our black lives

Juan Miró, Woman and Bird, Joan Miró Park, Barcelona.
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By HELENA TABATCHNIK*

Postface to the recently released book by Cristiane Macedo

Cristiane Macedo's debut novel, an apparently unpretentious narrative about the lives of black and poor people in Brazil, deserves to be hailed as an event - as it once was City of God, by Paulo Lins. Both are similar in subject matter, but not in focus.

In Cristiane Macedo's book, the narrator/main character will be a woman, daughter, wife and mother. Born in a flooded favela, the last of six children, she will narrate the social gaps produced by slavery, as she turns to her own mother's story; the social violence reproduced at home, through the eyes of the little girl she was; the tragedies of the surroundings that are limited to the neighbors, but that expand sharply by the awareness of the social structure that produces exclusion and misery; the various evictions and the social descent below the poverty line – and then further down in shacks where the rain enters from top to bottom and the river from bottom to top; studying, dating, prison marriage and children.

“I wanted to tell about trips, parties, reunions in other states, about going to the theater and bumping into famous people on the street or in cafes. (...)

But I spent a large part of my life trying not to die from a gunshot, hunger or any disease that is common among the hungry.

And even today, when it could be less bad, the ghosts of my mind do not let me go far”.

The book begins like this, addressing those who do not know this story, a story without records or a listening place: a “pain that has a history, but has no readers”. Our narrator does not belong to the middle class, as does the writer, and therefore we should not expect the same kind of experience from her. She is among the hungry and demands that the reader commit to listening to terrifying stories - stories that we are not used to hearing, not least because they speak more about ourselves than we would probably be willing to admit. And it will no longer be a beautiful story of overcoming difficulties, the kind that bring water to the mill of meritocracy.

The narrative is autobiographical and Cristiane assertively warns that she belongs to this place, which she has always tried to escape, but without which she also cannot recognize herself. She survived “without enough or what was necessary”.

“Like a dog that the mother took to raise when we moved to Santana de Parnaíba. It was an all black mutt.

Funny how poor people love to adopt dogs, especially the stray ones. It's a kind of class solidarity, I think. (...)

Rex lived for about two years on a leash. My mother thought it would make him mad. But she made him sad.

And when he got sick, lacking the basics, I let him off the leash so he could walk around the yard. And every path he took was the lead to which he was no longer tied.

I think I'm like Rex. Even when conditions ceased to be extreme, of hunger and other deprivations, I did not manage to go much further than my chains and social guides conditioned me”.

I believe that this passage significantly figures out the duality in which the novel will function: who is known to be people, and also knows that they are less people; who knows things and understands perfectly how the social structure works, and was also marked by the lack of everything; who was born without chains, but restricted to the perimeter of ancestral chains; of those who want to get out of the mud, and don't know if they can; who comes out of the mud and is constantly thrown back to “their place”; of the very fine narrator with sophisticated writing who still cannot believe that this place is given to her.

In this duality, enters the impossible sum of everything that was taken from him and everything that was conquered – because the subtractions never cease. Cristiane tells us about the girl who learned to read with two coordinates from her older brother, but who was the last in the class to have that opportunity and, meanwhile, pretended to follow the reading in the classroom. From the talented and competent student she never received a compliment because the teachers suspected that what she wrote was not hers; from the father who came, she acted in a predatory way, and then returned to a warm place that was not given to the wife or children.

Yet the narrator, steeped in class and racial consciousness, makes no concessions to the idealization of poverty. Coming from the bottom of the Buraco Fundo hole, she knows that the social abyss paved by the dictatorship in the 70s and 80s made it impossible to synthesize the two worlds in which she timidly transits. And she also knows that the miserable, the outcasts and the survivors are not better human beings. Dehumanized by hunger, violence and the lack of everything, they tend to reproduce the torture and sadism of the slave culture, as their older sister did with four younger ones while their mother “slept on the job” all week.

“Complicated because in Neneu's little room we couldn't stay. We were staying, we couldn't talk. And talking was a reason for Cristina to punch some tissue in our throats – and she would hit, hit. With everything she could.

And when the welts bleed, she would put me in the tank with water and salt. It was always cold.

Then there was the cold and the welts and the salt. He had the cloth around his throat too. And the fear.

So we preferred the street”.

And they also tend to reproduce class distinctions, even if they are between those who eat and those who are hungry; between wood and raw cement.

The periphery is not a meritocrat. She is a slave owner and has a high degree of psychopathy.

As in the unforgettable tale by Machado de Assis, the brutalities of the master's house towards the slave quarters are democratically replicated among all our social relations. In the secret cause, Fortunato, the lucky one, tortures the animals that pass in his way and even his own wife. However, if there we witness the overflow of blood from the slave quarters to the main house, here we witness the same blood seeping into the damp subsoil – where even today the descendants of slaves are confined. It's Brazil we're talking about. As in Francisco Alvim's poem,

"Want to see?

Listening"

*Helena Tabatchnik is a writer, author of Everything I thought but didn't say last night / Of love and other brutalities (Nankin, 2021).

Reference


Cristiane Macedo. our black lives. São Paulo, Publisher Deconcerts, 2021.

 

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