Candid chat with writer Rachel de Queiroz

“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.”

Mario Gonçalves
(Eckabe Press)

The fact of having won the Moinho Santista Literary Prize in the romance
category, a prize that many consider the most important in the country,
served only as an excuse for a chat with the writer Rachel de Queiroz.
After a 60 year career, she has received so many awards that one more doesn’t
make much difference. Her talent is known by all, as proved by the front
of the building where she lives. The sign at the entrance to the building
says: Edifício Rachel de Queiroz (Rachel de Queiroz Building) —
In honor of the building’s most illustrious resident.

Even with the notoriety, she says she is happy and excited with the
prize she just received and the recognition of her work. 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.

During the interview the coffee is brought in. Rachel de Queiroz then
reveals talents that have nothing to do with literature. She picks up a
piece of paper, folds it a few times, and transforms it into a little cup.
She pours the coffee into it and drinks it. “This was how we drank
coffee in the old editorial rooms of newspapers. I didn’t drink coffee
in those filthy cups. This is much more sanitary”, she says.

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 romance.

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, that 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 romance. 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 AI-5 regime.

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.

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