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Emerging writers of the Amazon: putting vanishing voices in print

Steven Bird demonstrates the use of a smartphone for recording oral literature. Steven Bird

Emerging writers of the Amazon: putting vanishing voices in print

Steven Bird demonstrates the use of a smartphone for recording oral literature. Steven Bird

My team and I recently ventured into the Brazilian Amazon to record the Tembé language and preserve some of its stories for future generations. This built on earlier work with our mobile phone app that lets users record stories in a given language and then translate them phrase-by-phrase.

Three weeks ago, we attempted to move from the spoken word to written language – a road less travelled, for us and the people we worked with.

Pressed between the massive Rio Negro and impenetrable rainforest, in a small clearing deep in the Brazilian Amazon, lies the little Indian village of Terra Preta, with its 150 inhabitants.

I stepped from a boat and climbed up to the bluff, together with my little team, Katie Gelbart and Isaac McAlister. This was the next stage of our little exploration of the linguistic diversity of Brazil.

We received a warm welcome and food was laid out before us – a meal of piranha! Then we planned our work: for the first time, the stories of this village would be captured in writing, in the Nhengatu language, a former lingua franca of northern Brazil.

For the next four days, the Nhengatu speakers put aside their fishing, hunting, canoe building and manioc farming in order to tell stories and to write; old stories that have been passed down countless generations; stories about the animals of the rainforest; stories about the founding of the village; stories about lives that straddle local and western culture in individual ways.

Two weeks later, their efforts were rewarded in the form of a locally published, illustrated book (available in digital form in the Internet Archive).

And in the process, these villagers became writers.

Nhengatu story book, with Portuguese translations. Steven Bird

Putting oral culture in written form

Most of the world’s languages have no established body of written literature. But they almost always have a rich oral literature, and the speakers often value storytelling. As these languages fall out of use, unique histories and voices are lost forever.

This work began in the highlands of Papua New Guinea last year, when I found speakers of 15 local languages – 40 people in all – and brought them to the University of Goroka.

After two weeks of writing, we’d published a 20,000-word storybook. Watching them work, I’d been surprised how difficult it was for them to transmit their stories in written form, until it dawned on me that they had never done this before.

Stories were spoken, not written. As a result, many of the stories we collected were unnatural and had limited documentary and cultural value.

Recording and playing children’s stories Steven Bird

In Brazil, things would be different. I handed out a dozen smartphones loaded with our Aikuma recording software and gave a quick demonstration. I asked for a volunteer to tell a story, and soon we had young and old alike telling stories, in front of the group, or off on their own.

Once recorded, each story became available on all the other phones via our temporary WiFi network. Anyone could listen to any of the recordings on any of the phones. Now everyone understood the concept of online sharing: this phone was a kind of megaphone, that their speech was instantly public.

Writers’ sweatshop in the Amazon Steven Bird

The children participated too, listening to stories from the adults, telling their own stories, and providing illustrations for the storybook. But the reality of language loss was brought home to us: the children told their stories in Portuguese, and they simply didn’t understand when stories were told in Nhengatu.

Even more alarming was the fact few adults were concerned about the loss of their mother tongue.

After two days of recording we switched to two days of writing. People with no previous training learnt to transcribe the recordings, edit them down, move things into a clearer order, and fix the grammar.

They worked tirelessly on their hand-written copies, and then helped Katie, Isaac and me to make further edits directly on our laptops. By the end of four days we had a complete manuscript and just had to insert the children’s drawings.

Technology and writing in the Amazon

The goal of this research has been to develop mobile technologies to speed up the work of “language documentation” – capturing the world’s small languages before they fall out of use.

But an important spin-off is “language revitalisation” – promoting use of the language to the next generation. Our presence, our work, and our technology showed these marginalised villagers their language, knowledge, and voices had value in the modern world. (We’re not alone in this enterprise: for example the Ma! Iwaidja Phone App is popular mobile phone software for talking dictionaries.)

Transcription of the Curupira Story in Nhengatu Steven Bird

Working in such isolation has its frustrations and contradictions. We could have power to charge the phones and computers, but then we had to contend with the noise of the generator together with loud music and power tools.

We could communicate with these villagers because they were bilingual in Portuguese and were accustomed to outside contact, but this was only because they had largely abandoned their traditional culture and as a consequence, had few storytellers left.

We visited for four days, Friday to Monday, thinking the weekend would be free, but they were distracted with inter-village soccer competitions on the weekend; our most productive times were Friday and Monday when they could easily abandon their weekday activities!

Finally, although women made up half the village population and they keenly observed our work, they would not agree to be recorded.

Early one morning, I swam far out into the vastness of the Rio Negro, which is an astonishing 15 kilometres wide. I looked back up at the little village on bluff.

How was it that this place felt like home to me even though so much about it was so foreign? This place where people could live sustainably at the edge of the river and the rainforest with no cash economy.

Where men made canoes and fished. Where women cultivated crops and made jewellery out of açaí seeds. Where the entire village met for a communal breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

I recalled the expectant faces of Jonas, Arnaldo, Joel, Samuel, Clodoaldo, Olavo, and others as we discussed the preparation of a story book. Floating out there in the vast black river, I realised these people were learning to become writers like me; immersed together in language.

As we left, they made us promise to come back. They would write more stories, and they would take us deeper into the rainforest to preserve the stories of more remote villages. Next year, I hope!

I’d like to close with the words of Jonas Aleixo, from the book we published, here translated into English:

The Tale of the Curupira

Once upon a time, a man went out into the forest to collect sorva. He very much enjoyed working with sorva, cipó and the roots of the piassava tree, for this was how he earned his living. He would spend two or three weeks at a stretch deep in the forest working with these products.

On one particular day, the man came to the foot of a sorva tree. He climbed the tree at once and began to extract the tree’s juice. After a while, from up in the sorva tree, the man heard a strange sound, as if someone were running through the forest, running to get something.

When the man heard this noise, a sort of buzzing sound, he looked down to the ground. There he saw what seemed to be a little man. It was what in Nhengatu we call the Curupira.

The Curupira Wikimedia Commons

So the man stared down at this person that he had never before seen in all his life. He noticed that it was covered entirely in long, thick hair, so much so that one could not see its face; and its feet were pointed backward.

Before climbing up into the sorva tree, the man had put his rifle down and left it at the foot of the tree. Having now seen this creature down on the ground, the man yelled down at it, “Leave my rifle right where it is!”

At this moment, the creature picked up the karauatá where the man had been collecting the juice of the sorva tree and began to pour it out. Seeing this, the man became very angry and he yelled down: “Look little one! You had better leave that karauatá be or I’m going to come down there and I’m going to give you a beating!”

So the man came down from up in the tree and he cut himself a switch. The first lashing that he gave to that creature, it just took it. The second lashing that he gave it, again the creature remained impassive.

But as the man swung his switch for a third time, the creature called the Curupira suddenly grasped the stick and struck the man with it, knocking him to the ground where he promptly fainted.

As the man lay on the ground, the Curupira picked up the container of sorva juice, picked up the man’s rifle and finally picked up the man himself and hoisted him upon its shoulder. It then took him back to where the man had left his canoe.

Jonas recounting the story of the Curupira Steven Bird

When the man came to, he was lying on the riverbank right by his own canoe. He looked behind him and saw the Curupira sitting not far away from him.

Now the man was afraid. He crawled to his canoe. Turning around again, he saw the creature once more now far away. The man got into his canoe and began to row. He headed straight for home.

When he finally arrived home and his wife saw him, she was surprised, since her husband usually returned from the forest in the afternoon. This time, though, he had come back quite early.

The man’s wife said to him: “My husband, why have you arrived so early? You always come back later than this: three in the afternoon, six in the afternoon … But now you’ve come back early. What could have happened?”

So the man said to his wife: “Look, I’ve been through something truly terrifying! There in the forest, a creature appeared, the likes of which I have never seen before in my life. It gave me a beating and I must have fainted.

"But, that same creature picked me up and carried me to the river where he left me right by my canoe. That is why I came back so early today.”

The man no longer knew what to say or how to explain what had happened to him for he was too frightened. It was then that he began to feel his body ache …

(And there I will end this tale that I have told for you, you all who are white people, here listening to this tale. Thank you very much!)

Further reading:

Cyberlinguistics: recording the world’s vanishing voices

Androids in Amazonia: recording an endangered language