Guido Melo

Award-winning writer Guido Melo is working on his memoir and keeping his feet on the ground. He tells us why he thinks each published piece could be his last.


When did you start writing?

I was doing an interview for an ABC Radio show with David Astle, just before the pandemic. He prompted this same question. Until he did, it hit me. I do remember when I wrote for the first time: it was in a newspaper. It was in 1990, I was 13 and I created a street newspaper. There were three or four editions. I went door to door selling it.

I wrote it and then gave it to my dad, who took it to his work and photocopied about 20 copies. It had, I think, two or three pages because I recall having to staple them. In the newspaper, I’d talk about the problems of the streets—the holes, the graffiti, sports (soccer) and the improvements required by our community. I had forgotten, but I wanted to be a journalist.

The modern incarnation of my writing began when I accompanied my sister, who lives in Australia, to the Wheeler Centre for a talk by Maxine Beneba Clarke. She was talking about her great book, The Hate Race.

I bought a copy and read it and was blown away by the story. If you remember the movie City of God, or other movies similar to that, there’s always this African person from Brazil or the United States, or someone of African descent, that goes from poverty to wealth, a rags-to-riches story, where they overcome many difficulties.

It’s hard for me to identify with those stories because I was never that poor. I was middle class, lower-middle-class in Brazil, and Maxine’s story, which is set in the suburbs of Sydney, is about a middle-class girl with academic parents. Her story reminded me of my parents. Actually, it reminded me of my dad who was an academic; my mom is semi-illiterate, she studied up to grade seven or eight. Reading that book, I thought, ‘Oh, so there are people interested in stories like this?’

I used to think my story wasn’t exciting because yes, I’ve become someone who runs a company and is  successful, but it’s like, ‘Why is this interesting when I wasn’t that poor to begin with?’

And then you worked with Maxine …

Yes, we started chatting and became friends. She told me about a  ‘project’ she was working on and she believed I could tell my story, but I thought I couldn’t because I’m Brazilian.  She said, ‘No, you are an African for Brazilians.’

Until then, I was a bit vague about my African ancestry, but after I was like, ‘Yes, I’m Afro-Brazilian.’ I realised her project was really Pan-Africanist. She saw us as one single diaspora. It didn’t matter how we got here, in my case, via South America, my essence is African.

I’m an African man leaving the diaspora now. I’m in the diaspora of the diaspora, so I wrote a piece, ‘The long way home’, for the book Growing up African in Australia (Black Inc, 2019).

Every time I write a piece, I understand that maybe this is the last time I get published. And that’s very sobering. So, I know that that’s where I am.

You write memoir and poetry, is there one genre that comes more naturally to you?

My dad always said he didn’t really like children, he liked the adults they would become.

So, my relationship with him started when I was 13 years old, before that our contact was minimum. But, when I was 13, he started to hang out with me and discipline me. If I didn’t do things here and there, my mum used to pick me up and smack me with a Haviana. But my dad would give me poetry books. He would put me in a corner of the living room and I would not be allowed to leave my corner until I could recite a poem without looking at it. This was so hard, and I hated it. But I think it was a beautiful way of punishing someone.

I can only say these things in hindsight, of course.

I dislike English poetry; I dislike the rhymes. I just hate it so much. So, I thought I didn’t have the power to play with words here [in Australia]. But I went to a night of poetry readings in Spanish and Portuguese by A Voz Limpia, a group of Latin American intellectuals based in Melbourne. In my first visit, I wept because it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my life: people reading poetry with such gusto.

I really enjoyed that and was very emotional. I remember drinking red wine and crying because of the beauty of seeing people pouring themselves into  poems. The next time I went there, I read one myself.

I kept coming back, and then I wrote a poem called ‘Distraction’. I used Photoshop to make the poem, which is very 3D because the reader has to interact with the poem. ‘Distraction’ was so incredible that it won the award for best poem in the Stonnington [untitled] Literary Festival in 2019.

When did you decide to go back to university?

I was getting published and winning awards, but realised I had reached a plateau. I decided to join a Professional Writing and Editing course because I wouldn’t keep growing without academia.

I remember Maxine telling me: ‘Talk to your teachers and use your assessments as pieces for publication.’ So that’s what I did.

I feel like there’s a Western Sydney in every town. It’s the part of the city where most people are poor—where they are forgotten. They write and create from this place of being outsiders. So, do I.

I told my teachers from day one who I was and what I was doing, and I was so lucky to have them accept. I would say from 13 subjects in the first year, maybe half of those assessments became published pieces in ABC, SBS, and other places. That was good advice from Maxine.

One of my assessments became a published story in an anthology collection called Better Read Than Dead Writing Anthology 2020, which is also the name of a big bookshop in Sydney, and with that story I won the number one best short story in Australia.

People assume that emerging writers are in their 20s or early 30s, but it’s not like that for everyone and certainly not for writers who’ve migrated. What’s it like for you to be an emerging writing later in life?

This is true for people who are the dominant part of society, or in the Australia that is white, but in Latin America it looks a bit different. Although those who are known for their writing are mainly white, but it’s a bit more sprinkled, a bit more complex.

There’s this Shakira song, ‘Pies descalzos,’ from her first album, that I really like. It says: ‘Acostarse a una hora | Trabajar cada día  | Para vivir en la vida | Contestar sólo aquello | Y sentir sólo esto | Y que Dios nos ampare | De malos pensamientos | Cumplir con las tareas | Asistir al colegio | Que diría la familia | Si eres un fracasado.’

This is not the greatest song musically speaking, but it summarises the expectations of the ‘traditional Latin American family’ that by your mid-20s you will be a lawyer, doctor, or whatever profession.

But often that doesn’t apply for Latinx-African descendants—or for people  from marginalised parts of society. I can only talk from personal experience and in some extent to similar experiences in the United States and in the United Kingdom, where you have writers like Bernardine Evaristo who is in her 60s and just now coming to prominence, and Toni Morrison, who also came to prominence later in life, I think she was over 40.

In my case, as it sometimes happens to others, we start our artistic careers later because we need to achieve economical stability.

I guess you would understand, as you are a a migrant from Latin America like myself. Now that we made that sort of life, we can pursue those artistic veins under our skins.

You‘re part of the Sweatshop in Western Sydney. How has that helped your writing?

I found that in Melbourne writing circles there weren’t opportunities for people like me to find my feet as a writer. In my desperation to find a group where I could bounce ideas, I found Sweatshop.

In Melbourne, I had found A Voz Limpia, but it is mostly in Spanish, so there was a limit to how much they could help me. Still, Pilar Aguilera [one of A Voz Limpia’s co-founders], helped me a lot.

Then I joined this African group in Sydney and there was a workshop on Black Lives Matter in 2020 run by the Sweatshop Literary Movement, I think this was around George Floyd’s death. There I met Dr Sydney Allen, an African-American living in the West of Sydney. This is how Dr Allen and Dr Michael Mohammed invited me to be part of Sweatshop. They said I’m not in Western Sydney, but my voice sounds like I’m from there. I am also eternally grateful to Winnie Dunn, also from Sweatshop, who edits most of my work.

I feel like there’s a Western Sydney in every town. It’s the part of the city where most people are poor—where they are forgotten. They write and create from this place of being outsiders. So, do I.

I am from the north side of Rio which is poor and mostly black. In Sydney it is the Western suburbs; in Melbourne, the Western suburbs and the Dandenongs, and in Chicago, the South side. There is a Western Sydney in every city.

So, my voice fits in fine in there. I’ve been part of the Sweatshop Movement for three years now. And, because of it, I was part of the 2022 Sydney Writers Festival.

A highlight of your career so far?

Every time I write a piece, I understand that maybe this is the last time I get published. And that’s very sobering. So, I know that that’s where I am. For me, the highlight is whatever I have published right now because what if it is the last one?

Why would you think it’s the last one?

Because you never know if you’ll be able to write again, if you’ll be published again.

Publishing is talent plus the ability to read the bigger room—or the smaller room. Everyone ages. My time as I writer may pass sooner than I want it to.

I’ve been part of the Emerging Writers Festival, part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, and twice, in 2019, I was part of the Sydney Writers Festival. These are really big highlights so far, but I never know what’s going to happen next.

There’s this journalist in Brazil, his name is Juca Kfouri. In the 1980s and 90s, he was a Left guy. He was the Voz da sanidade , he was fighting against the dictatorship, he was reasonable with his comments about black people, about women; he was very progressive. I grew up idolising the guy. I love sports, I love football and he is a sports journalist who was also engaged. About a month ago, he began a videocast on YouTube with another older journalist.

And listening to it, it’s not that he became conservative or anything, he’s still very lefty, but he’s aged. For today’s ears, he sounds a little bit sexist, a little bit racist, a little bit too much. I think most people are not going to get this, but I can see it so clearly. I know that I’m progressive now, but I know one day my Facebook page could be disappointing to some in the future.

When I arrived here, I was blind, by choice, I guess, a subconscious choice, not to see the discrimination or the problems. I thought it was a great nation, and that nothing was happening.

It is refreshing to think that you’re not going to be able to keep up—and that this is fine.

To paraphrase Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire ‘the word is both an action and a movement.’ So, if you believe in feminism, what is the movement? What are the actions that you are executing to achieve that thing you’re saying? Right now, I am working a lot to make sure that I keep up with the times I’m living in, but I don’t want my progressiveness to become a performance.

Recently you wrote about your mum and you said you were texting her to write her story, can you tell me about it?

My father passed away in 2017. I still have my mum and two sisters in Brazil. I realized when I decided to write a memoir that it is impossible to write my own story without writing my mum’s and my dad’s.

It is impossible for me to exist without knowing that my father was born in a house in 1950, because there were no hospitals for black poor folk like us. And it is impossible for me to manage a fashion store today, to be here in Richmond with my $40,000 car, without acknowledging that in 1976, when I was born, one in every three kids didn’t make it to their first year, and of those 70 per cent were black. I’m one of the 30 per cent that didn’t die. It’s such a small number.

So, I interviewed my mother and because it was during the pandemic, I couldn’t go to Brazil and, to be honest, I was afraid that she would catch COVID. I recorded 15,000 words and that will be used in my memoir because I think we lived similar experiences of discrimination, of racism. Because she is a woman, there’s also sexism and misogyny.

In my dad’s story, there’s that determination to survive against the odds.

Both stories help to make me today.

I’m in my last year of undergrad in a Bachelor of Arts. I’m going [to do a] postgrad, but it’s my determination to get a high distinction in every single subject. It takes a lot of effort. I’m succeeding so far—11 out of 11.

Humans love a quick fix. Humans love dualistic reality, false dichotomies. It’s very easy to say X equals bad and Y equals good. We have to be careful.

What is a culturally acquired trait? Independent of the answer, I know that any cultural acquired trait can be reshaped. We have this incredible capacity of neuroplasticity, of recreating realities.

So, I think my father’s and my mum’s stories need to be in my memoir; they will make a more complete story because nobody is an island.

This Eurocentric idea of individualism and meritocracy are not true; it’s just simply not true. We are a consequence.

I can tell who you are by the educational level of your parents, and if they have divorced or not, if they’re alive or not, what kind of level of wealth and education you will have and that can predict your children’s results. I can predict that just by looking at their grandparents. Of course, there’s miracles and that’s beautiful; and there are sad stories too. Those beautiful stories are exceptions of people breaking the cycle.

After chatting with your mum, where is home now?

When I was 13 or 14, my father gave me the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, and it made an impression on me. Knowing that it didn’t make any difference which country I was from because we go for the money and we migrate when the conditions are bad made me lose my sense of patriotism.

There’s a piece that I haven’t yet published in English about being an Afro-Brazilian in Australia. To date, it’s my most important piece for Afro-Brazilians. In fact, I met three Afro-Brazilians here in Australia who told me they migrated to Australia because of that piece. They were choosing between Australia and Canada or Australia and Ireland, and they read my piece and chose Australia.

So, this is my place now. This is home. In fact, I never felt at home in Brazil because of the racism.

I had these awful experiences in Brazil. They were so mean to me. I suffered so much racism. I hated Brazil so much, so the moment I moved here I used that neuroplasticity and created tools in my head to like the place.

For example, I spent six months watching every footy game on TV. And by every I mean no exception, I watched like 10 games a weekend. I had nothing better to do. Within six months, I knew all the rules. I knew the game well enough so I could talk to people in pubs.

I did this super intensive get-to-know Melbourne using Melways. If we all went blind like in that book by Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, I can get to any neighbourhood. I know exactly where every neighbourhood in Melbourne is because I spent hours looking at Melways. This is definitely home now.

You’ve been in Australia for 20 years, how do you think representation of Latin Americans/Latinx has changed?

I moved in 2003 and I learned Spanish here by 2007. I visited Argentina several times, and it was amazing to have learned Spanish because for the first time I felt like a Latin American.

I left Brazil as a Brazilian, but I arrived here a Latin American.

Later, I realised I was not just Latin American, I was Afro-Brazilian and today I call myself from Afro-Latinx. 

When I arrived here, I was blind, by choice, I guess, a subconscious choice, not to see the discrimination or the problems. I thought it was a great nation, and that nothing was happening. But then, with the passing of time, especially after 2013 when Tony Abbott took power, the rhetoric became more and more about race, [and] more and more blatant, and less welcoming.

I think the Europeans descendants are very upset about losing their complete control of the narratives, but at the same time there’s more people like me, like yourself, telling stories that were not allowed to be told before. So, things are better in that sense, but the backlash will be big, and we have to be prepared.