Women Writers and Other Fighters

Women Writers and Other Fighters
In addition to talent, exclusion is also a strong component in Brazilian literature. Rosane Carneiro addresses this, through a singular and bold history that is common in the country.
Photo by Vinicius Pinheiro (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Vinicius Pinheiro (copied from Flickr)

Helena Ortiz is a Brazilian poet and a short-story teller, with eight published books. However, her idealism has led her to become an editor. “I witnessed many good young poets, writers, keen and ready to publish, but with no opportunity for it”, she attests, telling about the reading sessions of poetry she promoted when arrived in Rio de Janeiro, coming from Rio Grande do Sul, South of Brazil. It was 1995, and she had just published her first book of poems.

The meetings, in theatres at Copacabana and Ipanema, were soon transformed into the subject for a journal about poetry, Panorama da Palavra (Word’s Panorama). Yet the demand was so great that she turned it into a publishing house. She founded the Editora da Palavra later, in 2001, and it is still active with 30 books published. “I have done everything because indeed it couldn’t be different. I was just thinking at that time that I should simply do it, open more paths to everybody, to literature.”

The difficulty has not always rested in the fact of being a woman, but in the general and complex situation of the literary panorama in the city – and in Brazil. To be a woman was another hard thing to deal with. She points out that one important problem, especially in the case of poetry, has always been the lack of consciousness and sense of union, leading writers, editors and publishing houses to isolated postures. As a relevant example, big publishing houses say there is no readership for poetry, in a market in which profits are more important than culture. “There is no education, and that’s it.” Helena stopped her public reading sessions, deeming that authors, as any other professionals, should be paid for their work. The cheap tickets for the meetings were used to support the issues of the journal.

However, there are no regrets. Her experience has worked out, although she feels it could be better. She has tried public funding, facing the fact that besides winning the competition – the chances were few – the artist also ought to raise resources. “Not mentioning the bureaucracy”, there was the little incentive to be an entrepreneur. Helena also tried a place as a city councillor, to work with public policies related to literature. The Editora da Palavra and the journal are still working, but at a slower pace. The writer claims that in recent years the advent of the Internet has been shifting the situation, benefiting writers, especially the poets, with a huge movement occurring independently on the market – a fact that forces publishing houses and the literary market to better consider the authors.

Amid all these factors, there is evidently the feminine struggle, which is, in the end, among the fights engendered by other segments, such as the black, poor, homosexual and indigenous people. Furthermore, she thinks the fact of aging must be considered as well. Yes, because age can be considered a problem in Brazil, and this is worth another whole text. “But of course being a woman is always a risk”, she argues among ironic laughs. “If there weren’t problems for women to publish in this country we could be reading more women, there wasn’t this discrepancy between both genres – because women do write as much as men. There is always someone to pursue women; better say, to disdain women, which is the better way to distil and spread prejudice”, she concludes.

Helena Ortiz – as much as many other examples of female writers and editors, mainly in the parallel universe of Brazilian literature – exemplifies a complex context. In the middle of our chat she asked me: “But of which audience are we talking about?” This is a good question, when it comes to Brazil.

To begin a discussion about women writers in Brazil it is necessary to explain much more than this simple subject, which can be considered, within universal literary history, complex enough itself (from feminine characters to feminine authors). Concerning “literary history” we can talk in another essay, it is sufficient for now simply to recognize that to examine the past as it is given is not to know it in truth. Focusing on Brazil, it should be necessary to first pass through a whole panorama in which, in the end, we would understandably be talking about exclusion, and minorities.

Firstly, a quick glance over the reading habits of the population. For whom could these women be writing? We know that in the earlier 21st century half the Brazilian population can read, which means around 88 million people. Nonetheless, the annual average is four books per person, almost half of this amount encouraged by schools – most of the readers are students. And this modest average is due not only to prices or accessibility, but to lack of interest, or habit.

All the numbers were collected and broadcasted by the third edition of the renowned research Retratos da Leitura no Brasil, launched in March 2012 by Instituto Pró-Leitura, from São Paulo, and other partners. Concerning our subject, it is relevant to know that among the readers, 53% are women, more than male readers, represented by 43% of this amount.

Diving even more into the scenario, we can count also the recent and wide research about contemporary Brazilian literature, which can be found in the book Literatura brasileira contemporânea: um território contestado (Contemporary Brazilian Literature: Contradicted Territory, my suggested translation), organized by the researcher Regina Dalcastagnè from University of Brasília. The research, in fact a quantitative survey of the characters and authors in national literature, covers the years between 1965 and 1979, and the period between 1990 and 2004 as well. In the latter part, 258 novels from 165 authors were examined.

The results of both phases looked alike. This means that the majority of Brazilian authors are males, and white (72.7% and 78.8%, respectively). Regarding characters, the situation is similar, in 71.1% of the read novels the protagonists are males. Concerning women writers, from the first research period to the second, their increasing presence is significant, rising from 17% to 27.3%. The task is now moving into its third stage, with the analysis of 300 novels launched between 2005 and 2014. There’s hope that the feminine presence will have improved.

Anyway, all these little literary statistics could be sensed in any primary Literature class in Brazilian schools – they are inserted here for those interested in going deeper into the subject. Because, amongst all the Brazilian literary movements since the 16th century that are learnt by students, women writers only start to appear in 19th century, and few names are quoted. Teresa Margarida da Silva e Orta, from 1712, despite being mentioned, is not totally regarded as a Brazilian writer since she moved to be raised in Portugal. And even among those authors belonging to the 20th century, some have remained with small recognition inside the Brazilian literary universe, such as Carolina Maria de Jesus, who lived between 1914 and 1977 in São Paulo. Author of five books, translated into 13 languages, she is still rarely mentioned in literary studies in Brazil.

Carolina Maria de Jesus, to present only one example, was also a black woman, and lived in a shanty town – exclusion, as we mentioned, must be debated when the subject is Brazilian literature. Returning to the Literatura brasileira contemporânea: um território contestado research, regarding other minorities, we find that only 6.91% of the Brazilian writers are black. Also, gathering the analysis of the characters, it is found that 75% of black characters are poor people, and 20.4% related to criminality. The portrait of the characters also reveals that a little more than half (56.6%) of them come from the middle class, being 81% heterosexuals. Not surprisingly, since the conclusion about the entire panorama is the major presence of male, white and heterosexual middle class writers in Brazilian literature. It seems a simple matter of representation. And, up until now, an absence of novelties, since this is the current situation in Brazil – the country must improve and invest more in education to give opportunities to more types of representation among its writers.

To research and to study female voices in Brazilian literature – as well as any other excluded segment of society – it is necessary to understand the huge path of absences to be found in this literature historiography; not for a rewriting of this history, but for a more open perspective of what, in the end, constitutes Brazilian culture. And this is a remarkable process, which is on its way, if we consider other notable initiatives already undertaken, like Escritoras brasileiras do século XIX (Brazilian Female Writers from 19th Century), another book to be highly commended.

This research was published in two volumes, organized by Zahidé Lupinacci Muzart, professor from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, in the South of Brazil. In this work, done by a team of 68 women, there were revealed the names of 52 writers from the 19th century – work that is still generating good academic results in Brazilian literary studies. The task was edited by the publishing house Editora Mulheres and University of Santa Cruz do Sul. Editora Mulheres, founded in 1996, is one of the recognized publishing houses specializing in the subject in the country. They publish feminine novels, poetry, theatre and travel writing, encompassing women writers from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and gender studies.

After a microscopic, but real, glance into the situation, and after such sensitive statistics – these, and the many others that hopefully are about to come – perhaps it is not an exaggeration to affirm that Brazil is indeed living a new moment. A more realistic one. As much as the recent riots in the streets, where the population fights for rights from the present that have deep roots in the past, everything in Brazil is open for discussion – with a view to many possible changes yet to come. Literature, and women – as with any excluded group – must play a huge part in this.

Rosane Carneiro

About Rosane Carneiro Ramos

Rosane Carneiro Ramos is a full time PhD candidate in the Spanish, Portuguese & Latin American Studies Department (SPLAS) at King’s College London. Editor and MA in Brazilian Literature from Rio de Janeiro, she develops a research project about lyricism in Brazilian novels, sponsored by Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes), from Ministry of Education of Brazil, besides a project for a blog about Brazilian contemporary poetry. She is also an author of poetry, published in books and literary magazines and anthologies in her country and abroad. Her artistic and academic work can be found also at http://antialergica.blogspot.co.uk.

Rosane Carneiro Ramos is a full time PhD candidate in the Spanish, Portuguese & Latin American Studies Department (SPLAS) at King’s College London. Editor and MA in Brazilian Literature from Rio de Janeiro, she develops a research project about lyricism in Brazilian novels, sponsored by Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes), from Ministry of Education of Brazil, besides a project for a blog about Brazilian contemporary poetry. She is also an author of poetry, published in books and literary magazines and anthologies in her country and abroad. Her artistic and academic work can be found also at http://antialergica.blogspot.co.uk.

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