By Dr. Eliseo Jacob
In 2018, a relatively unknown writer from the working-class community of morro do Vidigal, a favela in Rio de Janeiro’s south zone, took the literary world by storm. Only 26 years old at the time, Geovani Martins published his first book, a collection of short stories titled O sol na cabeça (The Sun on My Head) with Brazil’s largest book publisher, Companhia das Letras. Before the book was officially released to the public in March of that year, Martins was already garnering a lot of attention. The film rights were sold, and the book was to be translated into nine different languages (the English version was published in June 2019). While Geovani Martins is not the first writer from a favela to gain national and international fame, he is the most recent writer to gain notoriety in the literary market. The favela is a place that has always occupied (both positive and negative) an important space in the national imaginary of Brazil.
Imagining the Favela
Favelas, informal settlements found in Brazilian cities, have become emblematic of urban life in Rio de Janeiro. They first emerged in the city at the turn of the 20th century when soldiers who had fought in the Canudos war decided to occupy the hills near the Ministry of War after they were initially promised land in the old capital. Over the ensuing years, former enslaved Africans and poor citizens pushed out of the city center moved to favelas as they continued to pop up throughout the city. Modern favelas grew significantly since the 1960s with the mass exodus of Brazilians from rural areas to the cities. Today, approximately 6% of Brazil’s population live in favelas, but the number is even higher in Rio de Janeiro where close to 30% of the city’s inhabitants can be found in such communities.
The favela has always been part of the imaginary in Brazilian literature, art, and film from the turn of the 20th century to the present. Aluísio Azevedo published in 1890 his influential novel O Cortiço (The Slum), which tells the story of former enslaved Africans, European immigrants, and other poor residents living together in a tenement in Rio de Janeiro. During the Brazilian modernist movement of the 1920s, Tarsila do Amaral created one of her most iconic paintings: Morro da Favela (Favela Hill). Vinicius de Moraes, widely celebrated for his work as a playwright, poet, and lyricist for Bossa Nova music, wrote and staged a play in 1956 titled Orfeu da Conceição. Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the play takes place in a favela in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. The play eventually served as inspiration for the films Black Orpheus (1959) and Orfeu (1999). During the 1960s, directors of the Cinema Novo (New Cinema) movement collaborated on the film 5x Favela, sharing five stories about experiences from the favela. In recent years, films like City of God (2002) and City of Men (2007) and novels like Patricia Melo’s Inferno (2000) attempt to portray life in the modern favela.
Writers and artists from favelas have also produced their own works to interpret the experience of living in these marginalized communities. Like Geovani Martins, Carolina Maria de Jesus became an internationally recognized writer with the publication of her memoir Quarto de despejo (Child of the Dark) in 1960. Carolina had been living in a favela in São Paulo when her book was published and went on to be a prolific writer. In 1997, Paulo Lins published the 500 plus page novel City of God that went on to be a watershed moment in Brazilian literature. Like Martins, he was a relatively unknown writer before the publication of the novel that became the inspiration for the 2002 film. In 2000, Ferréz published his novel Capão Pecado, which recounted life in his home, the Capão Redondo favela in the south zone of São Paulo. In cinema, the 2010 film 5x Favela: Agora por nós mesmos (Now By Us) was produced by one of the directors from the 1960s film, but now featured film directors from favelas.
FLUP: Pipeline of Writers from the Favela
Geovani Martins follows in this long tradition of writers from the favela providing an insider’s perspective to the history, language, and people of these marginalized, underserved communities. While he always had a deep interest in literature from a young age, his formal introduction to developing into a professional writer began in 2013 when he started to participate in FLUP sponsored activities.
FLUP, or the Festa Literária das Periferias (Literary Festival of the Peripheries) was a non-profit organization founded by Ecio Salles and Juilo Ludemir in 2012 with the mission to democratize literary and cultural productions in the urban peripheries and favelas of Rio de Janeiro. They organized events and workshops in different favelas throughout the city to expose local youth to literature, and to give them the opportunity to develop their craft as writers and artists. Geovani regularly attended these workshops, and he noted in different interviews that he got to know many other favelas throughout Rio de Janeiro by participating in FLUP. It was during this formative time that he also began to contribute his own writings, including short stories, to Sector X, a literary magazine produced in Rocinha and Complexo do Alemão – two of the largest favelas in Rio de Janeiro.
FLUP helped develop several prominent young writers that are contemporaries to Geovani Martins, including Jessé Andarilho who has published two novels with major publishers, and Ana Paula Lisboa, who along with Martins, are regular columnists for O Globo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil.
Geovani (center) at a FLUP event with Ecio Salles (left) and writer Ana Maria Gonçalves (right)
The Sun on My Head
The genesis for the book The Sun on My Head began in 2015 when Geovani talked about how he was passing through a time of despair in his life: “I was 24 years old, unemployed, without a profession, forced to move out of the house where I was living” (my translation). In the midst of these struggles, he still participated that same year in one of Brazil’s most important literary festivals, FLIP (International Literary Festival of Paraty). At the festival, he showcased with several other writers from the favelas of Rio their writings published in Sector X. That experience was transformative for him because many people and editors expressed interest in his work and asked if he had additional writings. He did not have anything ready to show them, not even something in the work, which made him come out of the festival with the attitude that he needed to have a piece of writing ready to show when the opportunity appeared.
He always had an interest in writing short stories, which he had continued to develop when he participated in FLUP workshops. However, many people told him it would be difficult to get a collection of short stories published unless he was willing to pay for the publication of it, which was not even a possibility for him. Geovani tried to write a novel, but the project went nowhere, and so he decided to return to his first love of short stories. He submitted his short stories to several competitions hosted by the Parque Estadual Library in Rio de Janeiro, and in 2017, he returned to FLIP at the invitation of another writer who had read his stories to participate on a panel. It was there that he was introduced to an editor from Companhia das Letras, and this time he was prepared with the manuscript to his book.
Geovani’s short stories are unique in his ability to capture with nuanced detail the experience of growing up in the favela. His characters’ speech reflects the unique linguistic register that can be found in these communities, which is not always portrayed in a positive light in the media. The first short story in the book, “Rolézim” (Lil Spin) in particular incorporates a language that blurs the lines between orality and written text with the use of slang and colloquialisms specific to his neighborhood. The story feels like it was written to be read specifically by a favela resident so they can imagine themselves within the text. Geovani’s ability to effortlessly play with language positions him as the new literary voice coming out of the favela in the tradition of Carolina Marina de Jesus and Paulo Lins, and ultimately, makes him one of the most important new authors coming out of Brazil.
About the Writer:
Dr. Eliseo Jacob works in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Howard University where he teaches courses on Afro-Latin American and Brazilian literature and culture. His recent publications contextualize literary and cultural representations of São Paulo’s urban periphery as part of a larger analysis regarding the relationship of the public sphere to marginalized communities of color in Brazil’s urban spaces. His current book project, Literary Counterpublics in the Americas: Race, Space and Citizenship in São Paulo and New York, is a comparative study between the Literatura Periférica movement in São Paulo’s urban periphery and the Afro-Latinx literary scene in New York. He asserts that writers and artists from contemporary marginalized urban communities in the Americas are employing creative strategies that are inherently political due to their ability to contest hegemonic discourses on how black and brown bodies can affirm their identities in the space of the city.