?

I have been a keen reader of fiction ever since I was little—I was that kid with thick glasses who’d escape to the library during recess—and I’m sure it’s shaped my writing in more ways that I can relate here. But there are clear cross-overs between fiction and the kind of writing I do: character development, a story arc, the need for tension and resolution. The difference is that with fiction, you start from nothing and you build. With non-fiction, you take the giant amorphous swirl of facts that is ‘reality’ and chisel away all the excess stuff that is getting in the way of your characters, of your story. The work is in identifying the story and the characters that will best tell that story and then bringing them to light.

In this photo taken Dec. 17, 2010, Gustavo Nascimento da Silva, 5, flies his kite at the Santa Marta slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2008 police stormed Santa Marta to evict the dealers as the community became the pilot in a program to root out gangs and bring government services to slums long abandoned by the state. The program has since been replicated in a dozen slums, all in a bid to make one of the world's more dangerous cities safer before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

In this photo taken Dec. 17, 2010, Gustavo Nascimento da Silva, 5, flies his kite at the Santa Marta slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2008 police stormed Santa Marta to evict the dealers as the community became the pilot in a program to root out gangs and bring government services to slums long abandoned by the state. The program has since been replicated in a dozen slums, all in a bid to make one of the world’s more dangerous cities safer before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

When it comes to deciding which characters are going to be part of the book, for example—you can’t make them up, but you can chose individuals whose lives reveal depths and aspects of whatever issue you want to illustrate. But you don’t really know until you’ve spent a lot of time with them, in their context. You interview them repeatedly, spend time with them in various situations; you get to know their family, find out what moves them, what they fear. The vast majority of that material you never use, but only by knowing the whole can you say which details are most revealing. Once you’ve got those key markers, all you need to do is sketch the outline of that person for the reader. If you’ve got the right details, the person is believable and takes form in the reader’s imagination, much as a fictional character would.

As a journalist yourself, how have you responded to the changing frontier of traditional news publications and aggregators, when almost anyone can now show up and ‘report’ on anything via social media (e.g. the Arab Spring Twitter storm) or by independently publishing their opinions (such as Russell Brand’s Trews News YouTube Channel, which has well over a million followers)? 

I feel like we’re still parsing, as a society, what this means and how to handle all of the information that is made available when the gates of publication are thrown wide open. Much of it is positive, as was the case during the Arab Spring, when social media users were able to transmit information that would not have been available under a tightly controlled media environment.

But I am a journalist, and when speaking about news, I hold in high regard the vetting systems that exist in traditional news outlets, where information is gathered, fact-checked and framed not only by a professional who is held to clearly stated standards of accuracy and fairness but also by layers of editors who have their careers and their names staked on upholding those standards.

If you get something wrong as a journalist, you’re held responsible. If the mistake is serious or intentional, you lose your job or worse, your credibility. In either case, your news outlet will issue a public correction and in some cases, conduct a serious investigation into internal procedures to see what failed.  If you get something wrong on Twitter or on your blog, even if it has drastic consequences—oh well. It’s social media.

All to say, I find it very exciting that individuals have the ability to connect with an audience without the mediation of government, publishing houses, or the mainstream media because of the freedom it brings from censorship, where that exists, and because it allows writers to publish works that, for whatever reason, would not have been welcome within those traditional platforms. This only makes public discourse richer. But I am afraid of a world in which readers don’t see the difference between 140 characters on their Twitter feed and a newspaper headline, and I feel like we’re teetering dangerously over than line.

In this June 17, 2013, file photo, protestors are reflected on the glass of a building, left, as they march in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In a poll last year, more than three quarters of Brazilians said they'’re certain corruption has infused the World Cup. Their anger fueled widespread and often violent anti-government protests last June that sent more than 1 million Brazilians into the street during FIFA’s Confederations Cup soccer tournament, the warm-up event to the World Cup. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

In this June 17, 2013, file photo, protestors are reflected on the glass of a building, left, as they march in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In a poll last year, more than three quarters of Brazilians said they’’re certain corruption has infused the World Cup. Their anger fueled widespread and often violent anti-government protests last June that sent more than 1 million Brazilians into the street during FIFA’s Confederations Cup soccer tournament, the warm-up event to the World Cup. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

One of the elements of identity is the passport we hold, but there are many others. You once wrote (in the Boston Globe) of moving to the Middle East, Europe and, eventually, the United States, and of “changing cities more often than most families change cars”. What would you say are the things that, for you as a traveller, comprise a sense of home?

I’d have to say it’s connecting with a community of like-minded people. These may be other life-long travellers, people who have chosen lives and identities that are made, not born into, or they may be people who have never have physically left their home town, but have ranged widely in their interests and become flexible along the way. This connection with people is the single thing that made cities as diverse as Rio, San Francisco, or Chambery, where I lived for a year, feel like home, even if a temporary sort of home. Nothing makes me feel as out of place as being in very homogenous society, where only a narrow range of behaviors, opinions or lifestyles is tolerated.

‘Literary’ journalist Joan Didion has said that she writes entirely to find out what she’s thinking, what she’s looking at, what she sees and what it means. In what way does this resonate for you, as a writer who has lived in so many different places?

It rings very true. For most of my life, I’ve used reading and writing as tools for making sense of the world around me. It is as I write that I think, process information, even make sense of certain feelings or reactions. This was very true as I was writing “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God;” it is essentially a book of reportage, but it was also my way of exploring Rio, and negotiating the boundaries between the physical city and the city I’d carried within, the place I’d hoped to find.

This relationship to writing is so entrenched that I’m having a hard time approaching Zürich as a non-journalist! Not having an excuse to poke around, and not having a designated outlet for my writing feels strange, limiting; it’s as if I couldn’t see as well, or think as clearly.

What’s the next big writing project on the horizon?

I’m juggling a couple of ideas. I’m torn between continuing to write about Brazil, which is a perpetual source inspiration and torment with its extremes and so many untold stories, and focusing on Switzerland, which is still a huge, and intimidating, blank. I would love to focus on what is nearby, what I’m seeing around me—for those Joan Didion reasons—but I don’t know where to start. It’s all so new, including the language! 

And, finally, The Woolf special question: what’s one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

Do I have to pick one? Right now I’m enthralled with Ann Patchett’s books: I read Bel Canto, State of Wonder, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and The Patron Saint of Liars, her first—and perfect—novel, all in a row. She has such imagination and control of her craft that she can create very improbable and tightly circumscribed worlds, whether it is a lab in the Amazon, a South American embassy in the grips of kidnappers, or a Kentucky home for pregnant girls, that serve as crucibles for the human experience, wringing depths out of characters that not many other writers achieve. And she does this by telling a whopper of a story that keeps you turning the pages.  I’ve just in awe of what she is able to do.

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Read more, or order Dancing with the Devil in the City of God on Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Simon&Schuster.

Take a look at this month’s Gallery for more images of Rio.

You can follow Juliana on Twitter @jbarbassa or read more of her work at julianabarbassa.com.

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist + ghostwriter, narrative media consultant, media literacy educator. Co-founder + Co-editor of The Woolf quarterly literary journal.

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