Eliana Alves Cruz and the story of all of us

“Intuitively, I realized that there was something in this story that concerns the story of all of us”, shares Eliana Alves dos Santos Cruz when speaking of her book “Água de Barrela” that tells the story of her family. Eliana is a writer, journalist, and producer in Rio de Janeiro. Through research and family reports – especially from her aunt, Dona Nunu, the author builds a narrative that traces the path that connects Brazil to Africa. Eliana defends teaching, research, and writing as a way to preserve Afro-Brazilian culture.

We need to reclaim Africa for our lives

“We need to reclaim Africa for our lives,” she says. She points out that this is how it ends stereotypes about the continent when Brazilians come into contact with their origins. The writer also applauds the tradition of oral history, and as despite attempts to conceal Afro-Brazilian cultures, “these truths, this knowledge come out of these hiding places”.

Eliana also states that we need to bring orality to the field of writing so that our history “enters the bloodstream of Brazilian culture in a more effective way.” “We need to document it so that it remains for posterity”, she says.

In addition to Água de Barrela, the writer has two more historical novels “O crime do cais do Valongo”, published in 2018, and “Nada digo de ti, que em ti não veja”, which should be released in April of 2020. She believes that through literature it is possible to make a country’s history reach a wider audience, in addition to discussing current issues such as LGBTQ + rights and fake news. Meanwhile, she encourages people to read more Brazilians black authors, as she believes that this contributes to readers to have a greater critical sense and a wider view of Afro-Brazilian culture.

ATLANTICO – How did the idea of ​​writing about your family’s history come about?

Eliana Alves Cruz – I always say that this is a book of a lifetime. I always wanted to write this story. Because intuitively, I realized that there was something about this story that concerns the story of us all. And that it had not yet been properly told, that there were still things there to reveal. So I always asked, questioned, talked and collected these stories throughout my life. But that thing is that we postpone the plans. It becomes a distant thing. Also due to the editorial market that does not absorb us sufficiently, it has improved a little, but not much. Until one day I said, I’m going to try, and I went but much more as a personal matter. Obviously the dream is a publication, but I wanted to complete this map to leave it to my children. And then I did some research, researched the whole region, went back to the people who are still alive and who can bring information. I took other data, collected family documents, went to see certificates, a series of documents, went to a public archive, researched the internet, finally used all the resources that were within my reach to try to put this puzzle together. And surprisingly, I got good material. I collected a lot, a big part o it is because there is one person in my family, who is my great aunt, Dona Nunu, who was the key to everything. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and then people didn’t give her much credit. From the moment I went to her, I saw that she had an impressive preserved memory. I confirmed a lot of information that she gave me with academics, as well as in documents, I listened as much as I could of her and set up the story.

Photo: Eliana’s great-grandmother, Damiana, Martha’s daughter, Anolina’s granddaughter, Ewa’s great-granddaughter and “Água de barrela” character

ATLANTICO – You talk about Dona Nunu’s contribution to the rescue of family history. With that, it touches on an important factor which is the erasure of different forms of knowledge and the illness of populations that suffer oppression. How do you think it is possible to rescue these forms of knowledge?

Eliana Alves Cruz – In fact, it’s a  subject that Brazil puts under the rug. It is not erased, it is concealment because we cannot erase it. It’s inside us, it’s in our culture but Brazil tries to hide it as much as possible. But it is no use [hiding] because these truths, this knowledge, come out of these hiding places. The attempt to erase is constant and exists today. And today we live in a very difficult moment in the country when we see thoughts receding, becoming almost medieval in relation to so many things. But although it has this danger, we have survived for more than 4 centuries, and this is not going to be erased now. But we must always be vigilant. We need to document this for posterity. We have a strong tradition of oral history, that very African thing, which goes from generation to generation with stories that are being told. But we live in a culture of writing, we need to bring this also to the field of writing so that it enters the bloodstream of Brazilian culture in a more effective way.

ATLANTICO – How is it possible for Brazilians to get in touch with their Afro-descendant heritage?

Eliana Alves Cruz – I think we have to start from the macro to come to the micro. First, we need to rescue Africa for our lives. At school, we studied everything from Europe and nothing from Africa. We don’t know what continent this is. We have a lot of stereotypes in our heads that are constantly promoted by the media. We already paid enough attention to the other side of the world.

“We already paid enough attention to the other side of the world”

Step number two is to look at our personal history. Try to know at least where our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents came from. Sometimes we just need a little piece of thread to find the whole clew, which is what happened to me. From the moment I went to my aunt and she gave me that little piece of thread, she gave me a region of Africa, and I went to study that region and so she gave me the whole clew. Studying that region of Africa, I understood the immigration movement here, I understood how slavery was here, and then I started to assemble and bring things together.

Every black family in Brazil was at some point enslaved. So I happened to know who enslaved us. And it was a family that related to mine until the early 2000s. I wondered where my grandmothers and great-grandmothers know these people from. I researched their origins, in notaries and in loco in the region that they descended from. With my own family documents, I saw ancestors with the same surname, so I understood.

ATLANTICO – How did this information impact you and your family?

Eliana Alves Cruz – When I started researching I felt that they were skeptical, but I kept doing it. At one point one of my aunts saw that things were serious and started to supply me with the material, share the family memories. My family received it with surprise, but they supported it, they were very moved. It is a work they are very proud of.

ATLANTICO – There is currently a great effort on the part of the Brazilian black movement to rescue the history of Brazil of African descent. This includes promoting writers who work on issues related to the topic. How do you see this movement?

Eliana Alves Cruz – I think it is very good. We have to try to remount this past because our whole future is a little intricate due to the gap that was left by this past counted only on one side. It is as if we wanted to cure a serious illness without proper medication. And this is not the way it is. So if we really want to have some perspective on the future we need to have this past very well explained in our head.

If we really want to have some perspective on the future we need to have this past very well explained in our head

ATLANTICO – And what other writers and books do you recommend to get to know Afro-Brazilian literature?

Eliana Alves Cruz – There are a lot of people. I recommend everything from Ney Lopes. Absolutely everything about him: there are about 40 books. But there is one in particular: “Bantos, malês e identidade negra”. I recommend one, which is a classic, called “Defeito de Cor”, by Ana Maria Gonçalves. But now speaking of novels, there are many incredible writers, such as Conceição Evaristo, Cidinha da Silva, with very essential works. Mirian Alves also, a very good novelist and poet from São Paulo. It has a website called literafro, from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, which has organized, in alphabetical order, all Brazilian black men and women authors, with profiles, biographical information, and their complete work. It’s there for whoever you want with a click. I wish in my time as a young teenager, to have something like this. I only got to know this Afro-Brazilian literature when I became an adult.

Photo: Eliana Alvez Cruz

ATLANTICO – How did understanding your origins and history influence your work after “Água de barrela”?

Eliana Alves Cruz – Throughout the writing of this book, I realized the entire gap that exists in relation to this: our personal, daily and family history. This is in relation to literature, taking from historiography, academia, in general. Then I realized that I could contribute a lot. I have this ability to transform academic research into literature. People are reading an academic paper and they don’t even realize it, for them, they’re just reading a story. This is the case of “O crime do cais Valongo”, which is a story that goes from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century, and has some characters who are here in Brazil and others in Africa. It has fantastic realism, a crime, so young people love it. I discovered that there is a vein there that is very little explored. I still have a lot to say, I have a lot to write. But that also doesn’t stop me from writing other contemporary things. It is just a literary project that is important to me and I think it is also relevant to our country.

Photo: Malê publishing house

ATLANTICO – Are you currently working on something?

Eliana Alves Cruz – Yes. In April I am going to release another historical novel called “Nada digo de ti, que em ti não veja”. When I wrote “O crime do cais do Valongo” it had a homosexual character and I did a research on homosexuality in Brasil Império. I thought that it would give a book but I didn’t want to put it in that one because it would lead to something else. As I am a very restless person, there is also a lot I want to do, as a sequence for “Água de Barrela”, a story that goes parallel to that one.