Last fall I taught a hybrid course on Modern Brazil, in which I sought cover all of Brazil’s major regions. I assigned Nicholas Arons’ Waiting for Rain: the Politics and Poetry of Drought in Northeast Brazil, because of it examines many facets of life in this vast region. While the focus of the book is drought, Arons uses this theme to talk about all aspects of northeastern society, because he believes that drought is not only a natural phenomenon. If societies can be made either vulnerable or resilient to natural catastrophes, then a study of drought entails a rich description of society. The inequality of landholding, self-serving elites, and indifferent government, have all exacerbated the impact of drought in the region. The review that follows is shaped by not only my reading, but also the thoughts of my students.
Many students liked the fact that Arons described his own experiences during fieldwork, which were sometimes reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s prose. During the class discussion their was some concern about how these passages should be read. Could these events really have happened as he described them, or was this a stylized, gonzo journalism rendering of his experience? Most students agreed, however, that the levity of these stories lightened the tone of what would otherwise have been a bleak work. The absurdity of his personal stories also mirrored the ludicrousness of government efforts to fight the drought, which led to such outrages as water containment facilities for wealthy ranchers, and rain seeding experiments in northeastern skies. His stories also evoked a sense of compassion for the ordinary people living in the region.
My students also liked the manner in which Arons used poetry as a vehicle to explore the popular culture of the Northeast. They were particularly interested in the work of Patativa and other great Brazilian folk singers and poets, as an example of how information and traditions can be conveyed in rural areas that are largely illiterate. Given that people in the Northeast often live at vast distances from the next town in the interior, these poetic traditions create a sense of community. One of my students noted that the book conveys a sense of northeasterners’ pride, and the rich culture that has emerged from an impoverished land. This cultural richness extends beyond the folk-songs and poetry of the region, to include the literature of such Brazilian greats as Graciliano Ramos. Poetry and culture serve as a unifying theme that enables Arons to discuss diverse topics such as banditry, messianic movements, and natural history. Still, the poetry is also valuable for its beauty alone. Both my students and I particularly liked that Arons always included the original Portuguese version of poems together with his English translation, even when the Portuguese speakers quibbled with his translations.
There were some weaknesses to the book, which my students pointed to. One key issue was that Arons was very good at illustrating the poor response to the drought by both state and federal governments, but he did not propose a plan to address droughts himself. What would a concrete plan to address the drought consist of? Cisterns? Alternative agriculture systems? Moving more people to urban areas? Reforestation? At the end of this lengthy study of drought, there is no serious alternative put forward in depth. Of course, as one of my students noted, this was not his intent. Still, I have the uneasy feeling that it may be easier to mock the elites than to find a concrete alternative. Yes, social inequalities magnify the impact of the drought, and social inequality needs to be ameliorated. Yes, the government on the coast largely ignores the suffering in the interior until climate refugees compel it to act. Too often, as Arons describes, the government took advantage of the crisis to do everything from building public works in the northeast to settling the Amazon. One of the book’s strengths is that it demonstrates the timelessness of drought in the region, in which it was difficult to tell if a newspaper account of a bad year was written in 1888 or 2004. But what will it take to break this endless cycle? If the government had the will to act, what would it do, beyond addressing social inequality? One of my students commented that without a plan to address the suffering, Aron’s work seemed almost voyeuristic; at the same time, they said that it it was difficult to imagine him wanting to position himself as an outside savior coming to save northeastern Brazil.
My students were split in their assessment of Arons’ writing style. Most felt that his use of personal narrative and informal writing drew the reader into the narrative. Some students, however, believed that the book could have been more tightly organized, and that more context was needed for some of the topics that he discussed. Still, most students enjoyed reading the book, and I personally thought that Arons’ prose often was poetic as well.
Arons ended the book by telling a personal anecdote about his relationship with a poor, young man named William, who was his best friend. The story captured the cruelty and indifference of northeastern elites. This particular story embodied the perils of fieldwork, and the difficulties that we all researchers have maintaining our integrity, especially in another culture. The final narrative carries an emotional punch more often found in fiction, and is liable to leave readers thinking about the book long after they close the covers.
At at time when much of Brazil is experiencing a terrible drought, and the situation in California is difficult, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the social facts that convert a natural disaster into a human tragedy. I recommend this book for classes on Latin America, Brazil, development and water.
If you are interested in Latin America, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University