New Myths for the Era of Displacement: On Fábio Zuker’s “The Life and Death of a Minke Whale in the Amazon: Dispatches from the Brazilian Rainforest”
By Eiren CaffallMay 27, 2022
The Life and Death of a Minke Whale in the Amazon: Dispatches from the Brazilian Rainforest by Fábio Zuker
In Fábio Zuker’s new essay collection, The Life and Death of a Minke Whale in the Amazon: Dispatches from the Brazilian Rainforest, translated from the Portuguese by Ezra E. Fitz and illustrated by Indigenous artist Gustavo Caboco, people, plants, water, animals, and identities are displaced. A whale breaches on the banks of a freshwater tributary. Rivers infiltrate houses. Poison blankets schoolrooms. Everything is rearranged in the wake of colonialism and extractivist capitalism. Zuker explores a new kind of storytelling, one that reports the truths witnessed and investigated by the people of the Amazon amid horrifying pressures. He honors the poetic myths they’ve newly created, combinations of language, place, symbol, and politics that are sorely needed as they navigate life in their rapidly altering home.
The titular creature, found stranded on a bank of the Tapajós River in 2007, “was not immediately identified as a whale — an animal that was absolutely unimaginable” in the rainforest. It is thought that perhaps it was heading to Antarctic feeding grounds when it lost its way and swam into the Amazon, eventually drifting into a tributary. Some imagined it to be only a moss-covered tree trunk. “As time went by […] rumors spread that this was an animal: the great snake of the Tapajós River, perhaps; from the riverine myth about a woman who gives birth to twin snakes […] a variant of a pre-Colombian Indigenous myth.”
Once the creature was accurately identified, the community — living in a battlefield region of heavy extraction — tried to get it back to sea. Their efforts failed, and the whale’s skeleton became an exhibit in the local museum. Ultimately, the community invented a new story in which the cetacean came to the Tapajós caught in a ship that had come to dump salt and steal fresh river water. Zuker describes local people’s “poetic conception” as a “way of giving meaning to the world as it transforms around them.”
Zuker is an excellent witness to transformations. A journalist and PhD candidate, the São Paulo native abandoned art history to travel the Amazon as a reporter. Drawing on the complexities of geopolitics, the experiences of individuals, and the ways these map onto legend, he has created a book that is slim and readable and moves quickly through both the real pain of change and the dreamy immersion in the place and its people and stories.
He writes, “I wanted to try to understand what life means in this part of the planet, which is so much discussed and yet so poorly understood.” He knows he won’t be able to live the way his subjects do and lets us see the grind of the reporter’s life, traveling by boat, sleeping in a hammock, getting up to do it all over again. “Conduct interviews. Get startled by a snake. A failed attempt at catching fish. A failed attempt to shoot a paca [a rodent native to Central and South America].” While he is shopping for ammunition, sellers size him up as anything but a hunter, which feels right since the skill he does possess is writing this world into vibrant life. He recounts the experiences of his subjects — the farmers losing their land to monoculture crops, the refugees at the bus station fleeing Venezuela, the traditional healers recovering from attempts to destroy their practice, the children grief-stricken about the whale, the teachers who must keep their students from playing in fields covered in fresh chemical fertilizer, the first Indigenous Brazilian to die of COVID-19. All their reports arrive in the text in full flower, alive and unmediated by heavy direction, as Zuker lays out his path for us to follow.
His language leans into the poetry of place. Leaving the city to report on Jair Bolsonaro’s crusade to deregulate the Brazilian timber industry, he describes his feeling as his boat joins the Tapajós River at the confluence of the Amazon and Arapiuns: “You are a speck in the middle of the sea, even while you’re in the heart of the largest rainforest on the planet.” The farmers on the edge of the pesticide fields eventually “become exiles”: “They flee to the city. Or they simply remain, like Seu Curica’s cashew trees: listless, unable to bear fruit, out of touch with the land to which they once belonged.”
He allows his interview subjects their own poetry. A farmer aligned with Bolsonaro says of the deforestation, as if it were desirable, “When the light comes in, you stop having those old visions.” The daughter of the first Indigenous Brazilian to die from COVID-19 captures a poetic irony about her mother, born in a canoe on the river: “Despite being a child of the waters, my mother didn’t know how to swim.” Dileudo Guimarães dos Santos, president of the Quilombo do Bom Jardim residents’ association, offers this delicate lament: “If the forest goes away, obviously the birds, monkeys, paca, agoutis […] the trees themselves, will try to find somewhere else to live.” Dario Yanomami, one of the most important Indigenous leaders in the country, prophesies, “When he finishes off the Yanomami with gold mining and disease, vengeance will fall on the head of the white man. The rivers will disappear underground, a heavy rain will destroy both the city and the jungle. This is our secret, and we will tell them.”
In the work Zuker has chosen, there is no more critical requirement than listening to Indigenous experience, science, and history in the face of disaster. A 2021 study by the Indigenous Environmental Network demonstrated that Indigenous activists’ resistance to extractivist projects in North America “has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions” in the past decade. Indigenous movements are working to change how we discuss the crisis at governmental, legal, and interpersonal levels, and how we fight the colonialism and extractivist capitalism that have shaped and created the collapse. Zuker is trying to find the voices that can help the reader understand:
There’s the data collected by satellites and there are the daily personal experiences of destruction. It is precisely in the tension between these two scales that I am trying to write about the ongoing disaster, about the fate of the rainforest and its ways of life. Sheer numbers can’t do it. They don’t communicate enough to fully account for what’s going on in the Amazon today.
This is the complex task ahead of those writers and journalists writing on the edges of the land and watching its collapse. In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh argues that climate change should also be woven into the fabric of contemporary fiction:
Are the currents of global warming too wild to be navigated in the accustomed barques of narration? But the truth, as is now widely acknowledged, is that we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm: if certain literary forms are unable to negotiate these torrents, then they will have failed — and their failures will have to be counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis.
In 2020, David Remnick and Henry Finder published The Fragile Earth: Writing from The New Yorker on Climate Change. In an interview with Kerri Arsenault that same year, Remnick said of the task before writers tackling collapse, “Storytelling is essential. You have to reach people in a way that gets into the mind and into the heart as only storytelling can.” However, the problem with storytelling is often centered on who gets to do it. Nature writing and environmental journalism have too often been the province of writers with advanced education and platform — English speakers with money. All the storytelling in the world will not matter if it does not integrate a writer’s awareness of who they are in relation to the subject they cover and the narrators they are displacing. All the storytelling in the world will not matter unless it centers marginalized voices from communities devastated by environmental racism and extraction, unless it insists on seeking out their stories and helping them to publish.
Independent, small press books that allow in a writer’s voice, that take risks with form and structure, that privilege complexity may provide the best answer to how to write the story of collapse. With Zuker, the language, the thoughtful observation, and the work of witnessing this profound time of alteration never falters. In his prose, in his conclusions, and with his keen eye, he allows us to know him in the areas of his expertise, and in the areas of his displacement and wandering. While he does not over-identify with the people he documents, neither does he set himself apart from the world in which they find themselves.
In one thrilling essay, Zuker describes taking a canoe out for an afternoon in a riverside village. Seeing a dark shape in the water, he imagines it is a massive river otter. On closer inspection, it is a black panther. The world, so strange and rich, holds both his own body and that of this cat. He, too, holds his subjects in the same hybrid way. Like the land, they may be controlled by the forces of agribusiness with its forest fires, dams, mines, and chemical fertilizers. They may be forced from stewardship toward participation in the market. “It’s hard to picture anything more perverse than a private economic agent using a scheme of seduction to transform people who depend on a certain territory into their own predators,” Zuker writes. He shows the people who sell their land to corporations only to become the refugees under the bridge. When “this primary bond with the land is put on hold, those who once lived in the rainforest join a mass of people […] who make up the bulk of the population in Amazonian cities.”
And yet these people have a key vision of the collapsing world as it is, simultaneously clear-eyed and poetic.
Meanwhile, Zuker aims to bring “different realities into friction,” creating “a certain dynamic, a flow that corrodes from within every form and structure designed to contain it.” The best environmental storytelling should strive for what Zuker claims for his book: he hopes, he writes, “[t]o not write about something. To not write with something. To hold my own world back even slightly. To try to articulate even a few of these other worlds. To find a style that creeps slowly, like a vine.”
His work does corrode form and structure. The stranding of rural people in urban poverty mirrors the minke whale’s story. These strandings are tragedies that resist what we expect from journalism. These strandings invite myth and poetry, conflation and syncretism, resistance to extraction and solidarity in struggle. These strandings invite whales, fires, insects, jaguars, and vines.
Eiren Caffall is a writer and musician based in Chicago. Her writing on loss and illness, oceans, and extinction has appeared in Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Al Jazeera, Literary Hub, Minding Nature, and The Rumpus, and she is the screenwriter for the short film Becoming Ocean.
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