CORDEL – Literature by and for the people

Literatura de Cordel or Cordel Literature, perfectly named as they are small pamphlet books displayed traditionally on strings (cordel is Portuguese for string) is part of Brasil’s rich literary tradition.   Found mainly in the North East of the country it is a literary tradition which is delightfully accessible and unpretentious and has a simple and direct approach to story telling.

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The stories in these small booklets are short and concise and cover just about every genre and style available in literature generally. Told in poetry they are generally composed by unschooled poets who are considered to have the ‘gift of poetry’. Printed in 8, 16 or 32 pages they are photocopied and staple bound and then sold around the country-fairs, towns and cities of the North East of the country.

 

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There are no subjects that are out of bounds and poetry, fantasy, romance, political tracts, everyday advice and historical fiction all appear in this accessible and highly affordable medium.

Often illustrated with woodcut images they feature art by some of the countries most loved artists including the wonderful Borges whose workshop is open to visitors in the state of Pernambuco. IMG_2853

Some have colour covers with a decidedly commercial appeal.IMG_2856 (1)

Much of the canon of Cordel literature celebrates the lives of the infamous Lampiao (Virgulino Ferreira da Silva) and Maria Bonita (Maria Déia,) who roamed the sertao with their gang.   When they were caught and killed in 1938 their heads were taken on tour of the regions cities and towns to ensure that the population of the backlands believed that this Robin Hood figure and his beautiful girlfriend had indeed been vanquished.  IMG_2857

Cordel literature can still be found in the Northeastern Brazilian states, and the diversity and complexity and sheer brilliance of their design and subject matter are a joy to behold.

Bored? Here’s an extract from issue 1

One of the world’s most famous princesses is an impostor, claims Asian novelist Nury Vittachi.

EIGHTY-FIVE people turned up for my creative writing class, and all of them were Chinese. I asked them to tell me the name of the story about a girl who wins a prince because her foot fits into a tiny slipper.

“Cinderella,” they chorused as one. And the name of the author?

“Walt Disney,” they trumpeted in unison.

And where was the girl from? “America”.

I had the same conversation with my own three children, all of whom are Chinese and adopted, and they gave exactly the same answers.

In fact, the name of the girl with petite feet was Yeh Xian. She lived in China, the same country where my students and my children were born. She had black hair.

The author was a man named Tuan Ch’eng-Shih. The story was anthologised in a Chinese short story collection more than a millennium ago. It was lifted by Western authors in the 1600s, making it one of the first notable examples of the piracy of creative intellectual property.

As a novelist living in Hong Kong, I spend a lot of time thinking about story structures. Anyone who knows tales from the east as well as the usual Western canon of folk stories cannot help but notice something about Cinderella. In Western folk tales, girls marry princes because they are beautiful, or clever, or both. In no Western story does a commoner win a prince because of a body part measurement. (“Your tibia is 32.5 centimetres! Marry me and share my kingdom!”).

You only need to think about it for ten seconds to realise Cinderella could only have come from ancient China, where the smallness of a girl’s feet was a key factor in the measurement of her beauty. Only there does the story make any sense at all.

But let’s not make this just a dinner party observation, or a footnote in literary history. In 1999, Adeline Yen Mah wrote an autobiography called A Chinese Cinderella. No, Ms. Mah. You’re not a Chinese Cinderella. You ARE Cinderella. Let’s make it what it is: it’s a tragedy. Yeh Xian has been kidnapped and has been replaced by an impostor: a characterless Disney blonde. We need to rescue her. This actually matters.

 

The rest of this article will be published in our first issue.