Valdeck Almeida de Jesus's Memorial do Inferno: A Saga da Família Almeida no Jardim do Éden, now thankfully translated into English, is a moving memoir of the author's youth, upbringing and early adulthood in his native Bahia. De Jesus's account is important for many reasons, but one of the most significant is its novelty: it is perhaps the first such work of its kind, a nonfictional, autobiographical narrative, written and published in Brazil, by a self-identified black, gay, and working-class Brazilian. It consequently occupies a keystone place at the point where Brazilian, black, LGBTQ and working-class literary traditions intersect.
Novelty of topic, however, is only one noteworthy aspect of Memorial do Inferno: it is a vibrant and affecting narrative that does not stint in its portrayal of the struggles—and the attendant joy—that the political and social marginalization and oppression, in the forms of poverty, racism and classism, have imposed upon the vast majority of Brazil's people. The journey that de Jesus makes over his 42 years is one of increasing self-realization, self-knowledge, and self-empowerment. Memorial do Inferno is, then, a work of self-fashioning, in which a young man from a large and impoverished family living in Jequié, in the rural interior of Bahia, one of Brazil's best known and populous states, as well as the one with the largest percentage population of African-descendant people, manages to overcome the odds arrayed against him, eventually pursuing studies for a while in nursing and letters at a state university, before moving to the 450-year-old metropolis and first Brazilian capital of Salvador da Bahia, "the Black Rome." One there, de Jesus is able to further his education, mature into adulthood, and launch his literary career, one of whose achievements is this book.
The contours of de Jesus's story, whose parallels can be found throughout the annals of literature, are universal. The particularities of his experience, however, are his own, and crucial, given the national literary context, to establishing the memoir's singularity. Brazil's literary traditions span more than 500 years, making them among the oldest in the Americas. Over that period, however, the presence and prominence of African-descendant writers, especially before the late 19th century, has been relatively low, despite the fact that Brazil has had and continues to possess the largest population of people of African descent outside of continental Africa. This stands in contrast, for example, to the United States's literary traditions, to which black writers have made significant contributions since the 18th century and within which they have cumulatively created an internationally recognized literature. In his study Race and Color in Brazilian Literature, David Brookshaw attributes the Brazilian situation to several factors, identifying one of the most important as the absence of overt racial and ethnic segregation in Brazil, unlike in the US, where legalized segregation and oppression over centuries has had the effect of fostering political, social and cultural solidarity and autonomy for black Americans, with one of the results being an autonomous black literature (Brookshaw, 1986, 175-176). Brookshaw also notes that in Brazil, the related concept of "racial democracy" has been mobilized to downplay or hide racism, racial supremacy and the attendant ideology of social and cultural "whitening" (branqueamento), and structural racial discrimination, all of which have combined to disadvantage Afrobrazilians in political, economic and social terms, with the result that the absence or exclusion of black writers did not provoke much commentary, including from some of Brazil's most important African-descendant writers, such as the late 19th century literary titan Machado de Assis, until this century. While black writers are now recognized participants in the development Brazil's literary traditions, their prominence relative to the size of the Brazilian African-descendant population remains small.
With Brazilian queer literature, which emerged as a distinct category in the latter half of the 20th century (though one of the foundational texts in this tradition, Bom Crioulo, by Adolfo Caminha, appeared as far back as 1895, and a mixed-race queer writer like Mário de Andrade played a foundational role in 20th century Brazilian Modernism), specifically during the period of the political opening, or abertura, in the latter years of the military dictatorship (1978-1984), the absence of African-descendant writers is conspicuous. In his discussion of the writings of the late Gaúcho writer, Caio Fernando Abreu, critic Fernando Arenas lists the important male Brazilian prose writers and poets who have dealt overtly with homosexual or bisexual themes. A study of his list reveals that only a few of these writers, such as the poet Valdo Motta, are black or of self-identified African descent (Arenas, in Canty Quinlan and Arenas, 2002, p. 235). It is probably adequate to say for now, though the situation will certainly change, that the pool of texts in all genres by out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Brazilian people of African descent remains small, for many of the same reasons as those detailed above, with the added factors of gender and sexuality.
An additional factor that should not be overlooked is class: De Jesus's narrative makes clear his family's and his own financial difficulties, the hell of poverty and purgatory of marginality, and he goes some way towards situating these facts within the larger historical and social contexts of Brazilian life touched upon above. De Jesus's memoir thus fills a gap in terms of Brazilian writing, giving voice to those who have not been listened to before; the book's social and political impact, then, mirror its evident aesthetic achievement.
I want to register a final note, which is that the first portion of the book's Portuguese title loses a little something in English: Memorial do Inferno literally translates to "Memorial of the Inferno," but the "memorial" signifies both a commemoration, with the various resonances of that term, of a life passed (successfully) and perhaps past, and simultaneously invokes, I think, its English cognate, the genre of "memoir," or a nonfictional, textual remembering, a piecing together. The text, in both its Portuguese original and English translation, possesses aspects of both these connotations, echoing in prose form de Jesus's elegiac volume of poetry, Heartache Poems: A Brazilian Gay Man Coming Out from the Closet, which he published in 2004 in English first, to expand his potential readership. (It was through this volume that I first came to know his work.) The "inferno" of the title brings to mind not only Judeo-Christian theology and Dante's masterwork, but also translates more broadly and figuratively as "hell," a term which de Jesus inflects throughout the book.
The ultimate note one leaves with, however, is not of the hellish, of suffering or pain, but of personal triumph. These are the life notes of a lover of knowledge, of the arts, of life itself, who has transformed the difficulties of his past into the foundation on which he is building his future. Or to quote de Jesus's poem from the Heartbreak volume, "I Am Nothing": "I am not so small after all."
Almeida de Jesus, Valdeck. Heartache Poems: A Brazilian Gay Man Coming Out from the Closet. New York: iUniverse, 2004.
Brookshaw, David. Race and Color in Brazilian Literature. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, NJ, 1986.
Canty Quinlan, Susan and Fernando Arenas, editors. Lusosex: Gender and Sexuality in the Portuguese-Speaking World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
González Echeverría, Roberto and Enrique Pupo-Walker. The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Vol. 3: Brazilian Literature, Bibliographies. Edited by Roberto González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo-Walker. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Green, James. Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-century Brazil. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999.
John Keene is an author and translator, and Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at Northwestern University.
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