In the 20th century, Brazilian women writers have helped
to transform the literary landscape. Although many of them are well known
in Brazil, Latin America and throughout the Portuguese-speaking world,
the average North American reader hardly knows who these women are. Enter
the enchanted world of the imagination. Become acquainted with Rachel de
Queiroz, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Clarice Lispector and Nélida Piñon
— or meet them again.
When asked to give the names of some 20th-century women authors from
Latin America, most nonspecialists in the US would be hard-pressed to name
more than two or three of them. Almost any reader of current literary fiction
knows of the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende and Mexico’s Laura Esquivel.
However, Brazil has a rich collection of women writers who are practically
unknown to most North American readers. They’re missing out on a lot.
RACHEL DE QUEIROZ
“I detest writing,” declares Rachel de Queiroz, the doyen
of Brazil’s living women writers, who will turn 86 in November. “I
don’t ever remember writing voluntarily.” She prefers cooking to writing
and habitually says that writing “must be a curse, like those of the
werewolves.” Yet this jocularly-expressed aversion to writing did
not keep her from literary success.
“I was already writing some stuff when I was 12 years old,”
she recalled in Brazilian magazine Caras in 1994. “They were
terrible stories, with daggers and tempests, filled with a horrid romanticism.”
Encouraged by her intellectual, landowning parents, de Queiroz took a job
as a reporter at the age of 16. Two years later, when she contracted a
severe lung condition thought to be tuberculosis, de Queiroz decided to
write a novel to pass the time. At night, when the house was quiet, she
would lie down on the living room floor and write in a notebook by the
light of a small kerosene lamp.
Two months later, her draft was finished. When she showed it to her
parents, they were sufficiently impressed with her work that they arranged
to have it published. When it appeared in 1930, O Quinze (The Year
’15), set during the drought of 1915 that occurred in de Queiroz’s native
state of Ceará, became a landmark of Brazil’s regionalist school
of literature. “It was not my best work,” de Queiroz told Rio
de Janeiro newspaper O Globo in a 1995 interview. “It was a
book written by a girl, full of defects and naïveté.”
“When I made my debut with O Quinze, some jokers said I
had a masculine style and that the book was not mine,” she added in
a 1994 interview with Domingo, the Sunday supplement magazine of
Rio de Janeiro newspaper Jornal do Brasil. “They even said
that it was by Graciliano Ramos, but only men of little talent felt threatened.”
The success of her first novel brought the young writer to Rio, where
she alternated between high society and the Communist Party. Yet the independent
de Queiroz hardly made a good Communist. The plot of her second novel,
João Miguel (published in 1932), made the politically correct
Central Committee see red. In the book, a peasant who accidentally killed
another was sent to prison. There he fell in love with a young woman whose
father, a wealthy landowner, was also in jail. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s
wife was forced to become a prostitute.
“Comrade,” one of the Communists told de Queiroz, “your
book was disapproved of and you must revise it for publication. A peasant
cannot kill another worker. He has to kill a bourgeois. The bourgeois girl
is the one who has to become a prostitute and the peasant has to love and
adore his companion. The virtue of the socialist woman cannot be attacked.”
Infuriated at this imposition on her literary vision, de Queiroz left
the Communist Party and became a Trotskyite until the assassination of
Leon Trotsky in 1940. Not entirely seriously, she now defines herself politically
as a “gentle anarchist” who disavows all dogmas and is “radical
in nothing.” “Socialism proved to be an unattainable dream, but
it is still the utopia of generous souls who wish good for humanity. But
all the socialist experiments have ended in failure,” she says.
In 1977, de Queiroz became the first woman to become a member of the
Brazilian Academy of Letters. The late Dinah Silveira de Queiroz (no relation
to Rachel), Lygia Fagundes Telles and Nélida Piñon were also
later admitted into the company of the forty “immortals” who
are thought to be the greatest Brazilian writers of their time. “Somebody
had to start and by chance it was me,” de Queiroz told Caras
in 1994. “I was the oldest woman, and it was natural that I be the
first one,” she added to Domingo.
Her latest novel, Memorial de Maria Moura (Memoirs of Maria Moura),
published in 1992, was adapted into a successful miniseries on TV Globo
two years later. Despite the popularity of the miniseries, de Queiroz had
a reaction common to many novelists when their work reaches the big screen
or the boob tube. Although she enjoyed the miniseries, she felt that it
was not really the story she had written. “It is impossible to transpose
some characteristics of literary texts to the screen,” she told Domingo.
“In that type of brief miniseries, they have to give another style
and practically recreate the book.”
Despite living in Rio for more than 65 years, de Queiroz retains some
Northeastern habits. She only sleeps in hammocks. When winter arrives,
she places a sleeping bag atop the hammock to stay warm. “I tried
to sleep in a bed,” she explained. “I could never adapt to it.
Many Northeasterners can only sleep in a hammock, but they are ashamed
to admit it.”
De Queiroz lives in the Rio district of Leblon. The other tenants in
the apartment building where she lives have named it the Edifício
Rachel de Queiroz in her honor. Her apartment, dominated by a large colonial
crucifix and statues of saints, has a strange decor for a person who claims
not to be a religious believer. “I think it is a great poverty not
to have a faith,” de Queiroz has said. “But I cannot pretend,
beat my breast and say that I believe.” Old age bothers de Queiroz
more than death. “When you get to be in your 80s,” she says,
“death is the great friend, the great liberator.”
LYGIA FAGUNDES TELLES
Lygia Fagundes Telles, 71, the author of 20 books, is one of Brazil’s
most praised and well-liked writers. Nevertheless, she worries about the
size of Brazil’s reading public, which is much smaller than one might expect
for the world’s fifth largest country. “The Brazilian people admire
their soccer players, their singers, their sambistas,” Fagundes
Telles told O Globo in a 1995 interview. “If they knew their
writers, then certainly they’d admire them, too. But 60% of the population
has no access to books, because, unfortunately, they are illiterate. Even
so, because in Brazil, people are considered literate if they can sign
their names when they vote. If you take out this enormous mass of people,
very few remain.”
Fagundes grew up in São Paulo, where she still lives. She began
to write for publication as a teenager. She later withdrew her first four
books from her bibliography and will not allow them to be republished.
“They were premature,” she says. “I was very young (…)
They were horrible! (…) Furthermore, I belonged to a naïve, puritanical
and retrograde generation. Young people today are quite different. Girls
today have liberty. They have sex and live life with voracity. It doesn’t
matter whether it’s good or bad. They have liberty and have to assume its
risks. My youth wasn’t like that.”
“Despite all the books I have published,” she has said, “what
I have earned would not do to earn a decent living in this country, where
life itself is a luxury item (…) A writer, to live in Brazil with dignity,
has to have some other way to make a living.” (Fagundes Telles, who
majored in law and physical education at the University of São Paulo,
primarily depends on her pension as a retired state prosecutor.)
Clarice Lispector was born in a Ukrainian village. Not even she knew
for sure the date of her birth, but it appears that she was born in 1920.
However, she immigrated with her family to Brazil when she was still an
infant and grew up in the Northeastern city of Recife. “Obviously,
I am Brazilian, and don’t allow anybody to think otherwise,” Lispector
said in the `60s.
Years later, Lispector told of her first encounter with her literary
mentor: “In another life, when I was 15 years old, I went into a bookstore
which seemed to me the world where I would want to live. Suddenly, a book
that I opened had such different phrases that I kept reading right there.
I excitedly thought, `that book is me!’ Only afterwards did I discover
that the author was considered one of the greatest writers of her time:
Although the turn-of-the-century writer from New Zealand did influence
Lispector’s literary style, Lispector was an original. “Clarice was
the most naturally mysterious person I have ever known ( . . . ) She gave
the impression of being in the world the same way as someone who arrives
in an unknown city late at night during a transportation strike,”
writer Antônio Callado, a friend of Lispector, told Nádia
Gotlib, the author of the 1995 biography Clarice Lispector: Uma Vida
Que Se Conta (Clarice Lispector: A Life That Is Told).
The discreet charm of Clarice Lispector has lingered long after her
death. She has even become the protagonist of a novel, Clarice Lispector
— O Tesouro de Minha Cidade (Clarice Lispector: The Treasure of My
The Juan Rulfo Prize for Latin American and Caribbean Literature is
an award that had never gone either to a Brazilian or a woman until 1995.
Nélida Piñon, now 57, was the winner.
“One of the impulses that still makes me live is adventure. I am
a woman of pilgrimages. If I could, I would never sleep in the same house
for more than two nights consecutively. Of course, I have a settled life
and I was brought up otherwise. Nevertheless, I was born to be Sinbad,
to hit the road and never stop (…) That’s the reason that I’ve been reading
ever since I was very little. I thought while reading that I could ride
a horse or sail a boat. I could do everything through literature. Above
all, I was going to leave behind the walls of home.”
Although Piñon’s books receive excellent reviews, she is not
a best-selling author. When O Globo asked her why that was the case,
Piñon explained: “Few people read in Brazil, and there is a
prejudice against women (…) How can you explain why The Republic of
Dreams is read in every country, has had the highest praise and in
France was adopted as a text in the universities, while in Brazil, they
have not studied it sufficiently? If a Brazilian book can speak to the
French, then it has to be reviewed by scholars. I think good literature
is for everybody.”
“I want to be read in Brazil,” Piñon continued. “I
am a devoted servant of the Portuguese language. I want people to see that
I have tried to serve that language in literary terms with the most absolute
The old storytellers
Ever since I was a girl, I associated the act of creation — that sovereign
break with reality itself on behalf of conquering the real — with the
first old people I knew. To me, they were like the writers whose books
I read. Perhaps it was because the people who had many stories at their
disposal to tell me never avoided such a task. On the contrary, they had
in excess the patience which young people lack. And they dealt with the
details and the proper tempo very naturally. Yet because dying people do
not fear offending historical rigor nor the ridicule of contemporaries,
it falls to them to mix the narrative mortar without fear.
I kept them company while they spoke. I perceive now that the oral narrative,
in addition to being endless, had no authority. The stories naturally had
the anonymity and the capacity of being unfolded in a thousand nights,
according to the wrinkles on the faces of the storytellers. As a rule,
those old people did not know how to plant their geography and their characters
— dear to their hearts — after those characters had died and there were
no more witnesses. On the other hand, the fact that those characters were
no longer alive freed the storytellers to tell lies, that part independent
from the true story.
Excerpt from O Pão de Cada Dia (Daily Bread), 1995
Lygia Fagundes Telles
Lia is the young rebel in the novel As Meninas (The Girls), published
by Lygia Fagundes Telles in 1973. In love with a guerrilla who has been
imprisoned and tortured by the military regime, Lia regulates her life
by ideals and sentiments. She is balanced by the other protagonists of
the book — the dreamy Lorena and the despondent Ana Clara.
In each chapter, the three girls alternate narrating the story. In the
following excerpt, Lia bids farewell to Mother Alix, the principal of the
boarding school that Lia and the other girls attend, before Lia leaves
with her boyfriend to Algeria.
“She pulls her ear over her white bonnet. Is her head too small
for her body? I try to imagine her young and already wearing the habit,
an ashen life over the clothes and the bonnet that chisels into her head
like a helmet. But why an ashen life? Hasn’t she put into this work the
greatest love for more than half a century? Then there’s nothing ashen
to it. A Christian soldier, as the hymn says? Onward Christian soldiers!
A half-century enjoying only one thought.
“And your studies, my child? Are you arranging to take a leave
“Well, things are going another direction, you understand? I’m
going to travel, Mother Alix. Abroad. For the time being, I can only anticipate
that I’ll be raising my anchors soon. See, I already have my cap on,”
I say, not knowing why I am so moved. “I’m not forgetting the patience
you have for me. I know I’m aggressive. Complicated. You must have felt
like putting me out on the street sometimes. And showing me the door.”
She put away her glasses in the leather case. She put one hand above
the other and both on top of the table. I kept staring at her silver ring.
“You all seem to be so much without mystery to me, so revealed.
I’ve come to think that I know everything about each one of you girls,
and suddenly I’m scared when I find out that I was mistaken, that I know
so little about you. Almost nothing!” she exclaimed, opening her hands
in fear. “What do I know, after all? That you’re in the militant left,
and you’ve lost a year of school because of too many absences? That you
have a boyfriend in prison who’s working on a novel and is thinking of
taking a trip to I have no idea where? What do I know about Lorena? That
she enjoys Latin, that she listens to music the whole day long and that
she keeps waiting for a phone call from a boyfriend who never calls? Ana
Clara, ah yes, Ana Clara. Since she searches me out and confesses to me,
I could have the impression that I know everything about her. But do I
really? How am I going to separate invention from reality?”
When she falls silent, I keep hearing the sound of the clock. The jacaranda
chairs with the crocheted doilies atop their backs — the doilies were
frayed. But they had been made by Grandmother Diú.
“You’re being modest, Mother Alix. In reality, you know more than
you let on.”
“You girls are all young, Lia. I didn’t count on a really close
contact with you. But as removed as I am, how can I be useful? And I wanted
to be useful,” she repeated. The cloth on her bonnet was wrinkling
in the same way as the wrinkles on her brow. “Ana Clara is the only
one who gives herself unconditionally. But when I’m before her, I feel
as useless as I am in front of you. I feel reduced to being a tape recorder.
I record what you tell me and accept the burden. But when I try to influence
you, moving what must be moved eludes me like an eel.”
Quinze (The Year ’15)
Rachel de Queiroz, 1930
The setting sun, flaming, intensely red, was sinking on the nearby horizon
like a drowning man.
The reeling shadows lengthened along the strip of red-brown road, which
stretched over the top of a rocky hill and disappeared among the houses
of a sleepy roadside community.
Overcome by misery and despair, the shadows dragged their feet unconsciously,
in the final drunken stage of hunger.
The slender outline of a woman knelt on the red earth.
A parched figure squatted down beside her and plunged his weary head
between his bony knees, supporting it with his hands.
Only one young boy, standing apart, looked thoughtfully at the group,
crouched in weakness and fatigue.
His pained voice called to them with hopeful words.
And his hand could be seen in the deepening darkness of the afternoon,
pointing to a cluster of houses farther on.
But the only sign of life in the motionless group was the soft intermittent
crying of a child.
Caminhos de Pedra
Rachel de Queiroz, 1937
At noon the doctor left and went to lunch. He said the case was very
In the afternoon everything seemed to go better.
That night the nightmare began again.
Beside the bed the doctor, motionless, stood watch; in an abrupt voice
he ordered a sponge-bath, more blankets. Noemi’s hands, arms, body, eyes
worked, obeyed. Before daybreak the doctor went away. He returned in the
early morning. Shortly after that came another attack, the strongest of
all, and Guri died.
Death is silent and modest. It is the living who cover it with wailing,
confusion and rites. Guri died softly, certainly without any regret. He
merely opened his mouth, gasped air with greater anguish than before, and
a yellow tide surged gradually through his body, beneath his skin, reaching
his fever-flushed cheeks, gaining his mouth, his forehead, his fingers.
That was all. The doctor said quietly: “This is the end.”
“A Menor Mulher no Mundo”
(The Smallest Woman in the World),
a story in Laços de Família (Family
Clarice Lispector, 1960
His mother was setting her hair in front of the bathroom mirror at the
moment, and she remembered what a cook had told her about life in an orphanage.
The orphans had no dolls, and with terrible maternity already throbbing
in their hearts, the little girls had hidden the death of one of the little
girls from the nun. They kept the body in a cupboard and when the nun went
out they played with the dead child, giving her baths and things to eat,
punishing her only to be able to kiss and console her. In the bathroom,
the mother remembered this, and let fall her thoughtful hands, full of
curlers. She considered the cruel necessity of loving. And she considered
the malignity of our desire for happiness. She considered how ferociously
we need to play. How many times we will kill for love. Then she looked
at her clever child as if she were looking at a dangerous stranger. And
she had a horror of her own soul that, more than her body, had engendered
that being, adept at life and happiness. She looked at him attentively
with uncomfortable pride, that child who had already lost two front teeth,
evolution evolving itself, teeth falling out to give place to those that
could bite better. “I’m going to buy him a new suit,” she decided,
looking at him, absorbed. Obstinately, she adorned her son with fine clothes;
obstinately perfecting the polite side of beauty. Obstinately drawing away
from, and drawing him away from, something that ought to be “black
as a monkey.” Then, looking in the bathroom mirror, the mother gave
a deliberately refined and social smile, placing a distance of insuperable
millenniums between the abstract lines of her features and the crude face
of Little Flower. But, with years of practice, she knew that this was going
to be a Sunday on which she would have to hide from herself anxiety, dreams
and lost millenniums.
by Clarice Lispector
(New Directions Books)
(November 2, 1968)
Sometimes people wishing to pay me a compliment tell me I’m intelligent.
And they are surprised when I tell them that being intelligent is not my
strong point and that I am no more intelligent than other people. They
then accuse me of being modest.
Of course I know about certain things. I was a bright student and intelligence
has helped me to cope with certain situations. And like many others, I
am capable of reading and understanding books which are generally considered
to be difficult.
But often this socalled intelligence of mine is so limited that one
would think I was stupid. People who refer to my intelligence are, in
fact, confusing intelligence with what I would call a knowing
sensibility. Now that is something I really do possess.
And notwithstanding my admiration for sheer intelligence, I find a knowing
sensibility much more important when it comes to living with others and
trying to understand them. Nearly everyone I know could be described as
intelligent. They also happen to be sensitive. They can feel things and
be deeply moved. I daresay this is the kind of sensibility I exercise when
I write, or in my relationships with friends. I also exercise it when I
come into superficial contact with certain people whose aura I can sense
I daresay this kind of sensibility, which is capable of stirring emotions
and making one think even without using the mind, is a gift. And a gift
which can be diminished with neglect or perfected if exercised to the full.
I have a friend, for example, who is not simply intelligent but also extremely
sensitive, an essential quality in her particular profession. As a result,
she possesses what I would call a knowing heart, so knowing that it can
guide her and others as reliably as radar itself.
Keeping an Eye on the World
(March 4, 1970)
I am an extremely busy person. I keep an eye on the world. Each morning
I look down from my terrace at the strip of beach with the sea beyond.
Sometimes the spray seems whiter and I can tell that the restless waters
have advanced during the night leaving their mark on the sand. I watch
the almond trees on the street below. Before falling asleep, and keeping
an eye on the world in my dreams, I examine the night sky to see if there
are stars twinkling against a blue background, because on certain nights
the sky is not black but ultramarine. The world keeps me fully occupied,
because I recognize that God is the cosmos, and hat is a responsibility
I would be prepared to forgo.
I see a little boy who cannot be more than ten, dressed in rags and
unbelievably thin. A future case of tuberculosis, if he is not already
When I visit the Botanical Gardens I soon become weary. There I have
to keep an eye on thousands of plants and trees, especially he gigantic
Take note that I have said nothing about my emotional reactions: I spoke
only of some of the thousands of things and people I keep an eye on. Nor
does anyone pay me to do this job. I simply keep the world under observation.
Is it hard work keeping an eye on the world? Most certainly. I can remember
the terrifying face of one woman I saw in the street, a face devoid
of any expression. I also keep an eye on thousands of slumdwellers on the
nearby slopes. I observe the seasonal changes in myself: I inevitably change
with every season.
You must be wondering why I keep an eye on the world. I was born with
this mission. And I am responsible for everything in existence, even for
those wars and crimes which cause so much physical and spiritual havoc.
I am even responsible for this God Who is in a perpetual state of cosmic
evolution towards greater perfection.
Since childhood I have kept an eye on a swarm of ants: they crawl in
Indian file, carrying a tiny particle of leaf which does not prevent them
from pausing to chat whenever they meet another procession of ants coming
from the opposite direction.
I once read a standard textbook about bees and I have observed them
ever since, especially the queen bee. Bees fly and nourish themselves on
flowers: that much I have learned.
But ants have such a neat little waistline. Yet tiny as they are, they
embrace a whole world, which eludes me unless I examine them closely: an
instinctive sense of organization, a language which goes beyond the supersonic
to our ears and probably attuned to instinctive feelings of love-cum-sentiment,
for ants can speak. I kept a watchful eye on these insects when I was little
and now that I so dearly long to see them again, I cannot find a single
ant. I know they have not been exterminated otherwise I should have been
told. Keeping an eye on the world also requires a lot of patience: I must
wait for the ants to reappear. Patience. While watching the flowers open
imperceptibly, little by little.
But I still have not found the person to whom I should report my findings.
Rachel de Queiroz
(born in Fortaleza, Ceará, 1910)
O Quinze (The Year ’15), 1930
João Miguel, 1932
Caminho das Pedras (Stony Roads), 1937
As Três Marias (The Three Marias, tr. 1963), 1939
Dora Doralina, 1975 (Dora Doralina, tr. 1984)
Galo de Ouro (Golden Rooster), 1986
Memorial de Maria Moura (Memoirs of Maria Moura), 1992
Lygia Fagundes Telles
(born in São Paulo, 1924)
Ciranda de Pedra (Ring Around a Rock), 1954
Antes do Baile Verde (Before the Green Ball), 1972
As Meninas (The Girl in the Photograph, tr. 1982), 1973
A Disciplina do Amor (The Discipline of Love), 1980
As Horas Nuas (The Naked Hours), 1989
A Noite Escura e Mais Eu (The Dark Night and I Besides), 1995
(born in Chechelnik, Ukraine, 1920;
died in Rio de Janeiro, 1977)
Perto do Coração Selvagem (Near to the Wild
Heart, tr. 1990), 1942
O Lustre (The Chandelier), 1946
A Cidade Sitiada (The Besieged City), 1948
Laços de Família (Family Ties, tr. 1972),
A Maça no Escuro (The Apple in the Dark, tr. 1967),
A Legião Estrangeira (The Foreign Legion), 1964
A Paixão Segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G.H.,
tr. 1988), 1964
Água Viva (The Stream of Life, tr. 1989), 1973
A Hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star, tr. 1986), 1978
(born in Rio de Janeiro, 1938)
Guia Mapa de Gabriel Archanjo (Guide Map of Gabriel Archangel),
Tempos das Frutas (Time of the Fruits), 1966
Fundador (Founder), 1976
A República dos Sonhos (The Republic of Dreams,
tr. 1989), 1987
A Doce Canção de Caetana (Caetana’s Sweet Song,
tr. 1992), 1987
A Casa da Paixão (The House of Passion), 1988
Sala de Armas (Room of Arms), 1989
O Calor das Coisas (The Heat of Things), 1989
O Pão de Cada Dia (Daily Bread), 1995
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