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A multifaceted author

New research and an exhibition about Carolina de Jesus demonstrate the writer's versatility beyond her celebrated work Child of the Dark

The writer at Viracopos airport, in Campinas, on her way to Uruguay for the release of Child of the Dark in 1961

Archive / Estadão Conteúdo

In the neighborhood of Parelheiros, in São Paulo, Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914–1977) was seeking some peace of mind to write a new book. For the first time since the release of the work that had brought her sudden fame in 1960, Quarto de despejo [literally “Trash room”; published in English as Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus], she was far from the hustle of public life and felt mature. “I’m more enlightened, more educated, and I’ve studied and improved my Portuguese,” she stated to the newspaper O Globo, in an article published in February 1970. Her first book, which had become a sales phenomenon, now left a bitter taste for the author, who had gained only “the reputation of being rich, without the money,” in her own words. Taking refuge on a farm on the outskirts of the city, she continued writing chronicles, short stories, poems, proverbs, plays, and Carnival marches. Most of these works, however, were to have incomparably less impact than the book that had made her famous.

Examples of the writer’s versatility can be seen at the exhibit Carolina Maria de Jesus: A Brazil for Brazilians, on display through January 2022 at the Moreira Salles Institute (IMS) in São Paulo. The result of two years of research, the exhibition brings together around 300 items, including photographs, videos, and other documents that reveal aspects of her career that are little known to the public. “The exposition of this collection seeks to reinforce the relevance of her legacy as an interpreter of Brazil,” says historian Raquel Barreto, one of the exhibition’s curators.

In the exhibit, Carolina de Jesus’s texts and lyrics appear in various formats, such as manuscripts, projections on walls, and street posters. The researchers studied the author’s original works, most of which are archived at the IMS and at the Municipal Public Archive of Sacramento, the Minas Gerais city where she was born. “Our objective is to present Carolina’s writing in her original voice, since until recently whenever her books were published, they were subjected to modifications,” says Barreto. Exhibit visitors may also listen to the only album that de Jesus recorded, additionally entitled Quarto de despejo and released in 1961 in the wake of the success of her book.

Despite the smile, the portrait of de Jesus on the cover of the record is not so different from other images of the writer, who is almost always bowed down, with her hair covered by a scarf, which became a symbol associated with the artist’s stigmatization. In order to deconstruct the stereotype of “Carolina of the favelas,” the exhibition features portraits in which she appears proud, with her hair free, dressed in elegant clothes.

“Even with the dissemination of a good part of Carolina’s manuscripts from 1990 onwards, most academic interpretations have for many years revolved around Child of the Dark,” says historian Elena Pajaro Peres, who has specialized in the writer’s work since completing her doctorate in 2007 at the School of Philosophy, Letters and Languages, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP).

Access to de Jesus’s original literary production allowed Peres to discover new aspects of her work. “Carolina’s writing opens windows to a better understanding of the creative expression linked to the history of African diasporas and black women during the post-emancipation period,” she wrote in her book Mulheres na história: Inovações de gênero entre o público e o privado (Women in history: Gender innovations between the public and the private) (Literar, 2020).

Peres arrived at this conclusion during her postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB) at USP and at Boston University, in the United States, with support from FAPESP. In writings that began as early as the 1940s, de Jesus relates that as a child she had listened to stories told by her grandfather, who had been a slave, and proud to be the son of Africans who came from Angola.

Soon after arriving in São Paulo, in 1937, de Jesus began working at the home of cardiologist Euryclides de Jesus Zerbini (1912–1993). She used her free time to visit newsrooms, where she submitted her writing for publication. In her memoirs, she notes that while still a child she had been introduced to the thinking of José do Patrocínio (1854–1905) and the abolitionist Luiz Gama (1830–1882) at public readings and at school. She was also captivated by the nineteenth-century romantic poets and serialized literature.

“One can observe that Carolina produced her art by reworking, in a creative way, the techniques and knowledge she had access to during her life,” observes Peres. This perspective, Peres says, makes it possible to get beyond a vision of de Jesus as merely a writer on poverty, an unlikely author, a surprising phenomenon, or even a “miracle.”

In all, approximately ten books by Carolina de Jesus were published in Brazil. In addition to denouncing unfavorable socioeconomic conditions, the author developed a fiction writing style that uses techniques from radio soap operas. “Many of the characters Carolina created are vain, strong, sensitive women. This appears in texts such as Dr. Silvio and Obrigado Senhor vigário [Thank you, Vicar]”, explains Peres.

José Ramos Tinhorão Collection / Instituto Moreira Salles Collection Album cover for the recording released by de Jesus, who sang and played the guitarJosé Ramos Tinhorão Collection / Instituto Moreira Salles Collection

The author made contributions beyond just the authenticity of her observations and the fact that she wrote about poverty, stresses literary scholar Raffaella Fernandez, author of A poética de resíduos (The poetics of trash) (Aetia, 2019), the result of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP). “What’s special about Carolina’s literature is the richness of her inventiveness, which comes from deploying the insignificant, the simplistic, and how she makes use of various literary discourses, fragments of ideas, and things that would perhaps be considered ‘trivial,’” she argues.

Fernandez believes that in addition to talking about her own oppression, de Jesus was able to experiment with metaphor, write chronicles, create bucolic landscapes, and explore lyrical themes. That was the aesthetic view of the world she wanted the public to know, beyond the excitement over Child of the Dark. The impediments to getting this writing into the public eye made her realize that attaining recognition as an artist would not be easy. In the 1960s, she published two more books—with her own money: Pedaços da fome (Pieces of hunger) and Provérbios (Proverbs).

Fernandez believes the current “rescue” of de Jesus’s work is explained, in part, by the resurgence of Black sociopolitical movements and the emergence of new publishers interested in publishing Black authors. “This literary and extraliterary context underpins the visibility Carolina’s work has achieved recently,” says Fernandez, who is an editorial board member of the Companhia das Letras publishing house. Since the beginning of the year the publisher has been dedicated to launching unpublished texts and new editions of works by Carolina de Jesus, including her 1961 book Casa de alvenaria (published in English as I’m Going to Have a Little House: The Second Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus).

For Barreto, the revival of studies on de Jesus is connected to a new generation of Black researchers entering public universities throughout the country (see article). “These people are casting fresh eyes on her writing and they’re dedicated to rescuing her collected work.”

Since she began mining Carolina de Jesus’s collected works 20 years ago, Fernandez has gathered concrete evidence of how complex her creative process was. “Carolina’s production results from a mixture of literary and non-literary genres, ranging from romantic poetry to social protest, making use of both the educated and oral traditions.”

By studying unpublished works and rereading the manuscripts that had not been utilized by Audálio Dantas (1929–2018)—the journalist responsible for making de Jesus’s diaries public and editing the first edition of Child of the Dark—Fernandez was able to examine the author’s unknown stories and unexplored thoughts. One of the primary challenges was dealing with an estate in disarray. “The preservation of original manuscripts is extremely important in bringing forward unpublished works and supporting research,” Fernandez notes.

The better part of Carolina de Jesus’ collection can be found in the Sacramento Municipal Public Archives. The material was donated in the 1990s by her daughter Vera Eunice de Jesus Lima. “Today she regrets making the donation because the municipal government didn’t implement the appropriate archival procedures to preserve the documents,” says researcher Sérgio Barcellos, author of Vida por escrito (Life in writing) (Bertolucci, 2015), the result of his postdoctoral studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).

For two years Barcellos mapped the Sacramento collection. Encouraged by Vera Eunice, the researcher sent the municipal government a guide on how to improve the storage conditions for the documents. So far almost none of the recommendations have been implemented. Recently, the Public Prosecutor’s Office received an official complaint registered by the writer’s daughter.

Archive / Estadão Content The writer receiving the title of honorary member of the Academy of Letters of the USP Law SchoolArchive / Estadão Content

“The favela writer”
Overnight, Carolina became the “favela [ghetto] writer,” as she came to be called by the press, after Child of the Dark came out. Her creative journey, however, had started long before she met Dantas. Even at an early age, young Bitita—a nickname she had received as a child—showed an enthusiasm for literature. Although she only had two years of formal study and had spent her youth working as a housekeeper, Carolina’s interest in reading and writing grew over time. Shortly after hiring on at the Zerbini house, tired of taking orders, Carolina opted to become a trash picker. Living in the Canindé favela, where she built her own shack and raised three children, de Jesus experienced true hardship. “Before Carolina, other Brazilian authors, such as Graciliano Ramos [1892–1953], had already written about poverty. But none of them had done it while living in such deprivation,” says sociologist Mário Medeiros, author of A descoberta do insólito (The discovery of the extraordinary) (Aeroplano, 2013), the result of his doctoral thesis on Black literature, conducted with the support of FAPESP. Child of the Dark gained prominence by exposing the reality of the favelas, until then mostly unknown by the general public.

“Carolina’s diary brought forward important sociological reflections about the times Brazil was living through,” says Medeiros, a professor at the Department of Sociology at UNICAMP. “The book was launched during a period of developmentalism promulgated by the Juscelino Kubitschek [1956–1960] administration’s efforts towards industrialization.”

De Jesus’s diaries, Medeiros adds, challenged the triumphant, optimistic tone that was being used to usher in Brazil’s modernization. “Child of the Dark showed that all that modernity wasn’t solving the dilemmas of racism and social inequality.” Despite the book’s success—it sold 50,000 copies within just a month of its release—de Jesus was relegated to the margins of Brazilian literature.

Today, given her large body of work, it’s possible to more clearly evaluate the importance of the literature she produced, Fernandez says. “There is a fundamental representativeness in Carolina’s work, in the sense that her writings are in dialogue with other black women embedded in diasporic networks throughout Latin America,” the researcher says. The writer traveled a long road to arrive in the capital city of São Paulo. She spent time living in several cities throughout the state, searching for a better life. “Consequently, there’s a kinship of values and interests between Carolina’s literature and the journeys of men and women in the process of migration, that is, people in transition through different lands and cultures.”

Public interest in the writer and her work, however, remained associated with the “eccentric” character of the author: a black woman, semi-literate, who was engaging in social protest. Thus, some literary scholars maintain that the bestseller overshadowed her other books, which the press received with indifference. “She became stuck with Child of the Dark, as if she wasn’t to be allowed to pursue a career as the prolific, multifaceted writer that she actually was,” Fernandez observes.

One aspect that restricts her work to the field of the picaresque may be the fact that her writings are not included within the normative standards of any of the prestigious Brazilian literary genres. In the early 2000s the São Paulo writer Ferréz identified de Jesus as the primary inspiration for the growth of what became known as “marginal literature” in Brazil. Even so, only the political and sociological aspects are usually celebrated.

The process of re-editing de Jesus’s works has nevertheless been marked by controversies surrounding Companhia das Letras publishing’s decision to maintain her grammar in its original form, with all its deviations from the conventional standards, especially her spelling. The initiative was criticized in academic circles.

“Some literary scholars argue that this is just a way to perpetuate de Jesus’s exotic image, but that’s not the case,” says Fernandez. “She appropriates grammar in a very personal matter, which is part of the process of creating her ‘poetics of trash,’ by capturing discourse and linguistic resources. This publication also allows the reader a closer feel for Carolina’s original pen.”

Instituto Moreira Salles Collection An original manuscriptInstituto Moreira Salles Collection

In the eyes of the German press
In Germany, works such as Child of the Dark and I’m Going to Have a Little House helped broaden the foreign vision of Brazil as a place of exuberance and racial harmony, argues Raquel Alves dos Santos Nascimento, a doctoral student in translation studies at FFLCH-USP. “The reviews published by the German press in the 1960s were not exactly literary analyses of the book itself,” says Nascimento, who studies the diffusion of de Jesus’s oeuvre in Germany.

“They recommended reading it so that the German public could become informed about a reality that was—until then—unheard of, as if Carolina’s writing was a periscope that enabled Europeans to observe third-world misery.” In this sense, the researcher adds, the exoticism associated with Brazilian life gave way to the “social exoticism of the favela.”

The fact is that Carolina de Jesus only wanted to write, regardless of whether she did it from inside the favela or from a brick house in a São Paulo suburb, where she moved after leaving the Canindé district. “She never proclaimed herself a representative of minority groups and had a tense relationship with the Black Movement,” stresses Medeiros, emphasizing the writer’s complex personality.

“Her manuscripts reveal that she was influenced by abolitionist authors while, at the same time, she appreciated the so-called “sugar water” literature, in which princes rescue princesses in distress. This contrast appears in several of her books,” says Barcellos.

Carolina left Canindé in 1960. The following year, the favela was torn down at the behest of the municipal government. “The same government that, ironically, made the formation of the favela feasible by ‘dumping’ residents there who had been removed from the tenements,” says urban planner Gabriela Pereira, professor at the School of Architecture at the Federal University of Bahia (FA-UFBA), and author of the book Corpo, discurso e território: A cidade em disputa nas dobras da narrativa de Carolina Maria de Jesus (Body, discourse, and territory: The city in dispute within the folds of Carolina Maria de Jesus’s narrative) (Anpur, 2019).

De Jesus is mentioned in the first paragraph of the favela’s demolition plan, released by the city of São Paulo in 1962. According to the document, the impact caused by Child of the Dark marked “the city’s awakening to this serious urban and social problem—the favela.” For Pereira, analyzing de Jesus’s work opens avenues for thinking about the constitution of the city in which the writer lived and through which she moved. “She managed to connect our slaveholding past with the inequalities that still undergird our country.”