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An Interview with Ana Maria Machado

by Julie Kline

Photograph of Anna Maria Machado from Epitácio Pessoa/AE Ana Maria Machado has been one of the most well-regarded authors for children in Brazil for some 30 years, having published 96 books for children. Born in Rio de Janeiro, she began her professional life as a painter and later as a journalist, working for Elle magazine (Paris), the BBC (London), and as News Editor for Radio Jornal do Brasil for seven years. She began writing in 1969; in 1979, she opened the first children's bookstore in all of Brazil, called Malasartes.

Machado, like many in her generation of children's writers, continued the legacy of José Bento Monteiro Lobato (1882-1948), considered the first real writer of Brazilian children's literature. Like Lobato, these writers play with language, and with fantasy and humor. For example, in História meio ao contrario (1978), Machado turns the structure of fairy tales upside down, beginning her story with "and they lived happily ever after" and ending with "once upon a time." De olho nas penas (1981) which received the Casa de las Américas prize, epitomizes the search for Brazilian identity in children's literature. In the story, a boy born in exile in Chile (then moved from country to country after the coup), has a fantastic adventure in which he encounters the African, indigenous and European roots of his country of birth, all in a search to discover where he is from and where he belongs.

Ana Maria Machado was awarded the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, an international award for her contributions to the world of children's literature, in 2000.

This interview was conducted by Julie Kline in June 2000 to accompany the CCBC-Net discussion about the newest Hans Christian Andersen Medal winners (Archived discussion). It has been made available here with the kind permission of Julie Kline and Ana Maria Machado.

JK: How do you view your writing within the overall context of Brazilian children's literature?

AMM: I find it very difficult to respond to this question, because the way I see it may not be very objective. But, in any case, I can say with some exactitude that I'm part of a generation which began to write during the military dictatorship [note: 1964-85], when children's literature, poetry and song lyrics were among the few forms of literature that, by using language poetically and symbolically, managed to say something, insisting on the joy of living, individual freedom, and respect for all persons' rights. For that reason, it was a time when children's authors emerged who were publicly and critically successful-Lygia Bojunga, Ruth Rocha, Ziraldo, myself...But we didn't emerge from nothing-before us, in the 1920s until the 1940s, there was a great author, Monteiro Lobato, who became a classic.

As for the role I occupy today (according to the critiques in which I most recognize myself), it is that of an author who takes great care with the language and with the very structure of narrative, with the different voices of the characters. Besides that, I come from a very simple family-from a traditional rural experience. But since I studied, read and traveled a lot, I mixed this basic influence with a certain cosmopolitanism and intellectual sophistication-which ends up reflecting quite accurately Brazilian society which is full of such paradoxes.

JK: What do you try to convey? What motivates you to write for children?

AMM: I don't try to convey anything in particular. Maybe I just try to share a way of looking at the world and at life in general. A personal view that is full of dreams of a better place and better times, with more justice and freedom. My motivation for writing is my love for the language and for stories in general. I have always loved to read and listen to stories, so I just want to go on doing it and making it possible for other people to find more stories - the ones I write. I write for adults and for children with the same motivation - language. In writing for children, there is a fascinating challenge : working with a language that is very close to the spoken language of current everyday situations and, at the same time, making it blossom into something out of the ordinary, through a poetic or humorous way of using it.

JK: How widely has your work been translated? What languages/what countries?

AMM: Books of mine have been translated into Spanish (nearly 30 titles) - in Spain, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico. Also in German (Germany and Switzerland), French (France and Switzerland), Swedish (Sweden), Norwich (Norway), Danish (Denmark), Japanese (Japan), Basque (Spain), Dutch (the Netherlands), English (USA and England) and even in Portugal, because it is not easy for Portuguese children to read books written in Brazilian Portuguese, and publishers often prefer to have them rewritten locally.

JK: Do you think your work is universal or more specifically written with Brazilian children in mind?

AMM: I am not aware of having any particular children in mind when I write, but as I am Brazilian, it may well happen that my experience and my culture show in what I write. In some of the books, I am conscious that this can be a strong aspect. But, as a reader, I have always read and enjoyed books which had a rather strong regional or national background, and that fact didn't stop them from being universal at the same time. Also, I have been reading and discussing my books with children in different countries -- from Sweden to Angola, from the U.S. to Germany -- and they never seemed to find any difficulty with the stories due to the fact that I am Brazilian. But, as sometimes this kind of question is asked by adults in the States, I think it may well be that it is an issue American adults are concerned about.

JK: How accessible do you think your writing would be to children within the U.S. where so little of your work has appeared in translation to date?

AMM: I think it would be perfectly accessible to children in the U.S., if it were translated. I have read aloud some of my stories to school children in the States (in California, in West Virginia, in Wisconsin) , even in rough translations, and they have been perfectly accessible to them. I don't think American children are in any way inferior to children from all those countries where my writing has been accessible, and I am sure they would understand my books. Of course, some circumstances may be different from one culture to another -- but this is one of the main reasons for reading a good translation, for it gives us the chance of getting in touch with something that is different from us. A child in the U.S. may find it strange to read a Christmas story that takes place in full summer, or in a different environment, among different cultural situations. But when was nine, I read Mark Twain and although I had no idea what the Mississippi was like, I just loved Tom, Huck and Becky. And one year later, when I read Little Women, it was perfectly accessible to me. Why can't contemporary U.S children be treated like intelligent readers, fully capable of getting in touch with other cultures and literatures?

JK: Do you have any comments about the international exchange through translation of children's literature? Why has your work been recognized in some countries, but little known elsewhere (such as in the U.S.).

AMM: Personally, I've had some surprising experiences. A publisher in England once told me that he just loved my books, but they could never be published in the U.K. because I have a funny name, and no bookstore would ever carry a children's book by someone called something like Machado. In the U.S., among a few other answers, I had two very enthusiastic letters from two different editors, both from major publishing houses. One of them said that O Menino Pedro e seu Boi Voador was one of the best children's books he had ever read--well-written, funny, original, full of faith in the child's imagination, and would certainly appeal to children. But... it couldn't be published because it had "an awkward size," whatever that may mean. The other had read several books of mine in Spanish (also to her daughter, who loved them) and said she really enjoyed then and that: a) she would had loved to have read those books when she was a child b) she was sure every child in the U.S. deserves to have the chance to read that kind of book BUT unfortunately, she regretted to admit that it was impossible to publish any of them because they didn't fit in any series or existing market categories.

I think that the international exchange though the translation of children's books should be one of the most effective ways of promoting international understanding . When a child reads a books from a different country, she gets to know how different people can be so much alike, and what it means to be human, universal, and not only national. But unfortunately, I really don't think there's real exchange. Some markets are powerful and behave as if they could be self-sufficient -- but cultural self-sufficiency may be another name for cultural impoverishment. This is specially true in the English-speaking world, because of the huge economical and political weight of the U.S. and the U.K. Everywhere in the world, everybody learns English, tries to read English, translates books written in English. But seldom things happen the other way.

Related Links

Doce de Letra (Brazilian children's literature journal)

Fundação Nacional do Livro Infantil e Juvenil (Brazilian section of IBBY)

IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People)

Julie Kline is the Outreach and Academic Program Coordinator for the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

©2000 Julie Kline and Ana Maria Machado

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