Intersectional Literary Resistance: Exploring the Contemporary Prose of Afro-Lusophone Female Writers • pt 3
I focus on the literary production of Afro-Lusophone women because they to often exist in an abject reality, excluded from the benefits allotted to men under the patriarchal institutions propagated by many post-independence movements. Gender inequality is one of the many pervasive legacies of colonialism. European colonial projects operated in accordance with their own patriarchal ideologies, sourly disrupting the matriarchal frameworks of the African communities they conquered and transferring this violent erasure to the Afro-diasporic communities they forcefully created. Consequently, Black women writers in postcolonial societies must reconcile these abject existences with their own formations of home, belonging, identity, and freedom. Carole Boyce Davies, a Caribbean-American author, scholar, and current Professor of Africana Studies and English at Cornell University, points to the manner with which Black women address these issues in their writing:
The autobiographical subjectivity of Black women is one of the ways in which speech is articulated and geography redefined. Home is often portrayed as a place of alienation and displacement in autobiographical writing…Thus, the complicated notion of home mirrors the problematizing of community/ nation/ identity that one finds in Black women’s writing from a variety of communities… home is often a place of exile for the woman, as are, sometimes community and nation.
bearing in mind the limitations of attempting to assess the entire Afro-Lusophone postcolonial polity in its geographical reaches from the African continent to South America, I focus on the literary resistance employed by Afro-Brazilian women. Furthermore, I use the terms Afro-Lusophone, of African descent, Black, and Afro-Brazilian as interchangeable qualifiers. I highlight the prose of Afro-Lusophone women in Brazil because there is much to learn from reading and studying the works of Latin American women writers of African descent. Faced with the legacies of slavery, racism, and sexism in their countries, they must also deal with specific cultural and historical factors that include the socioeconomic effects of dictatorship, modernization, and the legacies of forced population whitening, a phenomena apparent in Brazil’s praise of exceptionalized miscegenation. Brazil presents a uniquely complex postcolonial predicament from which its Black women may utilize literature as a forum for addressing their sociopolitical concerns, positionality, and leverage in society. It can be, at times, challenging to draw a comprehensive understanding of the role Black women play within Brazil’s Black movement and feminist movement because the social subalternity of the Black woman is deeper than that of her male counterparts and Brazilian society relegates Black women to a lower social and economic position. Inadvertently mirroring the patriarchal oppression embodied by European colonial projects, the sexist character of Black movements in Brazil has frequently ostracized women’s political leadership.
Facing racism and elitism from white feminists, Afro-Brazilian women are tasked with creating a movement that encompasses an intersectional vantage point from which they can construct a Black female identity rooted in the interrelations of race, class and gender. This construction and reconstruction of space and identity works to dispel Brazilian society’s disadvantaged profile and stereotype of the Black woman as “illiterate or semi-literate [, performing] unspecialized jobs…subservient and obedient, a sexual object, and ‘good in bed,’ no less than a prostitute. According to the thesis of Carolyn Richardson Durham in her study of the history of feminine literature in the eighties, “this generation of Black [female] writers is characterized by three important goals: 1- the explanation of social inequalities of race, gender, and class; 2- the constant preoccupation with identity in order to subvert the traditional image of the passive Afro-Brazilian woman; and 3- the formation of alternatives to oppression. In “Race, Gender and Class: The Poetry of Carolina Maria de Jesus and Miriam Alves,” Lesley Feracho, Associate Director of the Institute of African-American Studies at University of Georgia, explains:
In a country where the myth of racial democracy “conceals more than it reveals, especially when it comes to the symbolic violence against the Afro-Brazilian woman… it is due to a connection with the symbolic system that the place of the Black woman in our society, as one of inferiority and poverty, is codifies into a racial and ethnical perspective. In order to combat symbolic, racial, and social oppression these writers have used their written voice as both an individual and collective tool of exploration and empowerment.
Afro-Brazilian writers like Carolina Maria de Jesus, Miriam Alves and Esmeralda Ribeiro “use poetry to articulate, redefine and consciously reposition themselves across literary, national, racial, class, and gendered boundaries. In a transgressive crossing of representations of the female subject, they subversively thwart prescribed limitations established in discourses of their time.” Their prose takes on revolutionary ventures by bestowing a singularly female angle upon their musings, interpretations, and critiques of black politics in the literary realm. A gendered and racialized perspective exists within their poetry that challenges dominant discursive practices (such as the whitening ideology and machismo and established social structures, in an attempt to redefine black women’s role in society. Machismo is a Portuguese term referring to the sense of being ‘manly’ and self-reliant; associated with a strong sense of masculine pride or an exaggerated masculinity. It is also associated with a man’s responsibility to provide for, protect, and defend his family. The radicalism of theses women’s poetry as a means of dissent and resistance is beautifully multifaceted in the manner with which it gives room to aesthetic, metaphoric reasoning, and symbol while integrating sociopolitical commentary. The prose of these Afro-Brazilian women, with its illustrative syntax and vivid imagery, presents an imitation of life from the perspective of the authors’ own experiences; one that is, at times, more accessible and effective at generating awareness to certain issues than the intellectualized jargon of dissertations and political speeches. It allows for an exploration of juxtaposed realities, allowing the personal to be simultaneously painful and beautiful, introducing readers to a modernity situated in an ever-present past, but embracing a budding future. These Afro-Brazilian writers delve into the complexities of what it means to physically, politically, and ideologically navigate the Afro-Lusophone postcolonial polity as a Black women. Prodigiously emphasizing the intersections of race, class, and gender issues in their writing, they highlight the troubled identity of women while imagining mechanisms for shattering the constraints of low political representation, pervasive stereotypes, and the presence of Brazil’s mulatto ideal. By way of literary assertions, these women create an immortalized place for themselves within the present and the future. However, one must not assume that the writings of Afro-Brazilian women exist isolated from other Black women who inhabit the remainder of the Afro-Lusophone postcolonial polity. Boyce Davies notes an important consideration in understanding the diasporic writing of Black women, one that is vital to understanding the interconnectedness of Black women’s writing across the Afro-Lusophone postcolonial polity:
It is the convergence of multiple places and cultures that renegotiates the terms of Black women’s experience that in turn negotiates and renegotiates their identities…Black women’s writing, I am proposing, should be read as a series of boundary crossings and not as a fixed, geographical, ethnically or nationally bound category of writing.
Furthermore, in what she defines as the “politics of place,” Boyce takes into consideration the different factors that intersect in space, marginalization and separation, and the matter of political inequality. This politic:
…brings forward a whole host of identifications and associations around concepts of place, placement, displacement; location, dislocation…citizenship, alienness; boundaries, barriers…It is about positionality in society based on class, gender, sexuality, age, income. It is about relationality and the ways in which one is able to access, mediate or reposition oneself…
Critical investigations of the concept of space have noted the multiplicity of its meanings, revealing that space is in fact an intersection of economic, social, and historical factors: “…a fragmentary field of action, a jurisdiction scattered and deranged, which appears to be negotiable or continuous but is actually peppered with chasms of economic and cultural disjunctions.” Carolina Maria de Jesus exemplifies the manner with which Afro-Brazilian women’s prose transgresses place and time, while creating a space for their own imaginaries. I momentarily focus her employment of metaphor and symbol as her literary tools of resistance and drafting Afro-futuristic imaginaries. De Jesus not only uses writing as an escape from the limited future that awaited her, but is also able to combat patriarchal constructions of Black female subjectivity in order to show dissidence. I examine her publication of Child of the Dark, in which she declares through the Portuguese title (the diary of a favelada) that her identity is intimately linked to the space she occupies. While fighting for survival in the slums of Caninde, São Palo with her three children, de Jesus recognized the material and symbolic importance of writing. Written from an autobiographical standpoint, the diary manifests from her 1955 decision to concentrate her efforts on writing a diary of her life in the favela. A favela is Portuguese term meaning slum; or a Brazilian shack,shantytown. The act of drafting literary imaginings of her own livelihood, and that of those also living in favelas, is revolutionary in how it frames her womanhood and self worth as an Afro-Brazilian woman in context of Brazil’s seemingly immutable class disparities. In the following excerpt, de Jesus uses two contrasting spaces as metaphors for her historically and culturally determined identity and the future identity she wishes to have:
When I am in the city I have the impression that I am in a living room with crystal chandeliers, rigs of velvet, and satin cushions. And when I’m in the favela I have the impression that I’m a useless object, destined to be forever in a garbage dump…That includes me too, because I’m also a favelado. I’m one of the discarded. I’m in the garbage dump and those in the garbage dump either burn themselves or throw themselves into ruin.
Within her literary imaginary, the favela is manipulated to become more than a physical entity; it becomes a mental and emotional space that she uses to participate in acts of resistance. Utilizing the favela, juxtaposed by the glamour and luxury of more protected and valued spaces, de Jesus is able to explain the ways in which her identity has been shaped in relation to the poverty and hopelessness that surrounds her. Simultaneously, her words are used to depict a longing for a self-determined future, while critiquing the social conditions that aim to define her future for her. The spatial differences she incorporates highlight the relationship between her geographic and psychological orientation. Her prose showcases the ability of Afro-Brazilian woman writers to propel forth self-determined identities and dreams of futures in which their existences are liberated and no longer laden with the limitations of gendered, racial, and class-based oppressions. Even in its posthumous existence, her words act as a residing critique of the inequality ingrained within Brazilian postcolonial society and as a framework from which other contemporary Afro-Lusophone female writers, in Brazil and the remainder of the Afro-Lusophone postcolonial polity, can draw inspiration as they create their own imaginaries. The state of existence that de Jesus speaks to extends itself as a common reality for an overwhelming amount of Afro-Brazilian women. Entrenched in discrimination, survival for the average Black woman in Brazil is not an easy feat. In the following excerpt, de Jesus voices her discontent at the exploitation she suffered as a poor Afro-Brazilian woman and the institutionalized inability to find stability and economic autonomy within Brazil’s unequal societal framework. She writes these reflections after briefly relocating to a farm and realizing the pervasiveness of economic inequality in Brazil:
That’s why I say that the suppliers of residents for the slums are the rich and the farmers…when harvest-time [approaches], the farmer kicks the farmhand off the land and keeps the crops and doesn’t pay the farmhand anything…In my opinion, slavery had merely diminished a little bit…Those who should have revolted and who should revolt are we, who are the poor, who work without improving our quality of life, we only earn amounts that don’t cover our needs. We have to stay semi-literate because higher education is only with the reach of the powerful.
In this excerpt, de Jesus reveals an understanding of the foundation of an agricultural system that is based on the institutional oppression of a group, resulting in an economic dependence and instability. She position herself in that group of poor Brazilians, further asserting the intersectionality between race, class, and gender in her existence within the Brazilian postcolonial state. Ultimately de Jesus voices a longing for a Brazil that is for all Brazilians, regardless of any qualifier. These hopes birth an Afro-futuristic imaginary free of marginalization, but rooted in equality.
In Daphne Patai’s Brazilian Women Speak, she presents an ontological compilation of varying experiences for women living in Brazil. Having received her PhD in contemporary Brazilian literature and a current professor emeritus in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Patai offers a synthesized view of the multiplicity of life histories for twenty Brazilian women of different races, social classes, and lifestyles. The publication ventures spatially from the traditionally agrarian and patriarchal Northeast to the more industrialized and modernized city of Rio de Janeiro. Although the life histories included in her book do not exclusively follow those of Black women, Patai describes her book as being about “ordinary Brazilian women- domestic servants, secretaries, factory workers, nuns, hairdressers, prostitutes, seamstresses, students, business women, homemakers; single, married, divorced, and widowed Black and white and many in between; prepubescent and postmenopausal; rich and poor.” In 1981, Patai began her work of highlighting the stories of women much like de Jesus, who are rendered abject and invisible to Brazilian society. Though she uses the word ordinary to describe the women she interviewed, Patai reminds readers that ordinary is not synonymous with insignificant, further asserting that “there are no pointless lives, and there are no pointless life stories…[just those that] we have not (yet) bothered to consider and whose revelations (including at times, those of staggering ordinariness) therefore remain hidden from our view.” Patai’s interviews point to the importance of oral storytelling as a tool for marginalized women, who may not have the privilege of literacy or the outlet of a pen and paper, to also speak to their lived truths of survival and resistance. In writing down their stories- emotive, critical, and reflective- Patai integrates them into the collective movement of literary resistance. Patai posits that for women like Teresa, one of her interviewees who worked as a washerwoman and inhabited a favela in Recife, the interview represented a grasp at agency and a “momentary escape from the usual confines of her life, a link with the larger world, a symbolic rise in status.” There is something revolutionary and powerful about thoughts written down, immortalized and disseminated for all to read. They transcend time and place, but unify shared experiences under a collective resistance to Brazil’s “official” histories that erase narratives that clash with the Lusotropicalist empire of thought.
Imprisoned by social demands, women strive to escape through the power of artistic creation. The resistance and strength echoed within the prose of Afro-Brazilian women writers, and other female writers in the Afro-Lusophone postcolonial polity situates the struggle of the Black women at the forefront of developing a more egalitarian Brazilian society, a liberated postcolonial existence, and securing Afro-futuristic realities across the entire Afro-Lusophone postcolonial polity. Within their words, these women weaponize their thoughts as a means for combatting the racism, sexism, and classism they encounter in their daily lives. Their literary resistance speaks to the strength in their struggle and the impact of their stories in deconstructing colonial legacies, while positioning Black women as the breeders and nurturers of a better future.
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