Looking for Carolina Maria de Jesus

For a brief period in the 1960s, the Afro-Brazilian author of the memoir “Child of the Dark” was one of the most well-known writers in the world.

Tarisai Ngangura | Longreads | August 2019 | 18 minutes (4,506 words)

Here in the favela, almost everyone has a difficult life to live. But I am the only one who writes of what suffering is. I do this for the good of the others.

 Carolina Maria de Jesus, Quarto de Despejo

* * *

In 1960, at the age of 46, Carolina Maria de Jesus published her first book, Quarto de Despejo: Diário de uma Favelada (Child of the Dark in English). It’s comprised of diary entries written on scraps of paper and assembled into a memoir about life in Canindé, a favela community in the Brazilian city of São Paulo. The book sold more than 10,000 copies in less than a week, was eventually translated into 16 languages, and distributed in 46 countries, making Carolina Maria one of Brazil’s most widely read authors. And for a while, the most famous person in the country. 

Starting in the late 1800s, the very first favelas, known as bairros-africanos, were inhabited by formerly enslaved people. Today, the country’s Institute of Geography and Statistics calls them “sub-normal clusters.” Favelas lack basic sanitation, electricity, and health facilities and are located primarily in city centers. After Quarto de Despejo’s instant success, Carolina Maria became a fleeting cause célèbre for the rights of favelados.

Carolina Maria de Jesus was born in the state of Minas Gerais, about 500 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, and came into the world some time between 1914 and 1921. Like many Afro-Brazilians born during this time, she didn’t have a birth certificate. She grew up with her mother, grandfather, younger brother, and later her stepfather in the town of Sacramento, where most homes were small and functional, to guard from rain and sun. Her father was a street performer who abandoned the family soon after Carolina Maria was born. Her mother cleaned houses and washed clothes for white families who lived on farms bordering the city. She died when Carolina Maria was in her early twenties.

After her mother’s death, Carolina Maria moved around trying to find her footing before settling in metropolitan São Paulo. She also made a living cleaning homes for wealthy white Brazilians, but after becoming pregnant, she was barred from the house she worked at and forced to move to a favela. She chose the neighborhood of Canindé for its proximity to a junkyard, where she sold bags of collected paper and scrap iron for pennies. Black people who were lighter skinned were referred to as morenas and morenos and had a greater measure of respect and access to more jobs, better restaurants, libraries, and social mobility. Carolina Maria, a dark-skinned black woman, was an outsider in more ways than one.

After the surprise success of Quarto de Despejo, she traveled across Brazil’s states, signing books and giving public talks on the dire conditions of favelas. The press called her a rags-to-riches heroine: the one who had been born surrounded by garbage and yet became a writer. Carolina Maria became a reluctant (and ultimately unwilling) spokesperson for “bootstrap success” — her image vaunted to encourage others to let nothing keep them from their dreams. Not crippling debt or inaccessible education. Definitely not hunger, and most importantly, not racism. In the years after Carolina Maria’s debut, nine more books followed; six were published after her death in 1977. But the renown that came from her first frank writings on poverty wouldn’t be repeated.  


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In the afterlife of the global slave trade and colonialism, black history is a study of spaces, silences, question marks, and asterisks. Growing up in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s, I learned of colonialism as if it had been a momentary blip in my country’s history, not a profound interrupting occurrence whose effects would forever shape how I moved and saw the world. When I left home for university in Toronto, I learned of Canada’s history as a celebrated haven for runaway slaves, but did not hear of Africville, a historically black community in Nova Scotia destroyed by provincial and federal negligence. I noticed the same kind of erasure when I arrived in Brazil’s city of Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, which I’d chosen to make my home base as I started my career in freelance journalism in 2016.

Of the nearly 5 million Africans brought to the country during the transatlantic slave trade (10 times more than brought to North America), the first landed in Salvador, one of the oldest slave ports in the Americas. It’s where the Malê revolt erupted, which Brazilian historian João José Reis called “the most significant slave revolt in Brazil.” Brazil has more African descendants than any other country in the world except Nigeria — almost 51 percent of the nation’s population is black or mixed race. On a national scale, Salvador is the state capital with the highest number of Afro-Brazilians, with more than 80 percent of its people identifying as black or brown. The cadence and speech of Soteropolitanos (residents of Salvador) is audibly tinged with Bantu vocal patterns, and the moda (fashion) would not be out of place in pattern-rich Senegal. Local food is stamped with unmistakable West African flavors and beloved street snacks include acarajé, a deep-fried black bean bun that is also found in Nigeria and Ghana. Dende oil, an extract from the fruit of oil palms that leaves distinct orange marks on clothing, is an integral part of every meal and was also brought over from Africa’s West. 

Carolina Maria, a dark-skinned black woman, was an outsider in more ways than one.

In the months following my arrival, I searched for writers to guide me through Brazil. Yet the authors I discovered online and on bookshelves did not reflect the faces I saw around me. When I refined my search, specifically noting ‘Afro-Brazilian’ in my digital prompt, I learned about Maria Firmina dos Reis, a prominent abolitionist and teacher; Abdias Do Nascimento, the pan-Africanist, playwright, and founder of Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN); and Alzira Rufino, an activist and the first Afro-Brazilian woman to create a support service for female survivors of domestic violence. These writers exposed truths about their country’s treatment of black people, countering the myth of Brazil’s diverse, racial democracy. I also found Carolina Maria de Jesus, whose story was not only compelling, but was also to some degree a reflection of my own. I saw familiar breaks and patterns in her thoughts, dreams, doubts, and disappointments. 

Haunted by questions centuries older than her years, Carolina Maria constantly found equilibrium to be out of reach, even when it seemed as though she had finally achieved what she longed for. She landed at a crossroads so common to the “successful” black creative: a rapid abundance of opportunities contingent on total acquiescence, or nothing at all. She achieved renown for a season, then fell into obscurity and back, further still, into near poverty.  

It’s been more than 40 years since her death, and I wonder if anything has truly changed for black women anywhere who long for their art to be what takes care of them.

* * *

In 1962, The New York Times Book Review called Quarto de Despejo “a rarely matched essay on the meaning and feeling of hunger, degradation and want.” Carolina Maria’s debut pulled no punches and displayed no illusions about life in the favela. There was no long-suffering acceptance of martyrdom because a better life lay above. She’d hated where she lived, and even more so she hated those who allowed such places to exist. Quarto de Despejo literally translates to “room of garbage.” She wrote about culpability — whose fault was it that some people had to live among the garbage? Sometimes she blamed the people themselves, who, according to her, were lazy, drunk, vulgar, and illiterate. “I know very well there are contemptible people here, persons with perverted souls,” she wrote. This earned her no love from progressives, who found her sentiments self-righteous and demeaning to the poor. When she didn’t find fault with those around her, she chalked it up to sheer bad luck: “Is there no end to this bitterness of life? I think that when I was born I was marked by fate to go hungry.” More often, her mind would circle back to one answer — politicians. “When a politician tells us in his speeches that he is on the side of the people, that he is only in politics in order to improve our living conditions, he is well aware that touching on these grave problems, he will win at the polls,” she wrote. “Afterwards he divorces himself from the people. He looks at them with half-closed eyes, and with a pride that hurts us.” This was an entry she wrote on May 20th, 1955, a day she found herself particularly hungry and contemplating her place in a world where she was an “object banished to the garbage dump.”

 The 1950s were, on the surface, an auspicious time for Brazil. Under the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira (like Carolina Maria, a mineiro, born in the state of Minas Gerais), the country’s economic and political stability grew. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, soon to be known as Pelé, became an international soccer star. Bossa nova was born and on its way to becoming one of the country’s most distinctive musical innovations, with Johnny Alf’s “Eu e a Brisa” drifting in and out of bars across the country. For Carolina Maria, none of this mattered. The police regularly intimidated, arrested, and detained favela dwellers. Corruption was rampant at social services, and social elevation was only possible if she married a white man and had lighter-skinned children. All this she wrote in her diaries, sharing her confusion, disgust, and anger. In her eyes, to be poor and hungry was an undeserved burden for anyone, and it was a national shame she cast a glaring light on.

* * *

Carolina Maria had three children, and her only daughter, Vera Eunice Lima de Jesus, born in 1953, is the writer’s closest living relative. As the public face of her mother’s literary works, Vera Eunice speaks at roundtable discussions where the work is featured, but she doesn’t own the rights to any of it. 

Vera Eunice also accommodates writers like me, who come to her for answers about her mother’s life of contrasts. It’s been more than half a century since she lived in Canindé, and while some memories elude her, others she recalls as though they happened yesterday. She told me she’d barely turned 7 when fame came knocking at their barraco. Made of pieces of discarded timber and asbestos, it was stuffed with bits of plastic and paper to act as both insulation and ventilation. Carolina Maria had built it herself. During the summer months, it was unbearably hot inside the cramped home, with the asbestos emitting heat all day. São Paulo is also known for its torrential rainfall, so when it poured the roof would leak, drenching their two mattresses. In that small shack Vera Eunice lived a life stifled by scarcity. “We would eat once a day. My oldest brother was a teenager and he was always hungry,” she said. 

These writers exposed truths about their country’s treatment of black people, countering the myth of Brazil’s diverse, racial democracy.

Like her mother’s writing style, Vera Eunice spoke to me in a direct, almost dry way — her voice strong and measured. “One day, my mother and I went out to look for food. We were passing this house and a white woman came running out and said she had a gift for us. My mother was so happy because we had not been able to find anything,” she said. “The gift was wrapped in newspapers so we rushed home and my mother quickly tore it open to see what it was. It was a pile of rats.” Carolina Maria had recounted this particular interaction in her diaries; it was a moment that scarred both mother and daughter. For the writer, particularly, this interaction showed that to outsiders she didn’t simply live amidst garbage, she too was disposable.

Audálio Dantas, a young journalist working for the newspaper Diário da Noite, spent a week in Canindé in 1958. He was researching life in the favela for what he hoped would be a story on the recently built playground donated by a politician soliciting votes from the poor. As the legend goes, he came across Carolina Maria threatening to put some neighbors in her diaries if they didn’t stop mistreating a group of children who were having fun on the swings. Intrigued, Dantas asked to see some of her work. He took a couple of her entries to his editor, and soon after, excerpts were published in the paper to great fanfare. Dantas later became bureau chief of O Cruzeiro, the leading weekly magazine from Rio de Janeiro. Although the newspaper exposure led to a book deal for Carolina Maria, it also attracted a barrage of harassment and a backlash that was unceasing.  

After the book came out, rumors began to circulate of Carolina Maria’s difficult disposition. Her politics during the book’s press tour failed to garner any favor when listeners realized that what she had written about sexism, political corruption, and poverty was not mournful musings, but rather her true convictions. She found it necessary to call out racial prejudice and in a country whose social stability and national identity was built on the idea of colorblindness through race mixing, her words were seen as not only inflammatory, but also blatantly false. When the novelty of a published black favelada wore off, the press coverage grew harsh; critics from well-known papers resorted to tabloid-like spitefulness. A writer from the paper O Globo called her “uncouth.” A literary critic from the largest newspaper in the country, Folha de São Paulo, found her work after Quarto De Despejo to be “pastiche,” and a later article would run in that same paper with the headline, “Carolina: Victim or Crazy?”

In the publishing industry, some writers are allowed to be all the messy parts of themselves, even when their behaviors and beliefs border on violent. The perceived strength of their work assures them a mythical cachet that leaves them faultless. This free pass was not given to Carolina Maria. She was not allowed to be mercurial and received little empathy. Some literary critics and political pundits questioned her competence, and she was forced to prove her legitimacy for the duration of her career. Those who want to protect her legacy face a similar interrogation. “Look, my mother wrote everything herself. We slept in the same bed and every night I would hear her get up to write,” Vera Eunice told me. “If we had no lights she would use candles and continue writing.” In 2012, Audálio Dantas talked about the events leading up to the publication of the first entries, which became the book Quarto de Despejo. “I had not written a single line. The story was in those books,” he said.

When her first press tour came to an end, Carolina Maria wanted to step away from diaries, to write novels, poetry, and to be taken seriously as an author. Her publishers, however, wanted her to keep doing what had amazed before. She refused, and for a while, she stuck to her guns, because for the first time she had the privilege to say no. Money had come in, and four months after Quarto de Despejo debuted, Carolina Maria and her children were able to leave the favela for the middle-class neighborhood of Santana, a 30-minute train ride from Canindé. 

* * *

To support Quarto de Despejo, Carolina Maria traveled so often and so extensively that airport workers would hug her at the arrival terminal. “Every day cards come from international editors who want to translate the book. Even I am astonished at the impact,” she wrote. She was happy, almost forcefully so. The kind of joy that’s laced with fear and doubt but is also desperately hopeful.

After settling down in Santana, Carolina Maria set about creating a haven for herself and her small family. In Canindé they’d lived without electricity, relying on candles when she could afford to buy them. In her new home, she put in 14 light fixtures. She bought shoes for Vera Eunice, who had always hated walking barefoot, and her two boys, João José and José Carlos stopped acting out. “I used to think João was rude. But now that we have food in the house he has transformed,” she wrote in Casa de Alvenaria, her second book, also a diary published just under a year after the release of Quarto de Despejo. “He has left rude João to be nice João. Hunger really makes people neurótico.” Memory of life prior to the book was still very clear and so too was the relief and gratitude for her new beginnings. As in Canindé, she still woke up before the sun, but now there was no hand-wringing as she worried about what she would feed her children. In Santana, when João José, José Carlos, and Vera Eunice woke up, they had breakfast with bread and their tea with milk and sugar. Once the children left for school, she would begin preparations for lunch, then dinner. She didn’t have to beg from people’s homes anymore or dig through the garbage, fearful of eating something dosed with poison by store owners attempting to dissuade favelados from searching for food. Carolina Maria could now go out to the butcher and choose any cut of meat that she wanted. She bought fresh fruit and vegetables from the market. “My life is now velvet. Now I have food. I have a house. I have things to wear,” she wrote. 

When the novelty of a published black favelada wore off, the press coverage grew harsh; critics from well-known papers resorted to tabloid-like spitefulness.

Carolina Maria could have chosen to write only the good things that came her way when she left the favela, but in Casa de Alvenaria, she wrote about her new life as bluntly as she had about her old one. She saw just how inflexible the middle-class reality was to her presence. The white maid she had hired constantly made it known that she believed their roles should be reversed, and Carolina Maria made note of her complaints: “My God in the sky. This is the end of the world. God is punishing me. The world has capsized. I, a white person, have a black boss.” Her new neighbors treated her with contempt and saw her presence as an eyesore. “I am sad and not content because when something happens here, everyone always blames my children,” she wrote. Outside of her problems at home, she also had trouble opening a bank account because she didn’t have the proper ID. She opened a joint account with Dantas, who was now not only her editor but also her agent. She had money, but anti-blackness does not dissolve with improved social status. It stings differently, but is noticeable all the same. 

While many critics saw Casa de Alvenaria as the inconsequential ramblings of someone with no direction, it was here I saw Carolina Maria most clearly. She was painfully aware of what both the press and her peers thought and said about her, so she attempted to tread the tightrope carefully. She knew people were watching and wilfully betting on her failure, so she wanted to write without risking the welfare of her children. “I am not crazy about this idea of writing my diary based off my actual life now. I am writing against the rich. They are powerful and they can destroy me,” she agonized. 

Her first book had kicked up the reactionary dust of white guilt, and she tried to settle what her words had stirred up, while making it known that her success did not end social inequality. Carolina Maria had written her second book while caring for her three children, showing up to book signings, pleasing her agent and publisher, and trying to maintain her own sense of self. She was exhausted. “Due to the success of my book I am now regarded as a bill of exchange. A representation of profit. A gold mine,” she wrote in Casa de Alvenaria. The freedom money should have purchased now felt like a cruel joke, and her feelings of despair culminated in one of the saddest thoughts present in her known works: “Looking at the sky, if I had wings I would lift my children up there, one at a time, and never again return to the earth.” She had few friends and those who came to see her would ask for money, which she usually gave. Carolina Maria had done what we’ve all been told needs to be done to be a good citizen, to be happy and fulfilled, far away from hardship: She had worked hard. And now here she was, uncomfortable in her own brick house. 

* * *

Carolina Maria de Jesus passed away in 1977 in Parelheiros, three hours from Santana and Canindé. She had moved there almost a decade earlier, after she could no longer afford to live in Santana. It was a poor, rural neighborhood on the periphery of São Paulo, known for its heavy pollution. She died from respiratory complications, exacerbated by the industrial waste sites surrounding her home.

When memorializing her life, the writer of her obituary in Jornal do Brasil called her vassoura de papel — a paper scavenger. This was in reference to her work collecting scrap paper and iron, which she’d had to start again after she moved. She’d kept writing and financed the three books published before her death with the royalties from her first book. But she died poor. Not like how she started, but not how she should have been. Carolina Maria had signed a financially crippling contract and she saw very little of the money received from the international licensing of her books. 

‘Looking at the sky, if I had wings I would lift my children up there, one at a time, and never again return to the earth.’

For Tom Farias, author of Carolina: Uma Biografia, a book on the writer released in 2017, Carolina Maria deserves to be highlighted in the same Brazilian canon as Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, and Paulo Coelho. “She was more than just her diaries, she wrote plays, songs, and poetry. She was an artist,” he said.

Since her death, she has been often acknowledged during Novembro Negro — Brazil’s Black History Month, when the achievements of living and dead Afro-Brazilian leaders are brought center stage. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s mostly other black women who have kept her memory alive. In Salvador, Denise Ribeiro taught a popular class at Universidade do Estado Da Bahia (UNEB) on the social relevance of Quarto de Despejo in 2008. A health and nutrition professor and former coordinator for the Municipal Health Secretariat of Salvador, she’s spent more than three decades studying health from a myriad of perspectives, with a focus on black feminism, traditional communities, and African spirituality. In her home, the names of well-known Afro-Brazilian women authors lined the spines of her library: Fatima Oliveira, Djamila Ribeiro, and Conceição Evaristo, alongside other voices from the diaspora such as Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Carolina Maria was a fitting addition among the company of black women whose work forced the world to center blackness, even when it seemed inconceivable. “Carolina Maria had such a hard life and so much happened to her in that time,” Ribeiro told me. “Because I teach health, her book was so relevant to the things that affect the way black people live, and the reality is that her life is the life of so many people today. Nothing has changed at all.” 

Not that long ago, in March 2018, Marielle Franco, a queer Afro-Brazilian city councillor from Rio de Janeiro, was assassinated in her car just hours after speaking at an event for black women’s empowerment. Franco was born in Complexo da Maré, a Rio neighborhood made up of 16 favelas. It’s considered one of the largest communities in the city with almost 150,000 residents. In 2017 and 2018, more than 40 young people, the majority of them black and under 24, were killed during police raids in Maré, which happen frequently. In May of this year, eight people were left dead after another police operation in the area, which forced children to search for cover so they wouldn’t be struck by bullets. Access to electricity remains a problem with many using what’s locally known as gato, or cat. This device, made up of manually inserted wires, is attached to city electrical supplies and it diverts energy toward the overlooked favelas. Six years ago, the monetary amount of the diverted electricity came to $500 million in U.S. dollars. Prone to explosions, gatos are dangerous creations, but for many families, it is too expensive to get onto the formal electrical grid. Carolina Maria faced the same dilemma while living in Canindé during the 1950s.

* * *

Stories of black women creators whose work shook the world but who died underappreciated never cease to raise in me a familiar madness and a self-contained rage. It’s a hollow pain and a fear that hovers over my own hopes and dreams. But there is also a separate, wild appreciation for the existence of things deemed impossible. It is utter madness that Carolina Maria was able to write books at all, and it is madness that she made it enough for a girl from Zimbabwe to one day discover her work and see herself. In Carolina Maria’s writings, I saw a life that was lived even when living felt more like fighting.

During my last conversation with Vera Eunice she asked me to help her petition for a Carolina Maria de Jesus archive in the southern city of Curitiba. She also wanted my help collecting original print photographs of her mother because she has none. Most are in the hands of Dantas’s grandchildren. “Dantas took a lot of pictures of my mother,” she said. “Before he died we had been negotiating about his giving them to me, and now it’s even harder.” When I reached out to the Dantas estate to ask about the photographs of Carolina Maria, his executor did not offer a response.

In one of the most recognizable shots I found of Carolina Maria online, she is looking directly at the camera, head slightly tilted to the side. Her black skin, deep and smooth, her hair under a loosely tied headwrap. She spent most of her life unseen, living in shadows, and even when the light came, it didn’t brighten as much it blinded. She was the mirror, and what she reflected about her world was so startling it took time to properly process what she had released. When the noise died down, her unexpected work became an appalling reminder of a reality many would have rather just forgotten. In this picture, it’s as if she knew that she would not have many opportunities to really be seen, so she made it count. She looks determined, a little sad, a little proud. She was still, and for a moment she forced us to be still. Without anyone expecting it, a woman from the favela wrote a book that read an entire nation.

 

* * *

Tarisai Ngangura is a journalist and photographer. She documents black lives around the globe — their histories, legacies and movements. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Jezebel, The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine, Hazlitt, VICE and Catapult.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross

Fact checker: Samantha Schuyler