A Missionary for Brazilian Literature

Domício Coutinho (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Domício Coutinho (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Domício Coutinho is the unlikely founder of the Brazilian Endowment for the Arts (BEA), which holds the only Brazilian library open to the public in the United States and has organized hundreds of literary events since 2004.

As the son of a single mother in the destitute Brazil of the 1930s, Coutinho moved to the U.S. in his twenties and spent decades dreaming about a meeting place for the intellectuals of the Brazilian diaspora, a center where they and others could at last meet and discuss their literature and culture. But more than a decade later, on a regular monthly literary night at BEA, one can usually count the number of attendees with two hands.

“Everyone is talking about Brazil. The country’s food, Carnival and music are all very known and celebrated, but our literature, unfortunately, is not,” Coutinho says, in the building on East 52nd Street he bought after five decades of successful investments in real estate. There, on the first floor, are the offices and meeting rooms of the BEA, as well as the “Machado de Assis Library,” with its more than 6,000 volumes. The library is named after a mid-19th century Brazilian writer.

Luminaries like fiction writer Jorge Amado, whose “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” was brought to the screen, and Clarice Lispector, who used Rio de Janeiro as her literary canvas, have gained a following in the U.S. since their death. But dozens of young novelists and poets have emerged from the rich culture of the country, and their work has not gained the same traction outside South America as has the work of Spanish writers in neighboring countries on the continent.

Professor Kenneth David Jackson, director of undergraduate studies in Portuguese at Yale University, has participated in events organized by BEA. He believes that “Brazilian literature lacks a significant presence in the United States because it is lost in the American creation of ‘Latin American literature,’ which is understood as Spanish.”

Jackson says, “Coutinho deserves our respect for all that he has been able to accomplish.” But, he adds, “it is a bit anachronistic to see this kind of quixotic effort by an individual in one of the cultural capitals of the world.”

Coutinho himself would like his center to have stronger connections to universities and cultural institutions, and he detects some stirrings of interest in Brazilian literature. “Things have slowly started to change. We now have more Americans, mostly businessmen and tourists, who want to learn about the country before going there,” he says.

Professor Coutinho, as everyone at BEA calls him, knows there is still a long way ahead – and that at age 82 he will not live long enough to see his center thrive. Despite the occasional donation, the $60 annual memberships and the money made from renting out the space, most of the budget comes from Coutinho.

“The future of BEA is something that I have thought a lot about,” the Brazilian says. “My family, my sons, they all have instructions that the work is to be continued. This building will continue to host BEA and they will leave money to continue the work for many years.”

The Brazilian has also been looking for someone with the right profile to lead the institution. Among the more than 35 writers and intellectuals associated with BEA, Coutinho seems to have found that person in Lisa Papi, an adjunct associate professor of Art and Design at St. John’s University. “She’s been working with us for four years, serving as the director of our literary program, and we share the same vision,” he says. “For now, she seems like the right person to continue this work.”

From Caaporã to Manhattan

Coutinho was born in northeast Brazil, three months after the death of his father. With seven kids to raise, his mother sold everything and left the small village of Caaporã for a larger city.

Those years, Brazilian kids had three paths out of poverty: join a popular band, become a soccer player or become a priest. Coutinho joined the seminary at 12 and a decade later set off for Rome, where for three years he studied philosophy and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. One year before being ordained a priest, he quit. “I just felt that, for many reasons, including the celibacy, it wasn’t the life for me,” he says.

Instead, he toured Europe with a friend and in Vienna met a beautiful 16-year-old blonde. “We dated, very diplomatically,” Coutinho says. He returned to Brazil to finish college, but promised his new love he would return for her. They corresponded for three years (Coutinho was fluent in German) and finally the Brazilian booked a ticket to return to Austria in the winter of 1959, with a short stopover in New York.

The Brazilian Endowment for the Arts on East 52nd St. (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

The Brazilian Endowment for the Arts on East 52nd Street. (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

On his New York visit, he passed a church at Canal Street and West Broadway, and went inside to confess. His English failed him, so he tried Latin. The priest was impressed and asked if he wanted to become a sacristan.

In Brazil, only kids were sacristans, says Coutinho. But when the priest offered him two meals a day and a minimum wage, he decided to try living in New York, and wrote that he was putting off his return to Austria until the summer.

Within a few months, he found a job as a baggage handler for Pan American Airlines at JFK Airport. By the time he finally made it to Austria, the couple knew the romance was over. Coutinho had fallen for New York.

Eventually, he married a Brazilian woman and had two sons. After renting for a couple of years, he says, he decided to buy a three-family house in Queens for $14,000. His family lived in one of the apartments and rented out the other two, covering the mortgage. Three years later, he says he sold it for $55,000 and bought another house, then a third, and yet another. He made a fortune.

“I never saw myself as a businessman, but it was so easy. The opportunities were right in front of me, I just had to go ahead and do it,” says Coutinho, who worked at the Pan Am, eventually in office jobs, for more than 20 years, finally retiring at 55.

But he wasn’t ready to be idle. As a kid, the Brazilian had won a school award for a short story, and he never stopped writing – memoirs and poems, some of which he published. As his real estate business started to grow, he’d had to abandon his focus on writing.

So, in his 50s, Coutinho went back to school. He earned a Master of Arts in Literature and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York (CUNY). He then pursued a teaching career in a program designed by Fordham University, Marymount, and Saint Vincent College.

In 1998, he published his first novel, “Duke, o Cachorro Padre” (Duke, the Dog Priest) that was translated into Spanish and English (in a private edition). The idea for the novel came from the day many years earlier when he had returned to the church in Lower Manhattan.

Coutinho had bought a classic car, a 1952 Chevy, and wanted to show his friends he was doing well. He drove around, but couldn’t find the church. Finally he asked a man with a dog, who pointed to an empty space: “Over there.” Coutinho recognized the voice. “Alfredo?” he asked. The man was the cook of the church. The men hugged, and Alfred told him about the fate of the church. After some flooding, its walls had started to collapse. The city condemned the building, and soon it was demolished.

“And what about Brother Alfonso, the priest?” Coutinho asked.

“You don’t want to know,” said the cook. “He killed himself.”

The man was walking the priest’s dog, the one he used to carry everywhere.

“A saint like Alfonso killed himself? Why?” Coutinho asked.

No one knew why, and that was the starting point of his novel.

A home for Brazilian literature

Coutinho eventually became a member of the Brazilian Writers Association, and he opened a New York chapter in New York in 1999. The first members included four Brazilian poets he’d known from his early days in New York, all of whom had unglamorous day jobs: a dishwasher, a gravedigger, a car washer and a man who pushed disabled tourists around the city. Even years before, the men had spoken about the need for a Brazilian library, “and that idea had stayed with me.”

The New York chapter of the Brazilian Writers Association started a library, and soon outgrew its space. The building Coutinho had just bought on East 52nd Street had a vacant first floor and so, in 2004, BEA was born as an outgrowth of the Brazilian Writers Association New York chapter. The day of the inauguration, the tiny space could barely contain the dozens of people who gathered.

People, companies and institutions started reaching out to Coutinho. BEA has organized dozens of events over the last 10 years, including an international seminar about Joaquim Nabuco, the writer, diplomat and abolitionist pioneer. In 2006, combining his personal collection with the one of Brazil’s New York Consulate, Coutinho opened BEA’s biggest project: the Machado de Assis Library. Still, it hasn’t been easy to draw an audience to Brazilian literature. There are plenty of interns and students doing research, says Coutinho, but there’s a long way to go. “We’re far from the recognition I dream for our literature.”

Until that day comes, Brazilian culture still depends on people like Coutinho to properly explain it.

He remembers the day, four years ago, when an American film director told him he was going to Brazil, to shoot some scenes of Carnival, and Coutinho asked about his angle. “It’s the Brazilian bunda,” the man answered, using a Portuguese term for ass. Coutinho felt insulted. Then puzzled. The director explained that the idea came from an essay by the famous sociologist Gilberto Freyre. Coutinho knew nothing about it and called Freyre’s grandson. Soon, he had a copy of a 1984 article in the mail. “Bunda – Paixão Nacional” (Bunda – National Passion) was the title. For Coutinho, the idea made more sense, but only slightly.

“Brazil is much more than bunda,” he told the filmmaker.

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