I remember starting to write in journals when I was very young. I wanted to be a writer and publisher, but like so many other desires, this one was kept hidden in the pages of the notebooks that followed me through the years. I’ve recently came across this desire to write again, and even more recently I am learning to lose the fear of being read. I frequently asked myself: who am I to write? But also: who am I not to write? I know that if the ground today is fertile for my roots to expand, it is because before me there were women working on it, and this helps me to have courage.
Today, Carolina Maria de Jesus would turn 107 years old. The Brazilian writer who received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa in February 2021, did the opposite of what was expected - and still is - of black and poor women in Brazil. She was born in Sacramento - MG in 1914, only 26 years after the slavery abolition (an abolition that did not promote inclusion and reparation towards black people). Carolina Maria de Jesus was supposed to live the same life of so many women who came before and after her. However, an internal force ("Força estranha", a song by Caetano Veloso, but which I prefer in Gal's voice) took her far beyond expectations and determinations for women of that time.
After a childhood and teenage years with great difficulty in Minas Gerais, Carolina moved to São Paulo in 1948, and lived in the Canindé Favela, in the center of São Paulo. She worked on the streets picking up paper and also as a maid in order to survive. She already had three children when she began writing her diaries. Some excerpts of those diaries were published in the Folha da Noite newspaper in 1958, in the O Cruzeiro magazine in 1959. In 1960 these diaries were released under the title Beyond all pity: the diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, her most notorious book.
Carolina has a narrative that goes against the hegemonic categories of literature (even today). Being a black woman in poverty, to write is to break with the constant attempt to be locked up without a voice. When she chooses the written word as her way of living, Carolina accomplishes what goes against the current social structures. She even manages to achieve social growth through literature, introducing to the Brazilian society of the time another history of Brazil and its big cities. A history and story of poverty, hunger and the invisibility of people who live in the heart of the city. With this raw narrative, she illuminates what’s in front of our eyes. The book Beyond All Pity, sells 100,000 copies in its first year, and it is translated into 14 languages, and Carolina becomes known worldwide.
Carolina’s writing, however, is not limited to this book. She publishes three more novels in her lifetime, and 5 posthumous books are also published. The story of life in the favelas marked her early years as a writer, however Carolina's work is not limited to this narrative. Her writing is filled with imagination and distinct literary characteristics that originate from Carolina’s acute awareness of the wider world. In 1977, Carolina dies of an asthma attack in the cottage she had moved to in Parelheiros, São Paulo.
In a country where literature is not valued and the habit of reading is neglected, Carolina has accomplished and performed an unprecedented fact: her book is read, she becomes known, she turns into a reference. In a country of male writers, Carolina has managed to live and prosper, while her influence continues to be felt by us through her books.
Digital Collection of UFF Letters Carolina Maria de Jesus
There are many aspects that separate me from Carolina. I was lucky to have everything, a comfortable and privileged life (inherited from parents, who did not have so many privileges). I've never experienced poverty or starvation. However, still today black women from different social classes struggle to legitimize their dreams, to believe in their potential. This becomes even harder for poor black women, to whom the possibility of dreaming is frequently robbed and questioned.
Here, and it is important to emphasise this, I’m not comparing my path with that of Carolina. I know that if my feet can touch this path, it is because she opened it before me. I am not saying that I will be like her, a talented and well-known writer. Who am I to write? It is in the echoes of words from women like Carolina that I grab myself, and where I grasp the possibility of writing. It is because she did it that I find the hope to try, that I can see I am not alone. When you are a black woman, It is essential to have references of black women to dream.
Collage by Isadora Daurizio @colagemruim
Although we still live in a patriarchal and racist society, and the challenges are still huge and our trajectories still remain imprecise (mine and that of many other women), it is necessary to celebrate Carolina. It is necessary that all the voices come together to honour Carolina Maria de Jesus. A woman who opened paths, even though society insists on closing it, covering it up with weeds and garbage. Today is a day to be thankful for the courage and boldness of Carolina and for all of our ancestors that enable us women - especially black women - to glimpse a different and more vivid sunset.
Isabela Vieira Bertho is a social scientist with a master's degree in sociology from the University of Geneva and has always worked with social projects. A lover of literature, she has immersed herself more and more in the universe of writing during the last year. Ps: don't deny a glass of wine;)