Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Famous Brazilian diaries

Virago Press has just re-published, in the UK, the Brazilian diary of a young girl from the mid-1890s - The Diary of Helena Morley - but it retains a translation made by Elizabeth Bishop, a famous American poet, over 50 years ago. Bishop’s introduction says the diary contains scenes that are ‘odd, remote and long ago, and yet fresh, sad, funny, and eternally true’. There is another famous Brazilian diary, by Carolina Maria de Jesus, from the 1960s about life in the slums, which became one of Brazil’s best selling books.

After serving as America’s Poet Laureate in 1949-1950, Elizabeth Bishop took a trip to South America. She didn’t intend to stay more than a few weeks when visiting Brazil, but ended up living there for 15 years (during which time she won a Pulitzer Prize). Early on, friends recommended Minha Vida de Menina (translatable as My Life as a Young Girl), a diary kept by Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant and published privately in 1942. Alice was born to a British father and Brazilian mother, and grew up in Diamantina (Minas Gerais state), once a mining town and now a Unesco World Heritage site very approximately half way between Rio and Brasilia.

Brant’s diary was translated by Bishop and then published, with the pseudonym Helena Morley, by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in New York in 1957, and, a year later, by Victor Gollancz in London. A few of these early editions are on sale at Abebooks for as much as £150. The translated diary has been re-published several times since then, in the 1970s and in the 1990s.

An extract from Bishop’s introduction is widely quoted, not least by Virago Press: ‘The more I read the book the better I liked it. The scenes and events it described were odd, remote, and long ago, and yet fresh, sad, funny and eternally true. The longer I stayed on in Brazil the more Brazilian the book seemed, yet much of it could have happened in any small provincial town or village, and at almost any period of history - at least before the arrival of the automobile and the moving-picture theatre.’

A review by Time Magazine says the diary is ‘full of the fun, the beauty, and some of the pain of growing up in a primitive town where recently freed slaves were still living with their old masters by choice’. There are also one or two short quotes, such as this one: ‘If grandma would give me the money she spends on Masses, I’d be rich. I don't know if what I’m writing is a sin.’

There is another famous diary, which must have been written at the same time, in fact, as Bishop was living in Brazil and translating Alice’s diary. Carolina Maria de Jesus was also born in Minas Gerais state, in 1914, but by the 1950s found herself with three children (all by different fathers) living in a Sao Paolo slum. Thanks to the philanthropy of a local landowner, she had had slightly more schooling than other black girls, and perhaps for this reason was able to, or wanted to, write about her life. She did this on scraps of paper, which were later put together into notebooks. A young reporter published some extracts in a local newspaper. Subsequently, in 1960, de Jesus’s diary was published as Quarto de Despejo (Child of the Dark), and became a publishing sensation. See The Diary Junction for more details.

No comments: