This is the first of two segments featuring Marcia Tiburi. The following interview is an introduction to her life as a writer, scholar, and activist. For the second segment, read the English-translated excerpt of her philosophical treatise How to Talk to Fascists.
In the final weeks of her residency at City of Asylum, Brazilian writer Marcia Tiburi sat down with Sampsonia Way to share her story of exile and to talk about her activism and writing. As a public intellectual in Brazil, she is popular for her pro-democracy and pro-feminist work and is well known for her prescient voice of warning against the rise of far-right authoritarianism and fascism — which proved all too accurate with Jair Bolsonaro’s recent rise to power.
In the last few years, she found herself under a steady threat of violence as far-right actors associated with Bolsonaro’s Free Brazil Movement (BLM) organized to disrupt her public appearances. Since the tragic assassination of her friend Marielle Franco, the feminist Rio de Janeiro city council member, and Tiburi’s failed campaign for governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, she has received more than 200 death threats, with much of the danger cultivated by politically motivated social media campaigns. Her life in Brazil became so dangerous that she began traveling in bulletproof cars with private security. From this dire situation, Tiburi found relief in City of Asylum’s three-month writer-in-residency program, leaving Brazil for the first time in her life. Today, as she continues her exile, she’s not certain when or if she’ll be able to return.
Tiburi is a novelist, poet, visual artist, philosopher, and teacher. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and her post-doctorate degree in art from the Institute of Arts at the University of Campinas. Her graduate research focused on German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, whose critical theory of society ties directly to her interest in the dangers of fascism. She has more than 30 publications in Portuguese, ranging from novels to scholarly and philosophical essays. Her books How to Talk to a Fascist and Delirium of Power have a wide readership in Brazil for their stances against authoritarianism.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Tiburi before she left Pittsburgh to join her husband in Paris. Over a cup of coffee at Brugge on North, she told Sampsonia Way about her novels in progress, the paradoxical nature of fascism, and Bolsonaro’s similarities to President Donald Trump.
I. The Inspiration of Gertrude Stein
When we met earlier, you mentioned that coming to Pittsburgh was the first time you had ever left Brazil. Can we begin by talking a little about how you came to City of Asylum and the writing you’ve been doing here?
There are a lot of political questions in Brazil, and when I arrived in December, I had the idea to write a novel about the last events in my former life. Since I have arrived here, this project has changed a lot because I found that there is a universe here, a world so interesting and different than I had imagined. And since then, new projects have emerged.
When I was writing about myself and my problems in Brazil — as a writer, as a philosopher, as a teacher of philosophy, as a professor — I was remembering the story of “Jonah and the Whale.” I am alone in this great big house, and I feel all the time like Jonah inside the whale. The space of the house is as important as the space of the street, of the neighborhood, of the city. My house on Sampsonia Way helps me to tell the story about the experience of me, an estranged woman writer from Brazil.
But I have these two books I’ve been writing in my time here. One is the Book of Loneliness, which is about my experience of what it’s like to be alone, and the other book is an autobiography in a dialogue with Gertrude Stein. And it’s a very nice coincidence to live in this neighborhood where the childhood house of Gertrude Stein is so nearby! It’s a literary coincidence that interests me because I would like to write a novel similar to The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. I am tentatively calling my book The Autobiography of Angelina Savoia. This is a novel in which I tell the motivation of my departure from Brazil and how and why I came here. I have two characters who are inspired by my own life. One is Angelina who is a professor of philosophy and she is a victim of fake news. The other character Marcia — my name — is an artist who lives in Paris. As Gertrude Stein used Alice B Toklas as the narrator of a true story, I used aspects of my real life.
II. A Question of Madness
And what can you share about the political environment in Brazil?
This is a great question because Brazil is experiencing a rise in fascism. This is the great problem in our country. I think it’s very interesting to compare Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, our presidents. Trump and Bolsonaro are curious people. Their speech has a lot of marks of fascism: the prejudice against blacks, LGBTQ+, women and the xenophobia. This attitude is very difficult to understand because our countries are created and founded by a diversity of people from all around the world. Why do Trump and Bolsonaro think this way? This way of thinking is very scary for us in Brazil and for you in the United States. From my point of view, Bolsonaro is worse than Trump. He is worse, but it’s not a question of quality. It’s a question of madness. What is the level of madness of this person?
This political environment touches all of us. And in my case I was — I am — an activist, feminist, professor, public intellectual in Brazil. I have a lot of books. I give public speeches all the time about the questions of my country. In this month, for example, the news about my departure from Brazil is in question because one journalist wrote about it, and there are conversations about why Marcia Tiburi left Brazil. This is an important question because other people have also left as I did. Before me, the deputee Jean Wyllys left Brazil and he is now living in Berlin. He and I have left, and there are other professors who have left and are now living in other cities such as New York. People are leaving Brazil because it’s impossible to live with threats and persecution. My work as a writer who travels around the country to talk about my books is impossible because of so many threats.
Bolsonaro promised to kill all of us: the feminists, the opposition, the reds, the people who are called “communists.” But we don’t know about communism or promote any form of communism. We are only people in favor of democracy who talk about human rights! This is the environment. This is the current mentality in Brazil. Bolsonaro has many people who reproduce his hate speech against minorities and against people like me. It’s as if his hate speech has allowed everyone to hate.
I know you’ve talked about how it was unsafe for you to leave your house and walk on the street alone — is this correct?
Yes, it was impossible to walk on the streets, to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy or a restaurant. I was inside my home like it was a prison.
But we don’t have our home anymore and my husband lives at a different address. We had some measures of protection but it was impossible for me to stay. I am very well-known because I am a very public person. After the campaign of the fascist movement in Brazil — a movement called Free Brazil — I became very well-known and hated. This movement has created a lot of bad situations for me in the last year: fake news, invasions of my events and lectures. They are spreading it through all of the country. If I’m in the north or the south, they are waiting to harass me. And then sometimes there is fighting, people fighting inside places where I’m supposed to give literary lectures. Can you imagine the people here in City of Asylum sitting and suddenly fighting with each other? It’s impossible. I have had a lot of very very dangerous situations, and I have personal guards with me all the time. Sometimes even a bullet-proof car.
Before leaving the country, in the city of Maringá in the south of Brazil, I had a very difficult situation during my last literary reading. I was scheduled to speak for a literary fair, and it turned into a very dangerous moment because this Free Brazil Movement organized its followers and promised to harm me. The event organizers had to provide armed security guards with guns, and everyone who attended the reading had to have their bags checked. This was impossible to support, to understand, to live with. At the time, I thought that I would need to move from my country.
III. A Great Perplexity
Can you talk a bit about your 2015 book How to Talk to Fascists, which we’re lucky enough to excerpt in the magazine. I know you’ve talked about how part of the project of the book is to explore how multi-layered fascism can be. How would you describe fascism as you’ve portrayed it in the book?
There are two kinds of fascism. One is proto fascism, the potential fascism. This is the fascism inside society, inside culture, in prejudices, in the difficulties for people to relate to or have a relationship with other people. To understand the difference, to understand the Other. And the other is the fascism of the state, as a way of governing. And we have and have had the fascism of state in human history with Hitler and Mussolini.
But I am very interested in the theme of my book: the fascism in daily life — the fascism of families, the fascism of people who don’t practice any kind of reflection about society. These are people that have hate against all: against blacks, against women, against feminists, against human rights, against democracy. And sometimes these people don’t understand that this hate is hate against themselves. And I think here in the United States poor people are sometimes fighting against themselves.
In Brazil, this is the case when you see the homophobic speech of Bolsonaro and the people who are victims of homophobia voting for him. The same occurs with poor people and women. You can understand this contradiction. There are prejudices in this society, but fascism is the moment when one person or a group of people become agents of any kind of hate against the “Other.” The fascism in Brazil is growing day by day. If you pay attention in Brazil, in the press, in the daily noticiary, you will see hate for all. Hate all the time for all the people. And it’s terrible because people are fighting each other all the time, in social networks and in the streets, inside the home, inside of families.
After How to Talk to a Fascist, I published a book in 2017 called Political Ridiculous.It’s about the relationship between the politics and the manipulation of the mentality and the sensibility. For example, Trump and Bolsonaro seem to be joking. They act like they’re kind of stupid people, but they’re promoting themselves with this pathetic way of being. It seems like a joke, but it is not. Many people are charmed because there is something popular in what they say. People feel close to them by affinity. It’s ridiculous that these kinds of events and speeches — that have shamed us — happen, and yet, people are laughing about a very serious prejudice. This is a very great question in my book. Why are people able to laugh?
I remember before Trump was elected, people would laugh at his speeches and think, he’s crazy, he’ll never be elected. This is why it’s so dangerous!
Yes, this is dangerous because this is a method to captivate the public opinion. Right now, I have a new book in Brazil named Delirium of Power. It is about this madness, the psycho power and the collective madness in a time of disinformation. In Brazil, this is intense and people run the risk to fall into madness, complete madness. In the last few days our president made a great speech of madness. There is one group in Brazil trying to require a psychiatric exam of sanity for him because he seems like a crazy man! This is terrible but it is so unbelievable that we are perplexed. All of us.
IV. A Rise in Academic Censorship
I’m curious to know — I know you also teach — can you talk a little bit about that, being a professor in Brazil and your students?
I had been a professor for all my life. I stayed in the university from when I was 25 until one year ago. I loved to teach, to be with my students. But nowadays professors are being persecuted. Do you know the expression “witch hunt?” We have this witch hunt in Brazil now. It’s very difficult to stay in the university without persecution. In the public universities we now have a very right-wing perspective. The extreme right-wing in Brazil has a project of law called “School Without a Party.” It is very dangerous because it is a form of censorship against professors. For example, in Brazil beginning about three years ago, we had witch hunts against the word “gender.”
Yes, gender. Can you imagine this if you were a contemporary professor — in sociology, philosophy, biology — speaking about gender all the time. Gender is the question! In Brazil it is the devil to be speaking about gender. And I have a lot of books about gender. And sorry, but this is my class and I need to speak with my students about these matters. It’s terrible. Can you imagine if this becomes a law? What will a professor teach about? The term gender is out, is erased from projects, from the laws, the governmental documents in Brazil. This is a scandal! And now, for example, if you speak about Marx, Nietzsche or other critical thinkers — if this project becomes a law — you can’t say the name “Marx” in schools. It’s ridiculous. Yeah, this is my country. I’m very worried about all of this — everything in Brazil nowadays is a problem.
V. Violence Against Violence
Do you want to talk about your involvement in the Workers’ Party and your candidacy for governor? How did that come to be?
Before I was not a political woman in the sense of a party. I was an activist, a professor, a public intellectual, a writer, until I had this invitation to be a candidate. It was impossible to say no because of our situation in Brazil. The Workers’ Party had the hope that the renovation of the people in the party would be good for our future. I had the support of our ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva who became a friend of mine in this very difficult situation. A dangerous group of candidates were running for election. And now it’s terrible because the most fascist man of the group of candidates, who disputed elections in Rio de Janeiro, had also promised to kill people if they were suspected to be criminals. And in Brazil — I think it’s the same in America — we have different words to kill people. For example if you kill a man, it’s different from killing an animal. However, this candidate used the expression abater, which is used to kill a cow, to kill a dog — to kill animals.
And Rio de Janeiro is a city with a lot of security problems, but the insecurity is an effect of inequality. The hate speech erased this question. The winning candidate talked about the solution of security with force and violence. From the beginning of the year until now we have a lot of deaths in favelas promoted by agents of state. The sources and the fundamentals of violence are the inequality, but the governor doesn’t talk about that question. This is a common, very general speech: against violence you can use more violence. From a democratic point of view, you need to face the violence and insecurity with school projects for the society, with a good economy, with work for all the people. It’s impossible to solve the problems of a great city, of a great country — as Brazil is — by having these stupid positions of violence against violence.
Can we talk now a bit about Marielle Franco? Because I know she served as an advocate and a voice for a lot of the struggling people of Rio de Janeiro.
Yes, and Marielle was killed one year ago on March 14th. She was very young. She was only 38 years old when she was killed. She was the most-voted councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro. She wanted to be senator, and I think she would have had a brilliant future. She was a prominent human rights activist against racism and the genocide of the black population in Rio de Janeiro and other major cities in Brazil. And who killed Marielle? This is a question to this day in Brazil. People related to militiamen and politicians probably killed Marielle. When she was killed, crowds went to the streets. I don’t know if you saw on TV here, but Brazil was overwhelmed by this. All the poor people — but especially women, poor women, feminists and young black men and women — went to the streets because Marielle represents a lot of people. She was intelligent, beautiful, generous, and honest — and she was killed with shots in her head. When she was leaving a feminist event with other black feminists, she entered a car. She got shot four times. And Anderson — he was her driver — got another four shots.
VI. Hope: Beyond the Robotic
What do you anticipate for the future of Brazil and do you see yourself ever returning home?
In these political conditions, it is impossible for me to return to Brazil. But I have hope that the stupidity of the current politics there will implode. I think it’s possible. They are so stupid, but they also try to appear stupid, and I think this is their strategy. Then you can, on the one hand, understand the stupidity as a method — and on the other hand, understand it as only stupidity. But there is a kind of stupidity that is used as a sign. And I think we need to understand this scenario, this sign — what they shout to us.
I think it is necessary to have hope to maintain the fight against this injustice. I think there is an industry of guns and capitalism that is not just a political regime, but a regime of the mind. People are cold. People are cold. People become cold. People become full of prejudice and depression — depressed because you need to be a robot, a slave: work, work, work. And you don’t have time to yourself and your interests, to develop yourself as a human being with potential. I think we need to understand how people become robots. My field of research is in understanding this subjectivity, the inner life, the mentality, the sensibility. How people feel about themselves, about daily life, about being a human being in this world. I think this is a question that we need to return to. What are we doing in this world, in this society? What are our goals? What do we intend to do? What do we want? What are our desires? What do we need in this situation? What will my country come to? How has brazil become this fascist country? These are my questions. I want in my life — I’m hoping — to find this answer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.