Skip to content
Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the December 2018 issue

Insurgent Voices: A Panorama of Afro-Brazilian Writing

Franciane Conceicao Silva considers how racial relations in Brazil have affected literary history. 

As the inquisition
questions
my existence
and belittles the blackness
of my body-word
in the semantics
of my verses,
I carry on
[ . . .]
I carry on in search
of other words,
words that are still damp,
voices drowned.  

—Conceição Evaristo

In my take on Afro-Brazilian literature in Brazil, I chose to consider first the works that had the most cultural impact, and which best represented the experiences that were specific to Black writers. As a scholar who is deeply connected not only to my research but to the writers who produce the works, I feel I have an ethical and political commitment to make their voices heard and establish their presence as critical to the history of Brazilian literature. 

My choice to write in first person is a reflection of my position as a black intellectual, researcher, and social activist in the Movimento Negro. This movement, starting in the seventies, challenged not only race discrimination and economic marginalization but the literary tropes and expectations of the academy, and is a continuation of the various forms of resistance among Black Brazilians since the sixteenth century. Resistance and protest were key to establishing an identity that was reflected in the new forms and literary content produced by Black writers seeking to upend the status quo. 

More than fifty percent of Brazil’s population is Black,1 but literary education in Brazil is white and whitewashed. Color, gender, and social class determine what gets taught, and the largely white faculty in educational institutions tends to research and teach literature produced by writers who share their profile of white men who belong to a certain economic and intellectual elite.2 The authors I introduce throughout the course of this essay will be unfamiliar to most Brazilian readers and even to most researchers, who for the most part overvalue canonical texts—to the detriment of those written by the marginal or marginalized. I hope this essay adds to the choir of voices that have long been silenced—voices from bodies subjugated and made invisible by the forces of racism, still present in the Brazil that many, especially racists, call a racial democracy. Writer, actress, professor, and researcher Débora Almeida asks poignant questions that get at issues raised in this essay:

Are we simply trying to occupy more spaces, or would we rather affirm a black identity? Is there a black way of speaking, a black way of combining words? Are the conflicts of a black character the same as those of a white, or indigenous, or Japanese character? All of this speaks to the issue of our collective-identity affirmation and our political occupation of spaces. [...] To make black literature in a country like Brazil is to make politics. As such, when we write our stories and characters, we need to think about the kinds of spaces that I, black Brazilian writer, am reclaiming with my speech, which spaces I want to occupy in this white, racist, misogynist, and elitist society, within a capitalist system. 

A good place for us to start, given the complexity of Afro-Brazilian literary history and racial relations in Brazil, is with Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Machado, as he is known affectionately in Brazil, is considered by many to be the greatest writer that Brazil has ever produced. He also founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Born in 1839 in Morro do Livramento, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Machado wrote poems, short stories, novels, plays, crônicas, and literary criticism. He began writing during the Brazilian Romantic period and gained prominence during the shift to Realism—he initiated the Realist movement in Brazil with the publication of his novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881). In this sui generis narrative, Machado introduces a deceased first-person narrator who reminisces about his life. Sarcasm, irony, and harsh social criticism are all characteristic of Machadian texts. 

Machado published many other novels after Posthumous Memoirs, including Quincas Borbas, Esaú and Jacob, Memorial de Aires, and Dom Casmurro. He is key to the Brazilian canon. But the elite in Brazil rejected Machado’s Black identity for a long time. Most photos in textbooks portrayed him as white or of a lighter complexion. Even as recently as 2011, the Caixa Econômica Federal, Brazil’s main government-owned financial institution, aired a television commercial in which a white actor played Machado. Some members of the Movimento Negro criticized the advertising campaign, and Caixa publicly apologized, pulled the ad, and then aired a new commercial with an actor who looks more like him—that is, a black actor. Caixa Econômica’s “mistake” lays bare the foundations of Brazilian racism: the assumption that Black people are incapable of producing intellectual work, incapable of generating knowledge. Racial relations in Brazil, a recurring theme in Machado’s fictional writing, also appear frequently in other Afro-Brazilian literature, even before the publication of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas.

Since the nineteenth century, Afro-Brazilian writers have been committed to undermining the negative stereotypes of Black people, whom white writers represented almost without exception as devoid of intelligence. Black characters were put in a subaltern position in relation to the white characters and were primarily featured as over-eroticized or bordering on feral, especially in the case of female characters. In her 2009 essay, “Black Literature: a Poetics of Our Afro-Brazilianness,” Conceição Evaristo—a Brazilian writer, poet, and intellectual—reflects on the negative portrayals of black female characters in most of the texts produced by white writers in Brazil: 

[Brazilian] fiction is still anchored in images of slavery from our colonial past, in which the black woman is only seen as a body that fulfills a role in the workforce, a procreation-body for new bodies soon to be enslaved, or an object-body for the male master’s pleasure. 

Nineteenth-century abolitionists and writers Maria Firmina dos Reis and Luiz da Gama, both precursors of Afro-Brazilian literature, wrote texts that, as the Afro-Brazilian writer and critic Cuti observed, position themselves differently as ethnically black individuals. In 1859, twenty-nine years before the Golden Law that abolished slavery in Brazil, Firmina dos Reis published Úrsula, a transgressive novel not only because it was written by a Black woman but because it was written at a time when slavery was still in full force in Maranhão, in northeastern Brazil. The plot includes Black characters who, while not the protagonists, go on to gain prominence throughout the book, and who inevitably evoke pity when readers are confronted, says Cuti, by the humanity of the slaves. Firmina dos Reis pays particular attention to old Suzana, who reflects on the sacrifice of Black Africans like herself who were brutally stolen from their homes to be enslaved in Brazil:

They put me and some other three hundred comrades of misfortune and captivity in the narrow and pestilent hull of the ship. We spent thirty days of cruelty and agony in that tomb, without all that is the most important, until we finally approached the Brazilian shore. We’d traveled standing the entire time, so we, human goods that we were, could fit in the small space and would be unable to rebel, chained like wild jungle animals captured for the enjoyment of powerful Europeans. They gave us filthy, rancid water, and in small quantities, and disgusting food that was poorly made: we watched many of our fellow countrymen die of suffocation, of hunger, of thirst.

In the same year that Firmina dos Reis released Úrsula, Gama published his book of poems: Primeiras trovas burlescas de Getulino. Written during the Romantic period, the book makes no secret of the poet’s opinions on slavery. Gama was also one of the first Black Brazilians to fight against racial whitening ideology in Brazil. In an 1880 letter, Gama lets no one off the hook:

With us, even color is a flaw.
An unforgivable birth sin,
the stigma of a crime.

But what our detractors forget
is that our color is the source of wealth
of millions of thieves who
insult us; that this color of
slavery is the color of
the land, that it houses within its dark
surface many volcanoes, where burns
the holy fire of freedom.

Gama’s and Firmina dos Reis’ revolutionary poetics denounce the abuses perpetrated against Black Brazilians, also a feature of the poetry of nineteenth-century writer Cruz e Souza. One of the most important Symbolist poets in Brazil, Cruz e Souza became prominent with the publication of the prose poem Empaderado (“Against the Wall”), the final text in his 1898 book Evocações. The speaker of the poem “foresees that the black population’s progress and their participation in activities that were until that point reserved for non-blacks will face barriers built as obstacles in their journey,” Cuti writes. For many literary critics, Empaderado is a testimonial from the writer, a cry of pain and despair against the racist system of oppression that imprisoned him. 

Ah! insignificant humanity, twisted, tangled, assaulting souls with the force of wild animals, of sharp claws and hard carnivorous teeth, you can’t understand me. [. . .] 

What you can, simply, is to hold with frenzy or hatred onto my painful and lonely Work and read it and loathe it and turn its leaves, mutilate its pages, blemish the white chastity of its time, desecrate the sanctuary of its language, scribe, trace, sign, cut with stigmatizing sayings, with obscene slanders, with deep blows of blasphemy, the violence of intensity, tear apart, at last, all of the Work, in a cowardly moment of powerlessness or pain.

The denunciation of racism, a recurring theme in Afro-Brazilian literature during the nineteenth century, also appears in the work of Lima Barreto at the beginning of the twentieth century. The author of novels and short stories also wrote newspaper articles and crônicas. He also explored other controversial themes, such as political corruption, military abuses against civilians, violence against women, social ostentation, bias in the press, intellectual snobbery, and feminism But it is the pain of racism that is most often a refrain in Barreto’s work. This is especially true in his first novel, Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha (Observations from the Scrivener Isaías Caminha), published in 1909, and becomes more acutely felt in his best-known book, Clara dos Anjos (Clara of the Angels), a 1922 novel published posthumously in 1948. 

These early writers paved the way for others to speak out against racism. There is the piercing voice of Carolina Maria de Jesus, who was fundamental in bringing attention to Afro-Brazilian letters abroad. She rose to prominence in the 1960s when she published Quarto de desejo: diário de uma favelada (Child of the Dark: the Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus). De Jesus, originally from the now-defunct Favela do Canindé, in São Paulo, and a mother of three, describes her own life, and how she survived by picking up trash, and the lives of other favela residents, showing the misery, violence, vices, and illnesses assailing the local population. The book sold more than ten thousand copies in São Paulo in one week alone. It was translated into more than twenty languages and published in as many as forty countries. Among her themes, hunger nearly becomes a character of its own:

May 13, 1958

At dawn it was raining. Today is a nice day for me, it’s the anniversary of Abolition. The day we celebrate the freedom of former slaves. [...] I feel so sorry for my children. When they see the things I bring for them to eat, they shout: Viva mamãe! 

Their commotion pleases me. But I’ve since lost the habit of smiling. Ten minutes later they want more food. [...] It rained and got colder. Winter had arrived and in the winter people eat more. Vera asked for food and I didn’t have any. It was the same old litany. [...] It was nine o’clock when we finally ate. And that’s how, on May 13, 1958, I fought against the day’s real slavery—hunger! (de Jesus, 1995, 27)

De Jesus’3 diary is a political manifesto, and she is aware of the power of language and of her writing: “Politicians know I’m a poet. And that poets face death when their people are oppressed.” De Jesus’ insatiate writing has what I call poetic fierceness, a way that many Afro-Brazilian writers uniquely portray violence. For example: “The night is warm. The sky is already sprinkled with stars. I’m exotic and would like to cut out a piece of the sky for a nice dress.”

The publication of the series Cadernos negros,in 1978, was a turning point.4 The idea came from militant writers Cuti (Luiz Silva) and Hugo Ferreira. The first volume collected poems by eight writers who shared the costs of publication. In November 1978, the first edition of Cadernos was published, with a print run of one thousand copies. The following year, the second volume was released, but instead of poems, it collected the short stories of twelve writers. It has been published annually ever since, each year alternating between genres. In December 2017, the series released its fortieth volume. The series is a symbol of resistance in Black literary culture in Brazil. Conceição Evaristo was one of the most influential writers to debut in Cadernos. Born in Belo Horizonte, in Minas Gerais, in 1946, she published her first pieces in the anthology when she was forty-four years old. 

After her debut in Cadernos,5 Evaristo published Ponciá Vivêncio in 2003, followed by Becos da memória in 2006. In 2008, she published Poemas da recordação e outros movimentos, her only book of poems.  She published three collections of stories: Insubmissas lágrimas de mulheres in 2011, Olhos d’água in 2015, and Histórias de leves enganos e parecenças in 2016. Evaristo is the most celebrated and studied contemporary Black writer in Brazil.6 Her work, as Heloísa Toller Gomes has noted, shifts between affirmation and negation, between indictment and celebration, between life and death.

In 2015, after the publication of Olhos d’água, she was shortlisted for the Jabuti Prize, the most prestigious literary award in Brazil. Evaristo calls her literary texts escrevivências, or “life writings.” This concept is related to other Black Brazilian writers’ declared commitment to writing fiction and poetry from their personal experiences of the Black diaspora. In a 2017 interview, Evaristo explained what she means by escrevivência:

I would like to emphasize a place of difference in the conception of my writing. [...] I conceive it from my position as a black woman. [...] My fictionalization can only come from the place where I stand. And I stand in my place as a black woman in the Brazilian society, in my place as a poor woman in the Brazilian society.7

This need to write about life experiences is a way for Black writers who have overcome many instances of violence, especially racial violence, to make themselves seen and heard. To think about the concept of escrevivência is also to think about writing as a form of activism. Evaristo’s politically engaged writing is typical of writers who have published in Cadernos negros over the past forty years. This same commitment unites all of the Afro-Brazilian writers mentioned in this essay, including their precursors.

The Cadernos negros anthology is the most important of its kind, and now shares a publishing space with an increasing number of small presses (Malê, Pallas, Nandyala, and Mazza) dedicated to publishing Black writers, both solo and collectively. They are making more space for voices that have traditionally been silenced, such as those of indigenous authors. But this is not to say that no Afro-Brazilian writers have been published by large presses in Brazil. Ana Maria Gonçalves, author of the 2006 historical novel Um defeito de cor,8 is published by Record, one of Brazil’s biggest publishing houses. (An excerpt of the novel was published in English translation by Eric M. B. Becker as part of PEN America’s 2016 anthology Glossolalia: Women Writing Brazil.) Um defeito de cor won the prestigious Casa de las Américas award in 2007. A monumental book, at 952 pages, and the result of meticulous research from Gonçalves, the harrowing story about an old African woman named Kehinde spans the eight decades she spends searching for her lost son. Brazil’s history intertwines with Kehinde’s personal history, or rather, Kehinde’s personal history intertwines with Brazil’s history: slavery, uprisings, and unspeakable violences.

I cannot neglect to mention the 2011 anthology of criticism Literatura e afrodescendência no Brasil, organized by scholars Eduardo de Assis Duarte and Maria Nazareth Soares Fonseca. The anthology includes four hefty volumes gathered with the help of sixty-one researchers from twenty-one universities abroad and six in Brazil, and features one hundred Afro-Brazilian authors, spanning from the eighteenth century to the present day. 

No discussion of Afro-Brazilian literature would be complete without addressing a controversy that never seems to go away. Some critics defend that Afro-Brazilian literature can only be the literature produced by Black people. Others, on the other hand, defend that the author’s skin color is not a defining factor for the Afro-Brazilianness of the text, instead arguing for taking into account the content, language, and perspective of the work. Along these lines, some believe that if a white writer shows great empathy for Black people and produces a text in which Black characters face some of the themes mentioned in this essay, then the text qualifies as Afro-Brazilian literature. In this matter of what can and cannot belong in the Afro-Brazilian tradition, I side with Cuti, who categorically states that Afro-Brazilian literature, or, rather Black Brazilian literature, is literature necessarily produced by Black people. The reason he gives? The unique position from which the Black writer speaks in his or her denunciation of prejudice and discrimination. 

Cuti also writes:

The neuralgic point here is racism and its connotations as manifested in the black, mixed-race, and white subjectivity. What lived experiences, what feelings nurture people? What fantasies, what life experiences, what reactions at last are experienced in the face of the consequences of racial discrimination and psychic presence, of prejudice? That is the point! 

When Afro-Brazilian writers enact the pain of racist violence in their texts, even when the pain seems to belong to only one individual, the wound is always collectively shared. Miriam Alves9 writes about enacting this shared reality through the “proximity to certain life experiences”:

I think that the literary treatment I give my protagonists [...] is existentialist, not a hermetic internal monologue but rather a dialogue with an existentialist reality. Most of the time, the narrative seeks to clarify how black female characters resolve an issue, and emphasizes that in order to solve these problems they are made to reflect on their very existence. They have to make a decision, to choose a direction. They are all black because I am talking about proximity to certain life experiences; even if I choose to turn my story into science fiction set in Mars, I will undoubtedly still be constructing this fiction from my place of proximity to certain life experiences and knowledge. 

Cuti, Conceição Evaristo, Miriam Alves, and the majority of the writers who have published in Cadernos negros have emphasized the importance of self-identifying as black Brazilian writers as a political act. This also informs the strategies they use in their work as a space for unique expression.

The emergence of black characters, authors, and readers has raised questions pertinent to the formation of this literature, such as how cultural elements of African origins are incorporated in the theme and form, how a collective subjectivity is rooted in the subject’s ethnic discourse, and how the literary paradigm has changed, and how works of fiction and poetry are classified and conceptualized. (Cuti, 2010, 11)

Researcher Maria Nazareth Soares Fonseca has sought to solve the polemical nature of the terms Black literature and Afro-Brazilian Literature with the following definition: Black literature entails a resignification of the term Black, which traditionally has been a negative term; Afro-Brazilian literature reinforces the idea of a connection between the literary work written by Black Brazilians with their African roots; Afro-descendent literature, meanwhile, returns to this idea of African origins and the inevitable mutations of these origins in the diáspora.10

Afro-Brazilian Literature, while now accepted as central to the history of Brazilian Literature, is still marginalized. But we finally have a broader view of what it means to be Brazilian and can celebrate the fact that Brazilian literature is not, and never was, a single white story.

 

*A note on terminology. What is Black-Brazilian Literature for some is Afro-Brazilian Literature for others. These terms were created to meet the specific interests and goals of certain groups. I use the terms Black-Brazilian Literature and Afro-Brazilian Literature interchangeably, even though I am aware that there are no perfect synonyms.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

1. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, as of 2017, fifty-four percent of Brazilians identify as black.

2. Data from Regina Dalscatagnè’s study in Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea: um território contestado (2012). Dlascatagne's study reveals alarming figures when it comes to the publication of Afro-Brazilian writers published by Brazil's major publishing houses. After analyzing 258 novels published between 1990 and 2004 by these publishers, Dalscatagne found that three-quarters of the novels published were written by men; ninety-four percent of these men were white. Further, the protagonists of these novels are almost invariably white and are often acting in professions such as journalism or fine arts, whereas the few black characters that do appear are almost invariably criminals of some sort. 

3. In addition to Child of the Dark, Carolina published four other works: Casa de Alvenaria, Pedaços de Fome, Provérbios, books that had little or no visibility. After her death, researchers discovered more than five thousand pages’ worth of unpublished work, of varied genre. Works published posthumously are Diário de Bitita (1986), Meu Estranho Diário (1996), Onde estaes felicidade? (2014), Meu sonho é escrever (2018).

4. Cadernos negros (Black Notebooks) was released in 1978, in the midst of a heated social climate of strikes and student demonstrations. The Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination (Movimento Negro Unificado Contra a Discriminação Racial) was established while other progressive organizations questioned the military government and demanded democratic liberties. After the Movement was created, the struggle against racial prejudice reignited. (Ribeiro & Barbosa, 2008, 11).

5. According to Cuti, Evaristo published a total of twenty-eight poems and eleven short stories in the anthology between 1990 and 2011.

6. In a recent interview, Evaristo criticized Brazilian racism and questioned the system that only allowed her to become well-known at seventy-one years of age. The full interview can be found here: https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-43324948.

7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CWDQvX7rno

8. More than ten years after Um defeito de cor, Ana Maria Gonçalves is soon to publish Quem é Josenildo? (Who is Josenildo?), a cross between detective novel and science fiction.

9. Miriam Alves has been publishing in the Cadernos Negros since 1982 and was one of the first women to have her writing included in the series. She is the author of the poetry collections Momentos de Busca (1983) and Estrelas nos Dedos (1985), the short-story collection Mulher Matr(i)z (2011), and the novel Bará na trilha do vento (2015).

10. Fonseca, Maria Nazareth Soares. “Literatura negra, literatura afro-brasileira: como responder à polêmica?”

Works Cited and Further Reading may be found here.
 

"Insurgent Voices: A Panorama of Afro-Brazilian Writing" © Franciane Conceição Silva. By arrangement with the author. Translation Bruna Dantas Lobato © 2018. All rights reserved.

Read more from the December 2018 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.