Writers & Company

Brazilian novelist Julián Fuks on exile, identity and dictatorship

The acclaimed author spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about his award-winning novel Resistance and the illusory nature of national identity.
Julián Fuks is an Brazilian-Argentine novelist. (Rolex/Tomas Bertelsen, Charco Press)
Listen to the full episode53:31

Julián Fuks has captured widespread attention with his first book in English, Resistance

Praised for its intensity and tightly crafted prose, the novel has won awards internationally and in Brazil, including the José Saramago Literary Prize, Germany's Anna Seghers Prize and the Jabuti Award for Best Novel, Brazil's most important literary honour. In November 2019, Resistance won the Jabuti Award for Best Foreign Edition.

A blend of fiction and autobiography, Resistance explores Fuks's family history of displacement and how it shaped his own sense of identity. His parents — both psychoanalysts — were forced to flee to Brazil from Argentina during the military dictatorship in the late 1970s. Born in São Paulo in 1981, Fuks grew up with a foot in each culture, and questions of belonging, nationality and family bonds are central preoccupations of his work. 

Fuks spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from São Paulo.  

Migration patterns

"The very idea of migration is hard to define. People have been migrating since the beginning of human history. So it's hard to say where my own family's history with migration actually started. 

"It likely started in Germany and then later in Romania, where my grandparents were born. My father's parents had to flee Romania because of anti-Semitism around the 1920s. They fled to Argentina and they assimilated into the local Jewish community, who tended to help each other.

The very idea of migration is hard to define. People have been migrating since the beginning of human history.- Julián Fuks

"My mother's family has deep roots in Latin America. At some point, I don't know exactly when, they came from Italy to Peru. There are many anecdotes about them being related to aristocratic families in that country. When my mother was three years old, her own mother married an Argentinian farmer. They moved from Lima to a farm in northern Argentina. So my parents came from different worlds."

Entering exile

"My parents were forced into exile in the late 1970s during the time of Argentina's brutal military dictatorship. There were many forms of repression in that moment. My father's place of work was invaded and destroyed by the military. They were intimidating him and trying to find something that would incriminate him.

My parents were forced into exile in the late 1970s during the time of Argentina's brutal military dictatorship.- Julián Fuks

"My father was living in many different places so that he wouldn't be caught by the military. At the same time, my mother worked in a hospital and her boss was kidnapped by the regime and disappeared for two months. Before that, one of her colleagues and close friend, disappeared and she wasn't found.

"When her boss did return, he revealed that he had been tortured. He called my parents and told them they were at risk and had to leave the country. They gathered what they could at that point and left by car to Uruguay. There, they got a plane to São Paulo.

"Although they were exiles, they adapted well to Brazil. We had a community of Argentineans here as well. Our past lives in Argentina wasn't something that was talked about. But every now and then it was possible to talk about something that reminded them of Argentina — what they had lost and people that had stayed there."

Reynaldo Bignone, right, is seen with former Argentine dictator Jorge Videla at a 2012 court proceeding where both were subsequently jailed for the systematic theft of babies from political prisoners during the 1976-1982 "Dirty War" dictatorship. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)

Being Brazilian

"I felt Brazilian from the beginning. I was born here. My friends were all here. I had sort of a family here. When my parents decided to go back to Argentina, it wasn't something that we discussed. I was only six then.

"It was something that seemed arbitrary to me. I thought that I was being taken from my place and from my country to another place that wasn't mine and to a country that wasn't mine. So it was some sort of an exile for me — not a political exile, but an intimate exile."

Facing identity

"Nationality is not something we can identify just by looking at faces. Sometimes we think about identity — including national identity — as something strict, as if we could belong to one place or another. 

There's a fluidity to the idea of identity. As a result, the idea of nationality doesn't make much sense when you really think about it.- Julián Fuks

"But just by looking at people's faces, I realize that there's nothing to see there. They are just people. We are all very much alike, anywhere and everywhere you look. 

"There's a fluidity to the idea of identity. As a result, the idea of nationality doesn't make much sense when you really think about it."

Brazil's new President Jair Bolsonaro gestures after receiving the presidential sash from outgoing President Michel Temer at the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil January 1, 2019. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

Resistance movement

"Brazil hasn't dealt with its memory of its own authoritarian decades. There was the end of the Brazilian dictatorship, which came with this fantasy of reconciliation inside the country. There was amnesty and forgiveness for the militants but also for the military. In effect, no one judged any crimes committed by the government. There wasn't any sort of commission to understand what happened — including the crime, the torture and the disappearances.

Resistance often refers to something that the narrator in the book can't face.- Julián Fuks

"But books have become a symbol of resistance in the country. This was something very surprising that happened during the recent elections. The resistance against Jair Bolsonaro was done with books. Many people went to vote carrying books. It was something that intended to counteract Bolsonaro's far-right message. 

"I didn't want the book's title, Resistanceto be a political statement. I am talking about the resistance against the military, of course. But I am also talking about other forms of resistance that are often taken in a negative way. Resistance often refers to something that the narrator in the book can't face. 

"I was looking at the idea of resistance in a very ambiguous way. Perhaps the idea was that literature could bring us from this very negative way of resisting, to a very positive one. Literature could be the guide in between these two forms of resistance."

Julián Fuks's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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