Writer Cristiane Sobral: Lack of black representation in Brazilian literature
Note from BW of Brazil: More than the reports and studies that discuss the existence and proof of everyday racism in Brazilian society, I think the personal testimonies provide us with more concrete examples of how people are divided into the “haves” and “have nots”, the “beautiful” and the “ugly”, the “worthy” and the “worthless”. The experiences of individual black Brazilians exemplify how the racist structure functions on the micro level and when story and story are added up, it becomes pretty clear how this becomes the monster of macro racism.
When we hear stories in which black children wonder why they couldn’t find characters in books that reminded them of themselves 20-30 years ago, pointing out the absence of books in national bookstores by black authors or about black fictional characters or real people makes complete sense. It also makes sense how a black child can be hindered in his/her dreams of becoming a doctor because every novela (soap opera), series, advertisement or film he sees shows people that look like him/her as maids, streetsweepers, criminals or doormen.
When people are told that they cannot be a black princess, superhero or fairy because they don’t exist, often times this attitude will kill the dream because it can even develop. This is the reason why so many black people will fill the movie theaters when a film like Pantera Negra (Black Panther) hits the big screen. Writer Cristiane Sobral also experienced this non-place of being black as a child, but today, through her work, she is helping to give that place back to Brazilians who look and felt like her once upon a time as well as those who still feel this way today.
Color made me a writer
By Matheus Rocha
As a youth, the lack of identification with the characters made her choose literature
Literature has been a bet for me since I was a child. My mother was a teacher, and at home I always had an interest in books. At that time, she had already noticed the absence of female characters and black characters in the works she read and the information she received from the school. With these concerns, I began to feel the desire to work as an actress and as a writer to produce a field of inventions where I could exist, since I did not fit into the places that the world presented me. Actually, I thought they were not places. I started to be interested in the Portuguese language because it was a path to writing. I started to participate in writing and poetry competitions at school.
In 2000, I was first published in a collection called Cadernos Negros, which has existed for 41 years. At that time, I studied acting at the University of Brasília (UnB) and began to write dramaturgy. I was directing a program of theatrical skits called Quinta cênica (Fifth Scenic). In this project, I began to write scenes and texts that were presented, but I still had no opportunity to publish. Since I had many poems stored since adolescence, this material gave rise to the body of texts from my first book, Não vou mais lavar os pratos (I will not wash the dishes), which is in its third edition.
Since then, I’ve published eight books, of various genres, from poetry to dramaturgy. Currently the director of Companhia de Arte Negra Cabeça Feita, I am the author of the piece Uma boneca no lixo (A doll in the trash), a text that is turning 20 years in 2019 and will be remounted starting in July, directed by the Uruguayan Hugo Rodas. In March of this year, I won an award at the Festival Frente Feminina (Women’s Front Festival) for the play Esperando Zumbi (Waiting for Zumbi). (Writer Cristiane Sobral: Lack of black representation in Brazilian literature)
When I was younger, I didn’t see myself in literature or saw myself represented through roles of suffering, always in the context of slavery. It was as if we existed only in the slave regime. This struck me a lot, because I was not born a slave. My mother was not a slave, my father was not a slave.
As much as slavery is a historical element that is part of our identity, it is not the only one. I saw and see my mother as one of the most incredible women I’ve ever met. In the books, she didn’t read about characters like her. At school, the girls said that eu era feia e que meu cabelo era horrível (I was ugly and that my hair was horrible).
Back at home, my mother said otherwise, my hair was beautiful. The books, however, didn’t tell me this story. These books said that black men were alcoholics or associated with crime. These were the characters I found. The problem was not that the character was a maid. The point was that this maid simply walked in and out of the story. Nothing else was known about her.
I became a reclusive child, who had some difficulty in talking to people, because my imagination wanted to take me to other places. I wanted to be a fairy, and the teacher said there was no fada negra (black fairy). She said he would not choose me to be the fairy, because in books there are no fairies like me. I questioned, “Isn’t the book fiction? Why in fiction are there no black fairies?” If literature is a field of fiction, it can present blacks anywhere. It can even present us in imaginary places and construct images that are gestures for reality, future stakes so that blacks occupy spaces that any citizen can occupy.
I believe that the root of the stereotypes in the literature is the fact that blacks arrived in Brazil enslaved. We have in our imagination this construction and we have authors predominantly white and rich. These people tend to reproduce the blacks they think they know. The ideas these authors use to construct personagens negros (black characters) are crystallized and do not approach the criteria of humanity.
There is no protocol to being white, just as there is no protocol to being black. Because of these stereotypes of the process of enslavement, the black is regarded as dumb or lazy. People who go beyond this standard are presented as the exception, such as (writer) Machado de Assis or (actor) Grande Otelo.
All of the historical framework that comes before slavery is taken away from blacks. What were they doing on the African continent before arriving here enslaved? What scientific knowledge did they produce? What are the architectural productions of these people? They had knowledge. So what exists in literature is the reproduction of a place of blacks which historically is linked to subalternity and oppression. This, however, does not justify the contribution of the black people to the strengthening of Brazil as a nation. (Writer Cristiane Sobral: Lack of black representation in Brazilian literature)
There is a lot of scientific knowledge in African universities that predates the process of enslavement. Often all this is set aside in the characters that are represented by literature. As most canonical works speak not of blacks and indigenous people, but of Europeans, everything that comes from cultura negra (black culture) is considered exotic. How can a segment that integrates more than 50% of the population be exotic? Exotic means out of sight, out of reality.
There is the frequent question of being seen as marginal literature or of a social nature. I always say that I don’t do marginal or social literature. I do literature. These classifications exist because they think we have no intellectual and aesthetic framework to produce literature. I’m a writer, I’m an inventor. I search for words, research names and work with the universe of creation just like any other writer. My books do not talk about the history of my life or just about racism, as if I lived to write about this. It would be an endless thematic poverty. I talk about women and men who love, about people who fail. I speak of complexities and humanities.
As a black woman, I am, there are points of view. When I write fiction, my characters may be black or white, but the point of view is of a black woman. We have our place of speech, just as white people have their place of speech. The question is: does Brazilian literature intend to include other places of speech or is it not possible to share the slice of the cake with anyone else?