SÃO PAULO is the other city in my life. I grew up in south London (and will probably die there too) but São Paulo has an unshakeable claim on me thanks to the hallowed second-gen ritual of going ‘home’ for a ‘holiday’, ie doing boring stuff with your gran and remembering how to not speak English.
‘Is it bigger than London?’ me and my brother used to ask my dad, incredulously, as children.
‘Oh yes, much bigger,’ he would say. ‘Twelve million people.’ More people than any city in Western Europe ever had.
Although Brazil was a poor country (we knew this even as children), my grandparents used to take us out to shopping centres bigger than Whiteleys or to the ‘Clube’, a private members’ club with Olympic-grade sports facilities, a huge park and strict membership rules. Childminders in white uniforms chased after little white children. We went everywhere by car.
Now that I’m older I’ve got to know São Paulo as an adult. I’ve danced in its hot, dark clubs, tripped down night-time streets in Vila Madalena and Lapa, crossed the city after sunrise. This is also a second-gen ritual, I suppose: the lesser-known one of learning to exist in the place you’re ‘from’ as an adult person doing adult things, without a grandparent or tia [aunt] in sight.
This is how I ended up writing a coming-of-age story about a child, a Londoner like me who spends long holidays at her grandparents’ house. It’s a novel that is also about two sisters, lifelong Paulistas who migrate to London 20 years apart.
São Paulo shaped my sense of what a city is. Of what London is. Of what it means to be rich and to be poor.
This is what you have to know about São Paulo: it’s a cosmopolitan, world-class city. It’s the financial capital of Brazil. Its signature architecture is brutalist. It’s the biggest Japanese city outside Japan. The young people listen to electronic music. During the Aids crisis it was ‘the San Francisco of Brazil’, according to my mum.
In the Afro-Brazilian museum in Ibirapuera Park sits the real backbone of a slave ship. The carnival there is allegedly the worst in Brazil. In the end, the city voted 60 per cent for Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s controversial new right-wing president.
Like London, São Paulo is a city that commands awe. When the rain falls over the Thames in London, the smell makes me remember that before there was this city, there was a cold and rocky island, uninhabitable. When it rains in São Paulo, torrential and hot and changing the colour of the concrete, I remember that this land used to be the Mata Atlântica rainforest.
■ Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet) is out on February 21