“Child of the Dark: The Diary Of Carolina Maria De Jesus” by Carolina Maria de Jesus – Translated from the Portuguese by David St. Claire

Child of the Dark

A spectacular diary penned by a virtually unlettered woman in a Brazilian slum. The language is raw and unrefined – and so are the emotions. Carolina was black, an unwed mother of three, a garbage-picker and ultimately a dreamer, who desperately wanted to write. And write she did. “The book is man’s best invention so far,” she says. (It needed a woman of the slums to say this.)

Carolina salvaged scraps of paper from garbage dumps and fashioned her diary. One day in 1958 a Sao Paulo reporter visiting the favela (slum) was astonished to hear a feisty black woman screaming at a group of men, “If you continue mistreating these children, I’m going to mention all your names in my book!” He got talking with Carolina. Later he convinced his editor to serialize the diary. The book emerged soon thereafter.

“Never had a book such an impact on Brazil,” says the translator. “In three days the first printing of 10,000 copies was sold out in Sao Paulo alone. In less than six months 90,000 copies were sold in Brazil…”

Carolina left no subject untouched. Religion, politics, philosophy, economics, sociology, racism, gender, human rights, man-woman relationships, parenting, animals, and even reincarnation are intricately women into the narrative. Here are some excerpts:

  • I am so used to garbage cans that I don’t know how to pass one without having to see what is inside.
  • 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. How sad is the condition of a woman alone without a man at home.
  • Father’s Day. What a ridiculous day!
  • Brazil needs to be led by a person who has known hunger. Hunger is also a teacher. Who has gone hungry learns to think of the future and of the children.
  • I wonder if the poor of other countries suffer like the poor of Brazil.
  • I wonder if God knows the favelas exist and that the favelados are hungry?
  • The daze of hunger is worse than that of alcohol. The daze of alcohol makes us sing but the one of hunger makes us shake. I know how horrible it is to have only air in the stomach.
  • What they (favela children) can find in the streets they eat. Banana peels, melon rind, and even pineapple husks. Anything that is too tough to chew, they grind.
  • The white man says he is superior. But what superiority does he show? If the Negro drinks pinga, the white drinks. The sickness that hits the black hits the white. If the white feels hunger so does the Negro. Nature hasn’t picked any favourites.
  • If reincarnation exists, I want to come back black.
  • The cat is a wise one. She doesn’t have any deep loves and doesn’t let anyone make a slave of her. And when she goes away she never comes back, proving that she has a mind of her own.
  • The publishers in Brazil don’t print what I write because I’m poor and haven’t got any money to pay them. That’s why I’m going to send my novels to the United States.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.” Carolina was among the star-gazers – penniless, but with oodles of enthusiasm. She was not bogged down by poverty but battled the odds and clung to her dreams. She was illegitimate and so was her mother. She left home in search of work and ended up in the favela when she was pregnant. Her three children were fathered by white men of three different nationalities. The luxury of sentiment was not for her. When her daughter says, “Mama, sell me to Dona Julita because she has delicious food,” what could Carolina do but record it in her diary?

The book’s success enabled Carolina to buy a brick house and move out of the favela that had been her home for 12 long years. But her children were ostracized by the new neighbours and life continued to be difficult. Carolina wrote four more books but they did not sell. She had to sell her house and revert to her familiar life on the streets. When she died in 1977, a favela neighbour paid for her casket. She left behind 40 notebooks.

Carolina was the only Brazilian woman of colour to leave a written testimony of her struggles. That she could write at all was nothing short of a miracle.

Overall Assessment: Like a diamond solitaire emerging from a garbage dump, this book surely stands out.

Child of the Dark: The Diary Of Carolina Maria De Jesus
AUTHOR: Carolina Maria de Jesus TRANSLATOR: David St. Claire
PUBLISHER: Penguin
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1962 (First published in Portuguese in 1960)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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