Carolina Maria de Jesus: voice of the voiceless

By Sofia Perpétua

The moment Carolina Maria de Jesus met Clarice Lispector, she couldn’t even look at her as she was so intimidated by her presence. She said: “My god, you’re a writer. Who am I next to you?” Clarice simply replied, “I might be a great writer but you’re the only one who tells us about reality.”

When Carolina was born, no one could guess that more than a hundred years later she would be considered one of the most important writers in Brazil and that her words would still echo as they are translated in more than forty-six languages. Her first book, “The Thrash Room” (or ‘Child of the Dark’ as it was first translated in the United States) was published in 1960 and it sold more than 10,000 copies in a week. At the time, her editor said she wasn’t publishing a book, she was starting a revolution. 

Carolina was a waste picker who lived in Canindé in the 1950s, in one of the poorest favelas of São Paulo. As a black single mother, her words overcame physical hunger and her hunger to be heard, to exist, to expose inequality, sexism, the violent ways in which society’s structures doom the poor, the minorities, the underprivileged. “I say the favela is a city’s trash room. We, the poor, are the old lumber,” she wrote in her diaries. 

As Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, when it comes to criticism of your work, don’t “look outside,” if you need to write as you need to drink water, why would you ask anyone for permission, advice, why would you seek acknowledgment? As Carolina picked up cardboard, plywood or cans to build her own house, she held her pen tight as she found loose notebooks and sheets of paper, disposed and left behind in the streets, through restless days of struggle to survive to feed her three children and as she often times would wake up in the middle of the night to fix the roof of her shack so it would stop raining on her baby’s cradle. And still, she felt the urge to write, an instinct as innate as her need to boil that same rainwater for her children to drink. As character is destiny, Carolina rewrote hers, she was born a writer who, despite the lack of formal education, hoarded words in whatever way she could because she had to tell her story. In her work, she uses language, she doesn’t allow language to use her as she is not deterred by spelling, syntax or grammatical constructions to describe her everyday joys and dramas or to denounce the hypocrisy looks that came her way. On the page, her words were kept unchanged, just like she wrote them, just like she made them her own. She can do it, she is the voice of the real Brazil.

Carolina did not have the opportunity of living a childhood where she could go to school nor did she have a family who could support her literary endeavors. She was a self-made woman, rising from a favela into a middle-class life. Moving between worlds, she could see the blurred lines of pain, she wrote her way into being read and seen by the privileged classes who didn’t have to think about how to feed their families or keep a roof over their heads, she broke the elitist literary glass ceiling of her time. 

Carolina was and still is the voice of the voiceless, it’s as if her readers can gain exclusive access to the silent majority of the population of Brazil, their struggle and suffering in one of the countries with the highest inequality rates in the world, back then and still today.


“I’m always nervous in the morning with the fear that I won’t make enough money to buy something to eat. But today is Monday and there’s a lot of paper on the street… Senhor Manuel came saying he wants to marry me but I don’t want to because I’m already getting on. And later on, a man doesn’t like a woman who can’t pass something [written] without reading it, and gets up to write, and sleeps with a pencil and paper under the pillow. This is why I prefer to live just for my ideals.”

About The Writer:

Sofia Perpétua is a journalist and video producer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC, CNN, BBC, PRI, Ms. Magazine, The Intercept Brazil, Expresso and other news outlets in the United States, Brazil and Portugal. She has collaborated with Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace and UNICEF in South America. While working on her Master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York, she was awarded The New York Times Fellowship. For The New York Times, she produced the literature series “The Read Around.” In 2019, The Thread podcast, the podcast she produces, was nominated for a Webby Award. Follow @sofiaperpetua

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