I saw men throw sacks of rice into the river. They threw dried codfish, cheese and sweets. How I envied the fish who didn’t work that lived better than I
It is almost an irrefutable proof that those fish lived a better life than Carolina Maria de Jesus. A mother of three children living in a Sao Paulo favela in the fifties who escaped from her torrid daily life by writing, and who kept a diary over five years that was serialised in a newspaper and is collected in this compact, yet extraordinary book.
Despite only two years of education Carolina has a simplistic beauty in her writing. Unhindered by form or convention she delivers her daily life in a matter of fact yet powerful way. I often found myself asking if I could survive such a life while reading it.
The diary is seemingly optimistic in 1955 where we meet Carolina at first, but towards the end of the diary Carolina has become more fatalistic, although she never slips under. Her children and writing provide a literal life raft for her to cling to, while her own hope and appreciation of the small mercies that life throws us are enough to keep her going.
She paints a poor picture of the favelaedos, whose contemporary reputation is one of poor but intensely community focused people. Here they are violent, gossiping alcoholics who have no shame, often fighting with young children or fornicating in front of them. Very few seem to have the same conscience that Carolina does, although thanks to her incredible will power, Carolina does not succumb to drink or drugs during her years in the favela that contribute almost all the impetus to the slide into oblivion that affects many of her community.
I cursed her under my breath. If I am pregnant it’s not your business. I can’t stand these favela women, they want to know everything. Their tongues are like chicken feet. Scratching at everything.
Perhaps more poignant than the diary is Carolina’s own life after publication. She moves to a brick house, mentioned so often as her children’s dream in the diary, however she soon loses or gives away her hard won royalties and eventually ends up picking up paper again on the streets to survive. After publication she was denounced by the Brazilian Cultural elite, and as Robert Levine indicates, no one tried to understand her.
When a state senator appeared with flashbulbs popping, Carolina wrote in his book: “I hope that you give the poor people what they need and stop putting all the tax money into your own pocket, sincerely, Carolina Maria de Jesus.
She was unrefined, and with an all too honest tongue, Carolina shone a light on a dark part of society that everyone was trying to ignore. There was no outcry when Carolina was found back picking up paper, she had merely returned back to where she belonged.
Now it’s different, but there is recognition of what an extraordinary woman Carolina Maria de Jesus was. Reading her diary she points out flaws in society and politics with a perceptive bluntness of someone just outside the fringes, for that reason alone she should be required reading for any aspiring politician. But Carolina is more than that, she is an incredibly strong woman who did everything she could to better her life and that of her children, telling a very human story that resonates as much today as it did in the sixties.
I bore the weight of the sack on my head and the weight of Vera Eunice in my arms. Sometimes it makes me angry. Then I get ahold of myself. She’s not guilty because she’s in the world.
I reflected: I’ve got to be tolerant with my children. They don’t have anyone in the world but me.