Heralded as the most important Brazilian novel of the century so far, Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior (translated by Johnny Lorenz), is a beautiful and moving Brazilian tour de force, covering themes of family, spirituality, slavery, and political struggle.
Here we talk to Paola Saliby, the Brazilian illustrator and visual artist, who worked on the hypnotic and dream-like illustration featured on the cover.
Can you walk us through the process for creating the artwork for Crooked Plow?
When Verso Books invited me to illustrate the cover of Crooked Plow, they shared the two directions they were looking for: firstly, an illustration featuring the two sisters, including the mystical knife described in the book. Secondly, an illustration featuring the two sisters, perhaps at distance, in which the rugged eastern Brazilian landscape is central to the design.
I had read the book in 2020 [when it was originally published in Brazil], and the story had a profound impact on me. So, I went back to find some highlighted passages as a way to seek inspiration. I also did research on images of quilombola communities (Afro-Brazilian communities formed by escaped enslaved people) and photographs that would help me recreate the landscape of Bahia's Sertão, where the story takes place.
On the left is the first illustrative direction, featuring the mystical knife featured in the novel. On the right is the second illustrative direction, eventually developed into the final cover artwork.
The book begins with a shocking scene in which the sisters find a knife and cut out one of their tongues. Were you tempted to rely on that imagery for the cover?
It's truly a thrilling scene that sparked my interest to continue reading, so I was happy when I was asked to include the knife in one of the cover versions.
The other idea, which was chosen to become the final version, conveys different sensations compared to the knife version (which may be more intense). The final cover has a sensitivity that I personally find throughout the book. The relationship between the sisters, the strength of family bonds, and the way the land and the environment assume the role of living characters within the story are aspects that left a lasting impression on me while I was reading it. The land plays a central role in the lives of Quilombola communities, representing their history, identity, sustenance, and autonomy. It is a fundamental element for the preservation of their traditions.
A book's cover design is often the window into its story, what were you hoping to create with this design?
I would like more people to read Itamar's work because this story will become a classic of Brazilian literature. I like to think that someone can connect with an author and a story through that initial contact with the cover. I hope to contribute to people reading more about Brazil, about the history of quilombolas and Afro-Brazilian religions, about the roots of racism in Brazil and the enduring marks of the past.
Crooked Plow has an incredibly beautiful and evocative literary narrative covering familial and political struggle, in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery. Was this a book that you read in the original Portuguese? As a Brazilian artist, how did you connect with this book?
I read Crooked Plow in 2020, and like many Brazilians, I was fascinated by Itamar's writing and was deeply moved by the narrative. But it's important to say that the story is inspired by a reality that’s completely different from mine as a white woman from Southeast Brazil, the country's wealthiest region.
Brazil is a huge country, characterized by significant economic and social disparities, so living in Brazil doesn't necessarily bring you closer to the reality of the majority of the population. White Brazilians often grow up away from discussions about race in Brazil. It is only recently that progressive white individuals have become more aware of how Brazil's history has deeply affected the Black population and Indigenous peoples.
Reading stories like Crooked Plow is one of the small steps we can take towards a deeper understanding of our country's history and how it impacts the present. In order to understand what is happening today, we must reflect on the past and confront the discomfort that often arises for us as white individuals. Through fiction, Itamar is able to connect us with struggles, life experiences, and fragments of history that have been erased over time, making us think about our actions and our role within the context in which we live.
You have commented in previous interviews on the value of art in shaping our understanding of the world - did you have similar thoughts with the cover design for this book?
I believe that illustration plays a role as a facilitating tool in the process of learning and understanding the world. The cover of a book, for example, represents an initial invitation for the reader to engage in a reading that can enrich their life in different ways, giving them a chance to learn something new. The images should spark our curiosity about the stories to come. That's how I like to think about my work.
Crooked Plow is a widely known and respected book in Brazil, and it is gaining the recognition it deserves in other parts of the world. I confess that it is a bit scary and intimidating to bring a single image to life that will accompany such a significant story.
Were their other sketches or ideas you had that did not make it to the final version? Is it difficult to let go of those creative directions?
As I mentioned earlier, there was another direction for the cover that was discarded: it's always tough when it comes to book covers, trying to pick just one image that captures the whole story. There are so many important elements and memorable parts that we want to include in the illustration. So, it can be a bit challenging to accept this limitation.
In this interview you talk about "saudade" - a Portuguese word which is "kind of impossible to translate to other languages, but it resembles the feeling of missing something or someone, sort of a nostalgic emotional state". The cover for Crooked Plow has a dreamy, emotional, almost magical quality - was this idea of "saudade" something you were trying to convey with the cover?
I believe that this feeling is there in some way because this is a story where grief is present throughout the narrative. Is not that this particular feeling (saudade) was in my mind when I was designing the cover, but it is often present in my personal work, and I believe that this aspect connects with passages in the book.
What are some of your favorite books and covers?
From Brazilian Authors:
- Cabeça de Santo, by Socorro Acioli. The novel was written while Acioli participated in Gabriel García Márquez's workshop. It tells the story of a young man who discovers the extraordinary gift of hearing women's prayers to Saint Anthony
- Pequena Coreografia do Adeus, by Aline Bei. Aline has a very unique writing style, and her text has rhythm and intensity
- Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector
- Just Kids, by Patti Smith
- The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante
- In the Eye of the Wild, by Nastassja Martin.
- Happening, by Anne Ernaux
- Stay With Me, by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
- Optic Nerve, by Maria Gainza
- Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee
- The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg
- Pequena Coreografia do Adeus which I mentioned just now. Louise Bourgeois is one of my favorite artists, so not only do I love this book, but I'm also passionate about the cover. I think the text and the painting are a perfect match! Graphic design: Julia Massagão.
- O Avesso da Pele, by Jeferson Tenório: Great book, and I really like the painting that illustrates the cover of the Brazilian edition. The artwork is called "Trampolim" and is part of a series called Banhistas, by the visual artist Antonio Obá. Graphic design: Alceu Chiesorin Nunes.
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion. The classic cover by Lawrence Ratzkin.
- Poeta Chileno, by Alejandro Zambra: The book is in my upcoming reading list, but I've always liked the cover of the Brazilian edition illustrated by Spanish illustrator Jesús Cisneros. Graphic Design: Elisa Von Randow.
- The Brazilian edition of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Cover by Brazilian artist Marcelo Cipis.
- The Hours, by Michael Cunningham: I’m in love with the cover (front and back) of the combined edition with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, designed by Pablo Delcan.
- The Virginia Woolf series by the Finnish artist Aino-Maija Metsola, published by Penguin Random House UK.
Are there other Brazilian writers that you love/books that that you would recommend we publish into English OR (if they are already available in English) would recommend to our readers?
In addition to the Brazilian writers I’ve mentioned before, I also recommend all the books written by Ailton Krenak. Krenak is an indigenous leader, environmentalist, philosopher, poet, and Brazilian writer from the Crenaque indigenous ethnicity. Some of his work has been published in English, such as Ideas to Postpone the End of the World and Life is Not Useful.
O desejo dos outros: Uma etnografia dos sonhos Yanomami by the Brazilian anthropologist Hanna Limulja. The research investigates the Yanomami culture through the dreams that the indigenous people shared with her over the course of a year, exploring the significance and impact of dreaming in their everyday lives.
Paola Saliby is a Brazilian illustrator and visual artist living and working in Lisbon. She is inspired by her studies in psychoanalysis, literature, music and the natural world. You can find all her work here.
Crooked Plow by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated by Johnny Lorenz, is out now.
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