Black authors are shaking up the Brazilian literary scene

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Itamar Vieira Júnior, whose day job serving the Brazilian government on land reform took him deep into the impoverished countryside, knew next to nothing about the mainstream publishing industry when he put the finishing touches to a novel he had written about. and extinguished for decades.

On a whim, in April 2018, he sent the manuscript of “Torto Arado”, which means twisted plow, to a literary competition in Portugal, wondering what the jury would think of the difficult story of two sisters in a rural district in northeast Brazil. where the legacy of slavery remains palpable.

“I wanted to see if anyone saw value in it,” said Mr. Vieira, 42. “But I didn’t have much hope.”

To his amazement, “Torto Arado” won the 2018 LeYa Prize, a major Portuguese-language literary prize focused on discovering new voices. This recognition launched Mr. Vieira’s career, making him a leading voice among black authors who have rocked the Brazilian literary establishment in recent years with imaginative, searing works that have found commercial success and critical acclaim. critical.

“Torto Arado” was the best-selling book in Brazil in 2021, with over 300,000 copies sold to date. The previous year, that accolade went to Djamila Ribeiro’s “Little Anti-Racist Handbook,” a succinct and clearly written dissection of systemic racism in Brazil.

Mr. Vieira and Ms. Ribeiro, 41, are part of a generation of black Brazilians who became the first in their families to graduate from college, taking advantage of programs enacted by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who ruled the Brazil from 2003 to 2010.

The two are among the most prominent figures in a literary boom that includes contemporary writers and authors enjoying posthumous success that eluded them when their seminal works were initially published.

“Writers from marginalized communities have been producing important works for decades,” said São Paulo literature professor Fernanda Rodrigues de Miranda, “but they have struggled to gain exposure.”

For her doctoral dissertation, Rodrigues, who is black, compiled all the published novels she could find written by black women from 1859 to 2006.

She was stunned by the literary quality of the novels that had gathered dust in the drawers, never having been widely read or discussed. And she concluded that the few authors who found commercial and critical success were creatively circumscribed by white literary gatekeepers.

The most striking example is that of Carolina Maria de Jesus, whose memoir, “Child of the Dark”, caused a sensation in literature when it was published in 1960. The book, a compilation of diary entries by Ms. Jesus, a single mother of three, offers a raw account of daily life in a São Paulo slum where residents scavenged for food and slept in shacks patched with cardboard sheets.

The book’s success enabled Mrs. Jesus, who died in 1977, to buy a house in a better neighborhood. But publishers showed little interest in his later works, which were commercial flops.

“White readers were very curious about black lives, but they wanted to read stories about fragility,” Ms Rodrigues said. “The authors wanted to write about other issues, other facets of their identity. They were interested in writing about love, about humor, about finding a meaningful and fulfilling life,” she said.

An opportunity to showcase new literary talent arose in 2012 with the establishment of a literary festival in Rio de Janeiro as part of an ill-fated effort to restore security to the favelas – poor, working-class communities frequently controlled by drug trafficking gangs.

While efforts to improve security have largely failed, the literary festival has thrived and lives on today, said Julio Ludemir, one of its founders.

“It showed that there are readers who live in the favelas, which until then was deemed impossible,” he said. “But it also showed that there were writers.”

The festival launched the careers of several authors, including Geovani Martins, 30, who attended a writing workshop at the festival while living in Vidigal, a favela clinging to the mountainside above some of the neighborhoods the most expensive in Rio de Janeiro.

His first album – “The Sun on My Head”, a collection of short stories published in 2018 – became a bestseller in Brazil and has been translated into several languages. His stories of teenage angst, bubbly with slang, are often set in communities where young lives are hemmed in by racism and violence fueled by the drug trade.

Despite Mr. Martins’ success, until recently black authors had struggled to secure book deals with mainstream Brazilian publishers, Ms. Ribeiro said. She set out to disrupt the way the industry approached these young writers by curating a book series in 2017 dedicated to black authors.

It included inexpensive titles, priced under $4. Book events were held in outdoor public places, which drew large crowds. The covers included photos of the authors, and the writing tended to be accessible.

Ms Ribeiro, who studied philosophy, said when she wrote and marketed books, she thought of her mother who, like her grandmother, had worked as a maid and had no college education.

“I always want to write in a way that my mom would understand,” she said. “I felt a call to be generous enough to write in the same accessible way that generous authors before me have written, because otherwise you only legitimize the spheres of power of those who are privileged.”

The formula worked exceptionally well. One of Brazil’s leading publishers approached Ms Ribeiro in 2018 to write a book on black feminism, which became a mainstream success.

“We wanted to democratize reading, and it was a big success,” Ms. Ribeiro said. “There was an unmet demand from part of the population who wanted to see themselves represented.”

Mr. Vieira, a geologist, has managed to use his day job at Brazil’s land reform agency, where he has worked since 2006, to do research in the field. He has studied the politics and power dynamics that shape the lives of rural workers, including some who toil in conditions akin to modern slavery.

This experience, he said, made the characters in his novel more layered, and their fictional hometown, Água Negra, meaning black water, felt authentic.

“Readers tell me they see themselves reflected in the story,” he said, “which is in many ways a story about how our company came to be.”

Mr Vieira says one of the main reasons black Brazilian writers are making their mark, writing and publishing on their own terms, is because of a change in the way race and racism are discussed in the country. today.

“For many years Brazil tried to whitewash its population and people avoided talking about race in Brazil,” he said. “Over the past few decades, the black rights movement and the study of structural racism have clarified our role in society.”

Many black writers still struggle to understand how they fit into it. Pieta Poeta, 27, a black transgender man from Belo Horizonte, made waves by winning a national slam poetry festival in 2018.

But he had to self-publish his poetry collections, including the most recent: “Do You Still Wanna Yell at Me? — an exhortation, he said, to readers to imagine what it is like to be a black and transgender person in today’s Brazil.

He said his work has become darker in recent years – and he writes under a pseudonym – reflecting the political turmoil and social upheaval that has rocked Brazil since the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing president known for its divisive, and often offensive messages.

“Being Brazilian means being either constantly paralyzed by fear or constantly having to cry foul,” he said.

And yet his work has an undertone of resilience, even outright hope, as evidenced by his short poem “Autocide”:

I wanted to die.
but it wasn’t a death wish per se
It was an absence of life
And no idea how long things
take
to stop suffering so deeply.
Of the time it takes for our backs
Carry the world, its weight.

Lily Moriconi contributed report.

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