A mulata, illegitimate child and poor, Maria Firmina dos Reis suffered a lot of prejudice, but she was the first Brazilian novelist

Maria Firmina dos Reis
Maria Firmina dos Reis (1825-1917)

Note from BW of Brazil: In another feature that rescues the history of Afro-Brazil and black women, today we present an important woman in the world of Brazilian literary works. Authors of visible African ancestry remain scarce still today in the 21st century thus this woman is clearly someone all enthusiasts of literature should know. Today, the works of the legendary writer Carolina Maria de Jesus (14 March 1914 – 13 February 1977) are widely celebrated and have been gone through somewhat of a revival in black academic circles but there is still a need for the recognition of the scholarly and fictional works of Afro-Brazilians. So, as the saying goes, ‘a luta continua’, the struggle continues!

A mulata, illegitimate child and poor, Maria Firmina dos Reis suffered a lot of prejudice, but she was the first Brazilian novelist

Maria Firmina dos Reis commemorative stamp
Maria Firmina dos Reis commemorative stamp

This year we celebrate 190-years of the birth of the Maranhão (state) native writer Maria Firmina dos Reis, considered the first Brazilian novelist. For a long time, her production was ignored to the detriment of writers such as the Rio Grande do Norte native Nísia Floresta (1810-1885), an important name in the feminist struggle, and the São Paulo native Teresa Margarida da Silva and Orta (1711-1793), considered the first woman to write fiction in Brazil, a contestable fact because she lived most of her life in Portugal. Firmina is a pioneer, however, for having managed to publish her novels autonomously, not without effort, besides working in the teaching profession, and was also responsible for opening a mixed and free school in Maranhão, which caused a great controversy at the time.

Maria Firmina dos Reis sculpture
Maria Firmina dos Reis sculpture

Maria Firmina was born in São Luís, capital of Maranhão, in 1825. A mulata, illegitimate and poor, she suffered a lot of prejudice against which she fought valiantly, proving her value in the intellectual field. She was a cousin of the writer and educator Sotero dos Reis, from whom she received support. She was approved in a public competition for elementary school teacher in the city of Guimarães, and denounced the injustices that have occurred in the field of education, hard to access in the nineteenth century. Her most famous novel is Úrsula, published in 1859. From an abolitionist theme, the work portrays the horrors of slavery and develops the psychological mindset of black characters, of great importance in the plot, despite the main story being the impossible love between two white characters. In another novel, Gupeva, from 1870, the author addresses the indianismo: an Indian chief falls in love with a girl coming from Europe, not knowing that she is his half-sister. They are quite novela-like stories, with a backdrop that portrays the society in a fierce way.

The novel 'Ursula'
The novel ‘Ursula’

Firmina was also short story writer, a poet, a riddle maker and music composer. She wrote critical articles for local papers, composed Hino à Libertação dos Escravos (Hymn to the Liberation of Slaves) and A Escrava (the slave), adhering to anti-slavery and republican ideals. The adoptive mother of ten children, she was single her entire life, died poor, blind and forgotten in her home in Guimarães in 1917. Fortunately, some authors and researchers of today redeemed her importance, commenting on her life and work. So bold she could not have been in vain.


NERES, José. “Maria Firmina dos Reis: Nossa Primeira Romancista”. In: Revista Conhecimento Prático Literatura. nº 58. 2015.

Source: Homo Literatus

About Marques Travae 2948 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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