Note from BW of Brazil: It’s taken many years to finally get to the place of recognition in the literary world, but writer Conceição Evaristo is finally beginning to reap some of the rewards of being one of the country’s best writers. If you’ve never ventured inside the world of Brazilian Literature, you may not fully understand the struggle of being a black writer. In past articles, I’ve discussed the invisibility of black writers in Brazil’s national bookstores and in the catalogs of nation’s top publishers. Indeed, entering any national bookstore chain in Brazil and one might conclude that black authors don’t exist, so rarely are their works found. Evaristo’s near three decades of writing inspiring, thought-provoking novels is an example of the difficulties black writers face in the market. Now, with her work finally garnering the recognition it deserves, supporters of her work felt she would have been a great candidate to fill a recent vacancy at the ABL, the Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters), the country’s highest institution of national literature. But even with two petitions that was signed by more than 50,000 people, Evaristo, who would have become the ABL’s first black woman to occupy a chair, was denied a place in the institution that is known for its very conservative past. But still, Evaristo’s star continues to shine, having been honored in two important literary events in 2018. But having taken nearly thirty years and coming to receive such accolades only in her 70s, Conceição fully understands the game. In the interview below, she speaks on the difficulties of the black writer in Brazil’s Eurocentric book market.
Conceição Evaristo: ‘Literature is in the hands of white men’
Honored in two literary events last year, Conceição Evaristo talks about the difficulty of black women being able to be seen as producers of knowledge
By NM Nahima Maciel
Conceição Evaristo usually says that, like writing, publishing is a political act. The structural racism of Brazilian society is also reflected in the publishing market and the difficulty of publishing when one is a woman, black and a writer is a reality. Thanks to an ant job, in which collectivity is fundamental, the situation has changed since Conceição began publishing 28 years ago. Being honored at two literary events last year is the fruit of this seam that black intellectuals have been weaving over the years. In Brasilia, the author was also be honored at Livre! Festival Internacional de Literatura e Direitos Humanos (Free! International Festival of Literature and Human Rights) last August. On the 27th, she was honored by Casa Libre & Nuvem de Livros at the Reading event, a political gesture, held during the International Literary Festival of Paraty (Flip). Late homages for a career that, due to prejudice, started late.
Conceição began to publish quite late. A writer since she was a girl, she saw her stories being published for the first time at age 44, in 1990, in the Cadernos Negros collection, organized by the Quilombhoje collective. The first individual edition only came in 1993. Therefore, she likes to repeat that publishing is a political act: because it is a way of subverting the Brazilian imaginary, in which the black woman occupies roles that are from writing. Conceição remembers an episode experienced in Rio de Janeiro, in the building in which she rents an office.
Once, upon leaving, she bumped into a lady trained as an archivist who recognized the face of the author of some talk show. She asked what she was doing. Conceição replied that she was a writer and the woman immediately asked if the novelist was the author of cookbooks. “And we’re not talking about a well read person! This was even a leap forward: a black woman might even write, but it has to be a recipe book. So writing and publishing are acts of rebellion that place us elsewhere, contradicting the imaginary that Brazilian society has about us”, says the author.
There have been changes since the 1990s, but Conceição believes there are still few. The number of black writers on the lists of awards and in the catalogs of the great publishers is minimal. Many publish through small houses whose distribution is not always far-reaching. Literary awards and scholarly research help put the name of these women on the map, but they are still absent from the award lists. In 2015, 25 years after publishing her first book, Conceição came in third place in the Prêmio Jabuti (Jabuti Award) in the category Stories and Chronicles, with her book Olhos d’água.
In 2017, when Flip honored Lima Barreto (the second black author on the festival honors list, after Machado de Assis), she was also among the guests. “The black authors were not remembered, or remembered very little. Today, we have greater participation in literary events,”she says. “Our presence has been given more constancy, because we have been invited, but we’ve also been paying more attention. To the best of our ability, we seek to participate. And regardless of these literary events, we have collective ways of organizing ourselves.”
At age 71, she believes writing and telling stories is the best way to deal with prejudice. Now, she’s working on two novels and a short storybook and feels persecuted by two ideas that she will still execute. One is to write a novel that plunges into stories of slavery. Not a historical novel, but a fiction with hints of history, something that was always present in the work of Conceição. Her first two novels, Ponciá Vicencio and Becos da memória, were inspired by stories told by the elders of her family. There, narratives inherited from the period of slavery were commonplace and were part of very recent experiences. Another idea that persecutes her is the desire to write essays on books by black authors. “This is a commitment I want to keep. Today, I have a place where reading a book and doing an essay, a critique, helps to make this book visible. I want to do it. As a political act itself,” warns the writer, who spoke with the Correio newspaper about prejudice and the black voice in literature.
Interview with Conceição Evaristo
Does the literary market also suffer from racism? Is there a reflection of what one experiences in society?
Yes, there is reflection. Undoubtedly there is this imaginary in relation to black women, which is an imaginary that normally doesn’t place us as subjects, producers of knowledge, subjects producers of a certain art. Literature, to this day, is in the hands of men and white men. Breaking with this imaginary that puts black women in the place of subalternity and not believing these women as potent also in writing causes a disinterest in the literary world.
How do we face this?
I think by writing, telling these stories. I have had the opportunity to meet with several Brazilian writers at literary events and few of these writers greet me. And they are my peers. The Jabuti prize seems to have legitimized me among the authors. Some are kind, regardless of anything, but there are others who only came to look at me after the Jabuti prize. It’s a matter of racism itself. Of doubting that a black woman can produce literature and may be on the same level as him. And it is a racism that is in the structure of Brazilian society. There are few blacks at the top of Brazilian politics, few blacks running businesses, few blacks in the upper echelons of the Army. There are places that seem to be predestined for white subjects. We blacks ended up being a minority when we get to these places.
Was writing difficult for you? Were there many glances telling her that it was not for you?
No, really not, because the first place of reception of my work was with the movimento negro (black movement). It was this militancy of the social movement, of men and women, that first received my work. If you had a social group that legitimized my literature, first, it was the group of my equals. Then, much because of this legitimation, men and women began to take my texts into the classroom for academic research. When some of my texts begin to be translated, this drew attention within Brazil. Even so, in 1995, Miriam Alves, Geni Guimarães and I, who are black writers, were invited to an event in Vienna along with Marina Colasanti, João Ubaldo Ribeiro and Nélida Piñon, who did not go. These black writers were at the same event, they attended the same tables, they were in the same hotels. When we came back, we didn’t get a media note about these black writers, but there was talk about the other two.
In the introduction of Ponciá Vicencio, you say that your characters are like first degree relatives. How does this work?
Actually, I’m kidding. A literary text is like a son and some characters, I know more closely. My fiction has a lot of real life in the background, but that doesn’t mean that everything I write is something I’ve lived through. It’s not. It may be an observation, a story I’ve heard told, a fact I’ve seen. And Ponciá Vicencio, bringing the memory of slavery, is something that has to do with the stories I grew up hearing of slavery. As Becos da memória also has. These are stories inherited from orality. Much of the memory of slavery was told in my childhood, I listened to these stories in the house.
And how do you create the characters?
I am very careful in the construction of my characters, I don’t want to create stereotyped black characters as seen in Brazilian literature in general. I want to give these characters a humanism that the other literature, in general, takes away. Ponciá Vicencio, besides having her drama, which is the collective drama of this quest for black ancestry, is a very lonely character. And loneliness is characteristic of the human being. And putting this problem of loneliness in a black character is to raise it to the place of humanity that we have always had and that is taken away from us. I take care of the character, as I take care of the language.
Source: Correio Braziliense