Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A day in the City Of God


I’m on the roof of my hotel just beside Copacabana beach and I cannot begin to describe the beauty of what I see.

The curve of the bay, the gold of the sands, the intense green of the forest clinging to the slopes of the hills. The gentle warmth of the dawn of an early autumn day…

There’s such a contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the ugliness of the human constructions all around. The apartment blocks that look shabby and faded, the slums in the distance clinging precariously to the slopes of the hills. The massive road tunnel just beside us through which the traffic roars day and night.

And I try to make sense of the previous day’s journey 

A journey through the darkness of tunnels and the blinding light of day. The journey that began in the wealth of the hotel hobby, took its way past the football stadium and the sambadrome, these amazing monuments to popular creativity, briefly into the massive slum of Rocinha, and then immediately afterwards past the wealth of the golf club and the jockey club and the beach side and lagoon side apartments. Past the biggest shopping centre in Latin America and the Olympic Village, which both seem like grotesque misappropriations of public resources in the context of the traffic clogged highway and the potholes of the side roads.

It feels like a journey through the vilest extremes of extremes of wealth and poverty, a journey that encapsulates the grotesque injustices of our world, the misuse of its resources, its ecological damages and utter unsustainability.

And then eventually we reach the City of God.

This community that began with such good intentions, such hope, to rescue victims of a catastrophic landslide and flood, and which then so quickly became a symbol of drug dealing, squalor and brutal violence.

That became so notorious in the novel, and even more notorious in the film. 

But none of this is at all in evidence in the community centre where we are taken. Where there is such a good feeling of relaxation and well being. Of people coming together to eat together, and talk, and gossip and simply take pleasure in being together.

I meet my translator, who is fielding a phone call from his mother-in-law who is anxious at his being in such an infamous and violent district, and all around me is visible evidence of a community doing all it can to reinvent itself. To explore its own history, create its own art, and overcome the legacy of a time of capitalism at its most brutal and shocking in its lawless injustice.

Meantime a samba group begins drumming. A group of all ages, young and old, and I can’t take my eyes off a beautiful old lady drumming, drumming with all her strength, drumming with the profoundest intensity of joyful concentration. And behind her, keeping perfect time, a dignified and beautiful old gentleman in his moustache.

And we’re all eating feijoada, and I so wish I could describe it better, and a rapper begins his performance with a luminous presence and virtuosity. And then group of poets take the stage, and among them a fierce a beautiful young woman who is passionately telling us that in this world which men have always dominated it is time women’s stories were told.

And then it’s my turn, and everyone goes inside, and the room is full to bursting, and it’s my turn. My turn to speak. And I don’t quite understand why there should be such an interest in me, it all moves me so profoundly, but here I am, and this is maybe something of what I say:

“I’m so moved you have invited me here to tell something of my story, my story as a trans woman and a writer.

It’s true my story matters, and so does yours. I feel I am in a room full of stories. Stories of inviduals, stories of a community struggling against injustice to create a fully human life.

We all have a story to tell. A story made up of the genetic inheritance from our parents and grandparents, from what happened to us when were children and what happened to us as we grew up and what happens to us now as we struggle to live in this unjust and suffering world.

We are the only ones who can tell our story, us and no-one else, and we have a duty to tell it because the world needs to hear it.

And perhaps like me we tell it through words, but there are so many other ways that matter as much. That we tell it through samba, tell it through the drums or through our dancing. Tell it through song or cooking feijoada or cleaning the floor. Through the way we bring up our children and how we look and smile at one another.

It has been hard for me, as a trans woman, to learn to tell my story because it felt as if the whole weight and power of the world was against me, the world was trying to prevent me telling it with all its force and strength. Prevent me through imbuing me with the profoundest fear and shame.

And so I am proud to be able to stand here before you.

And now as I get older I begin to understand that this is not just my struggle but a struggle that all of us must face. Because all of us have been denied access to our true selves.

All of us have been denied access to our stories and the power of our voice and it matters that we find it because that is the way we will change the world.”

And then I performed some of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN, the blessing and the story that ends with the words:

“We all have a light inside us and sometimes it’s the very thing we’ve been taught to be most ashamed of.

And if you have a light, do you hide it in a closet?

No. You bring it out into the open where everyone can see it and be glad it exists to shine in the world.”

And I have to say I have never had so attentive or respectful an audience.

Renata Carvalho was there, the beautiful trans actress who will play Queen Jesus in the Brazilian production of the play. And she spoke with passion and eloquence of the misunderstandings we face, and I heard her identify me as a “mulher lesbica”, a Lesbian woman, and that made me feel proud.

And then there were more speeches, and a raffle where the prizes were books. Because, among so much else, this event was about a community reinventing itself through writing.

And then there bread rolls and coffee and cakes and I did an interview, and everyone seemed to want to have their photo taken with me, and embrace after embrace after embrace, and then the bus back to the hotel and me so tired I could not even begin to speak. And Renata holding my hand with such gentle kind tenderness.

And then we were back in the hotel lobby whose wealth seemed even more than usually obscene.

Later that night we went out for a mediocre and overpriced meal. We were just by the beach, just by Copacabana beach, and we wanted to walk on it.

But Renata said no, it was too dangerous. Renata the survivor, Renata the warrior… and we looked around and suddenly saw that the entrance to all the apartment buildings was guarded by thick metal bars.

Bars excluding the poor, and bars imprisoning the apartments’ inhabitants.

And the pavement was ugly and cracked and grey and covered with plastic bags and rubbish and there was a woman hoarsely and furiously screaming abuse at a man who walked past us trying to keep his face closed to it.

And we walked on, like everyone else trying to pretend we were seeing nothing and hearing nothing.

And then the police appeared with their guns and their clubs.

And we walked on.

And now as I think of all this the sun is just rising. And high on the hill above us stands Christ the Redeemer with his arms outstretched. Helpless in the face of such injustice. Helpless in his failure.


But in the end we cannot blame Him because it is us. Us struggling to create a better world; but us everywhere who have made hell out of paradise.


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