Interview with Flavia Vasconcellos Amaral

After completing her PhD in São Paulo, Dr. Flavia Vasconcellos Amaral has joined the University of Toronto’s Classics Department as a postdoctoral fellow under the supervision of Dr. Regina Höschele. Emelen Leonard spoke to her about her current research and projects, the intoxicating world of Greek epigram, studying classics in Brazil, and more.

Emelen Leonard (EHL): Any current research projects?

When I started my academic path as an undergraduate, Greek epigram was a sort of underground topic in Brazil and at the University of São Paulo, my alma mater. Only a handful of researchers worked on the genre and I was very enthusiastic about exploring untrodden paths, as Callimachus would put it. Greek epigram is still not as canonical as other genres, but nowadays there are more Brazilian researchers dedicated to understanding this fascinating genre, and I am proud to say that my work has played a role in this change. 

For my postdoctoral project (‘Narrative Strategies in Greek Dialogue Epigrams’) I decided to investigate the evolution of different voices and narrative techniques employed in epigrammatic dialogues. Although epigrams are intimately tied to writing, they imitate oral speech acts. We encounter ‘talking objects’ in votive and funerary contexts at a very early stage of the genre. In these cases, the dedicatory objects and tombs serve as narrators. It was a natural step to add a second person serving as an interlocutor, which led to the birth of dialogue epigrams. 

Striking in this kind of epigram is its intrinsic fictitiousness. We encounter, for example, impossible dialogues between the deceased and a passerby. Interestingly, funerary dialogue epigrams provide roughly the same kind of information as early epitaphs, in particular, the name of the deceased, their patronymic and place of origin. However, its format leaves room for other pieces of information, such as the causa mortis and lamentation. So, dialogue epigrams develop different narrative strategies for traditional motifs. I am also very interested in how these texts were read by their audience and how inscribed and literary epigrams relate to one another. 

The University of Toronto has given me the wonderful opportunity to take my studies on epigram to a different level in a very stimulating environment. Also, I am very honored to be under Regina Höschele’s supervision. Her work and that of Peter Bing were a great inspiration to me when I wrote my dissertation, and I could not think of a better privilege than to work with them at this point in my career.

At the University of São Paulo I am a member of a research group on Hellenistic literature (Hellenistica). Some of us have been working on a translation of the texts from Gow and Page’s ‘Hellenistic Epigrams. We lack Portuguese translations of epigrams and our aim is to fill this gap so as to promote the genre not only in Brazilian academia but also in our community. It is our plan to launch either a podcast or a video channel to disseminate our contributions beyond our Facebook page, which I manage. Because of Brazil’s higher education crisis and the pandemic, many research groups and researchers now cooperate in the virtual space. Our research group will follow this trend locally at first, but we aim to involve international researchers in future collaborations, and I would be very pleased to invite researchers from our department.  

I have also been doing some Classics-related volunteer work here in Toronto. ‘Quarentena Clássica’ is a series of monthly virtual meetings with the Brazilian community in the city, hosted by the non-profit Networking para Brasileiros (NPB). Anyone can take part and we make the recordings available online. At each meeting we read and discuss Greek literature that is somehow connected to topics that have been on people’s minds during the pandemic, e.g., death and the ephemeral nature of life. We also had a virtual symposion to talk about drinking parties in antiquity and how we drink together nowadays. It was the funniest and most pleasant get-together, because each participant brought along their own drink and snacks. I have had very positive feedback and it is truly rewarding to see how the community reacted to the seeming ‘modernity’ of ancient texts. As a researcher, I think one of my roles is to make the power of ancient knowledge more accessible to people outside of academia, and I feel really thrilled to be able to do this here in Toronto! It would be great to expand that to a wider number of people in an English version of the event. 

EHL: Your previous work has dealt with drinking and death in Greek epigram. Can you say a bit about the relationship between these heady topics in the Greek imagination? 

There is so much to say about the interconnection of drinking and death in the Greek imagination! Death and the pleasures of life go hand in hand in Greek culture, and their close connection is reflected in the works of many poets, philosophers, and artists. 

A common topos of archaic and elegiac poetry is that there is no pleasure after death – hence one should enjoy the drinking, eating, and other kinds of entertainment found at the symposium. By the early third century BC, poets began to experiment with the generic boundaries of epigram and started to use features of sympotic lyric and elegy in a form originally meant for epitaphs and dedications. Because of the overlap between sympotic and funerary themes, epigrammatists developed archaic and elegiac tropes within funerary epigrams to portray drinking and death in new ways. Thus, it is possible to trace an evolution of these heady topics as a binary pair in The Greek Anthology

In my dissertation, I analyzed the funerary epigrams of Book 7 of The Greek Anthology that contain sympotic terms in order to investigate how the ‘drinking and death’ pair evolved. The themes were developed within three major groups of epigrams: 1) epigrams dedicated to Anacreon, an early lyric poet who wrote sympotic poetry, 2) epigrams about drunk women, and 3) epigrams about drunk men. The epigrams dedicated to Anacreon operate programmatically, whereas the epigrams about drunk women focus on distinct characterizations of women who drink wine, and the epigrams about drunk men feature moderation in drinking. Therefore, interestingly, in epigram the brevity of life and the absence of mortal pleasures in death are not presented as the main reasons for enjoying the delights of the symposium, as we find in early Greek lyric. 

EHL: You’ve pursued research in São Paulo (Brazil), Cincinnati (USA) and now Toronto (Canada). How has your experience been working in these different countries?

In my experience there are significant differences between Brazilian and North American Classics. When students decide to pursue higher education in Brazil, they sit for an entrance test to start a specific course of study. Unfortunately, ‘Classics’ does not exist as such. Ancient Languages and Literature, Ancient Philosophy, Ancient History, and Archaeology are separate subjects that belong to different departments. So, when a student interested in Ancient Languages and Literature is approved in the entrance test, he/she will join the Languages department and only in the second year will he/she choose either Greek or Latin to major in (by default, all students also major in Portuguese). That was my path.

I belonged to the Department of Classical and Vernacular Languages as an undergraduate, MA, and PhD student at the University of São Paulo, the best in Brazil and the second-best university in Latin America. The department provides training in Greek and Latin language and literature, Portuguese and, Indigenous language and literature. As there are around 800 new candidates every year and all of them must attend introductory lessons in Classical Literature, the Greek and Latin staff is quite large, with 27 professors. Great emphasis is placed on the translation of ancient texts, because we still lack translations in Portuguese. MA and PhD programs last 2 and 4 years respectively, and students have a research project and a supervisor from the time of their admission. Despite studying at the most prestigious university of Brazil, I cannot deny that our training may not be as intense and complete as in North America. We also still lack funding in our department to have access to the most up-to-date scholarship. 

As a Tytus Fellow at the University of Cincinnati (Summer 2019), my aim was to collect material for a project entitled ‘Female Voices in Greek Epigram’. UC was the perfect place for my purposes because one can find nearly everything at the Carl Blegen Library, an academic paradise on earth! But due to time constraints the project is on hold for the time being. However, some of my findings will be shared in an episode of a video series called ‘Estudos Clássicos em Dia’, a project designed by professors from USP, and I hope to write a series of papers on this topic in the near future. Cincinnati is not as cosmopolitan and busy as Toronto but I had a nice summer visiting museums and parks and attending baseball (for the first time) and soccer (my favorite!) games. 

Being part of the Department of Classics of the University of Toronto has been personally and professionally enriching. I am making the most out of my stay by attending talks and workshops, besides doing my research. Before the pandemic I was able to enjoy most of the events within the literature stream, and I valued meeting some of the staff in person. I am part of a reading group on Babrius’ fables led by Regina Höschele and Peter Bing, which has sparked my interest in learning more about the author and the genre. Many workshops provided by the School of Graduate Studies on academic writing have been very helpful. So has Katherine Blouin’s ‘Classics write’ virtual group. I also loved doing work at Robarts during weekends when it was open. Some dislike the look of the building, but I find its architecture original and remarkable. 

EHL: What are your impressions of Toronto so far? 

The weather is certainly a challenge for someone coming from a tropical country. Having fewer hours of sunlight during the winter was a bit strange at first. But the snowy and freezing winter has its own charm and I learned to relish it. I found the snowfall particularly hypnotic (as the number of recorded videos to my family and friend attest!). I also appreciate the coziness of indoor heating everywhere, something we do not have in São Paulo. That being said, I must confess that I celebrated the return of warmer days!

Toronto is a bustling city with lots to see and do and, in this sense, it resembles São Paulo. I love visiting Toronto’s many museums, cafés, and cinemas. Living in the northern part of the city allows me to enjoy green areas and a bit more silence. That is really something I appreciate about living here. My husband and I take lovely strolls in different, interconnected green areas. Another advantage is that I am able to get around by public transport without the hassle of the traffic we have in São Paulo. It feels very safe to move around the city. I am also extremely impressed with Toronto’s public libraries and their services. Hopefully, I will get to use these spaces again soon.