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Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler. A book review by Rose Ferrao

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

Following three generations of women across decades and countries, Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s debut novel Stubborn Archivist explores trauma and identity through the eyes of a young Brazilian British woman.

The unnamed protagonist, born in South London to a Brazilian mother and English father, documents her life through a mix of prose and prose-poetry. The lyrical, experimental style is as complex as the emotions it explores. Stuttered repetition and blank pages reveal an intimacy that feels more like reading a stranger’s diary than a work of fiction.

English and Portuguese are woven together erratically and cleverly. A section titled ‘Natal’ plays on the interlingual homograph’s dual meaning of Christmas and birth, both of which feature prominently in the chapter. Stubborn Archivist embraces the complicated duality of a bilingual identity without italics or translation, a refreshing refusal that languages other than English must be less, secondary, foreign.

The protagonist’s documentation of her life is interwoven with glimpses of three influential women: her mother Isadora, a former activist who left Brazil to build a life in England; her aunt Ana Paula, a troubled romantic; and her grandmother Cecília, who sees Brazil through rose-coloured glasses. The multiplicity of narratives reflects the reliance of second-generation immigrants on those who came before them—mother, aunt, grandmother— to understand their own identity. In passing down stories, we are all stubborn archivists. Only we control what is known about us, especially by the generations that come afterward.

Rodrigues Fowler captures the intrinsic saudade that comes with navigating a dual identity. From the changes missed while in another country (‘more white hair, less hair, a new boyfriend, a lost job, more chairs on the beach, a new hotel, traffic traffic traffic’) to the desire to belong in both places (“and then the golden snitch — When did you move to London?”), there is never a true sense of home.

Despite the novel’s deep exploration of personal identity, it never shies away from the larger political forces that shape these identities. From gender to class, our intimate selves are always in conversation with the constructs that define them. Stubborn Archivist pushes past, ‘How do I identify?’ to ask, ‘How was it imbued with this meaning, and more importantly, by whom?’

Underlining the entire text is the protagonist’s experience of sexual violence at the hands of her former boyfriend. It is not always the archivist that is stubborn, but the memories. How can you reconcile trauma when it was caused by someone you loved? (‘There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.’).

The protagonist’s exploration of trauma is always anchored to her physical body and its vulnerability. She grounds herself in the bath, cataloguing parts of her body: ‘foot, foot, feet, leg, calf, thigh, thigh’. Stubborn Archivist reckons with the fact that, in the search for identity, the physical body seems true, real, and concrete until it is violated. Until you are left with a ‘broken up body’ that can’t be archived or forgotten because of the trauma it has endured.

Throughout the book are blank pages, imbued with a quiet defiance that refuses to give up every piece of the story. Even in an act of confession, we always have a right to ourselves. The power is not in confessing our truths, but in doing so on our own terms. These narrative gaps can be frustrating as a reader, but they force us to confront our need to understand the trauma of others. Why do we have to be convinced with explicit details? Can’t it be enough to believe the barest truth, and celebrate the joy and healing that we can bring?

With all its exploration of difficult subjects, Stubborn Archivist is not without its laugh-out-loud moments. In both life and literary fiction, things are never too dire for a healthy debate about whether or not Mr. Darcy was going down on Elizabeth Bennet. This is not a story of moving past trauma, as if that’s ever something that can be done. It is a story about learning to live with a fractured identity in a traumatized body and allowing yourself to feel joy in spite of it.

Rodrigues Fowler has crafted an intimate, visceral debut novel that remains hopeful and accessible. Stubbornness is not always a refusal; sometimes, it’s a determination to keep living, sharing, and remembering, even when it’s difficult.

Rose Ferrao

Stubborn Archivist is published by Fleet

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