In this episode of The Write Up, we talk with prizewinning journalist and nonfiction writer Juliana Barbassa about her book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink depicting the beauty, crime, pressures, and violent paradoxes shaping Brazil’s most vibrant city.
Juliana Barbassa has lived and written all over the world. Born in Brazil, she has lived in Iraq, Spain, Malta, Libya, France, and the United States. As a journalist, her ability to dive in and find the human face in the most desperate of stories won her acclaim including the Katie Journalism Award, the emerging journalist of the year by the U.S.-based National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the John L. Dougherty award by the Associated Press Managing Editors.
In 2003, Barbassa joined the Associated Press and returned to her home country of Brazil to be the Rio de Janeiro correspondent. There she found a city in the midst of massive growth and explosive change. Poverty and crime still plagued much of the city, but Rio was also enjoying an influx of new business and international attention. This attention increased when Rio won the hosting honors of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Rio now feels the pressure to grow into the ideal Brazilian city, at least in appearance, at an accelerated pace.
Barbassa’s book is not one of dry economics or global public relations. Instead Barbassa shares the narrative of a city and its people in the midst of radical transformation. She zooms in on the people and places that give Rio its complex character. We meet criminals and prostitutes, shopkeepers and mothers, police officers and children. Barbassa’s journalistic instincts drive her into heart of the story, often putting herself in mortal danger as police stand off with drug lords or raze impoverished neighborhoods to the ground.
Her own story of returning to Brazil and experiencing the tension pulling at Rio firsthand gives the book a memoiric thread. Her intense feelings for the city serve to enliven her excellent research.
On the Write Up we discuss her thirst for stories as a journalist, her willingness to investigate the darker narratives, and her struggle to care for herself, both physically and psychologically, while reporting on violence and brutality.
She also gives us insight as to how her life and career led her all over the world and eventually back to Brazil. And how her growing desire to explore the strange contradictions of Rio led to writing this book.
When talking with Barbassa, you sense the conflicting feelings she has for Rio. There’s a real love as she describes the smells and sights, and unflinching honesty as she chronicles the hardships of the disenfranchised city. She highlights the extremes of this incredible city where natural beauty and corruption both thrive. It is her ability to love the city as a local while also maintaining the critical distance of an investigator that gives this book such depth.