Having achieved late recognition from her literary peers, the writer from Minas Gerais is not surprised by the obstacles. On the contrary, she seems to be waiting for them with a lot of preparation.
Photo: Joyce Fonseca
Rachel de Queiroz, Ligia Fagundes Telles, Zélia Gattai. What do these names have in common? Women of free and avant-garde thinking, members of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (BAL) - a space that historically excluded Black intellectuals. They are women who broke the taboo of "girls making romance", as Graciliano Ramos once questioned. Taking a step forward in the questioning, what would the BAL writers and Conceição Evaristo* have in common? Still, women breaking the narrow chains in the universe of Brazilian intellectuality, breaking with the masculine standard of the literary. And stop there.
Conceição is a Black woman. The scenarios of her works reflect the life of the Pindura Saia's favela, in Belo Horizonte, where she was raised. In 2018, she was responsible for a particular engagement in social networks, magazines and conversation circles, an effervescence born from the possibility of witnessing her (and everything she represents) while occupying a chair at the Brazilian Academy of Letters. She was nominated, but lost to Cacá Diegues, a Brazilian film director who is a "white" male.
Photo: Brasil de Fato - personal archive
The choice generated many other debates about the "referral policy", which is summarized in campaigns, dinners and cocktails in the noblest neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro with the current members of the club; a tool seen as a social barrier denying entry to the institution since it reproduces an element present in almost all organizations in the country: the lack of access and representation.
This would not be the first time that the writer would run into “powerful backing”. After working as a nanny and cleaning lady while studying for a teaching degree, she moved to Rio de Janeiro looking for a better life dreamed by many, since she would only be able to teach in Minas Gerais if she went through recommendation.
So far, nothing new about the system. However, what Evaristo has done with all the dynamics of power is a portrait of the revolution in the 2000s. According to IBGE - The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, access to public universities for the Black population has been on the rise since 2018. This access is a political act by itself, and shows that the "face" of the academy is in transformation. If in adolescence, she wrote to escape reality, today Conceição Evaristo claims to write for some degree of revenge - serving as inspiration for many Black people who no longer accept exclusion in the literary and academic universe.
Photo: Eric Garault
As part of her research, she has coined the concept of “escrevivência”, that, on her own words, comes to blur a slave-based past through writing – so that every storytelling rises from author’s and black people’s memories, everyday life and experiences. “Our ‘escrevivência’ must not be seen as a bedtime story to owners and masters of enslaved people. It must otherwise disturb them and their unfair sleep”, the writer claims.
At the age of 70, she is always incisive when affirming that writing allows the occupation of spaces in which she normally would not be - which sums up not only her personal, but also her collective trajectory. She occupied her space at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She occupied her space in the poetry collection Cadernos Negros (Black Notebooks), in the 90s. She occupied her space as a teacher; as a doctor from the Federal University Fluminense, in Rio de Janeiro. She was the financier of four of her six books herself, on a solo flight that is familiar to many black women.
That being said, it is not in her nature to romanticize the difficulties of his journey: for Conceição, it is more interesting to read her work than to read her biography. Her characters are everything and nothing; complex, individualized, completely breaking the repeated stereotypes of the black woman. If in O Cortiço, Aluísio Azevedo offers Bertoleza as an enslaved woman, while Jorge Amado is attached to Gabriela's sexuality and seduction, Conceição Evaristo offers Maria-Nova: "One day, now she already knows what her tool, writing, will be. One day, she will narrate, make it sound, let out the voices, the murmurs, the silences, the muffled scream that existed, which belonged to each and every person. One day Maria-Nova will write the speech of her people" - in her metalinguistic work* Becos da Memória (free translation).
The recognition of her work came through different decorations, including two categories of the Jabuti Award for the tales Olhos D' Água. What humanizes and brings us closer to Conceição Evaristo is the certainty that she does not want to be seen as an exception. As she recorded in her writings, again, from Becos da Memória, "Some say that life is win or lose. I say that life is only losing, but by how much…" (free translation). With the awareness that, yes, the black woman is always the last to turn the handle on many doors, Conceição Evaristo reminds us that the collective advance must be the result of individual glories.
Photo: National Archive
*Conceição Evaristo is a novelist, poet and short-story writer, honoured as Literary Personality of the Year by the Jabuti Award 2019 and winner of the Jabuti Award 2015. Her main works are Ponciá Vicêncio, 2003 (novel), Becos da Memória, 2006 (novel), Poemas da Recordação e Outros Movimentos, 2008 (poetry), Insubmissas Lágrimas de Mulheres, 2011 (short story), Olhos D’água, 2014 (short story), Histórias de Leves Enganos e Parecenças, 2016 (short story and novel) e Canção Para Ninar Menino Grande, 2018 (novel) - all available in online bookshops, most of the books are in Portuguese. Some in Brazil.
Metalinguistics: a function of the Portuguese language (among other languages) in which the sender of the message addresses the very language in which it is used. Example: a film that “talks” about cinema or a book that tells the life of a writer.