by Gabriela Monteiro and Ruth Steuerwald
Brasília, February 9th, 2020
Hi, my dearest German girl!
How I miss you. Here in Brazil, carnival is approaching and people are getting more agitated every day. Last week, I was in Salvador and the Blackest city outside Africa is still pulsating. The Iemanjá celebration was happening on 02/02, a celebration that always touches me a lot. It’s also a festival which is full of problems and contradictions, with the presence of white tourists and photographers consuming what is sacred for Black people. Everything is very difficult, but as capoeira teaches us, we need to gingar – and we can’t forget who is the real owner of the party. Never forget who we are.
I often think about our experiences in MMTR-NE and how everything I’ve lived has prepared me for the present moment. I feel very grateful for the years shared with rural women workers and women like you. I know that it is very important – essential – to know how the system of oppressions operates in order to handle the tools of resistance in the best way possible. Personally, I never underestimate the savagery of racism, including for the sake of self-defense. But none of this would make sense if I hadn’t accessed the sense of importance and appreciation of my own life – and the pleasure of being who I am – as we learned together with the rural women. The years go by and the pedagogical experience of collectively building possibilities of being women in such diverse ways seems even more valuable.
I remember well an edition of the Feminist School in which a woman who was ashamed of her own body spoke at the end of the formative process that she started to like to see herself naked in the mirror because she remembered all the companheiras of the Feminist School. Rutinha, you, who have been researching the lexicon that whites have created to inventory the problems they have caused themselves, tell me – which indicator could measure this? A woman who looks in the mirror, naked, and likes what she sees because she sees herself reflected in all the other women with whom she shares pain, tears, dreams, desires, insumes, laughter. How many women have built that moment? A feminist pedagogy is one in which we are able to remind each other that we are sovereign women. How many paradigms shatter irrecoverably into a thousand pieces when we love each other?
Love, that word so trivialized and often hijacked in a tiny, suffocating narrative. It’s a good thing that we’re in the dispute and we know we have a right to love, especially self-love. bell hooks says we need to recognize that oppression and exploitation distort and hamper our ability to love. And she also says that “we must collectively return to a radical political vision of social change rooted in a love ethic and seek once again to convert masses of people, black and nonblack”. We need to heal ourselves of the feeling of unimportance. I, as a black woman, feel that it is not possible to think or defend any kind of structural and collective social transformation without first looking at myself naked in the mirror and feeling pleasure in existing. And I confess to you that I don’t always find that look, because the filters of colonial fabrication can find their ways to look like reality. I am not interested in these paradigms of thought in which I am perceived as garbage. I like a phrase by Vanete Almeida: “When I want well, when I respect myself, I do not allow anyone to disrespect me”. I think she and Audre Lorde would have a good dialogue about self-preservation as an act of political struggle.
I wish you were here for us to go out for colorful drinks at a carnival party, discuss life and accompany the revelry. It wasn’t until the end of that letter that I realized that tomorrow is your birthday. It only reinforces to me that celebration and love between women are among the most revolutionary actions that we can live. May it be a beautiful day, Ruth, with the best of life. In fact, may it be the best day of your life! Next time we meet, we’ll have our own carnival to celebrate.
Berlin, February 13th, 2020
What a beautiful letter, full of important reflections, you sent me!
It took me a while to answer, mainly because “adult” life is full of varied responsibilities – and women’s lives are often even fuller. We feel responsible for the well-being of the people around us and the organization of the small (or large) tasks that keep the wheels of life turning. This is often the case even in “deconstructed” situations, where household chores are seemingly divided equally. And it takes time!
But it also took me a while to respond because, whenever I sit down to write about power relations in academic research, about my position as a white and European woman and the responsibility for self-reflection that these subjects bring about, I feel an inhibition inside. I have to summon courage to start. This gets worse when these themes mix with personal aspects of biography, friendship and affection (a connection that I find very important, but not easy to talk about!). Did I ever tell you that when I went to Salvador for the first time, at the age of 19, I came across the Lavagem do Bonfim celebration without even knowing what it was about or what would happen on that day? I thought the party was beautiful and took a lot of pictures… Only years later I came to understand what I had witnessed. Who was I at that party in 2005?
But with a provocation as beautiful as your letter, I can only look in the mirror, look at my path and its deviations, loving myself in (self-)reflection, to get into writing. It’s very good to know that other people like you also look at my imperfect reflection with love, seeing beauty!
One emotional response to writing about power relations, academic research, love and friendship is the feeling that I need to take a large amount of relevant aspects and thoughts into consideration before starting. I feel like running an eternal risk of forgetting something important or saying the wrong things when trying to embrace a decolonial and anti-racist posture. This feeling probably stems from white fragility. It is uncomfortable and inhibiting, but I want to embrace it. It is the result of questioning a normalized and Eurocentric view of the world, the way it is structured and my place in it. It also comes from doubts about the functioning of “academic research”, about who has authority over the functioning of the world and can explain it.
Another inhibitor is that questioning such supposed normalities is often put as an exaggeration, invention or division of the struggle by different people. Sometimes, it is difficult to continue to believe in the necessity of these questions in the face of such devaluations. But I cannot find easy, quick, universal and definitive answers to many questions anymore. In the end, this is a positive and necessary thing. And no one said it was easy to unlearn and relearn!
I also think that doubts and inhibition can make me listen to other people better and therefore see the world and its violence from other angles. People experiencing racism, discrimination and exclusion in a white, technocratic and androcentric world, will not have things to say that make me feel good or comfortable. I think it is important to understand that this is a reflection of the state of the world, where things are not good or comfortable for many, and that my discomfort is a reflection of my role in this and cannot be at the center of the discussion. But even decentralizing my own (dis-)comfort, I can walk with self love, forgiving both the lack of neoliberal effectiveness that is required of me and the fact that the decolonial and anti-racist deconstruction I demand of myself is always incomplete.
So I want to walk carefully and without haste, even if it means sometimes taking one step forward and two steps back! And, as you said, we took important lessons inside the pink house and within the collectivity of rural women in the Brazilian Northeast to learn to walk this way. We learned from them, who build their own narratives and ways of walking (to dance, march, teach, fight, transform).
But obviously, like most things, there are other complexities that follow these reflections. We’ve discussed before that the subject of academic research should have to do with the very life story of those who are researching and writing. Someone also told me that Grada Kilomba, when she gave a seminar at a university here in Berlin, made all white students write self-reflections on whiteness and identity, while black students and PoCs could freely choose their research topics. You said that I “research the lexicon that whites have created to inventory the problems they have caused themselves” (I loved it, I always admired your ability to speak beautifully and critically at the same time). But on the other hand, I also research and write about how rural women in Brazil subvert and mess up this lexicon, how they create their own language, in parts using the resources of European white donors. In that, I think I’m stepping outside of reflections from my position and entering the field of representation. What happens to this lexicon of rural resistance and feminism when I insert it into my European academic work? As my friend Sabrina says, when we white girls attempt to do decolonial research, there is always a conflict between the omission of subaltern knowledge and misrepresentation and “speaking in the name of”. Where and how is there room to walk slowly, to build in the collective, to recognize other languages and our limited perspective in the academic process and structures (in Europe)? Since we devote part of our time to this process, (how) can we create space for these aspects and what could be the benefit of this?
For now, I leave you with these thoughts. The feeling that I have only spoken half of the things I should have spoken has not left me yet, but after all, this urgency to have complete and done answers is also of colonial knowledge: Let’s walk and learn together, seeing the beauty and necessity of gaps and imperfections. Com você ando melhor!
Looking forward to this carnival of ours!
Brasília, May 2nd, 2020
This letter took a while to find you again. I thought of apologizing about the delay in reply, but this moment in which we are living forces me to stop a little and acknowledge: the truth is that I am always running, hurried and late, like the rabbit at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland. Drummond once wrote about the furious march of capitalism, and so many times I feel crushed by the system, this machine of grinding people. In those days, Ailton Krenak wrote a book in which he says: “The machines could not stop, the world could not stop. But it did.” Sometimes I find a kind of satisfaction in the idea that we are finally forced to understand that our unsustainable pace has a price. But that satisfaction lasts a fraction of a short time, a thousandth of a second later I remember: who are the people who are paying this bill?
If that virus only hit white men and rich men, would I feel bad, Ruth? I don’t know, and when I can’t answer, I’m afraid that something of my own humanity has been lost in the system of oppression, humiliation after humiliation, our death each day, one day after another, a hundred years, another hundred. And another. And another. How many thousands of bodies? The piles of bodies always have color, class. The day before yesterday I read letters from prisoners in São Paulo describing how they are getting sick and saying goodbye to their families. I could research and insert here the percentage of black people – I am aware and I defend the importance of numbers to rub in the face of society what we already know, and in fact here in Brazil we are very far from having numbers close to reality – but I don’t even want to, I’m too sad. I think of the families of these men who are isolated and the production of normality in a slave and colonial society: what does the word confinement mean for black people in Brazil?
I imagine what is happening out there as I go through a serene weekend, and I try to cultivate my peace to get through this period in the best possible way. But it’s hard, knowing the risks people are taking, the suffering, the deaths. I’m worried about a lot of dear people. I would like to believe that this whole situation will lead us to a place where basic rights such as income, health and education are more important. But I don’t know, capitalism is so wise to regulate itself and I don’t underestimate cruelty: I find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of racism. Wherever we go, Rutinha, I think we need to always call ourselves to understand the world in order to be able to transform it, and I don’t see how that would be possible without communicating, without expressing ourselves. In Bahia there is an expression that I like: mete dança (put the dance in – to say dancing). I want to tell you: mete palavra – put in words! Nothing is unimportant in the daily exercise of resistance, even less our research and the strange symbiosis we live with the themes we study.
Theory has often been a place of healing for me, to borrow an expression from bell hooks. Mbembe wrote an article on Covid-19 last month and it was good for me to read his words. I transcribe an excerpt: “It is therefore necessary to start again if, for the needs of our own survival, it is imperative to give back to all that is alive (including the biosphere) the space and energy they need. In its nightly  version, modernity was, from beginning to end, an endless war waged against the living. It is far from over“. I feel tired of so much war, Ruth. The birds in the tree I see from my room are getting noisier every day, and the bird society seems very harmonious to me. Why, as humanity, are we so inclined to produce narratives of confusion, fears, violence? I often bring consciousness into my breathing and realize how short it is. It’s always short when I’m in a hurry and I’m always in a hurry. What for? I want to breathe. And on second thought, I think I can answer about my humanity. I haven’t been beaten: I don’t desire anyone’s suffering. I am alive.
I hope you and all the people in your family are well and healthy, especially R. [Ruth’s son] , whom I miss so much. Do you remember when we went to the movies to watch “Pi’s Adventures” and I repeated “R.!” with joy when the character appeared in the movie? It was a name that suggested adventures and mysteries. I liked watching that movie so much, today I think it’s worth going over it again. To learn how we can go through tragedies with honor and imagination, as a journey of growth. Stand firm, Rutinha. We have many stories to live and tell.
I love you.
Berlin, May 7th, 2020
Three months have passed since our first exchange of letters. On the one hand, so much has changed and we find ourselves in a seemingly unprecedented, unimaginable situation. On the other hand, as you rightly point out, nothing has changed. The structures that have marked the world for so long, for too long, have only become more visible.
I confess that I was anxious for us to “finally finish these letters” and hand them in soon. Among the many challenges I find in the writing process (in academic contexts), the feeling of not meeting deadlines and of not being able to “show results” is another one that is very recurrent for me.
“Mete palavra”, you tell me (I love expressions from Northeastern Brazil), and “we always have to write, Rutinha”. I admire you very much for that attitude… for the practice of capturing and systematizing the meetings, themes and stories that move you, in your own words and rhythm, with the aim of challenging our understanding of things, of understanding them in other ways, of transforming worlds. Systematizing experiences is one of the continuous practices of MMTR-Ne, too. I think writing becomes an act of resistance in this way, and in my case, I don’t know if I can always make it as such. But it’s so important to have that goal!
I also admire you for navigating the many demands in which you are inserted with your own priorities, without letting yourself be pressured. How was I even able to still feel that pressure in the middle of this crazy global pandemics?! I wonder how often there are similar situations: A researcher in the global North (probably white), who works mainly in academic spaces and is in a relatively safe position, expecting (quick) contributions from a (Black) collaborator in the global South, who has a thousand other things to do. They will probably not be paid for their work, but it will serve mainly the reputation of the person in the North. In this current exchange of ours, many of the academic limitations don’t apply; we are writing from our hearts and because we like it. But even here, the inequality of times and rhythms seems to have repeated itself. So thank you for a further lesson: in order to research and write together “across borders”, in order to work together in the context of this South-North friendship, as people of such different social positions and experiences of privilege and discrimination, it is essential to respect the diversity of rhythms and priorities.
The pandemic has very different rhythms and levels of emergency, too. Around here, we are at a time of reopening, even if it is unstable and unsafe. In Brazil, the pandemic is in full course and attempts to slow it down have been almost non-existent. And as you remind us, the intersections with other death machines are clear: with the genocide of black youth, feminicides, murders of the LGBT population, violence in the countryside with the frequent assassinations of human rights defenders and the indigenous population, the defunding of the SUS, etc. My heart is afflicted. Remember we said that maybe at least Bolsonaro will fall? I’m not even sure about that anymore.
Obviously, there are intersections between racism and corona in death statistics not only in Brazil. I recently saw a post on the social networks by “Theater X”, a collective of young people of colour here in Berlin. They stated that contrary to common discourse, “staying at home” represents a very limited act of solidarity. By staying at home, we show solidarity to the people most susceptible to the serious effects of the virus, and to those who need to work in hospitals and other essential spaces, such as your mother. But they reminded us that by staying at home, our solidarity does not automatically extend to those who have no home to stay, who remain in inhuman conditions in camps on European borders and within Germany and the European Union, to victims of racism and police violence, to people on the other side of national borders – borders which are so strongly reinforced and reconstructed by the daily national statistics of the pandemic.
How can our solidarity break down borders, then? Can writing be a means of solidarity? Of what kind? Of the superficial, white-centered kind which sees staying at home already as an act of heroism, or the deeper kind, which is less easy to bear and requires a more critical engagement with our own positioning and social reality? How can we be supportive in academic writing? Have we exchanged the rush to write driven by solidarity for the rush to publish, to receive titles?
I seem to be closing another letter with more questions than answers, but that’s good; let’s continue this dance of questions and answers. I really want to read Krenak. I don’t know if my writing can be a means of solidarity, but I know that reading certain writings can be a means of hope.
It’s a little scary but also interesting to think that other people will be able to read these dialogues of ours. Sometimes I find it difficult to translate certain experiences. Me speaking “about Brazil” also always carries traces of colonial appropriation. But I also never found it easy to talk about the struggles and processes here in Germany to my Brazilian friends. Do you know that there has been a lot of controversy involving Mbembe and anti-Semitism critique around here recently? An essentially German discussion, both because here we have the important obligation to focus on Anti-Semitism, and due to the very present, very German tendency to devalue issues of (post)coloniality and colonial past. Hard to recapture it here in a few words, but I found it interesting that you quoted Mbembe (with such pertinent words). It’s a good example of contextualized discussions that are sometimes not easy to translate.
I want you to find a good time to rest. And I want your loved ones to stay safe, as well. I’m also thinking about our future encounters, in whatever form and at whatever time. R. is calling me here for some adventures (not involving Pi, but one of those little finger skateboards, which just lost a wheel).
Take care. I love you too!
A big hug
Gabriela Monteiro comes from Caruaru-Pernambuco, Brazil and has worked in several social movements, mainly related to women’s rights, black population, youth and agroecology. She is a political educator, journalist, Master in Gender Studies, Women and Feminisms, scriptwriter and audiovisual director. She currently works as Youth Officer for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Brazil.
Ruth Steuerwald is a doctoral student at the University of Kassel. She researches the financing of social movements and non-governmental organizations in northeastern Brazil by actors of the international development regime. She is also a feminist, mother and educator.
Iemanjá comes from the Yorubá language “Yèyé omo ejá”, which means “Mother whose children are like fish”. The Day of the Mother of the Waters is celebrated in the Afro-Brazilian religions on February 2nd, with offerings to the sea.
To move in the rhythm. Name given also to the basic movement in Capoeira.
The MMTR-NE (Northeast Rural Workers’ Movement) is a feminist movement led by rural workers articulated in the nine states of the Northeast, for more than 30 years in struggle.
The Feminist School is a rural feminist pedagogical experience developed by the MMTR-NE divided into modules and based on polular education, the collective construction of anti-racist feminist concepts and the exchange of knowledge and narratives.
Vanete Almeida (1942 – 2012) was a Black educator and union activist in the hinterland of Pernambuco, a federal state in the Brazilian Northeast. She played a critical role in the founding years of the Women’s Rural Workers’ Movement of the Northeast.
The Lavagem do Bonfim is an inter-religious celebration that takes place in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil [in January]. The washing of the Church began in 1773, when the members of the “Devotion of the Good Lord Jesus of Bonfim,” consisting of lay devotees, made the slaves wash and adorn the Church as part of the preparations for the feast of the Lord of Bonfim. Later, for the adepts of candomblé, the washing of the church of the Lord of Bonfim became part of the ceremony of the Waters of Oxalá (source: https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Festa_do_Bonfim).
A term coined by Robin DiAngelo (2011), referring to the defensiveness of white people when confronted with white privilege.
A line form a political song sung by the rural women’s movement – “Companheira, me ajuda, que eu não posso andar só – eu sozinho ando bem, mas com você ando melhor”; (“My woman comrade, help me, because I cannot walk alone. I alone walk alright, but together with you, I walk better”)
Carlos Drummond de Andrade in “Nosso Tempo”.
Ailton Krenak is a Brazilian indigenous activist thinker and writer from the Krenak ethnicity. He was born in the Rio Doce valley in Minas Gerais, a mining region that has been severely affected by the extractivist activities, including repeated dam breaches. He has recently published the book “Ideias para adiar o fim do mundo” (2019) (ideas to postpone the end of the world), available for download under
Mbembe uses “nocturne” in the French original article. In order to stay as close as possible to his wording, we translated the word to nightly.
Mbembe, Acilles: Le droit universel à la respiration. 06/04/2020; https://www.seneplus.com/opinions/le-droit-universel-la-respiration
R. is referring to the name of Ruth’s son.
Brazilian public health system (Sistema Ùnico de Saúde). Access to universal healthcare is in theory guaranteed by the Brazilian constitution, but the SUS has always been severely underfunded. This situation has severely worsened since the judicial Coup d’État in 2016.