From 'i-juca piranha'


It was so rewarding to spend time with this a powerful seven-page poem by Brazilian writer, activist and filmmaker Érica Zingano. In plain-speaking, musical poetry, Zingano thinks about the role of language-learning in the violent colonisation of Brazil. The poem begins with two antiquated dictionary definitions of ‘piranha’ (literally ‘sharp-toothed fish’), a word which comes from the indigenous language Tupi. As Zingano tells us later in the poem, when early colonisers started to learn Tupi, they wrote textbooks where the example Tupi verb was not what you’d learn at the start of a language textbook today (‘to eat’ or ‘to go’ perhaps) but juca – to kill. The title, ‘i-juca piranha’, which the group agreed should remain in Tupi, is a play on a famous poem by Gonçalves Dias, written as part of a nineteenth century literary movement called ‘indianismo’ that fetishizes the indigenous peoples of Brazil. Through the poem, Zingano critiques these colonial poets and textbook-writers, using a detached tone and powerful repetition that you can see the beginnings of in this opening stanza.

Despite its difficult theme, the poem is discursive and chatty, and our translator Francisco Vilhena was keen that we bring out the poem’s rhythm, its cigarette-in-the-hand kind of story-telling, its ironic changes in register. I hope we’ve done the first stanza justice, and whenever this poem finds its publication, I urge you to seek it out in full.

Helen Bowell, Workshop facilitator