Writer Rachel de Queiroz, who would be 93 in two weeks, had
a very active 70-year literary life.
She was the first woman to be
elected to the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Queiroz wrote for
most important publications in the country and as a writer she
produced not only romances, but also
plays and short stories.
Rachel de Queiroz was always ahead of her time.
On August 4, 1977, she became the first woman to be elected to the
40-seat Brazilian Academy of Letters. Born November 17, 1910, in Fortaleza, capital of Ceará state, she started to write at
age 17 in the newspaper O Ceará under the penname Rita de Queluz. The 1000 copies of her first
bookO Quinze (The Fifteen), inspired in the Northeast drought of 1915were paid with her own money and were printed in 1930. This was just the
beginning of a series of romances inspired by social issues.
Queiroz, who would be 93 in two weeks, had been very active until suffering a stroke in August 1999. According to
her sister Maria Luísa, the writer died in her sleep in her Leblon
apartment, in Rio’s south zone. She first went to Rio when
she was 7 and her parents moved to then Brazilian capital, fleeing the drought.
Queiroz worked most of the time writing columns for newspapers and magazines. She was also a teacher though
and as a writer she produced not only romances, but also plays and short stories. The author won several literary prizes. Her
last novel, Maria Moura, published in 1992, became a hugely popular TV miniseries and made her name know to a new
generation of readers.
In 1957, the Brazilian Academy of Letter awarded her the Machado de Assis prize for lifetime achievement. In
1931, she had already received the prize from the Graça Aranha Foundation for O Quinze. Her novel
As Três Marias also won a prize, the Sociedade Felipe d’Oliveira award. In 2000, she received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from
Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro.
Queiroz was only five when she read ("obviously without understanding a word," she liked to stress)
Ubirajara by José de Alencar, one of the top literary figures in Brazilian literature, and a relative on her mother’s side. Her father, a
district attorney and geography teacher, took seriously her education, teaching her not only how to read, but also to swim and
horse ride. She didn’t go to College after having graduated as an elementary school teacher in 1925. Back at home she
immersed into books, with a preference to French novelists.
Queiroz’s first book wasn’t applauded by the literary critics of her state. The writer’s talent was acknowledged only
after she sent the work to writers in Rio and São Paulo. Famous writers Augusto Frederico Schmidt and Mário de Andrade
highly praised O Quinze, transforming her in a well-known literary figure.
After having met in Rio, in 1931, leaders of the Communist Party, Rachel de Queiroz went back to Ceará where she
helped found the Communist Party there. She was soon labeled "communist agitator" by the police. The writer would abandon
the Party soon after being told by the Party leaders that
João Miguel, her second book, could not be published because the
work told a story in which a worker killed a colleague. "I left the place running," she would say later. "The Party had no
authority to censor my work."
Some intellectuals don’t forgive Queiroz for having backed the military coup in Brazil that installed a dictatorship in
the country from 1964 to 1989. She was a relative of general Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, the first President after
the 1964 coup. Castelo Branco chose her as a Brazilian delegate to the UN in 1966. From 1967 to 1985 she was a member
of the Conselho Federal de Cultura (Federal Council of Culture).
With the death of Rachel de Queiroz, the Brazilian Academy of Letters has four vacancies to be filled by immortals,
as the members of the institution are called: seat number 5 (the one occupied by Queiroz); seat number 6, which belonged
to Raymundo Faoro who died in May; seat 39, from media tycoon Roberto Marinho dead in August and seat 19, occupied
by Marcos Almir Madeira until his death in October.
In Her Own Words
In 1996, Rachel de Queiroz gave an interview to Brazzil magazine, after having won the Moinho Santista Literary
Prize in the novel category, a prize that many consider the most important in the country. Between cups of coffee in her
apartment in lower Leblon, one of the most hectic neighborhoods in Rio that contrasts drastically with the serenity of the author,
she spoke of the beginning of her career, her militancy in the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party), about literature and her
hope for both Brazil’s political and literary future.
How did you become interested in literature?
I was born into an intellectual,
Cearense (from the state of Ceará) family. Everyone read and wrote a lot. My father
preferred Eça de Queiroz and French writers, while my mother liked the Russians, especially Gorky and Dostoievski. When she
died, besides a passion for Russian authors, she left us a library with 5,000 books. So in this environment, it would be strange
if I didn’t follow this tradition. I would have differed from the rest of the family.
And the beginning of your career? What was it like?
When I got married, I was 22, had left Ceará, and I was already working at the newspaper for four years. But, I
began to write very early. I wrote in secret because I was afraid of my siblings and my mother. I thought they would make fun
of me. I did stories that had daggers, lightning and I don’t know what else. I wrote them and ripped them up. Until, when I
was 16, I decided to write, hidden from everyone, a letter to the editor of the newspaper
O Ceará. The newspaper had published a story with the title "A Rainha dos Estudantes" ("The Queen of the Students"). In the letter I made some jokes, making
fun of "A Rainha dos Estudantes" and I signed it Rita de Queluz. The editor loved the letter and tried to find me. The
problem was that no one knew who was this Rita de Queluz. Then they saw the postmark, stamped from Quixadá, where we have
a farm. The circle closed until Jáder de Carvalho, who worked at the newspaper and knew me, ended up finding out the
story. Then, the editor of the newspaper asked my father for permission to let me work in the newspaper,
O Ceará. I think if he would not have let me, I would have committed suicide.
And in what year did this happen?
In 1927. Right after, in 1930, when I was 19, I wrote
O Quinze (The Year `15), which was my first novel.
Is there a relationship involving O
Quinze and your giving up your militancy in the PCB? Did the party want
to control your work as a writer?
The truth is that I began my political militancy as a journalist. I had two friends, one a doctor, and one a journalist,
which introduced me to writings about Communism. I joined the party the same year I wrote
O Quinze. I got some digs because I hadn’t shown the book to the members of the party. But the big problem was when I wrote
João Miguel, my second novel. I typed the book on my old Corona typewriter without carbon paper; I only had the originals. It was when the members
of the party knowing that I was going to publish the book, called me for a meeting on the docks. This was in 1932, when I
was already living in Rio. When I arrived, there were three guys there. I was afraid. They criticized the book and said I
couldn’t publish it. Even afraid, I was furious, and besides this, there was only that one copy of the book. I got up and said,
"Comrades, I just have this original and I will make the corrections that you want me to do." I took the original from one of them,
went to the door and said I didn’t recognize them as any literary authority to criticize the book. I shoved the chair I was
sitting on with my foot and ran out.
Based on your experience, do you believe that politics and literature are compatible?
Yes and no. If the writer sees politics from the angle of the common man, it’s possible. He has his ideologies, but the
literary aspect of his work has more strength. Now, I don’t believe in engagé literature. Engagé literature is a sermon, not
literature. But, it’s possible to make art and express your political feelings, just with talent, without preaching anything.
Is there someone in Brazil that does this type of literature and you consider is well done?
Graciliano Ramos was a Communist and never let this reflect in his work, and, nevertheless, of our contemporaries,
he was the best of all. Even in Memórias do
Cárcere ("Memories of Prison"). The book is a personal testimony of a
person imprisoned for being Communist, not a work of propaganda for Communism. Dias Gomes and João Ubaldo Ribeiro
also have leftist works, but they respect, in their subjects, the freedom of thought and of speech.
You mentioned renowned authors. Is there any revival in Brazilian literature? Do you see new writers who
can continue the tradition of good Brazilian literature?
There are many good people that haven’t had time yet to win a big audience. I’m referring to Ana Miranda, Maria
Alice Barroso and Lygia Fagundes Telles, that’s the women. Among the men, João Ubaldo Ribeiro. The youngsters are
showing up, and once in a while, we have a pleasant surprise. Brazilian literature is on the right path.
Returning to politics. During the last 60 years, almost the same as your writing career, Brazil went through
two dictatorships: Vargas’, during the Estado Novo (New State) and the military one, after 1964. How did you go
through this troubling period in Brazilian history?
Before Vargas decreed the Estado Novo, in 1937, he did a type of purge among Brazilian intellectuals. The
command was to imprison all the leftist intellectuals. This was in October, the coup was in November. At that time, I was manager
of an export house in Fortaleza since the newspaper wasn’t paying me enough. I was working when the police arrived and
took me to the fire department’s quarters. I stayed there under arrest for three months and only was let go in January of 1938
when the coup was consolidated. In jail, my window looked out on the courtyard where the firemen did exercises; so a great
friendship arose between me and the firemen. They were in end of the year tests and would send me paper to make crib sheets
for them; they did serenades and such things. Even today, when the old firemen see me on the street, they say hello.
And in 1964?
In 1964 I was with the conspirators. I was really horrified with Jango, Brizola, etc. I was a supposed leftist that never
was leftist. But I only supported the movement until Castelo Branco left. He was virtually overthrown by the hard-liners.
The movement of `64 ended with the entrance of Costa and Silva. Castelo Branco was a democratic man. I remember that
during a luncheon, asked about the ugliest word in the language, he responded: "dictatorship". At one point, I supported the
And the Brazil of today? Do you have hope that the country will get better?
When we become older, we become more patient, and funny, with more hope. When I was young, I would feel
hopeless about the country, today no.
O Quinze (1930), novel
João Miguel (1932), novel
Caminho de Pedras (1937), novel
As Três Marias (1939), novel
A Donzela e a Moura Torta (1948), short essays
O Galo de Ouro (1950), novel
Lampião (1953), play
A Beata Maria do Egito (1958), play
100 Crônicas Escolhidas (1958)
O Brasileiro Perplexo (1964), short essays
O Caçador de Tatu (1967), short essays
O Menino Mágico (1969), for children
As Menininhas e Outras Crônicas (1976)
O Jogador de Sinuca e Mais Historinhas (1980)
Cafute e Pena-de-Prata (1986), for children
Memorial de Maria Moura (1992), novel
Três Romances (1948)
Seleta, collected by Paulo Rónai with notes and studies by Renato Cordeiro Gomes (1973)