"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 93: Politics and the art of complaining

The next subject of Bishop’s 26 August 1961 letter to Aunt Grace involved the political situation in Brazil, and how it meshed in Bishop’s mind with family. On 25 August 1961, Jânio Quadros, who became Brazil’s President on 31 January, “resigned.” Bishop described this event as “a big political upheaval.” Her response to this resignation was: “God knows what is going to happen next.” She had little “doubt the army will get in on it somehow.” Bishop described Quadros as “a wonderful economist … but slightly crazy, I’m sure.” She opined that his resignation “wouldn’t matter so much but the vice-pres.” (João Goulart), “is a real old crook, from the dictator-gang.”
(Jânio Quadros)
Even though she’d been in Brazil for a decade already, she was still an outsider and an American, so her views must be taken in that light. Still, she lived with Lota who was deep into all things political and Bishop reported that “Lota is terribly upset,” that “everyone is.” They were all “hover[ing] over the radio news.” Since Lota had just returned from town, Bishop noted that she would now “read the newspapers she’s brought back.” So uncertain was this situation, that Bishop observed: “We might even leave Brazil — who knows.”

After having lunch and reading the papers, Bishop was able to report to Grace that “the country is ‘remaining calm’ but there may be a civil war.” Not to alarm her aunt too much with such talk, Bishop quickly clarified that things were “all too confused” to know for sure what would happen, and besides, she noted, “things are never very bloody here, you know — there is no danger at all.”

Bishop’s first feeling was for “all my Brazilian friends and for the country,” for which she felt “dreadfully sorry.” Then, without any segue, Bishop brought up her cousin: “I didn’t see E last week — haven’t seen her for 2 or 3 weeks.” The Naudins had been “in Terezopolis [sic] for ten days.” Part of the reason for shifting to this subject was to describe Elizabeth’s and Ray’s different approaches to living in Brazil. Bishop observed that her cousin “is pretty good about things here.” It was her husband, a Brazilian by birth, who annoyed Bishop, even though she didn’t “see him much.”

To give Grace an idea of what she meant Bishop wrote, “Remember how Uncle George [Shepherdson, Maude’s husband] used to get on your nerves at the farm telling everyone how things were done so much better in the U.S.A.?” For Bishop that said it all, described Ray’s attitude completely. All these two natives of their countries (Canada and Brazil) could do was “complain, complain, complain.” For Bishop, this harping was “boring, and rather tactless.” She conceded that Ray was “a clever boy in his business … but he doesn’t seem to have any political sense whatever and says such stupid things — exactly like Uncle George!”

Bishop reasoned that since Ray was “brought up here … he ought to be bright enough to see there are very good reasons for the country’s being backward.” But the things he complained about baffled her: “is it so AWFUL, anyway, to have to wait a few days for car license…?” For Bishop, “endless criticisers [sic] always pick on the unimportant things.” She noted that they were expecting “another pair of them,” that is, “criticisers,” for dinner that day, “I’m dreading it.” One can’t help but think of Bishop’s own rather endless complaints about the Brazilian postal service, and how that must have sounded to Brazilians.

Bishop continued with the subjects the complainers complained about: “Yes — Rio is dirty … yes our friend the governor ought to do something about it.” But, she argued, “that isn’t the most important thing, after all!” And hadn’t the governor “built something like 50 schools already….”

Bishop seemed genuinely surprised and proud of the fact that her cousin “doesn’t complain much, thank goodness,” and seemed “to take things in her stride pretty well.” Bishop observed how upsetting it was for Lota to hear all the complaining, “naturally! — she’s not blind.” She recounted how “the wife of our (US) Cultural Attaché here told Lota all about the trouble she had with maids who stole, and how she bought some candy that had cockroaches in it,” telling Lota these things “as if it would amuse her!” All Bishop could conclude by such insensitivity was to assert, “And then Americans wonder why they’re not popular in foreign countries!”

All the exclamation marks in this lengthy paragraph bespeak Bishop’s emotion (annoyance, frustration, hurt) around these subjects.

This long meandering letter now began to wind down. The next post will offer her conclusion.

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