In the centennial of Carolina de Jesus, absence of black women in literature reveals a distorted way of representing society

Conceição Evaristo, Carolina de Jesus and Andressa Marques
Conceição Evaristo, Carolina de Jesus and Andressa Marques

Note from BW of Brazil: The world of literature is yet another area in which Afro-Brazilians, particularly Afro-Brazilian women are nearly invisible. If anyone were to visit any of Brazil’s top bookstores such as Saraiva, FNAC or Livraria Cultura, they would be hard pressed to find anything books written by or about Brazilians of African descent. Of course, the writings of the great Machado de Assis are easily found and there will always be something about soccer legend Pelé, but books about the everyday lives of black Brazilians are few and far between. This is not to say there are absolutely none. If one were to search computer catalogs by specific titles, surely a few would pop up. But for the casual or avid bookstore browser, if someone didn’t point out this absence, it would be just another area of life in which no one notices. 

This blog has previously featured a post on the near absence and stereotypical portrayals of black female characters in Brazilian literature. The dearth of published black female authors undoubtedly contributes to this. This year marks 100 years of the birth of one Brazil’s most celebrated black writers, Carolina de Jesus. A poor, semi-illiterate woman from a slum in São Paulo, Carolina was the first black woman to portray the struggles of everyday life in Brazil’s poor communities; communities that continue to be completely disregarded and disrespected still today as a recent tragedy once again reminded us. Below, three black writers discuss and homage the importance of the life and works of Carolina de Jesus in the year of her centennial. 

Literature: absence of black women reveals distorted way of representing society

by Camila Maciel

Author Carolina de Jesus was born in 1914
Author Carolina de Jesus was born in 1914

After more than 50 years since the publication of the first book of the writer Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977), the presence of the black woman in literature, either as author or as a character, is still small and shows a racial homogeneity that does not match the reality of Brazilian society.

The researcher Andressa Marques, owner of a Master’s in Literature from the University of Brasília (UnB), accounts for only six contemporary black novelists. A survey of the same university, coordinated by Professor Regina Dalcastagnè, based on analysis of 258 books published between 1990 and 2004, records the presence of 79.8% of white characters among those of the greatest highest importance.

Andressa Marques
Andressa Marques

The 2010 Census of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) shows that just over 50% of the country’s population declared itself parda (brown) or preta (black).

“To the black woman it is expected that she does a lot: cook, dance, take care of a home. There is a historical process that has put this woman in certain positions. One doesn’t believe much in her power to write,” says the Afro-Brazilian writer Conceição Evaristo, Ph.D in Comparative Literature from Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF).

Conceição Evaristo
Conceição Evaristo

For Andressa Marques, this absence has an important impact on the formation of Brazilian society, because literature, giving voice to certain segments, constructs a distorted form of social representations. “The educational system, for example, will turn to literature as a contribution of civic education. While we do not see ourselves represented in this literature, we run the risk of having a unisonous representation of society. It is as if we were in a country that was totally homogeneous,” she said.

In this sense, Conceição believes that this is one of the main contributions of Carolina to Brazilian literature. “It is the possibility or the need for more differentiated voices in the Brazilian literary system,” she noted.

For her, there is no doubt that Carolina’s production has literary value. “It marks an opportunity for such groups to work with the Portuguese language according to its own competency. Brazilian literature is the possibility of people from various social strata using the language according to their experience,” she said.

Inspired by the work of Carolina Jesus, Conceição Evaristo is one of the most prominent black novelists in the current Brazilian literary field. Author of such books as Ponciá Vicêncio and Becos da Memória, she says that her first contact with the text of Carolina revealed a feeling of approximation to reality.  “At that moment, I also lived in a large favela (slum) in Belo Horizonte. My whole family was interested. We read it as if she were also a character of that diary and that that marked us very much,” she recalls.

The influence was so great that Conceição’s mother began to write a diary after discovering the work of Carolina. “She writes very markedly knowing that another woman like her, equal to her, from the favela, had kept a diary,” she reveals. The author keeps this testimony as an object of family memories, but her production is also fed by this registry, as in Becos da Memória.

Conceição remembers that there was a receptive social environment to the production of Carolina. “What she was saying was that we [the grassroots] also spoke in a certain way. We were Carolina”, relates Evaristo, who was active in the worker’s movement and worked as a domestic when she in school.  “Symbolizing the voice of the people, she brought to the middle class, to intellectuals, to Catholic militancy, the voice of the people that these groups wanted, supposedly, to hear,” she said.

For the professor, the same environment that made the word of Carolina necessary allowed it to fall into oblivion. “She was not the one who spoke of class struggle; she spoke in a very particular way, from experience. It wasn’t a discourse that criticized, for example, the economic structures. There’s a text saying that in one year she was everything and in another year she was on the sidelines,” she pointed out.

Conceição evaluates that the absorption of Carolina’s discourse was also a way for the middle class, the intelligentsia and political class to expunged a latent guilt for the existence of such a miserable condition to which many were subjected.

Note from BW of Brazil: The date of Carolina’s birth is not known with any absolute certainty, although it is generally agreed that she was born in 1914. For some, Carolina’s day of birth was March 14, 1914, which amazingly is the exact same date that Brazil’s greatest modern day black civil rights leader, Abdias do Nascimento was born. As such, both historically important figures are being celebrated by Afro-Brazilian organizations throughout the country. In a short piece below, Dulci Lima pays homage to Carolina de Jesus.

100 years of Carolina de Jesus and Abdias do Nascimento
100 years of Carolina de Jesus and Abdias do Nascimento

Thank You Carolina Maria de Jesus

by Dulci Lima, courtesy of the Blogueiras Negras blog

"The torture of hungry is worse that that of alcohol. The torture of alcohol impels us to sing. But that of hunger makes us tremble. I realized that it's horrible to have only air inside the stomach." From "Quarto de Despejo"
“The torture of hungry is worse that that of alcohol. The torture of alcohol impels us to sing. But that of hunger makes us tremble. I realized that it’s horrible to have only air inside the stomach.” – From “Quarto de Despejo”

Carolina Maria de Jesus was a writer from the state of Minas Gerias who lived most of her in São Paulo and became famous in the 1960s after publishing Quarto de Despejo: diário de uma favelada (1960, translated as Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus in 1962), which chronicles the daily life of poverty and hunger experienced by her and other residents of the Canindé favela. She left Minas Gerais for São Paulo, wandering from town to town, between the two states, working as a maid or nanny and it was exactly as maid that she came to the city where she lived until the end of her life.

In São Paulo she earned a livelihood for herself and her three children, collecting scrap paper. She was semi-literate, but had an enormous love for reading and writing, she read books, newspapers and magazines that she collected in the streets and separated which could serve as a notebook where he wrote the diaries that were later published. Besides the aforementioned Quarto de Despejo (meaning eviction room), so called because she would say that the favela (slum) was the eviction room of Brazilian society, she also published Casa de Alvenaria (1961) and Pedaços de fome (meaning Pieces of Hunger) (1963) and also the posthumous books Diário de Bitita (Bitita’s Diary) (1986) and Meu estranho diário (My strange diary) (1996). Her books have been translated into over thirteen languages.

According to the authors of Muito bem, Carolina (Very good, Carolina!), the writer is described by her contemporaries as an ingenious, restless, explosive, daring, bold , courageous, rebellious, strong-willed woman. She didn’t stop on any job, was fired or quit because she was “capable of questioning and challenging authority.” Her audacity earned her the nickname “língua de fogo (fire tongue)”. In the favela it was she who called the police when there was some problem and mediated fights between residents, defending the weakest.

In 2005 the Museu Afro Brasil (Afro Brasil Museum) honored the author of Quarto de despejo by naming its library after the black writer. Although there are doubts about the accuracy of Carolina’s birthdate, her birth certificate says August 18, 1914. She died in São Paulo on February 13, 1977.

Thank you Carolina.

Dulci Lima has a Master’s Degree in Education, Art and History of Culture from the  Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie

Source: Aqui Acontece, Blogueiras Negras

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About Marques Travae 2897 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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