Yara Rodrigues Fowler – Stubborn Archivist
Published By: Fleet
Available From All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say:
A bold debut novel exploring the nuances and the spaces between ourselves and our bodies, told through the shards collected by our own stubborn archivist. When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world. This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity.
What I Say:
“Love your child and give them everything, but build a life that is your own first.
This is what your mum had told you, telepathically, all your life.
But you weren’t sure you wanted a husband
Or a child
Or to wrap your life around another person’s life”
Of all the works I have been asked to read as a Shadow Judge for The Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer Award, the Stubborn Archivist is the novel I already knew about. I was lucky enough to see Yara in conversation with the amazing Zeba Talkhani (Author of My Past Is A Foreign Country) and Daniel Hahn at the Henley Literary Festival earlier this year, and it was a captivating and illuminating talk. It asked what does identity, family and belonging mean to us when you are not sure where you fit in the world.
I was thrilled when I found out that Stubborn Archivist was on the Shortlist, and have to say that it is a novel I won’t forget for a long time. It is unlike anything I have read before in terms of structure and style, and that passion and emotion comes through every page, in an inexhaustable supply of memories, family and home.
Words tumble out of pages, large spaces are left, pages are blank, and the spaces in between words and chapters are just as important as the words that are printed. There is dialogue in Portuguese with no translation – why should there be? This is the Archivist’s story and her language should not have to be explained.
There is the constant refrain of : ‘What’s your name? He repeated the syl-la-bles.’ Showing us how having to constantly spell your name means you are not totally part of the society you live in – you are here, but not quite seamlessly. The frustation of language as an impediment to relationships and closeness peppers this book, whilst at the same time the refusal to compromise identity as a means to fit in more easily is always present, and it is at times gloriously defiant.
The construction of our identities and remembrances add to the authenticity of the novel – memories are not neat, linear, resolvable and formulaic structures. They meander and link seemingly unrelated pieces of information and time, short handed by the people who remember as they recollect the past, as families talk about jokes only they understand, of experiences they have shared and memories that exist only for them. It is raw, real and very truthful which is why it works so well, and always in the back of our minds is the notion of the protagonist having to heal her body which has been traumatised- something we discover in the most understated but most powerful way.
The Stubborn Archivist is the female narrator of the novel. She is the daughter of a Brazilian mother and an English father, and as we follow her forwards and backwards through her life, we start to understand who she is and how her life experiences have helped shape her. It is the sense that she doesn’t quite fit in to either culture that drives the narrative forward – in England she is living, learning and loving, whilst her time spent in Brazil means she goes back to be with her grandparents Vovô and Vovó who want her to remember her roots and where her heritage is. One scene that really stuck in my mind is when the Narrator is visiting Brazil and someone assumes she doesn’t speak Portuguese, because she is living in England, and she has to assure them that she does – that although geographically she is removed from them, emotionally she is still part of that culture too.
This for me is the whole crux of the novel, that she inhales life in London – the growing up, the all consuming friendships with Jade, Gee and Elena, the teenage way of just being with each other and knowing what each other needs, the desire to be part of the world around you so that you belong in that moment. Yet similarly when she is in Brazil, she is very much still a Brazilian girl who happens to live in London. As she grows up surrounded by the love of her grandparents Vovô and Vovó and Aunt Paula, they are thrilled she has come to see them but they also feel slightly displaced, as they are not part of her everyday life.
The Stubborn Archivist is not only her story, but that of her family too. We see how her parents met, the way in which two cultures come together – when the Brazilian in-laws come to the United Kingdom for Christmas and how they all learn to co-exist, each with different expectations, but neither wanting to upset the other. The most endearing scenes are tinged with awkwardness where no one quite knows what to say, but what binds them together is the unspoken familial connections we all yearn for.
One of the many things I loved about this novel, is that we are never really able to say that we absolutely know the Stubborn Archivist, because what we learn is what she has allowed us to read. That really resonated with me – how often have we kept things hidden, behaved one way with a certain group of friends, and another with someone else. Personal history is always going to be subjective, and that is what makes this novel so relatable – whether we realise it or not, we are the Stubborn Archivists of our histories.
The Stubborn Archivist is a novel that surprised and enthralled me from the very first page. Hand on heart, I wouldn’t have picked it up had I seen it in a Bookshop, but do you know what? I am so very glad I have read it, and isn’t that what reading is all about? The notion that as well as falling back on the familiar and the loved, that sometimes we need to read outside of our comfort zone to see what else can inspire and educate us.
The Stubborn Archivist has absolutely and defiantly achieved that. It has made me aware of the legacy I will leave behind and the stories others will remember about me – and I believe that is what truly inspiring writing does.
Yara Rodrigues Fowler is a British Brazilian novelist from South London. Her first novel, Stubborn Archivist, was published in 2019 in the UK and USA. It was called ’stunning’ by Olivia Laing, ‘visceral and elegant’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and ‘breathtakingly written’ by Nikesh Shukla. Yara was named one of The Observer’s nine ‘hottest-tipped’ debut novelists of 2019 and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. Yara is also a trustee of Latin American Women’s Aid, an organisation that runs the only two refuges in Europe for and by Latin American women. She’s writing her second novel now, for which she received the John C Lawrence Award from the Society of Authors towards research in Brazil.
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