Even with challenges of black authors publishing books in Brazil, the presence of Afro-Brazilian literature continues to grow
By Marques Travae
For years I’ve noted how rare it is to find black Brazilian authors or books about black Brazilians on bookshelves in Brazil’s top books sellers. I stress black Brazilian because it often seems that there are more works by foreign black authors than Brazilian. I mean, you can expect to find books by Barack and Michelle Obama, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis and many other non-Brazilian black writers, but then again, they are internationally known figures and Brazil’s market consumes almost everything that comes out the US.
But as I’ve pointed out in a number of posts that covered other areas, it seems that it is becoming more common to find titles written by black Brazilians or about black Brazilians than ever before. And people are buying these books. Proof of this was back in 2019 at one of Brazil’s top book festivals, when black authors, both Brazilian and non-Brazilian, were some of the top selling titles at the festival of that year.
Black Brazilians are increasingly demanding to see titles available by Afro-Brazilian authors, which has led to the rise in sales and popularity of titles by philosopher Djamila Ribeiro and novelist Conceição Evaristo. Ribeiro’s Pequeno Manual Antirracista (Companhia das Letras) is among the best-selling books and was one of the finalists for the prestigious Jabuti Award.
It’s not just me who has noticed a rise in popularity of black Brazilian literature which have black authors, black themes and lead characters. Book publishers are also taking note. Bookseller José Luiz Tahan, of Editora Realejo is one of them.
“This increase is, in part, because people are aware of the so-called structural racism, of the awareness of inequality in Brazil, which is very strong in the social and racial fields,” he evaluates.
Márcio Barreto, who is the editor of Imaginário Coletivo also sees this, saying this increase “(is also due) to the issues of affirmation of territories, of places of speech. So, literature has been opening up a larger space for black writers.” Barreto includes black writers and books focused on racial issues in his company’s catalog.
72-year-old writer Bartolomeu Pereira de Souza is preparing his second work entitled Santos Libertária, which goes into the some of the missing history of the city of Santos, São Paulo during an era in which slavery in Brazil was coming to an end.
“There is a great difficulty for us who are at the base of the pyramid, but it is very important when a black person stands out. Today, we have young black people writing their own history, the history of their ancestors. This part of the population, which is the majority, is starting to see its history told from their own”, Bartô believes.
In a previous book from 2018, de Souza wrote about his life, from his birth in northeastern state of Bahia, to his migration to the city of Santos while capturing the political climate of the time. De Souza also recognizes the importance of black authors being able to tell their own stories.
“Black authors have this role of rescuing their ancestry. When you discover who came before you, it strengthens us,” says the author.
For writer Michel Leite Viana, author of Eu sou Periferia (I am Periphery), for black authors to get an opportunity to release their books, they need to be willing and able to be able to fund their own projects or space in the literary market simply doesn’t exist.
Marcelo Ariel, a poet and playwright, has also picked up an increased presence of black authors, but, similar to what I pointed out in reference to the standard of beauty, the advertising industry and other areas, this increase doesn’t necessarily mean an overall shift in Brazilian society. In his view, “It is the direct result of the struggles of the decolonization movements and the fight against racism. The literary system and practically the entire cultural system is still mostly white and segregationist. And when it includes, it is to exclude better afterwards.
The books and the thoughts of (authors) Djamila Ribeiro, Jefferson Tenório, Edmilson de Almeida Pereira, Cidinha da Silva, Paulo Scott, Silvio de Almeida, rapper Baco Exu do Blues, singer Elza Soares, Preta Rara and many others are weapons and shields against structural racism, which is still the basis of Brazilian society,” he opines.
Improvement but still a ways to go
Without even having done a thorough research on this topic, several book titles by Afro-Brazilian authors have drawn my attention in just the past few years or so. Just in passing, I’ve become aware of books by people like journalist Maria Julia ‘Maju’ Coutinho, CEO Rachel Maia, philosopher Sueli Carneiro, entrepreneur Adriana Barbosa, non-profit founder Luana Génot, all of these titles being non-fictional based on their lives and experiences. Then there are other titles directed at the children’s fiction market by people like rapper/entrepreneur Emicida, actor Lázaro Ramos (who has already released a popular non-fiction title), actor Érico Brás and actor/screenwriter Rodrigo França.
But even with the release of these and other titles, one of the main reasons that they caught my eye is due to the fact that it’s rare to see black Brazilian authors or even black characters featured as protagonist in novels written by Brazilian authors.
A study by University of Brasília Professor Regina Dalcastagnè revealed that between 1990 and 2004, there was an almost complete absence of the representation of black women in novels published by the three major publishing houses, Companhia das Letras, Rocco and Record. Of a total of 1,245 characters cataloged in 258 works, only 2.7% were black women. The professor also concluded that between 2004 and 2014, only 2.5% of authors published in Brazil were non-white and, continuing the trend of the previous decade, only 6.9% of the characters portrayed in novels were black, with only 4.5% being the protagonists of the story.
Speaking on the topic, the professor tells us that the characters of Brazilian novels “are mostly white, middle-class males. Stereotypes reign over other groups. White women appear as housewives; black women as maids or prostitutes; black men as bandits. Thus, the literary field, although it remains immune to the criticism that other means of symbolic expression usually receive, reproduces the exclusionary patterns of Brazilian society.”
Children’s books by black fathers
With the increase of black Brazilians as a whole, another area where we seeing an increasing presence is in the world of children’s literature. When I became immersed in the world of black Brazil, another thing I noted that contributed to low esteem of many black Brazilians was the fact that ‘’the talk’’ simply didn’t happen in most black Brazilian households. ‘’The talk’’ that I speak of is the discussion of race that black American children will hear at a certain time in their lives.
Add this to the fact that black Brazilians are nearly invisible in popular television programs and, as we’ve seen, in the world of literature, and we can see why self-esteem is such a big issue for black Brazilians. Another way that parents are taking on this issue is through children’s lit. well-known public figures such as actors Érico Brás and Lázaro Ramos, and rapper-entrepreneur Emicida have taken their experiences as fathers and written books.
Érico Brás, the father of Érica, wrote the book Lindas águas: O mundo da menina rainha, meaning ‘Beautiful Waters: The Queen Girl’s World’. In this title, the girl queen leads a regular life in the São Paulo neighborhood of Liberdade with her mother until her life changes dramatically after diving into the river of gold, where she discovers a number of fantastic surprises. These novelties help to prepare her to deal with the world she lives in.
Lázaro Ramos, arguably the most popular black Brazilian actor has dedicated two books to his two children with his wife, actress Taís Araújo, João and Maria Antonia.
Lázaro Ramos wrote two books dedicated to his own children, João and Maria Antonia. The books O Caderno de Rimas de João, meaning ‘João’s Rhyme Notebook’ and O Caderno de Rimas de Maria, meaning ‘Maria’s Rhyme Notebook, are published by Editora Pallas and feature illustrations by Maurício Negro. These two titles as we can gather from the titles, play with words, many of which are created, and provides a peek into the lives of the João and Maria.
In his book Amoras, published by Companhia das Letrinhas, the rapper-entrepreneur Emicida uses the color of amora, meaning blackberry, to exact the beauty of everything black. The book is actually based on the rap ‘’Amoras’’, from the rapper’s 2015 CD Sobre Crianças, Quadris, Pesadelo about a conversation at the blackberry tree between Emicida and his daughter Estela. The song makes references to Obatalá, the orixá known as the father-creator in the candomblé religion, famed quilombo leader Zumbi Dos Palmares as well as iconic leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.