Locals don’t need an introduction to The BookMark Shoppe (8515 Third Avenue), with its deep roots in the Bay Ridge community, its full slate of activities—including book clubs, writing workshops (both fiction and poetry), and knitting club—not to mention the friendly and knowledgeable staff.
For such a small store, the BookMark Shoppe has become something of a cultural hub in the neighborhood. In recent years, you might have seen signs out front (not to mention lines out the door) for celebrity authors such as Mookie Wilson, Giuliana Rancic, Holly Madison, celebrity chef Guy Fieri, or Plaxico Burress, all of whom have made appearances and autographed books. The Shoppe also gets its fair share of political and literary luminaries, such as Pulitzer prize-winning reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, who spoke a few years back about the NYPD’s surveillance program, which targeted the Arab community in New York (including right here in Bay Ridge), and Bernard Kerik, the former police commissioner, who spoke about his path from cop to criminal.
And just this past Tuesday, August 4, Juliana Barbassa, the award-winning financial reporter for the Associated Press, spoke about her new book Dancing With the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink in front of a robust audience well-informed about the culture and politics in Brazil.
I attended Barbassa’s talk not because I know anything about Brazil but because of my interest in travel writing, and I found the book to be a fascinating blend of travel and reportage. Rio de Janeiro, which will be the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics has been in the news in recent days due to alarming reports by the Associated Press that Rio’s waters are heavily contaminated with human waste and other pathogens, including at venues where swimming competitions will be held. Questions linger a year out as to whether the city will be ready for its Olympic debut. Barbassa enters this conversation with a book that tackles these questions head on, even as she draws our attention to Rio’s beauty.
Barbassa also covers organized crime, the violence and poverty that pervades the favelas, and the riots and demonstrations that captured the world’s attention in the run up to the 2014 World Cup. She manages to penetrate the most inaccessible places, the favelas, the political circles, the world of sex workers, and the worlds of criminals both petty and felonious. She reports on the government’s efforts to pacify the slums, and chronicles the brutal militarized police actions that come clothed in the rhetoric of city improvement and urban renewal. Barbassa is also there in 2011, when torrential rains trigger mudslides that cause record devastation in large areas of these same favelas. She goes along on rescue missions and witnesses horrors that shake her. Another time, she tags along with a biologist and his team who are tagging caimans (a small alligator species native to South America) in what in her account amounts to a surreal and quixotic effort at preservation in the face of rampant construction. She ends the book with a bravura piece of sports reporting on the 2014 World Cup.
In the midst of all this reporting, we see Barbassa herself very much a part of the narrative—on the scene, moving about and reporting on what she sees, circulating in an environment that is both familiar to her and oddly foreign. These are the charms of travel writing that I am drawn to. Barbassa never pretends to be an objective observer. Instead, we are in the narrative company of an expert witness, someone forever poised between being an insider and an outsider.
Barbassa was born in Brazil. When she was 3-years-old, she moved with her family, and she spent much of her subsequent life moving from place to place, either with her family or as a reporter, including time spent in Iraq, Malta, Libya, and the US. Her perspective is truly transnational, and her prose is rife with a compelling worldliness.
She wrote Dancing with The Devil after returning to Brazil in 2010 after a 21-year absence. And this is very much a book about returning home. This homecoming is told with an admixture of nostalgia for what still exists in her mind and disorientation at the unrecognizability of much of what she sees. Her perspective is truly local and her prose is rife with a compelling and artful provincialism.
Dancing with the Devil has elements of reportage, of travel writing, of memoir. It is a political argument and an environmental exposé. It is all these things but also an example of what might be seen as an emerging genre: the Olympic jeremiad. It reminded me, for instance, of Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk, a scathing indictment of the 2012 London Olympics and the construction of the Millennium Stadium. Like Barbassa, Sinclair chronicles the impact that mega events like the Olympics or the World Cup have on existing cityscapes, on city budgets, and on the psyche of a people. In these accounts, we see how the Olympics have become a kind of neoliberal South Sea Bubble, promising, in their hair-brained schemes, opportunity and economic windfall for all, but in reality serving only to benefit the privileged few who already control the levers of power. The recent exposure of the corruption at the heart of FIFA bears this view out.
There’s a strong sense of uncertainty about Brazil’s future in the stories Barbassa tells of structural poverty, pervasive corruption, and lack of infrastructure. Dancing with the Devil is an unflagging and unapologetic portrait of the city’s historical and ongoing woes. And yet, hearing Barbassa talk about Rio at the BookMark Shoppe, it was hard not to hear in her voice a hint of optimism and perhaps of latent love.
During the question-and-answer session, many in the audience began by alluding to their own roots in the country. Drawn there by my own interest in travel writing, I was pleasantly surprised to see how events like this one lure their audiences out of the local community, by providing ever-changing focal points of interest for a neighborhood the diversity of which is not always evident or easy to see. That’s one way of describing the important role of the BookMark Shoppe.
Don’t be surprised if you see more of Juliana Barbassa in the coming year as the Olympics approaches and as Rio continues to gear up for the games and for the world spotlight. For more about the book, you can this promotional clip—and of course you get your own copy at The BookMark Shoppe.
Upcoming appearances and events at The BookMark Shoppe include Fr. Michael Collins, author of Pope Francis: A Photographic Portrait of the People’s Pope, on September 9. On August 19, the BookMark Shoppe teams up with First Book NYC to raise money to end childhood illiteracy. You can check out the full calendar of events, or check out the store’s Facebook page.