“I went to the shoemaker to collect his wastepaper. One of them asked me if my book was communistic. I replied that it was realistic. He cautioned me that it was not wise to write of reality.” So wrote Carolina Maria de Jesus, in her scrap-paper memoir Child of the Dark published in São Paulo in 1960 as Quarto do Despejo. As a catador Carolina made her living gathering waste paper in the neighborhoods around her home in the growing urban periphery, saving some of the scraps in order to record her thoughts, observations, her life.
Her book took the reading world by storm. The world, literally. After publication, Quarto de Despejo was translated in to thirteen languages and became Brazil’s number one most successful written work. As impressive as that sounds–and there’s nothing unimpressive about it–you can’t help but think that the popularity doesn’t have something to do with the spectacle. The same phenomenon that draws people on vacation to Copacabana into Rocinha’s becos to take in an experience something outside the familiar, something different. Maybe something real.
Child of the Dark, created a spectacle for the little that anyone in mainstream society knew about life in the periphery. Maybe it’s the peek into that strange other world that drew people in. And perhaps rightly so. After all isn’t that what makes literature so wonderful? As Jonathan Saffron Foer (and so many other authors and readers) said, that they, “make people less alone.That, before and after everything else, is what books do…” Books connect people by connecting our experiences, by showing each other that as far flung as other people’s lives sometimes seem, there are so many shared aspects of human existence that cross race and class and all the ways we find to categorize each other, that in comparison, all the other differences seem insignificant. And literature does that for us: places us face to face. It challenges our sense of reality by showing us someone else’s and expanding our own.
Recently on NPR’s All Things Considered, Melissa Block is hosting a series focused on Brazil called Considering Brazil. On recent installments, she has introduced Brazilian writers including Yasmin Thayná who shared part of her work, “Mc K Bella” and whose writing appears on a blog focused on giving audiences writing from favela authors. Her writing bears wisdom far beyond her young age (she’s only twenty), and she’s fairly prolific and committed to her craft if the compilation of her work on the Flupp Pensa website is any indication.
The NPR spot reminded me of other programs I’ve run into that promote the humanities in Brazil’s favelas. Beco Poema in Rocinha, for example, helps kids form habits in reading and then creating good literature of their own. Conscious of the need for more literature, and I’m certain for the simple love of reading in his own life, founder Joilson Pinheiro, Beco Poema said, “It is very easy to show up in the so-called “asfault,” (outside favelas: the rest of the city) you know, in the wealthy neighborhhod of any city this isn’t just in Rio de Janeiro, and you see already a kid there with a book under her arm. But in the favela it’s different. So what we need is this: to awaken in children the habit of reading…You may not change the world but at least on your street, in your neighborhood you will manage to illuminate some minds.”
I’ll bet that it’ll be these illuminted minds that will bring Brazil forward in the coming years: these minds that are familiar with poverty, who know scarcity and the need for compassion firsthand and who have hope enough to share.
In 2011 Obsrevatório de Favelas reported on a group of favela writers having achieved literary success in France having their work published in Paris as part of a compilation. Alessandro Buzo, one of the authors, had this to say: “Agora não precisamos mais que venham fazer teses sobre a gente. Queremos, sim, escrever nossa própria história” –“Now you don’t need to come here and write about us. We want to write our own story.”
And every time this happens, the periphery gets closer to the center. There can be no doubt that the literary geniuses, like Carolina Maria de Jesus are out there, in the becos, on the morros, in the barracos, evidence Ms. Yasmin Thayná. And the literary world is richer every time it learns of a new one, to offer fresh perspective and legitimate hope. The hope that comes from refining raw talent. The hope that comes from sharing stories.