Brazil remembers female writer who defined slums as trash rooms in 1950’s

Carolina Maria de Jesus was one of the country’s first and most

Published on 17/03/2014 - 18:43 By Camila Maciel reports from Agência Brasil - São Paulo


Carolina Maria de Jesus

Carolina Maria de JesusAudálio Dantas

“I say the favela is a city's trash room. We, the poor, are the old lumber.” This powerful metaphor could only have been a first-person insight from someone who has experienced it. Accounts like this were found in the late 1950's in the diaries of Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977). She has been one of the first and most important black writers of Brazil. Living in a favela in Canindé, São Paulo, she worked as a rag picker, and wrote about the daily life of her community in old notebooks she dug up from the trash.

Born in the small town of Sacramento, Minas Gerais, Carolina moved to São Paulo in 1947, when the city’s first slums were being formed. Even though she had only attended the earlier years of elementary school, she was able to fill up more than 20 notebooks with accounts of the everyday life in a shantytown. One of these diaries was later made into a book, Quarto de Despejo: Diário de uma Favelada,  first published in 1960 (released in English as Child Of The Dark: The Diary Of Carolina Maria De Jesus). At its third edition, the book sold as many as 100,000 copies. It was later on translated into 13 languages and sold in over 40 countries.

“It documents something sociologists could have studied and analysed in depth, but would never get to the heart of the problem in the same way she did as an inside observer,” reports Audálio Dantas, the journalist who brought her into public attention in 1958. They met when Dantas visited the Canindé favela to write a news report on it. “This can be considered the first [shantytown] built near the city center, and that was a novelty,” he pointed out. According to him, Carolina was always looking for someone she could show her writings to.

A troublemaker who would threateningly tell neighbors she was going to include their quarrels in a book – that is the impression Carolina made on Dantas at first. “At the slightest sign of an argument, she would snarl: 'I'm writing a book, and I’ll make sure you become part of it!' That would give her authority,” he recalls. Urged by her to read the notebooks, the journalist was taken aback by descriptions of an everyday life he could never put down in writing himself. “So I decided to interrupt my research, because I had found someone who could tell the story better than I could. She had such a power of description… you could feel it after reading just ten lines. Her talent was really one of a kind,” he remarks.

Although her writings included short-stories, poems and novels, Dantas focused on a single diary started in 1955. Part of the material was originally published by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo in 1958. A year later, it came out on the magazine O Cruzeiro, and it also included a Spanish version. “A commotion ensued. The subject of the book coincided with the interests of Editora Francisco Alves [the publisher],” he went on. The text was edited by him, but there was no need for corrections: “I selected the most significant passages. Her syntax and spelling were kept unchanged. Everything’s in the original.”

Amid ordinary descriptions of everyday activities such as waking up, fetching water and making coffee, Dantas found powerful narratives which provide an insight into the life of a black woman from the favela. “Carolina says there was a dump near the favela where she used to go scavenging. There she learned that a boy named Dinho had found a piece of rotten meat. He ate it, and died. She tells this story with virtually no [further] remarks. It’s really appalling,” he says.

For Carolina, life had colors, but not in a positive way. Hunger, for example, is described as yellow. An excerpt from her first book describes the moment after she was threatened by starvation: “What a surprising effect food has on our organisms. Before I ate, I saw the sky, the trees, the birds all yellow, but after I ate, everything was normal to my eyes.” According to Dantas, Carolina’s accounts are all the more valuable for being real. “A writer can fictionalize it, but she was actually feeling it.”

Dantas says that Carolina was quite confident about her talent and already regarded herself as a writer, even before her works were published. “When the book came out, she felt exhilarated, but not surprised,” he says. The success of her first publication, however, was not to be repeated. After Quarto de Despejo became a best-seller, the publishing house commissioned another book, based on the diaries she had kept while she lived in a suburban district called Alto de Santana. Then, in 1961, Casa de Alvenaria was released. Dantas, who helped with publishing, reports that it sold no more than 10,000 copies. The book would also have a published English translation, titled I'm going to have a little house.

Dantas further mentions that Carolina considered herself an artist and planned to become involved with new artistic fields. And music was one of them. In 1961, she launched a record with the same title as her first book, including 12 songs written and sung by her, including “O Pobre e o Rico” ("The Poor and the Rich”). In a literal English rendition, the song goes, “The rich make war, and the poor don't know why. They go to war, they have to die. The poor only think about black beans and rice. They don't get involved with the nation's business.”

In the journalist’s view, the writer became a sort of product that aroused people’s curiosity, especially among the middle class. “She was black, lived in the favela, and couldn’t read or write. A lot of people thought it was impossible for a person with such a background to write that book,” he reports. This suspicion, Dantas believes, led many critics to regard the book as a fraud, as if he had been the real writer. “They said she couldn’t have done it. Or, if she did, it couldn’t be called literature,” he added.

Carolina de Jesus had other works published, including Pedaços de Fome (“Bits of Hunger”), Provérbios (“Proverbs”), both released in 1963. Dantas says Carolina paid the publication costs of all these books, and that they did not sell well. After her death in 1977, other books were published, including Diário de Bitita (Bitita's Diary), with memoirs from her childhood and youth; Um Brasil para Brasileiros (“A Brazil for Brazilians”), in 1982, Meu Estranho Diário (“My Strange Diary”); and Antologia Pessoal (“Personal Anthology”), in 1996.

Translated by Augusto Queiroz / Mayra Borges / Fabrício Ferreira

Fonte: Brazil remembers female writer who defined slums as trash rooms in 1950’s

Edition: Lílian Beraldo / Olga Bardawil

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