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Poetry out of scraps

Studies go beyond the testimonial aspects of the work of Carolina Maria de Jesus seeking to define her style and cultural relationships

Carolina de Jesus in a June 1960 photo taken from the window of a São Paulo shack: her literary production and her life of ups and downs are still being studied

UH Collection/ Folhapress Carolina de Jesus in a June 1960 photo taken from the window of a São Paulo shack: her literary production and her life of ups and downs are still being studiedUH Collection/ Folhapress

Fifty-five years after publication of the book Quarto de despejo, (Child of the Dark: the Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus) interest in her work continues to grow and gained momentum in 2014, the year that the author would have turned 100 – as we can only presume because De Jesus herself was uncertain of her birth date and there are discrepancies in information found on her birth and baptismal certificates.  Defined as a “slum dweller” in the sub-title of the book (Diário de uma favelada) (Diary of a slum dweller), Carolina de Jesus is today subject to analysis from several angles, given the richness of her largely unpublished works as well as the high and low points of her life.

“Writer, farm hand, trash picker, composer, samba dancer, poet, playwright, singer, circus performer, herbalist [one who uses roots in medical treatment]”, that is how historian Elena Pajaro Peres describes her in her doctoral dissertation entitled Exuberância e invisibilidade. Populações moventes e cultura em São Paulo, 1942 ao início dos anos 70, (Exuberance and invisibility.  Mobile populations and culture in São Paulo, 1942 to the early 1970s), defended in the Department of History of the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) in 2007. Peres is now conducting post-doctoral research at the Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB) at USP on the references to the African Diaspora found in the manuscripts of Carolina de Jesus.

The presence of Carolina de Jesus (1914-1977) in academic circles in Brazil and abroad is in sharp contrast to her near invisibility among the reading public.   In her era, however, Quarto de despejo was a best seller. The first printing of 10,000 copies, sold out in three days and another 90,000 copies were sold over the following six months.  Her book was translated into 14 languages outside Brazil.  The book was published after a report by journalist Audálio Dantas about the Canindé favela, one of São Paulo’s original slums.  A casual encounter between him and De Jesus led to his learning about her writings – contained in nearly 20 notebooks – which he selected and edited, changing the punctuation but maintaining the original spelling and grammar.  De Jesus, who attended what was then known as primary school only through the second grade in her native city of Sacramento in the state of Minas Gerais, was always confident of the publication potential of what she wrote.  Excerpts from her notebooks had already appeared in newspaper articles, among them those by Audálio Dantas, published in 1958 in the Folha da Noite. Quarto de despejo would come two years later to heightened public anticipation.

Carolina de Jesus would publish three more books during her lifetime, to far less fanfare than the work that made her a celebrity, and she kept “more than 5,000 handwritten manuscripts, totaling 58 notebooks that contained seven novels, more than 60 texts that appeared to be chronicles, fables, autobiography and stories, over 100 poems, four plays and 12 Carnaval marches,” this according to a survey conducted by post-doc fellow Raffaella Fernandez, who is currently working on the study Narratives of Carolina Maria de Jesus: the process of creating poetry out of scraps at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) of the University of Campinas (Unicamp).

Excerpts from the short story published posthumously in 2014 and available online

Raffaella Fernandez/ebook “Onde estaes felicidade?” (Where are you, happiness?) Excerpts from the short story published posthumously in 2014 and available onlineRaffaella Fernandez/ebook “Onde estaes felicidade?” (Where are you, happiness?)

All of this material is scattered among various locations, and there may even be additional manuscripts that have yet to appear. “Whenever you work with people who move around, you have to address the issue of document dispersal,” Peres says.  “Carolina de Jesus sent many of her writings to other people in the hopes of having them published, and with her constant moving, she was forced to leave behind some books that she had lovingly collected.” It is even hard to find her published works. Elena Peres was able to view microfilms of her manuscripts at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and she also has copies of all of de Jesus’ books, including the 1963 novel Pedaços da fome (Pieces of hunger) and her only album, recorded by RCA Victor. The same microfilms are also available at the National Library of Rio de Janeiro, but the catalogue there does not have all her books.

It was only in the books Provérbios (Proverbs) and Diário de Bitita (Bitita’s diary) – memoirs of the writer’s childhood, initially published in France in 1982, and four years later in Brazil – that the researcher has managed to find the main connections between De Jesus and the culture of African Diaspora on the American continent. “We are able to see the connections with African traditions that lent great importance to the written word,” Peres says.  In particular, the historian identifies a link with the culture of Cabinda, today a province in Angola, which connects the writer to Central Africa.  Her grandfather, to whom she listened with great devotion as a child, was a former slave, and her parents came from this region steeped in Bantu culture where the process of moral training and the search for the right path were told through dialogue and proverbs, often depicted in textiles and pottery.

Peres, who conducted a year-long post-doctoral fellowship in  African American Studies at Boston University and who has been in discussions with Africanists and scholars of the African Diaspora, associates this preoccupation with strength of character with the Afro-American musical tradition of spirituals.  “Like proverbs, spirituals communicate the path to be followed and lament any deviations from it, recreating a religious and political ethic that was constantly present in discussions in favor of civil rights, especially during the 1950s and 1960s,” Peres explains.  De Jesus’ grandfather was a Christian who led the praying of the Rosary in Sacramento, which afforded him a moral authority and distinction in the community.

After the release of Quarto de despejo, Casa de alvenaria (I’m Going to Have a Little House: the Second Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus) (remembrances of her life following the success of her first book) and Antologia pessoal (Personal Anthology – a collection of poems edited by historian José Carlos Bom Meihy, published in 1996), there was increasing criticism aimed at the author for what was perceived as her failure to reflect upon her status as a black woman.  However, texts on these topics are found among her unpublished works and even in published passages but were not sufficiently taken into account at the time. Doctoral candidate Fernandez points to poems and other passages from the writings of De Jesus that constitute a rather ambiguous collection with regard to these questions – at one point she incorporates prejudices while on another occasion she calls for the emancipation of blacks and women.  In life, the writer always tried to remain as independent as possible.  She preferred being a paper collector to being a maid and she never wanted to get married – each of her three children had different fathers.

Peres thinks that the notion of belonging to black culture was also fed by the abolitionist tendencies of Brazilian romantic poets and  intellectual thinkers such as Rui Barbosa and José do Patrocínio, who Carolina de Jesus had access to through the influence of a mulatto justice official in Sacramento, who would read newspaper stories to blacks from the city who could not read.  In the two short years that she was in a school, run by spiritualists, De Jesus acquired a taste for reading, and the first book she ever read cover to cover, lent to her by a neighbor, was A escrava Isaura (The Slave Girl) by novelist Bernardo Guimarães. From then on, she read everything she could get her hands on, from those she found or was given, which made up a very special reference collection. “The writings of Carolina de Jesus have very refined poetic sections that do not exactly correspond to the literature of the time in which they were produced,” Peres notes.

When she moved by herself to São Paulo in 1937, leaving her family and books behind, De Jesus began to write furiously.  According to the accounts she left behind, we know that her head was inundated with “poetic thoughts.”  One of her notations says: “I felt things that I didn’t recognize.”  To Peres, this unexpected awakening lends continuity to a type of mission to find the wisdom inculcated by her grandfather and impregnated in an ancestral culture.  “Perhaps if she had not come to São Paulo, she may not have felt the need,” says the researcher.  “In the big city, De Jesus isolated herself and found literature.”  This is how she gave her own voice to the experiences that surrounded her.  According to Peres, the expression “quarto de despejo,” (trash room) is the writer’s metaphor for the slum as a place where society “stashes” what it does not what to show in the living room.

The author’s first book was received as a testimonial to life in the slums, according to Peres, and continues to attract interest abroad, awakened by the writer.  The impact and the immediate discomfort caused by the book was such that the city of São Paulo, during the Prestes Maia administration (1961-65), launched a successful campaign to tear down the Canindé favela, which resulted in the forced removal of its residents.  This action by the city encouraged a group of students to establish the       University Movement to Eliminate Shantytowns (MUD), which, with the help of large companies, worked to remove other shanty-towns.

Post-doc Fernandez advocates a certain shift in approach to studying the literary aspects of the work of De Jesus – a terrain in which even the informative aspect of the writings may be differently construed. “The fictional universe is always very present,” says Elena Peres in turn.  “There are characteristics of memoir in her fiction and fiction in her testimonial narrative, as is often the case with other authors.”  The researcher also defends De Jesus’ breaking through the confines of “marginal literature,” literature on the periphery, to which she is frequently limited.  “This is important, but it only leaves us with the view of the place or time she lived in after she left her family,” she said, referring to the transnational networks she has been tracing, based on the author’s works.

“As a writer, Carolina de Jesus defies instant categorization,” emphasizes Fernandez who edited and promoted the 2014 publication of the book Onde estaes felicidade? (Where are you, happiness?), containing two of the author’s unpublished short stories (available at, and is now preparing to publish a children’s book and a young adult fiction book.  Her academic study describes the production by De Jesus as a “poetry out of scraps,” which combines discourse and literary and non-literary genres from romance poems to journalistic texts, the lyrics of samba and radio soap operas, and from the cultural norm to oral tradition, to which she adds a distinctive Minas Gerais accent.  This mishmash leads Fernandez to compare the author’s writings to her scrap paper scavenging.  “The literature of Carolina de Jesus also survives the scavenging of discourses,” she concludes.

Forbidden writing, romantic expression and African Diaspora in the manuscripts of Carolina Maria de Jesus (no. 2012/10784-6); Grant Mechanism Scholarship in Brazil – Post-doctoral research; Principal Investigator Elena Pajaro Peres (IEB-USP); Investment R$164,743.02.