Roger Mellos tale ved IBBYs verdenskonference i Mexico 2014

Udgivet: 27. februar 2015


I want to connect myself with the visual narrators in this country, in all of these nations that constitute the culture of Mexico, Tenochtitlan, Mesoamerica, Yucatan, the nomadic people of the North, their texts, their visual poetry took me me through the “unfathomable”. The unfathomable is what impulses the  flow of narrative creation, what enables the free thinking of the reader. Mexicas, Mayas, Olmecs wove, painted, did diagrams and fed the world with their fictional imagery. In a time when it was not necessary to separate fiction from reality. The Borbonico Codex, the Zapotec calendar, ceramics, the writings, drawings telling stories in a narrative world-book of open images. I also refer to illustrators and other artists of contemporary Mexico. Only the free thinking reader can subvert the narrative ways.


La niña, el viajero y el libro.
A menina, o viajante e o livro.

The girl, the traveler and the book

“— I like the night. To get in the car and see things pass on the other side of the window. Like thoughts passing inside our heads – only much faster. ‘Over there, a police car! — my dad pointed —’We’d better take the Avenida das Nações.’ ‘Are we trying to escape from the police, dad? When did we begin to flee from the police?’ That night it was just supposed to be a quick ride. ‘It is a ride, daughter.’ It was not and there was a stack of books the same size as me on the left seat, not to mention that gust of wind coming in from the front window.

Clarice speaks, remembering that scene while glimpsing a red and white illustration under the shade. Then she turns to me. .

Clarice is thirsty. I know that look of asking for some water on her face very well

“Today THE city’s humidity is as low as IN the Sahara desert.”— she reads out loud from the paper.

MELLO3The lake in our city didn’t exist from the beginning. The river was filled up in such a hurry so that the newborn city would get a lake and not become as dry as it is today.

I figured in my head all that water filling the Paranoá River, flooding many wooden houses and the old Goyazes indigenous cemetery. There wasn’t even enough time to remove the trees from the bottom. Even today people drown trapped in the webs of the trees in the bottom. I always knew that those trapping webs at the bottom were the guts of a monster swallowing everything.


It wasn’t me who said the lake swallowed books, it was Clarice:
— It swallows people too.

Water and books now seem to be part of the same crazy world…

— Do you think the lake also swallowed my dad?  — she kept speaking while drawing a lake made out of bones and pages — You knew my dad worked for y.o.u. k.n.o.w. w.h.o.?

— For who, Clarice?

— For y.o.u. k.n.o.w. w.h.o.?.

— Got it. And y.o.u. k.n.o.w. w.h.o. were the same ones who had the power to make people and books fade away, weren’t they? Remember that relative of mine who disappeared? What was her name?

Clarice asked me not to say it, the name of that relative who used to hide all that books.
—Why not, Clarice?

She was afraid to learn the name and repeat it loud: “Zilah”, in the midst of her dreams, “Zilah”.

— You know, my dad can hear it.

MELLO5I did know Clarice’s dad worked for y.o.u. k.n.o.w. w.h.o. He used to separate and cut scenes from movies that were not supposed to be seen by people. Why didn’t he wear a uniform like you know who? I might have seen one picture of him wearing uniform, I don’t know, maybe not.

— Did he really watch all those movies, Clarice? So wasn’t he the most y.o.u. k.n.o.w. w.h.o. of them all?

At he beginning he must have hated those movies so much that it was really a pleasure get rid of the scenes. But he spent so much time watching them, can you imagine? I bet he was getting more and more involved with forbidden stuff in such a way that… in such a way that… At the end he kept hidden movies as well as books.
—Did I mention I saw a stack of books the same size as me next to me in the car once?

— Yeah, you’ve just told me.

— He also had to disappear, isn’t it ? Maybe the lake?

She has that scary looks right now on her face.

But it is less scary than water-swallowing books.”

To tell the truth, nobody in my family worked for y.o.u. k.n.o.w. w.h.o. or wore a uniform, but the father of the character in my book, Clarice’s dad, did.

Clarice took away that piece of my own memory to exist as a character. She stole it from me. But I also stole it, from worried whispered conversations here and there.

Clarice and I have another thing in common: we were both children growing up in Brasília during those years. Brasília, conceived by utopians with modern thoughts. The project of Brasilia foresaw an egalitarian city with democratic access to education, basic needs, arts and thought. But it is a planned city. All planned architecture can end up imposing limits on its future inhabitants. Another Clarice, the author Clarice Lispector wrote: “Brasilia is built on the horizon. Brasilia is artificial. As artificial as it should have been when the world was created. When the world was created, it was necessary to create a man especially for that world.”




Brasilia was created by visual thinkers, artists, architects, urbanists and educators who were stimulated by the possibility of a project, drawing and redrawing their ideas with a marker pen before coming to a model.  It was a dialogue between art and thought. The military government from the 1960s to the early 1980s took power and declared the so-called institutional acts, such as the AI-5, which turned the primary forecast into “architecture of exclusion”. The military isolated the ideas of the designers of the city, restricted freedom of thought, confiscated books, suppressed the study of philosophy in the Elementary Schools and Universities. The reading of our generation was affected by this absence of  “forbidden literature”. People were arrested, tortured, people disappeared just because of possessing “that” book. But the ideas of the designers of the city were still there – in silence, the images, the curved diagrams of the streets and neighborhoods, in the wall art, schools, parks, gardens.

We grew up realizing that books might be really powerful since people could disappear because of them.

We learned to read through the coded visual works of art, we turned ourselves into image readers.

Reading in the silence.

MELLO4In 1980s the whole generation of late counterculture in Brasilia, including some national rock bands, the composer Renato Russo, were people deprived of books who ran to read Huxley. We first got to the Brave New World of Huxley before reaching the Brave New World that Shakespeare’s Miranda spoke about in The Tempest.

I was always reading plays, books, comics.

To draw was to think with the ballpoint pen.

In my book Mangrove Kids (Meninos do Mangue) the protagonist is the mangrove itself. I learned from Hans Christian Andersen that the landscape can be the protagonist in a conflict leading other characters to a boundary situation between reality and fiction. The first mangrove I met started at the back of my uncle’s house. Mangroves are nurseries without which all sea life ends, but giant coastal cities have turned them into immense waste deposits.

In 2000 the director Adolfo Lachtermacher invited me to Recife to film the documentary The Crab Cycle, based on the work of Josué de Castro.  I did the art direction, along with Graca Lima. I watched the children that were there. They walked among the mangrove roots like clusters of little fish do, protecting themselves from the madness of adults, who were often stunned because of their drinking and lack of work.

The crab is the first toy for any kid brought up in the mangrove, it’s his joke-work, his simulacrum. But I tried not to immerse myself into an ecological or child-labor denunciation aspect. I was interested in a more human mangrove, the people’s day-to-day lives in there. But how to talk about it without making any narrative-complaint? Observing the trash among the roots was my way to make narrative out of images. And I started to stick pieces of plastic on paper.

Our town was far from the mangrove, 2,000 kilometers. Alongside the highway, the steaming mud houses resembled modern architecture. It was on our way back home that I saw the charcoal kilns for the first time.

— Are those houses?

— Fire houses, son — my father said.

In my book: Young Charcoal Burners (Carvoeirinhos), the narrator is a hornet who changes his point of view to confront the issues of child labor and slave labor. Looking at these issues with horror, and seeing the absolute absurdity of them, could prevent us from seeing the actual boy. In this case, the observer is an animal, who doesn’t even understand what a human is. In that way, maybe we can look without any preconceived ideas.

In Brazil, human kind is still touched by nature.

There is still child labor and slave labor; the ecosystem is being destroyed by the production of some commodities, such as pig iron, in Brazil. Some people keep saying that these issues are not children’s stuff, but if a child participates in these activities, then it is a child’s subject. The images of the facts speak for themselves.

I have to connect with these places and people. Children from different places in the world should be able to identify a house like their own at least once in order that their surroundings may also take part in fairy tales, since not every house in the world has a chimney. I need to be caught by things that some people consider non-commercial or “difficult” or too regional.  I confess, I am really not worried if books are going to sell or not, I work with books and plays because there is nothing else I can do.

My fictional universe mainly relates to people outside the economical or unstoppable chain of development. Likewise, I’m interested in species that decline before becoming known in a country known for its abundance. In such a political context of accelerating economical growth, perhaps there is no room for this subtlety of life.

Life can get really subtle sometimes, just think of the smallest existing species of anteater, the tamanduaí. He inhabits the unreachable parts of the tallest trees and does not seem to have any function beyond simply existing. And thinking. Animals think with their eyes and whole bodies. Maybe if tamanduaí appears as a character in a book, children will get to know him better. Fiction’s voice allows it. With out this voice, nobody will hear them.

A highway separates a family of golden lion tamarins in Poço das Antas nature reserve. What chance do they have? Roads need to be built, don’t they? To transport pig iron and other things, or to transport people.

I always avoid transforming pure artistic flow in denunciation-focused art; art cannot be guided by anything but freedom of ideas. I don’t want to teach anything. But fictional images in a country that has the largest number of murders of environmental activists might constitute effective activism, too.

The increase in new developmentalism can turn the world into a less challenging place. Creating a world where pragmatism swallows the fiction and the ideas as that lake swallowed books.

You can find a TV in every corner of our country; many people are passionate about television dramas in Brazil. And the companies advertise all unnecessary stuff during commercial time, pushing away free-thinking. Books almost never appear in Brazilian soap operas. Brazilian soap operas mainly show the urban upper-class lifestyle, and life in the suburbs always seem chaotic and full of overacting characters, as well as giving a stereotyped image of the inner cities. It’s not a coincidence that almost everyone wants to live in big cities. Narrative images in books can make a change, and they actually do, and we can see what happens to many successful initiatives when we travel around Brazil. Books encourage tolerance by accepting the difference without preconceived ideas or hate, without judging, and through the dialogue with the other. It would be much easier to get to this Utopia through books rather than lowing the age at which teenagers can get arrested.

There is a talk of saturated colors from South America.  I’ve learned that not every color is a ‘carnivalization’. Blood is a saturated red that after drying turns black; Ives Klein’s blue cobalt, Rothko’s blue is the same mineral blue found in the narrative art of the Jequitinhonha Valley. Not all artists in the Southern Hemisphere over-do colors. The color itself means nothing. But color is the interaction with the present, with the now.

And only the present allows a dialogue with memory.
I would like to address these words to all the artists who have had their names suppressed because of the use of an ethnocentric moniker that diminishes them: folk art, naive, spontaneous art. Moreover, I really wish that we never hear these belittling denominations anymore.

Once somebody asked me:
—How might we call these artists then?
— How about calling them by their own names? — I said: — Noemisa, Galdino, Nino, Adriano. Their imagery shows an individual fiction, their inner world, their own solitude, their pain.

Children and young adult books incorporate pain. There is no private or separate world for children and adults; despair and pain do not respect age groups. Nor does war.

That fact, which I hold to be true, is revealed also in another book I made: Zubair and the Labyrinths (Zubair e os Labirintos), about the bombing of Baghdad in 2003 during the Iraq war. Actually it consists of two books, one read from the left to the right, almost with the rhythm of a video game, and shaped like a stand-up divider; the other is a book the boy finds inside the first book, read from right to left. It is a dialogue between the two forms of reading. It’s a dialogue between an imaginary world in the past and a written world of today. The architecture of the paper seeks to be as narrative as the illustrations and words.

I once said that I have a notebook to draw and a sketch book to write. Designing dummies allow me to travel into the book. Travel books are my companions either when I am travelling or not. I might do it in a mangrove, at the desert, on Nami Island, Korea, in Munchen, in Azumino, in Teheran, in Wild Australasia or in a library.

I could only finish the plot of John, by a Hair’s Breadth (João por um fio), after I had been to the floating islands of Uros on Lake Titicaca. A boy left alone to sleep, under the web of his bedspread. Facing the challenge of passing the night under his blanket that seems to be as big as the whole world. Even though some lullabies and being left all alone at night seems scary, this is the moment when the mother or father give the child one of the most valuable gifts: courage.

In Contradance, a girl wants to be a ballerina, just like her mother who died not too long ago. In order to illustrate this book, I made a putty doll of the girl and sewed an organdy skirt for her. The transposition of the three-dimensional into two-dimensional photos in black and white, gave me a better understanding of the dimensions of the girl. It’s strange, some scientists say that the world is really two-dimensional and the idea of depth is an illusion. Fiction not always far apart from science…

Some images get larger than us, don’t they? Like those Carybé drawings in that book (datashow with some Carybé’s illustrations)

— do you remember? Or the illustrations of that other book that scared me. Later my brother Marcelo said he was afraid of the same drawings. Sandra: Marcelo, you and I shared the same fear and fascination for those illustrations, do you remember? Sandra, I now understand what you use to say: it’s true that in that planned city of ours, the trees and the buildings grew at the same time that we were growing up. So it seems that we are the same size despite the passage of time. Or maybe it was the town that got smaller and smaller. While writing this, I had a recollection of me and you beneath the corner of the blanket, looking like a giant caterpillar with two heads, as you were reading one of Andersen’s books to me.

Alle illustrationer er af Roger Mello.