Carolina Maria de Jesus with cart – Favela of Canindé – São Paulo (circa 1958)
Photo Credit: Jornal Estado de Minas (Collection Audálio Dantas)
My Poetry Corner November 2018 features the poem “Humanity” (Humanidade) by Afro-Brazilian writer and poet, Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977), born in a rural community in Minas Gerais, Southeast Brazil.
An illegitimate child of a sharecropping family, Carolina was treated as an outcast. After just two years in primary school, when she learned to read and write, she developed a love for reading. She dreamed of becoming a writer.
“The book…fascinates me,” de Jesus writes in My Strange Diary (Meu Estranho Diário). “I was raised in the world. Without maternal guidance. But books guided my thinking. Avoiding the abysses that we encounter in life. Blessed the time I spent reading. I came to the conclusion that it’s the poor who must read. Because the book, it’s the compass that we have to guide man into the future…”
In 1930, de Jesus moved with her family to the State of São Paulo, where she worked as a washerwoman and, later, as a housemaid. After her mother’s death in 1937, she moved to the state capital, an industrial megalopolis. In 1948, she became pregnant for a Portuguese sailor. After he abandoned her, she moved to the favela (slum) of Canindé. Two other children followed, for different fathers.
De Jesus eked out a living: working as a housemaid and scavenging for paper and scrap metal around Canindé. An independent woman, she refused to marry because of the domestic violence she witnessed around her. Writing on blank pages of used notebooks she found in trash cans, she began recording her day-to-day existence as one of society’s “discarded” and marginalized people.
In her first entry, she writes: “July 15, 1955. The birthday of my daughter Vera Eunice [born 1953]. I wanted to buy a pair of shoes for her, but the price of food keeps us from realizing our desires. Actually we are slaves to the cost of living…”
Carolina Maria de Jesus – Manuscript of Journal – July 15, 1955
Photo Credit: Templo Cultural Delfos
Her stories, poems, and journal entries describe her struggle to rise above poverty and the ever-present specter of hunger. She calls attention to the social problems they face—prostitution, adultery, incest, alcoholism, physical violence, and foul language—and the consequences in their lives. She writes of the racial injustice and discrimination heaped on the poor and blacks in the favelas. She notes the empty promises made by politicians.
In an untitled poem from her journal, de Jesus requests:
Don’t say that I was trash,
that I lived on the margin of life.
Say that I was looking for work,
but I was always slighted.
Tell the Brazilian people
that my dream was to be a writer,
but I did not have money
to pay for a publisher.
A breakthrough came in 1958 when Carolina de Jesus met the young journalist, Audálio Dantas, during his visit to the favela for an assignment. On learning about her journal, he recognized its uniqueness and sociological importance. Through Dantas’ influence, edited excerpts were published in a magazine. Their popularity among readers led to the publication of her journal in 1960 as a book titled, Quarto de Despejo (Trash Room).
From left to right: Carolina Maria de Jesus, Journalist Audálio Dantas, and Actress Ruth de Souza – Favela of Canindé – São Paulo – 1961
Photo Credit: Collection Audálio Dantas
When asked about the idea for the name of her book, de Jesus told the interviewer: “In 1948, when they began to demolish one-story houses to construct apartment buildings, we, the poor, that lived in collective housing units, were trashed and we began living under bridges. That’s why I call the favela the trash room for a city. We, the poor, are old junk.”
Trash Room became an instant bestseller, selling 10,000 copies within the first three days and 90,000 more copies over the next six months. The English version, Child of the Dark, followed in 1962. The book soon drew international attention. But, to the Brazilian literary elite, it lacked linguistic quality. Three more books published in the 1960s received little attention.
Carolina Maria de Jesus signing her book Quarto de Despejo – São Paulo – 1960
Photo Credit: Templo Cultural Delfos
In her poem, “Many fled on seeing me,” published posthumously (1996) in Personal Anthology, a poetry collection, de Jesus laments:
It was paper I collected
To pay for my living
And in the trash I found books to read
How many things I wanted to do
I was hindered by prejudice
When I die I want to be born again
In a country where blacks predominate
With her book royalties, Carolina de Jesus bought a house in a middle-class neighborhood. Admiration turned to envy. Some accused her of being ambitious and uncharitable.
The featured poem, “Humanity,” published posthumously in My Strange Diary, is composed of four stanzas with a rhyme scheme aabccb. De Jesus expresses her disillusions with humankind: the perversity, wickedness, greed, tyrannical…egoists, and hypocrisy.
After knowing humanity
I have been getting older
When I die…
I don’t want to be born again
It’s horrible, to endure humanity
that has a noble appearance
its worst qualities
Unable to adjust to life among the middle-class, de Jesus moved to the countryside where she lived in poverty until the end of her life. Her passing in 1977 went virtually unnoticed. She left behind more than 5,000 handwritten pages that contained seven novels, over 60 texts of chronicles, fables, autobiography and stories, over 100 poems, and four plays.
To read the featured poem in its original Portuguese and learn more about the work of Carolina Maria de Jesus, go to my Poetry Corner November 2018.
NOTE: All translations from Portuguese to English done by Rosaliene Bacchus.