Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Writing University conducts a series of interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the various University of Iowa writing programs. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.

Gleisson author photo

Today we are speaking with Gleisson Alves Santos, a first-year MFA student in Literary Translation. He translates from and into Portuguese. He is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese where he teaches courses such as Accelerated Intermediate Portuguese and Brazilian Narrative in Translation, and an Editor-at-Large of the Exchanges: A Journal of Literary Translation. In 2022-23 he was a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant at the University of Iowa. He holds a BA in Language and Literature Teaching, from Universidade Federal da Bahia, in Brazil. His work and interests involve interdisciplinary practices related to teaching, translation, and writing.


1.    Can you tell us a little bit about what brought you to the University of Iowa?

I came to the University of Iowa in the Fall of 2022 as Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant to work with Portuguese. During a full academic year, I taught and tutored Portuguese, developed activities, and promoted aspects of Brazilian culture through cultural events. I also took classes as a student. That was how I was able to learn more about the MFA in Literary Translation here at the University of Iowa. Before coming to Iowa City, I already translated literature into Portuguese. But I had never really thought about also dedicating myself to translate literature into English. Even nowadays, the idea that literary translators should translate into their first language(s) is still very widespread around the world. Ever since I first heard of the approach of the Literary Translation Program here, I became very curious about the Program. So, during my first semester as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant, I registered for a Translation Workshop. When I saw myself in that workshop with translators from different parts of the country and the world, translating from different languages, many of them having different languages as first language(s), I decided that I would also translate literature into English. I was fascinated by the way translators were trained here at the University. As soon as the applications for the Program opened, I started preparing my application, and applied for it.

2.    What is the inspiration for your work right now?

I am always deeply inspired by everything that surrounds me – people, songs and sounds, landscapes, books, classes, talks, and the list could easily go on. I find life to be an extremely interesting experience, and this is also a huge inspiration to me.

In Brazil, I was taught to value life in a very particular context. Through the Afro-Brazilian traditions that are present in Salvador, I learned that in many cases when someone passes away “prematurely”, it is considered an unfortunate passing. However, when a passing happens after a long-lived life, we celebrate the deeds of that person. In Candomblé, one of the Afro-Brazilian religions, we dance to mourn someone's passing. That person has become an ancestor. They experienced the happiest and saddest fragments that, at the end of a journey, make up the patchwork quilt of life. When I first arrived in Iowa City for the first time, something that struck me was how the cemetery I passed by every day, when commuting back home, was always very quiet. I come from a city where cemeteries are always busy, noisy, and running out of space. I was very intrigued about how, in two different places, life seemed to have different paces. Salvador, the city I come from, is the city with the largest number of Black people outside of Africa. It is also a place where we mourn unfortunate passings every day. One of the most recent reports we have showed that, in Brazil, a Black man is killed every 23 minutes.

In the refusal of violence, there is always a desire and an urgency to live. In the middle of continuous violence, there are also many people, not only fighting for life, but living, producing life, beautifully, all the time. And I was very lucky to be in contact with many of them very early in my life. People who have been doing fantastic personal and political work every day. All the experiences I have had in the different projects in Salvador flourished in me a certain awareness about life. It is out of the desire to keep life alive that I teach, translate, and write. The arts, such as literature, through teaching, translation and writing, became my medium. The capacity to revisit the worlds we have inhabited and imagine the worlds we desire to live in seems to be fascinating to me. So, my inspirations are always very political, and utopian at the same time.

3.    Do you have a daily writing routine?

I don’t have a very fixed writing routine. But I write every day, and mostly late at night. I usually feel that when the city is silent, I am better able to hear my thoughts. So, I usually write, translate, and work on other artistic projects during that period of the day, or I’d say of the night. But the city movements and sounds are also very to me. I write a lot when I am in movement too. I usually take notes of everything, from groceries to interesting things I hear people say in the middle of the street. Many of my notebooks and drafts are always full of words or sentences I hear, read, and see daily. Sometimes, they do not make any sense later, or I even don’t know why I found that word or sentence beautiful. But whenever I have ideas or see interesting things, I write them down. I am really very interested in the life that is going on all the time around me, and how it reaches language. They help bring “life” to the so many unhappy things I mostly often write about.

4.    What are you reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

I am always reading different books at the same time. One of my ongoing readings, right now, is In the Belly of Night and Other Poems, Wendy Call’s translation of Irma Pineda’s En el vientre de la noche y otros poemas / Ndaani’ Gueela’ ne xhupa diidxaguie, with illustrations by Natalia Gurovich. It is a fabulous trilingual poetry book that brings together English, Isthmus Zapote, and Spanish in such an interesting way. I am reading it for both pleasure and research. Wendy Call was recently at the University of Iowa as a Translator’s in Residence. It is very interesting to read Wendy Call’s translation after spending five weeks of intense and delightful work learning and thinking about translation processes with her.

5.    Tell us about where you are from - what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

As I mentioned, I come from Salvador, Bahia, a city located in the Northeast of Brazil. Salvador is a gorgeous place. But I’d say that the most fascinating element is the people of the city. It is a city where you find artists and people doing creative work everywhere. The African heritage that is kept alive in Salvador, despite of the historical violences, is fabulous. Cultural manifestations, literature, food, music, religion, dance, it is everywhere. It’s no wonder Salvador has been gaining recognition as an important place for a national and international cultural scene that is not simply driven by the city’s “natural” aspects. Yet, paradoxically, it is still a place where the multiple level of racial violences remind us, every day, that Brazil’s racial democracy narrative has always been a “myth”.





Thank you for talking with us today, Gleisson!