Fourteen Female Voices from Brazil: Interviews and
Works, selected and edited by Elzbieta Szoka
(Host Publications, 309 pp., $17.50 paper)
Polish-born Columbia University instructor Elzbieta Szoka learned something interesting when she taught a
class on the contemporary Brazilian short story: Her students were curious about the authors behind the texts,
particularly the women writers, and wanted to know more about them. Szoka, taking advantage of a conference in Belo
Horizonte on women and literature, arranged to meet and interview a number of female authors.
The end result, this book with a straightforward rather than fanciful title, is a collection of interviews and
photographs (so we can put a face to each name), and a representative literary sampling of each writerall told,
eleven stories, three excerpts from plays, and two selections of poetry.
The women come from all walks of life, although nearly every one of them has ended up in Rio de Janeiro or
São Paulo. Three of the authorsEsmeralda Ribeiro, Miriam Alves, and Conceição Evaristoare Afro-Brazilian,
and they're under no illusions that for black women writers in Brazil the battle for public recognition is greater than it
is for their white counterparts. The only black Brazilian author I can think of who has achieved a measure of
renown in the U.S. is Carolina Maria de Jesus, whose
Child of the Dark is really about her poverty rather than her poetry.
Despite being able to include Nélida Piñon and Lygia Fagundes Telles, two of Brazil's finest writers, all or
most of the fourteen women that Szoka has gathered into her book will be virtually unknown to the general reader in
this country. Not one has reached the status of Clarice Lispector, let alone Chile's Isabel Allende. Nonetheless,
these writers' concerns are universal.
As Jean Franco notes in her introduction, "The common thread that runs through much of the writing in this
anthology is solitude and separation that sees no salvation either in community or within the family. One has a sense of
women beating against a cage that is sometimes a family cage, sometimes a community cage
but often this cage
is something less easily defined."
The individual interviews are placed before each writer's creative endeavor, but after a while the
one-size-fits-all questions may suggest that Szoka was taking a poll. Instead of a rotating set of ten questions given to each
authorIs your family important to you? What's the role of mysticism in your life?it might have been more effective if
what Szoka had asked was tailored to the person at hand, allowing both parties to be flexible and attentive to the
flow of the conversation. Also, the questions seem geared to the writer's experience as a woman in Brazil rather
than to her experiences as a writerher craft, her technique, her research, her editing and revising and so on. Since
there's no indication as to where each story, poem, or play came from, one final `question' might have been: Tell us
about this selection of yours we're about to read?
Still, on balance, I'd say the interviews are more revealing and more intriguing than the works themselves:
These women are articulate, and they have opinions (and I'm glad Szoka asked them their thoughts on globalization).
Lygia Fagundes Telles, who comes across magnificently, who seems not only intelligent but compassionate and
wise, also has the distinction of having had an uncle who fell into Mount Vesuvius. Marly de Oliveira, who has been a
published poet since her first book in 1957 at age 17, was first married to a diplomat and later became the wife of noted
poet João Cabral de Melo Neto.
"One constant for me has been an enjoyment of literature written by other women," says Sonia Coutinho,
"and an awareness that this literature involves a specific territory that's ours." Fortunately, this book does not push a
hard feminist agenda that could alienate male readers, although women are predictably at the heart of the
selections. Writers not mentioned above also include Maria Adelaide Amaral, Astrid Cabral, Jandira Martini, Myriam
Campello, Leilah Assumpção, Renata Pallottini, and Helena Parente Cunha. Again, not exactly household names up
here; not yet.
While the concept behind Fourteen Female Voices from
Brazil has much to recommend it, the execution is
far from successful. First and foremost, proofreader Gretchen Maclane was asleep at the wheel, and not only
where spelling errors are concerned. The preface, by Szoka, and the introduction, by Franco, could have used some
editing, and the same can be said for the occasional interview where repetitive thoughts within a few lines of each other
may reflect how people talk but not how they are read.
Clear this hurdle, however, and the book is engaging, easy to read and digest. In addition, the use of
photographs (even if many are obviously just snapshots) brings us a little closer to these womenseveral of whom seem
truly remarkable. Perhaps Elzbieta Szoka will keep tabs on them for us, while discovering others, for a future edition.
From "Ana Davenga," a short story by Conçeicão Evaristo:
the door burst open and two armed policemen entered. They told Davenga to get dressed quickly and not
to try any tricks because the shack was surrounded. Another policeman pushed open the window from the
outside. A machine gun pointed toward the inside of the house, toward the bed, toward Ana and Davenga. She huddled
up, covering her stomach with her hand to protect the baby, her little seed, still a dream.
Davenga slowly pulled on his pants. He knew when he had been beaten. What good was life? What good
was his death? Prison, never! His gun was right there under the shirt that he was about to pick up. He could grab
both of them at the same time. He knew that this move would mean his death. If Ana survived the battle, perhaps
she would have another destiny.
With his head lowered, and without looking at the two policemen in front of him, Davenga picked up a shirt,
a gesture which led to a flurry of shots.
The news reported that a policeman had regrettably died in the line of duty. In the shantytown, Davenga's
friends cried for their dead boss and for Ana, who had been killed in bed by machinegun fire, while protecting the life
inside of her with her hands. In an old beer bottle filled with water, the rosebud that Davenga had given her at the first
birthday party that she had ever been given, at 27 years of age, was opening.
Bondo Wyszpolski also heads up the arts and
entertainment section of the Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper based in the
South Bay of southern California. He can be reached at