Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity    April 2000 Volume XXIII Number 1


Discovering the Portuguese Speaking World

Kathleen Mills

Childhood language experiences were important to Sabrina Karpa-Wilson, an assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University Bloomington, who was raised bilingual in Brazil. The child of an American father and a Brazilian mother, Karpa-Wilson grew up speaking Portuguese and English. Karpa-Wilson came to the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of Washington. She completed her doctorate in romance languages from Harvard University in 1998.

Portuguese is the seventh most-widely spoken language in the world and the principal language of Brazil, Portugal, Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde, Guiné Bissau, São Tomé, Macau, and East Timor.


Karpa-Wilson is in her second year as director of Portuguese studies at IU, where Portuguese shares a department with Spanish. Many of her students combine Spanish with Portuguese as well. “I have many people coming over from Spanish, and that makes sense because they can learn it quickly,” she says. Students who are fluent in Spanish can be conversational in Portuguese after just a semester of intensive study, Karpa-Wilson says. “Often they will have trouble keeping the languages apart,” she says. “After two semesters of intensive (Portuguese) study, students usually begin to settle down into the language and can carry out conversations on topics of basic to intermediate difficulty with reasonable fluency.”

They usually take Portuguese, Karpa-Wilson says, not to fulfill a foreign language requirement, but to increase their chances of working in Portuguese-speaking parts of the world after graduation.“They might be planning to work in Latin America and it makes sense, then, for them to be able speak Portuguese.” Given the importance of Brazil in the Latin American context, due to its size, both in land mass and population, and its economic dynamism, students interested in Latin America do well to study Portuguese. It is the language spoken by a majority of the population in South America.

Aside from Brazil, Portuguese is spoken in Portugal and a few areas of Africa, including Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. Several graduate students take Karpa-Wilson’s Portuguese classes because they are researching in a field that may take them to Latin America, Europe, or Africa. Karpa-Wilson’s Portuguese classes include graduate students in anthropology, folklore, history, and political science, as well as Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian literature. (“Luso” refers to Portugal and comes from “Lusitania,” the Latin name for that region of the Roman Empire).

“I find the students here are good and interested, and my classes are more varied in age than when I taught at Harvard,” Karpa-Wilson says. Her IU students “have a lot of prior knowledge that they bring into the classroom.”

Karpa-Wilson is currently on leave, working on a book project on twentieth-century Brazilian autobiography. In the fall she will teach intensive beginning Portuguese and an introduction the literatures of the Portuguese-speaking world. The study of Portuguese ebbs and flows in popularity depending on various trends, she says. “If Brazil’s fortunes go up and people are interested in working there, then the numbers of people studying Portuguese go up. Right now, it’s fairly healthy.”

Bloomington’s Brazilian community is small but energetic, according to Karpa-Wilson, with a Brazilian film series and Brazilian popular and classical music bands that perform regularly at Second Story and in the School of Music. Weekly coffee hours are held for Portuguese-speaking students. “Those kinds of things are important. They extend beyond the fifty minutes of class,” Karpa-Wilson says. If Karpa-Wilson could change just one thing about language study at IU, she would increase class time. “We have fifty minutes, Monday through Thursday, but it’s just not enough. Students need a strong emphasis on oral communication,” she says.

In her course on the literatures of the Portuguese-speaking world, Karpa-Wilson’s students learn about, among other things, the relatively new tradition of Brazilian autobiographical writing. In Europe, autobiography has a centuries-old tradition. But in Brazil, autobiography has really only come into its own in this century.

Brazilian writers have tended to focus more on community than self, she says. “There is not much autobiography in Brazil before the twentieth century,” she explains. “There is poetry and there are short pieces, and the novel gets its start in the nineteenth century, but there are few autobiographies.”

Karpa-Wilson says nonfiction introspective writing was not acceptable in Brazil before the twentieth century. “You could do it—have introspection—in the novel, but otherwise, people didn’t do it,” she says. In her research, Karpa-Wilson explores twentieth-century Brazilian autobiographical writing by looking at the work of Graciliano Ramos, among others. Ramos wrote on social and political themes, mostly in the 1930s and 1940s. “I’ve always been fascinated with him,” Karpa-Wilson says. “He is a major Brazilian writer, but he is studied less than some others. . . . That whole period—the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s in Brazil—has been studied from particular perspectives, but there are still many issues to be explored. Some of the major issues I am examining are how personal memory and historical thinking engage with each other in the writing of the period, and how the increased attention, in autobiographical writing, to personal memory and the private sphere might at times foster a new critical perspective on socio-political realities, and at others favor ideologically conservative discourses.”

Autobiographical discourse was a favored ideological vehicle in Brazil in the 1930s, according to Karpa-Wilson’s dissertation, “Memory against the Grain: Autobiographical Practice in Graciliano Ramos.” These autobiographical writings were driven by national-political agendas, and they legitimized autobiographical writing. “Suddenly, it was valid to talk about the details of what you did as a child,” Karpa-Wilson says.

Ramos, who wrote four novels and two major autobiographical narratives, along with various shorter texts, pushed the boundaries of fiction and autobiography. His Infância, published in 1945, was more than a description of his childhood. It was also a portrait of a region (northeastern Brazil) and a series of social structures (authoritarian political organizations), Karpa-Wilson says. Infância broke new ground. “Graciliano’s autobiography deviates drastically from a certain escapist literary construction of childhood. It inaugurates a new discursive space in Brazilian letters by focusing entirely on the first eleven years of the writer’s life, from 1892 to 1903, in a representation of his psychological and moral development that is far from magical,” she writes.

In Infância, Ramos used an abused child’s helpless position as a metaphor for Brazil’s oppressive socio-political structures. “The unjust, authoritarian behavior the father displays is embedded in a larger system of ‘justice’ that informs a whole gamut of unequal social relations,” Karpa-Wilson writes. When the book was published, the critics were shocked by Ramos’s indictment of Brazilian power structures, she says. Ramos’s narrative “offered an unflattering X-ray of the nation and the mechanisms that produced and sustained it.”

Ramos X-rayed his culture and himself. “In his fiction and his non-fiction, he was interested in the process of memory and self-analysis,” Karpa-Wilson explains. “But he was also interested in using Brazilian society as a subject. He blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction.”

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