Note from BW of Brazil: In past articles, the work of Regina Dalcastagnè has demonstrated the extreme invisibility of Afro-Brazilian writers as well as fully developed, black protagonists in Brazilian literature. Her research shows us that of all the novels published by some of the major Brazilian publishers (Companhia das Letras, Record, Rocco and Objetiva/Alfaguara), points out that 96% of authors and 79% of the characters are white. She also found that 84% of protagonists in these novels are white men of the upper class, 74% of the protagonists are men and 80% are white. These numbers show us that black presence in Brazil’s world of written word is similar to the lack of black presence in so many other areas of Brazilian society. But for those who may ask why this is a problem when the writers and characters that do exist should simply be able to speak and represent everyone regardless of race, Dalcastagnè addresses the issue below.
Why do we need black men and women writers?
By Regina Dalcastagnè
It’s common to hear that no one reads or that literature has very little penetration compared to other forms of expression, such as television, cinema, music or journalism. However, literature continues to have a special legitimacy. It is literature that is in the school curricula; it is what is considered the quintessential vehicle of expression of our identity as a people and nation. If Brazilian literature is read by few (and, in truth, maybe not being as few as that), the social prestige it enjoys is supported even by those who don’t read. The writer still hasn’t lost its position obtained in the nineteenth century: in its words it seeks to find the spirit of a time and the voice of a collectivity.
But this function, considered so elevated, is performed by people who, like all others, reflect their own trajectories and their peculiar circumstances. The voice that literature gives us is the voice of its writers. And in the case of Brazil, this is a fairly homogeneous group. Our literary canon is made up of whites, blacks that are not seen as such (in the case of Machado de Assis) and blacks left on the margins (like Lima Barreto and Cruz e Sousa). If literature historically helped to form the identity of the Brazilian nation, it surely contributed to whitening it.
Today the situation has changed, but not as much as would be necessary. Many people write, but not everything that is written earns the status of literature: that that is in bookstores, is commented on in the cultural supplements of newspapers, wins the competitions sponsored by the State, participates in the literary fairs and enters the curricula of schools and universities. When we look at this production (one that is socially accepted as being “literature”), we observe that there are still many more men than women, almost all have a superior title and the vast majority reside in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. And, also, almost all are white. Research that analyzed the novels published by major Brazilian publishers, from 1990 to now, revealed that less than 5% of the authors are preto (black) or pardo (brown).
If Brazilian writers recognized as such have such a homogenous profile, it’s not surprising that their characters seem so much like them, placing themselves in a narrative universe in which absences, perhaps even more than what is expressed, reflect some of the central characteristics of Brazilian society. It is the case, precisely, of the black population that centuries of structural racism have distanced from positions of power and production of discourse. Just as there are few black men and women authors published by major publishers, there are also few black characters that frequent our literature. This suggests another absence, this time a theme: racism. If it’s possible to find here and there the parodical reproduction of the racist discourse, with critical intention, outside of the daily oppression of black populations and the barriers that structural discrimination impose on their life histories. The myth, persistent, of “racial democracy” eliminates such issues of public discourse, including in literary discourse.
This impoverishes the view of the world that Brazilian literature provides its readers, which has wide repercussions. After all, literature can provide an access to different social perspectives richer and more expressive than, for example, that provided by the political discourse in the strict sense. Therefore, it is a disputed territory, where there is at stake the possibility of speaking about themselves and the world, of making themselves visible within it. Ignoring these demands around the literary accustomed to being a way of reaffirming it as a supernatural and trans-historical attribute, the fruit of a “talent” fixed in some special individuals, instead of being a social practice that has to do with the production benefiting some hierarchies and excluding others.
And that’s why we need black men and women writers, because it is they who bring into our literature another perspective, other life experiences, another diction. In Brazilian society, skin color – as well as gender or social class – structure distinct experiences. We need more black men and women, residents of the suburbs, working women and men writing, not to collect a handful of “witnesses” (the niche in which they are generally placed), but in order that their sensitivity and their imagination give form to new creations that reflect, such as what occurs among the writers of the elite, a view of the world formed as much from either a trajectory of a unique life as much as shared structural dispositions.
These voices, that find themselves on the margins of the literary field, those voices whose legitimacy to produce literature is constantly called into question, that cause tension, with their presence, our understanding of what literary is or should be. We must seize this moment to reflect on our appreciation criteria, to understand where they come from, why it remains standing, and for whom it serves … After all, the meaning of literary text is established in a flow where traditions are followed, broken or re-conquered and forms of interpretation and appropriation of what one says remains open. Ignoring this opening is to re-enforce the role of literature as a distinguishing mechanism and social hierarchy, leaving aside its potential as a destabilizing and contradictory discourse.
With this, Brazilian literature may – perhaps – contribute to a more plural and more critical vision of its own country.
Text originally published in Africanidades e relações raciais (organized por Cidinha da Silva). Brasília: Fundação Cultural Palmares, 2014.