How one of Brazil’s most dangerous urban centres became a hub of art and poetry
Sao Paulo, Brazil – Like many new megacities, the centre of Sao Paulo is ringed by an enormous, sprawling, urban mass.
Makeshift homes of red breeze blocks, hand-poured concrete steps and thick spools of telegraph wire dripping dangerously from street corners are the work of the millions of immigrants who came to the city for work over the past few decades. Finding nowhere to live, they began to build homes for themselves on the periphery of the city.
These handmade neighbourhoods, initially without running water, electricity and sewage, have, over the years, developed reputations for crime, violence and hard-living.
“There have been many problems. Violent floodings, steep hills and fragile soils. Irregular settlements with rural roads became inadequate avenues. Big social housing projects became ghettos. There was no mass landscape till the early 2000s. There’s very few green areas and no space for trees on the narrow streets. And no jobs. The violence is a result of all this precariousness,” explains Mauricio Feijo, an urbanist who has worked extensively in Sao Paulo’s periphery.
Locals call it as margins, the margins. It is a loaded term.
In Brazil, marginal also means criminal and those from the periphery are often labelled as such when, in fact, their only crime is being from poor, difficult places.
But the literary movement, Literatura Marginal, or Literature of the Margins, is seeking to change this perception of the periphery. To be from the periphery, to survive, to create, in a climate of poverty and injustice, they say, is something heroic.
Bottles of beer, the audience and the poets
One of the most historically violent districts of the periphery is Jardim Angela, in the south of the City.
Throughout the 2000s Jardim Angela had the most homicides of any neighbourhood in Sao Paulo. It had another spike in violence in 2014, with 31 registered murders between January and August.
At the gateway to this district is the bar, Bar do Ze, which, for many, is the centre of Literatura Marginal.
It seems, at first, like an average Sao Paulo hangout; wooden beer tables, football trophies displayed on a shelf, cheesy breads and deep-fried snacks for sale. Crates of beer are stacked up ready for the freezer – it’s hot here and locals like their drinks ice-cold.
But what is unusual about this bar is its extensive library. Among books on grammar and the sexual revolution are translations of Tolstoy and Darwin. Worn-out Brazilian paperbacks vie for space with some of the world’s great thinkers; Montaigne, Kant, Descartes and Hegel.
Bar do Ze hosts the poetry event Cooperifa every Tuesday evening between 8pm and 10pm.
It feels more like a festival then a meeting of writers. The crowd is huge, spilling out of the bar and on to the street, where vendors sell popcorn, dream catchers and native jewellery.
Inside, sitting around tables strewn with bottles of beer, the audience and the poets mix.
A grey-haired old man with a beard and black felt cap recites poetry about the backlands to teenagers in baseball caps, baggy jeans and football shirts.
Two old ladies in pressed blouses, their hair tied back in neat white braids, sit, lips pursed in concentration, ;istening to a 12-year old reading out his haiku, a short poem.
Young women listen to kids rapping hip-hop inspired, beat-box poetry, perching toddlers on their knees and feeding them escondido, the bar’s speciality dish of dried meat and mashed potato.
School kids with rucksacks and fluorescent trainers line the stairs, waiting to support their friend’s first time in front of the mike. Like everyone, the boy gets a cheer when he comes to the front of the bar. But it’s not enough for the compere, standing at the front, dressed lavishly in an African print jumpsuit and bright headscarf. “Come on people,” she says. “We can do better that that. We are different. We are favela!”
Whoops and cries and cheers go up.
Although the poetry recited here is often about violence, problems with police, family and drugs, there is a tangible sense of pride in their neighbourhood.
Ermildo Panzo, a poet from Angola, who has worked throughout Africa and Latin America, says this is the first time he has seen such excitement for poetry in the continent.
“I’ve been to Panama, Cancun, Cuba. These events do not exist, poetry is something closed-off. These evenings are more like what I have seen in Uganda,” he explains.
Panzo believes that, like Samba, the Sao Paulo poetry events, called saraus, are African-influenced, a response to oppression that has its roots in the time of slavery.
“The people who left Africa to come to … Brazil, to the sugar cane farms, would form circles, one would talk and then another, and then another,” he says.
The contemporary founder of Sao Paulo’s Literatura Marginal movement is often said to be the novelist and activist, Ferrez.
His acclaimed first novel, Capão Pecado, published in 2001, uses hip-hop, street-influenced language to recount local life and won accolades from critics as well as locals.
He can usually be found in his neighbourhood of Capão Redondo, not far from Bar do Ze, in his shop dedicated to selling periphery fashion; baseball caps, trainers, spray cans and T-shirts exclaiming ‘I love Capão Redondo’.
Dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and baseball cap, Ferrez looks like a typical local, although his pursuit of writing made him a target of ridicule for years.
“At first people here rejected me; they threw stones when they saw me walking with a book in my hands. From 1995 to 2000 I worked hard to be recognised, showing my texts to people here. They were surprised there was a writer in the neighbourhood – they thought it was strange because no one reads. People discredited me and laughed about it. Even I didn’t believe I could be a writer, but I did it because I liked it. And not having any writer round here, I thought we needed one.”
‘I write literature of the margins’
Walking through Capao Redondo today, Ferrez is greeted warmly. His books are widely read, and he’s a respected figure in the neighbourhood – and the city – invited to run workshops in the community and in schools. He thinks the reason for his success is that people can identify themselves in the stories he tells.
“When I was younger I would go into second-hand bookshops but I never found a book that was like me. I was looking for a book that talks about the problems of today, like drink driving a motorbike, crashing a car, dating a girl,” he says.
“I started writing these things and people found themselves in the book. They read it and thought, ‘Oh that’s like me – meeting a girl in a playground instead of a hotel’.
“Most Brazilian literature is just make-believe and fantasy. It makes me sick to read a book describing life on Copacabana beach. How can anyone here afford to get on an aeroplane and stay on Copacabana beach where a hotel costs 5,000 reals a day? This kind of thing puts people off reading. It’s not that they don’t want to read, it’s that they don’t find anything that speaks to them,” he adds.
It was while being interviewed about his first book, that Ferrez first came up with the label Literatura Marginal.
“People would ask me, what kind of writer are you? Are you contemporary? I said, no, I write literature of the margins. The rivers from the margins are the ones that go to fill the main river. After this the term became strong and other writers started to say that they were from Literatura Marginal too. We created a literary magazine for the periphery with drawings and cool designs, to catch the attention of people who weren’t reading yet.”
The magazine galvanised marginal writers into a group and now this combination of pride, anger and observation of life on the streets of the periphery has overtaken established literature in popularity. Saraus such as Cooperifa take place every night of the week, all over the city, packed with audiences that poet Dirceu Villa says he could never compete with.
‘If I organise an event in the centre of Sao Paulo, I’ll have about six people attending, if I’m lucky. You go to the periferia, organise a poetry reading and they’ll be 300 people, a packed event,” he says.
There is now even a bookshop dedicated solely to Literatura Marginal, run by the writer Alessandro Buzo. On a typical night in his bookshop, Suburban Convict, you can find a bass player and a drummer playing along to poems for a crowd of tourists, locals and dedicated writers.
Unusually for a poetry evening, much of the audience at the bookshop is young men, some in baggy jeans and baseball caps, some with dreadlocks and Bob Marley T-shirts.
A former prisoner explains how he is taking poetry into jails and the positive effect this is having on the youths inside.
Buzo, a cheerful, charismatic man and a former drug addict, claims he was reformed through literature and says that poetry of the peripheria appeals to young men on the street because of its close relation to hip-hop and local groups such as MC Racionais. It was through music, as opposed to reading, that Buzo was inspired to write.
“It was hip-hop that talked about my life. In Brazil hip-hop is about protest and is born of protest, society, politics, looking at what is around you. I tried to do the same in literature,” Buzo says.
“I started thinking about the train I took every day. It was terrible, old, crowded. When it rained, water would come inside. I spent a long time on that train and wrote a story called Railroad, Naked and Raw. I sent it to the train company but didn’t hear back from them, so I sent it to the media. They didn’t respond, so I printed off 50 copies and went to the last carriage of the train, where everyone smokes weed, and gave it out.
“I didn’t think they’d respond either but people liked it. It spoke about their own experience. They talked about it for days afterwards and said why don’t you write a book?”
Because of the example of men like Buzo and Ferrez, the shelves of Suburban Convict are now full of books from the periphery. But there are those from the margins who say they are still not able to write – or read – about their own experience: the women.
‘I was from a favela and I was black and I was poor’
Elizandra Sondra is a poet and a journalist. Tall and young, with a large smile and elegantly braided hair, she has just edited and released a collection of 22 female periphery poets.
She explained that the book came about as an attempt to redress the bias which Elizandra saw against women in the Literatura Marginal movement.
“Women are rarely invited to join in with poetry debates, or at discussions. When I was invited to speak, I’d be the only woman, and I’d end up covering questions about both black writing and women’s writing which would really, really annoy me. So I began to organise this collection of black women’s poetry.
“In Literatura Marginal women have a big battle. The saraus are mostly organised in bars, which, culturally, are places that only men go. Women who hang around bars are seen as loose, sluttish. We’ve broken that down now, but there’s still the question of violence against women. This affects women from all classes, but the women from the periphery have to fight against the stigma of the eroticised body which comes from the time of slavery, when the body of the black woman was a body to be used, not to have affection for. This is a theme that comes up a lot in our writing.
“Literatura Marginal is trying to propose change and a new society but often with machismo protagonists, and we want to change that.”
Tula Pilar is one of the few women who has been reading her poetry out around the periphery for more than 15 years. At Sarau de Binho, one of the oldest periphery poetry events, her son, who began coming with her to saraus when he was just six years old, now stands beside her reading out hip-hop lyrics.
Pilar, dressed in a dramatic head-dress, performs poetry from the mouth of her alter-ego, Carolina Maria de Jesus. Maria de Jesus was a female writer whose diary about life in a Sao Paulo favela became a bestseller in 1960. She is a hero for Pilar because she was a woman writing against the preconceptions of those who lived around her.
Pilar believes one of the biggest battle for all writers from the periphery today – male and female – is still to break away from preconceptions of what it means to be a Marginal. Before becoming a writer Pilar was a cleaner, and she says that the literary establishment judges writers from the periphery in the same way that she was judged by her wealthy employees when she cleaned for them.
“I worked in fine houses and had access to good books and literature …. When they saw I was reading they would say you’ve come here to clean, not to read. They would be shocked by the kind of books I read. They found it absurd and would say that I couldn’t understand it because I was from a favela and I was black and I was poor. But then I started going to the saraus in the periphery and I started to write.”
Now an established poet, Pilar says the literary establishment wants to diminish the achievements of the movement
“I want to tell them to stop being idiots. I think it’s b*******, to want to diminish us. We are different and we have different qualities. We are in another time from that of the literary classics. I think writers need to accept that times have changed. Literature from the periphery is modern. Stop the preconceptions. Our peripheral literature is not smaller, it is not inferior,” she says.
The father of Literatura Marginal, Ferrez, says there are now writers from the periphery who try to distance themselves from the movement in an attempt to be taken seriously by critics and a wider public and who don’t want to be known as being from the margins. But he’s proud of where he comes from and proud to be from the movement. He is fighting through his writing for the many things that have to change before the enormous plain of urban sprawl that is the periphery becomes a decent place to live in and shakes off its reputation for crime and violence.
“The neighbourhood has grown over the years, but we still don’t have good infrastructure. The city centre is far away, the good doctors are far away as well and we have many difficulties with transport. Millions of people still don’t have access to services. We don’t want to become elite or middle-class. We don’t want to become a******* living in apartment blocks, only buying things in shopping centres. We just want people to have access to basic things,” he says.
But can literature really change life for the millions that live in Sao Paulo’s periphery? Ferrez believes so. He says that one of the major improvements in the periphery over recent years has been in people’s mindsets. Elizandra Souza agrees.
“The periphery is a different place to what it was 16 years ago. When you look at my generation there is pride. When you talk to the older poets it was different,” she says.
Souza and Ferrez both believe this change has come about, in part, through the Literatura Marginal movement, which has galvanised people and educated them.
‘Literature changes, it renews. I know people that went to university and they say that they only did it because of my book. Others say they started treating their wife properly because they read one of my books. What I believe is that you are not going to read a book and be the same. Literature adds to you and I think that people here are understanding this,” Ferrez says.
“In this neighbourhood we are discovering a new culture which is our own. We are not seeking out culture in the centre, from the establishment. Literature serves to open the mind, open a person’s brain and after this people can do what they want. Improvements are coming because people are running after them and fighting for them.”
Sozinha desço da lotação
a rua vazia e deserta
ofegante, até o vento me assusta
tropeço nas próprias pernas
perco a linha do horizonte
na imensidão do caminho
minha casa nem vejo de tão distante
a cada passo que dou
rezo o Pai-Nosso que estais no céu
embaralho com a Ave-Maria
e junto com o Creio em Deus Pai
eu apelo para o Anjo que me guarda
desespero-me olhando a lua
valei meu São Jorge!
Passam correndo na minha mente
as cenas de violência
eu tento expulsa-las.
Penso no meu dia!
Meu cachorro late
Enfim, temendo abro o portão.
Cheguei em casa, venci mais uma missão.
Dropped off by the bus alone
The road empty and deserted
Panting, even the wind scares me
I trip over my own legs
Lose the line of the horizon
In the immensity of the road
My house is so far I can’t see it
With each step that I take
I pray the Our Father who art in heaven
Mix it with the Hail Mary
And together with the Creed
I appeal to my guardian angel,
Looking at the moon makes me desperate
Help me Saint George!
They pass running in my mind,
The scenes of violence
I try to get rid of them
I think of my day!
My dog barks,
Finally, afraid, I open the gate.
I got home, I won one more mission.
Source: Al Jazeera
Elizandra Souza. Poema publicado no Livro Punga. Co-autoria de Akins Kinte. Edições Toró, 2007. Pág. 32.
Trans. Kathleen McCaul Moura