Brazilian author PJ Pereira gives new life to African gods in his new YA series

Pj Pereira
Credit: Brazilian author PJ Pereira

Brazil is the ninth largest economy in the world; 200 million people inhabit the country. Yet though over half — 54 percent — are of African descent, many socio-cultural traditions from African roots have been highly persecuted throughout Brazilian history. The religion and mythology brought to Brazil by the Yoruba, an indigenous group from Nigeria and Benin, is one such example.

The Yorubá gods, which are called the Orishas, are similar in many ways to the gods of Nordic and Greek mythology. For example, Shango is a king who became a god and Eshú is a trickster. Yet these figures and the mythology of which they are a part have been undermined and even forbidden in Brazil for years.  

But now the Orishas are being re-examined in Brazilian culture thanks to a best-selling trilogy of books by author PJ Pereira. In an interview with the Fbomb, Pereira explained his creative process, how he deals with the historical stigma that has surrounded the topic of his books, approaching his work from an intersectional perspective, and his future plans.

The book series you recently published, Gods of Both Worlds, gives new life to the Orishas. These deities are worshiped by the Yoruba, one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa that, due to the slave trade, now also reside in countries like Brazil. How and why did you first become interested in writing about the Orishas?

I never planned to write about this theme. Having been raised as a middle-class white boy in Rio, I was told in the hallways of my Catholic school that all African religions were “devil shit.”

Years later, as a grown-up living in São Paulo, one of my best friend’s mother died. I went to see him in Salvador, Bahia — the most African of all cities in Brazil — where I realized he was the son of one of the most important figures in African-Brazilian religions. It was a shock. My friend is one of the nicest, good-hearted human beings I’ve ever met. And there he was, nose deep in “Devil worship.”

Confused, I confronted him. Over the next few months, he told me the tales of his ancestors, which his grandmother had shared with him since he was a kid. I was raised reading about mythology and had always been fascinated by those stories, so I wondered why I knew about Thor but not Shango. Why had I learned about Aphrodite but not Oshun? Hermes, but never Eshu?

One day I stumbled upon the cowrie shells divination system the Yoruba have used for centuries to communicate with their gods. Sixteen shells, thrown together twice. 256 possible fallings, each one representing a story, an answer from the Orishas.

The former computer programmer in me screamed first. I knew those numbers! Two to the power of eight. A binary system, like a modern-day computer. The old-timers used that technology like we use Google today: to get information before major decisions.

Then came the first creative spark: “What if the system returned no answer?” I asked my friend, who explained they would redo it.

“What if the shells wouldn’t respond again?”  I insisted. “Over and over, no answer, ever?”

My friend was legitimately scared of this imaginary situation. “That would be bad,” he said. “Really bad.”

I checked around, but no one seemed to have written anything about that possibility. Suddenly, without even realizing it, I was already outlining my story.

Three years later, the first draft of a very long book was done. Seven years later, I finally found a publisher who dared to publish it as a trilogy. It became an instant best-seller in Brazil and everyone asked how I was the first writer to have such a simple, obvious idea. I told them I wasn’t. I was just the one hard-willed enough to stay on course for such a long time.

Looking back, I see that explanation still gives me too much merit. I was lucky enough to have been raised with wide access to education, went to a great university, got a good job in advertising that supported me while I wrote and later brought me to America, where I eventually won an Emmy, which in turn allowed me to finally be taken seriously by publishers. There was a lot of what people today call “white privilege.”

In the Yoruba religion, the Orishas goddesses, like Yemoja and Yansá, are considered very powerful. Additionally, according to some accounts, some Orishas don’t have a binary sexual identification and this religion generally tends to be more accepting of the LGBTQ populace. How do you address such intersectionality in your work especially as a white Brazilian man writing about a culture rooted in Black African roots?

At first, I felt really confused during my research. While I could trace some parallels between the Orishas and the gods from other mythologies, the myths which which I was previously familiar didn’t have  gods or goddesses so full of love and ire at the same time. Weren’t gods supposed to be good, perfect, peaceful? I asked myself. The answer I heard still echoes in my head: Just because you were raised in a religion that aims for salvation doesn’t mean that all religions search for that, too. There is no judgment day, end of the world, heaven or hell for the Orishas. There is only nature and the ability to connect with its power, and nature is both good and bad. The same river that waters your crops one day may flood it the next. The sea that feeds you fish, will drown you if you don’t respect it.

The principle that nature is more powerful than all of us makes this religious practice way less judgmental, and therefore more inclusive. Their acceptance of homosexuality is one example of that openness, the natural balance between the male and female powers of the world another.

The cult of the Orishas is a very feminist practice, but it took me up until writing the second book of the trilogy to realize that. Up until that point, the story was mostly about a modern-day white man resisting a call to help the male African gods recover the power of their destiny, which ancient witches had stolen from them. Then, I sensed the godesses’ side of the story was missing. I wrote their perspective about how the male Orishas had tricked them and kept the power of destiny just for themselves; the witches were just making the destiny theirs too. The plot of the third book of the series was born from the witches’ second attempt to make things equal in Orum, the land of the immortals.

Your fourth book, a prequel to the series called The Mother, The Daughter and The Lady Spirit, tells the story of Pillar, a cult leader and enemy of the Orishas. How did you go about writing this complex female character, especially given the lack of female protagonists, let alone female villains, in popular culture?

Pillar has to use magic and brain, not muscle, to lead. I became fascinated by her — by what kind of life could have created such a monster. It’s a question that has pretty deep undertones for myself, not just as a writer, but as a person.

Few of my readers know that I was raised in a 1970s-style New Age cult. I never chose it, but was born into it and lived within its domain until my early twenties. This cult was led by a very charming, funny, and evil woman, who exploited and tortured her followers just like Pilar does in the series. Some readers sent me messages about how they knew people just like her. Some of those messages came from other 1970s cult survivors, but they also came from people of modern-day religions and all sorts of organizations beyond the boundaries of faith — even the corporate world.

My challenge, though, was to write Pillar in a way that made her human and interesting: as a victim and a product of a world that is so harsh for women, the poor, and people of color. That is what made her so interesting in the end: She got revenge on her own suffering in the worst possible way.

I had so much fun writing such a strong woman character, that when I started working on my next book, I chose a female protagonist again: a Chinese badass, inspired by my 30 years practicing martial arts. From Africa and the Yoruba gods, I switched to Kung Fu, Daoism, and artificial intelligence — a new universe, but the same clash of ancient traditions with modern technologies. This book, though, I wrote in English to experiment with the international market. The response from the few publishers I've talked to has been pretty positive so far.

We often see Brazilians accept modern works based on Nordic or Greek mythologies like the popularity of the Nordic Thor in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe or the Greek-based Percy Jackson book adventures. Why do you think they’re more open to these figures than the African-Brazilian and the Yoruba, which are seemingly more infrequently included in current Brazilian literature?

Culture has its waves. In Brazil, we had moments celebrating European myths like in the books of Monteiro Lobato, which sparked my interest in mythology as a kid. Then there was a wave with local spices in Magical Realism, including the African ones, from the hands of legendary authors such as Jorge Amado. Then society swings back the other way again and tries to forget any touch of African ancestrality in our world. So sad. But I believe we are coming back to a moment when those roots are celebrated again.

Look, it took me 10 years to get my first book published. I had to hear shit like “These people don’t read” as a reason why they wouldn’t publish my story. And only got it out when I started to write as “an Emmy-winning writer looking for a publisher.”

It’s heartbreaking to see that book publishers, who I always believed to be the frontrunners of culture, are so attached to formulas, prejudice, and fear. The issue isn’t restricted to Brazil, though. I tried for years to bring my books to America but heard no interest from agents, who are the gatekeepers of the publishing world in the U.S. But once Black Panther surprised them all with its success, conversations suddenly became much easier. Between the African trilogy and the Chinese adventure, maybe the American audience will be able to read my stories at some point. Let's see what the gods in Orum have planned for us all.

Some religions, like the African rooted, are currently being persecuted in Brazil. For example, some drug traffickers have aligned with evangelical pastors to drive off African-Brazilian religion practitioners from favelas (low-income, informal urban areas in Brazil), and are accused of being devil worshippers, while traffickers, for instance, are “blessed by god” by pastors. How do you perceive such persecution in modern-day Brazil? Did this persecution influence the way the Orishas are persecuted in the Gods of Both Worlds?

The persecution of African worship is nothing new in Brazil — it has just shape-shifted. Before, it came from the hands of the Church, who painted Black gods as the devil. Later, slave owners didn’t want their “assets” to tune into their magic. Then the police, paid by a society still struggling to accept abolition, tried to quiet their drums with violence. Now, as power has shifted from hand to hand, drug dealers have sadly became the new rulers of cities like Rio de Janeiro. Armed with Bibles and AK47s, it's now their turn to try to exterminate African culture. They will fail, too.

Their prejudice, their sense of superiority that justifies such violence, is somehow depicted in the series, especially through the main character, a white journalist named Newton who refuses to engage with the calling of this force he didn’t recognize. This character, however, isn’t the hero. He is, in fact, an anti-hero. He thinks he is above all the world-changing magic happening around him and represents the oppressive power that has always tried to silence the drums.

How have the overt religious aspects of your work been perceived? Have you experienced hate speech? Other forms of backlash?

More than anything, I was anxious about the response from the community. I purposely focused the story on the legends and myths, as opposed to the religion, because I never wanted the books to be seen as proselytism. The series was aimed at people like me, who were denied all the wisdom and magic of those ancient stories, not the people of that particular faith.

Telling this story was complex because not only are these religious traditions so full of secrecy, but also because the legends of the Orishas are all independent fragments, often incompatible among each other, so what I was doing was guaranteed to include some “mistakes.” Then, there was the fact that I am not only white but also a foreigner in their religion. That combination could have easily turned into accusations of cultural appropriation.

The African religious community was ultimately very kind and open to what I was trying to do. They sent me private notes with corrections they thought were due, and questions about my sources were always dealt with discretion. Sometimes they would publicly question if their gods deserved to be treated as superheroes but would promptly admit the need of something like this in a world with so much prejudice against their traditions. They also questioned why this hadn’t been written by an author of African descent, but appreciated the fact that someone did it, at least. In the end, they gave me an award for my contribution to the African culture and religions in the country, which was the most lovely form of recognition I could have ever dreamt of.

We also had an enemy in common: I was being attacked by some evangelicals who claimed the book was written by Satan himself. A televangelist even used footage from my book trailer to promote his exorcism performances! To this day, I still get condemned to the eternal fire of Hell at least once a week.

Given all those potential landmines, I am very grateful for the grace and generosity with which they welcomed my little spin on their cultural treasures, and I hope the initiative positively impacts how African culture is perceived by people who, like me, had been denied the beauty of this culture for such a long time.

More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Race/Ethnicity, Religion
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