At a busy cafe in London by the River Thames, Yara Rodrigues Fowler seems to have drowned out the clamour of voices and clinking dishes. There’s a din of noise, yet she remains rooted and overwhelmingly cool. Much like the narrator of her debut book, Stubborn Archivist, Yara’s sentences are precise and unpretentious: “I wanted to write an accessible text, whilst being experimental.” In Stubborn Archivist, Yara manages to capture the jittery, anxious feelings that you can experience growing up as an immigrant straddling several worlds, only finding yourself happy when alone in your bedroom.
Stubborn Archivist follows the life of an unnamed narrator, a third-culture female protagonist who, like Yara, is half Brazilian and half English. Over the course of some 300 pages, the novel crosses generations, weaving together the tapestry of a family’s journey through South London and Brazil. The book, written in a non-linear style, artfully pieces together a family’s history, their shared and separate memories, whilst intentionally leaving gaps and pauses in their narratives. The book showcases, in the most refreshing way and through the most heartbreaking one-liners, what it means to be young, insecure and uncertain.
“Her frame of reference in the world is very similar to mine,” Yara says, in talking about the narrator of her book. “I didn’t have to do any research. It’s my world. There are slices of my life in there. But I would never say if you want to learn about me, read this book.” At times, Stubborn Archivist feels like a deeply intimate, emotional diary entry written by a friend. The narrator takes you by the hand, walks you through the streets of her South London, and through the tangled pathways of her psyche as she reveals bits of her, piece by piece. In delicate and often unfinished snippets, we learn about her loves, her life, her family, her tumultuous and uneasy relationships, growing up, and the deep processing of experiences of sexual violence.
Stubborn Archivist explores the complexities of returning to spaces that hold both joy and pain. The narrator tells us of the violence she experienced in a relationship with a loved one, but through the minutiae of what one goes through as a result of an assault. It is not graphic in the way one might expect, but it is striking. “You can be in love with a person,” Yara acknowledges. “If you’ve experienced sexual violence because of them, how do you square those things?” “I guess I was thinking about archiving,” Yara pondered. “The archiving of memory and how trauma fucks with that. And how that fucks with what the text looks like on the page. So there’s all of this blank space, there’s all of this intrusion.” In the novel, memories, places, feelings, smells, all emerge like ghosts and stay like stubborn guests.
For Yara, Stubborn Archivist was a “pushback against the kind of British books” she grew up consuming. “What I find really interesting about these books is that they are writing about empire.” She sits on that thought before saying, “a lot of these novels [Pamela, Great Expectations, Jane Eyre] are about imperial conquests that are changing a lot because of all of the money and resources. A novel can be a way of dominating a story, creating imagined geography. It can be very colonial, very patriarchal. That stubbornness, the holding back, was really important. I wanted to push against the novel as a form of domination.”
What this resulted in was a book that expertly navigates duality and what that means. It reflects readers who are born in one world while attempting to reconcile their experience with the history of another. All while struggling with the demands of social media, the internet and capitalism. Much like White Teeth, the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Namesake and Americanah were pivotal in shaping the mindsets of many immigrant children, Stubborn Archivist will surely influence third-culture kids. “I was drawing from a few different places,” she said. “There are these third-culture books from almost twenty years ago, like everything Zadie Smith has ever written, but it wasn’t until I discovered Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and the way they disrupt realism and the way they talk about healing. For me, I could never write a realist novel having experienced those texts. I just kind of found an explanation for the world that made sense for me in those texts which British novels didn’t have. Brazil made more sense to me.”
Yara writes about Brazil as someone fondly remembering her homeland while simultaneously holding it to account, portraying the country at a time when it was a newly formed democracy. “I think the book does really show a world where people were not worried about the hostile environment. They’re middle class and educated but they’re not worried about their [UK] visas.” Yara depicts characters who are still remembering the Brazil from their youth through rose-tinted glasses, while remaining critical of how these memories are transplanted. Remember: the book is about archiving; whether its trauma, memories or family history. The grandmother, Vovo Cecilia, tells a bedtime story to our narrator that details the rape and kidnap of an indigenous woman. It’s told in a casual, flippant manner. “It’s a romanticisation of an era where slavery was going on. It was showing different ways that we do and don’t remember our history, both in the familial sense but also in the way that those two things interact, the stories that we pass down,” Yara added.
Though she does manage to record the last days of the Brazilian dictatorship, the narrator’s mother, Isadora, seems to be reliving her youth rather than talking about the everyday violence she would have experienced simply existing as a woman in that environment. “I mean not to minimise how things were at the time: people were getting disappeared, they were heavily censoring university professors and students. And it was very scary to be involved in resistance. Everyone was scared of being handed in, you weren’t sure who you were working with.”
Yara sees a return to this in the shape of President Jair Bolsonaro: “He’s egging on vigilante violence which is already part of how Brazil is and how Brazil came to exist. It’s really important to not see it as new because it’s not.” Bolsonaro’s presidency allows this behaviour to go unchecked. “It’s a very Brazilian type of violence,” Yara continues. “He’s kind of explicitly encouraging and legitimising it.” Making it legislatively easier to procure firearms, Bolsonaro is giving citizens free rein in aiding and abetting violence.
There’s a chapter in the book, told through the eyes of the narrator’s mother where she recounts the ways she fought the dictatorship. As a young, university student, Isadora takes part in what she considers heroic activities in a bid to overthrow the oppressive powers. Her most heroic act is leaving Brazil. “There’s a tension in the mum character,” Yara mentions. “She left, not just Brazil, not just the country, but the movement, the community. I wanted to sit with what it means to leave, to leave behind people that need you.” The dictatorship is part of the mother’s identity. It shapes and holds her political views, which are strikingly different from the rest of her family. But it’s her decision to marry a British man, to have a British baby, buy property in the early ‘90s in London, to be not-Brazilian but also not-British while also being both, which makes Isadora’s character the most compelling in the book.
Stubborn Archivist is Yara’s first book. It’s rare that a novel manages to expertly tackle such heavy and complicated relationships with such intimacy and delicacy. Though it may be set in London and Brazil, the novel weaves together themes and conversations that will speak volumes to immigrants and third-culture kids spread across the world.
Stubborn Archivist is available to purchase from any major bookshop, or you can order a copy from guardianbookshop.com