Divas Play and Queer Belonging In Brazil

Notes on Ethics and the Imagination

by | Mar 11, 2014

Photo by Andre Arruda


For the past seven years or so, I’ve been tracking down scenarios of queer friendship in Fortaleza, a major city in Brazil’s Northeast. I’ve discovered that what some cultural critics call “performativity of language” is often inseparable from language’s capacity to bring about a common sense of belonging. I want to take a hard look at this collective labor of language as an ethical phenomenon, closely connected to both imagination and self-imagination as a shared practice. Through collective verbal creation the queer people I have been following in Fortaleza use words in a collective manner to invert hierarchies of value and establish a register of a language of “affect” (in philosophical terms). This has interesting implications for a performative approach to ethics—and that’s why fiestas, carnivals and festive religious ceremonies play such an important role in the formation of queer belonging in Brazil.

Language is not merely a system of representation but also a physical operation, as J. L. Austin proposed in his famous 1955 William James Lectures at Harvard University on the theorization of performative language. Language acts, activates, excites, moves, and seduces. Austin turned language into a matter of acting and worldmaking, and as a performance that makes worlds, his concept of language is foundational to the thriving of queer theory as a political project.

My queer friends in Fortaleza are not only compelled to talk, but they also enjoy talking a whole lot—especially about sex. We find pleasure in extracting from speech the excitability of sexual acts for its subversive (or “delinquent”) affect. In the context of Brazil, and Fortaleza in particular, sexual delinquency is both an aesthetic and political practice, delineating a performative ground for queer belonging that traverses heterogeneous systems—sexual, racial, social and religious. 

In Brazilian Afro-indigenous spiritualist traditions, particularly Umbanda and Congo-Angola traditions of Candomblé,one finds religious spirits, like Pomba Giras (female types of Exu) and Caboclos, whose major characteristics may be defined as sexual subversion. What is striking in this particular Afro-indigenous canon is the rejection of normative, European morality through the performance of mythical stories by delinquent subjects (such as the prostitute, the gypsy, the trickster, the drunk, the sailor) whose political potential is evoked and embodied as magical power during a ritual in theUmbanda terreiro.

Some five years ago, my friends Armando and Diogo and I attended a public ceremony at an Umbanda terreiro in Maranguape, a colonial hillside town in the outskirts of Fortaleza. Pomba-Giras were “possessing” people’s bodies and, as usual, demanding drinks and cigarettes in bantering tones. When the bisexual prostitute spirit of Maria Paulina was assumed by a short male guy in his mid-fifties, people started clapping and singing her chants:

Paulina dá, Paulina toma [Paulina gives, Paulina takes]

Paulina é mulher [Paulina is a woman]

é mulher da Zona [A woman from the Zona, or whorehouse]

Paulina tem [Paulina has]

tem cinco dedos em cada mão [five fingers on each hand]

tem cinco dedos em cada pé [five toes on each foot]

e gosta de homem e de mulher [and she likes boys and girls]

Another Pomba-Gira was already in the room when Paulina made her appearance. When she noticed Paulina’s presence, she greeted the newly descended spirit with a nice hug. After hugging Paulina twice she turned to the crowd widening her arms and said “Pra que chorar, pra que sofrer? A vida é bela, nós somos belos. Vamos beber até o amanhecer” [Why cry, why suffer? Life is beautiful, we are beautiful. Let’s drink until sunrise.] People applauded. Paulina moved very graciously, and she approached us with flirty eyes, shaking her shoulders, and whispered, “Salve a Nêga” [Hail the Black Woman]. After getting dressed in a big skirt by one of the house assistants, she charmingly asked for some beer and then confided: “Hoje eu dei pra cem homens” [Today I gave myself to a hundred men]. Everybody applauded and repeated after her: “Salve a nêga!

Armando and Diogo looked at me, and their eyes sparkled. I believe mine did too. It was so overwhelmingly thrilling to hear those words uttered and applauded in a religious ceremony. “Hoje eu dei pra cem homens. Salve a Nêga!” we repeated in the car driving home hours later. “Guerreira, a Paulina” [A brave woman, Paulina], said Armando, referring to her sexual prowess. Diogo played with it, “Wish I could take a hundred men.” I facetiously completed: “I can.” They laughed and concluded: “Bicha baixa!” [Shallow bicha!] In our group, we all tried to be shallower than each other—if not in practice, at least in language. But where does that investment in base sexuality come from, and what does it mean or do?

When a raunchy Pomba-Gira addresses you, something happens to the order of ethics. The hyperbolic sexual discourse through which she demands one’s engagement leaves her subject faced with an ethical question: how do I compose myself? Here I am invoking Spinoza’s sense of composition, by way of Antonio Negri’s contention that Spinoza’s question relates precisely to the ethical composition of affects, and the disposition of both the self and the multitude in relation to these (Subversive Spinoza, 2004). Ethics, Negri writes, is the constant quest of composing the self with alterity for the purpose of increasing one’s capacity to act. 

The ethical quest for Negri is to oppose the body’s demise, despite the seemingly triumphant power of negative affects. Faced with raunchy Paulina and the hailing of her sex, the (Spinozian ethical) being is ushered into a delinquent (queer) arena of sexual discourse and immediately asked to re-compose him/herself and his/her own relation to the sexual body. The meaning of the sexual organ is both queer and sacred, which might seem like a paradox at first sight. But the juxtaposition of such elements is precisely why the event vibrates with queer ethical potential. Paulina’s performance asks from us that we expand our linguistic framework and enter into an unprecedented relationship between sexuality and religion.

I want to offer Paulina as a living framework of a performative deployment of language that queerly inverts hierarchies of value as an expression of political subjectivity. In the various speech acts I have heard in everyday, friendly queer banter in Fortaleza, there is a similar inversion of values. Breaking moral barriers with language seems to give the queer community a shared sense of belonging. 

Linguistic compositions that express a minority identity through slang, certain forms of gossip, queer banter, verbal role playing, as well as the sexual public narrative, are actions grounded in imagination. “Queer imagination” here should be taken as a current, a course, or a conduit through which a minoritarian ethics of the affect is practiced. Another form of political subjectivity is thus embodied and empowered. 

About eleven or twelve years ago, a certain play with proper names took place in Fortaleza, when a few of my gay friends found themselves calling each other by their mothers’ first names. I would call Emmanuel by his mother’s name Glaucia, he would call me by my mother’s name Regina, and so on and so forth until the whole group had nicknames that referred to their mothers. 

Playing with proper names proved to be fun; soon our lesbian friends were being called by their fathers’ names. That also caused a few laughs, and eventually this practice escalated to the point where everyone just called each other by random names, usually crossing gender, but not always. Like most playful activity, this had no particular aim aside from play itself, but it still struck me as an interesting break with the sense of determinism associated with proper names. 

Without planning though, the proper names that stuck the most were references to decayed telenovela stars from the 1980s. Around 2003, every Sunday night some of us would go to a very raunchy lower-class gay club called Divine, in a sketchy area of downtown Fortaleza. Perhaps inspired by the name of the club, on those nights we started calling each other “diva,” and the act of partying at Divine (which in part meant having public orgiastic experiences) became referred to as “divinar” [to divine]. It didn’t take long for Mayara Magri (myself), Narjara Tureta (Eduardo), Tassia Camargo (Lemuel), Lidia Brondi (Emmanuel), Magda Cotrofe (João), René de Vielmont (Armando) and Aretha (Diogo)—all telenovela actresses in supporting roles during the 1980s, who posed for Brazilian Playboy but utterly failed to make it into mainstream showbiz—to be called “divas,” as an inside joke among gay friends. 

And this is how the early play of random naming gave way to a fixed genealogical tree composed of decayed television stars. An online group was created with the sole purpose of role-playing these decayed stars in insider narratives while partying and having sex at Divine. More and more friends started being added to the email group, demanding to be baptized as a diva themselves. We would then give a diva name to the newcomer—always a decayed telenovela star or public figure from the 1980s whose image somehow became a sign of camp aesthetics. Years passed and the group grew tremendously, with more than fifty members. Baptizing a diva was no easy thing; it demanded a long discussion and sometimes even a vote. The only rule was that no one was allowed to pick his own diva name: it had to be assigned by the group, and it had to cause some kind of embarrassment to the person being baptized. 

In 2007, I was strolling through New York one night when my cell phone rang: it was a conference call from João, Lemuel and Balla. Balla was insisting on being baptized, which would make her the first female friend to be assigned a diva name. Balla is a much loved friend, but also a self-proclaimed capitalist with a passion for high-end luxurious things, despite her middle-class upbringing. She sounded a little tipsy on the phone, but decidedly convinced she should be baptized as Rogéria, the legendary Brazilian travesti, who was able to carve her place in television for many years during the 1980s. Lemuel and João didn’t agree. Rogéria was too dignified to be a diva, they argued. It had got to be someone less respectable —but who? João then proposed we baptized Balla as Clóvis Bornay, an overweight gay man with way too many plastic surgeries performed on his face, who appeared in magazines every year during carnival, because he always won the luxury carnival costume pageantry in Rio de Janeiro. Balla, who at the time was overweight herself, begged us not to be baptized as Bornay—she wanted to be Rogéria, who had real glamour, nothing like Bornay’s tacky carnivalesque hyperbolic opulence. We could see she felt belittled by the association with Clóvis Bornay, and so we baptized her against her will. Virtually all baptisms into diva stardom causes the one being baptized similar feelings of belittlement. Being a diva meant taking pride in one’s failure and lack of value. Our divas gain nobility through debasement: the lower and sleazier, the better.

There are several performative turns in this diva play. Any play with proper names already suggests a form of criticism. The diva “name” is furthermore a form of queer comment, putting into play collective assumptions about each person’s faults and charms. Later on, when subjects begin to take on new names and behave accordingly in online written narratives, we see a linguistic operation through which bodies enter the realm of figuration. In this realm, a new set of hierarchical positions and relations organize value. Fiction and fantasy, some of the proper names of imagination, are rendered not only as aesthetic operations, but also as ethical-political ones. The creation of a fictional linguistic realm wherein subjects deposit their identities, provides new ways to negotiate affect and desire (ethical move) and an opportunity to act out unauthorized forms of dissidence and utopia (political move). A play with language  becomes an alternative ground for conviviality and the sharing of common affective notions about each other. 

In our game, each individual’s diva identity corresponds to the name of a “trash culture” celebrity of the past (the 1980s), a form of social figuration that connects a particular queer body to that historical figure. The association of a failed past with a queer present is a linguistic operation that detaches each of us from the particularities of our historical present in order to incarnate camp and queer virtues such as failure, sleaziness and debasement. 

Such a reshuffling of temporal references is a form of creating temporal alterity, of creating a breathing space for other (shallower) forms of embodiment, which then linger on as shared notions that bind an alternative social realm. 

Here, in conclusion, “historical truth” lies in what anthropologist Kathleen Stewart calls, in her A Space on the Side of the Road, the “contingency of retellings”: sex partying, both real and imagined, turns into an alternative world that bring forth other hierarchies of value and affect. When I look at the whole discursive structure of this diva play —baptism as commentary, reference to the past, appropriation of the language of gossip, hyperbolic distortions of actual events, mixing of past, present and fictional references for poetic purpose – the whole system strikes me as a linguistic excuse to enunciate, over and over, the minoritarian affect of queer sexuality, which in Fortaleza, as I claimed in the beginning, revolves around figures of partying and delinquency, and which also echoes other forms of minoritarian subjective production (like those of race and class in Brazil, as seen in the context of Afro-indigenous spiritualism).

In Fortaleza, diva play is a performative, collective exercise in freedom and creativity—freedom to play, to cross the line of privacy, to be joyful, and to express debased sexuality—but also a linguistic ground for an ethics of belonging together in difference. 

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Pablo Assumpção B. Costa is Assistant Professor of Arts and Culture at the Universidade Federal do Ceará, in Fortaleza, Brazil. He holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University (NYU). He is also a performance and video artist, playwright, and full-time researcher of everyday life and affect. His current research deals with experimental ethnography, sensorial historiography, and the politics and poetics of love and friendship. He is the author of Anicete, quando os índios dançam (Anicete, when indigenous men dance)[Universidade Federal do Ceará, 1999],Irmãos Aniceto (Aniceto Brothers) [Editora Demócrito Rocha, 2000], and various articles and book chapters published in Brazil. He has collaborated with New York University’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics since 2002.

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