Get to Know a Brazilian – Rachel de Queiroz

Turning to another important author in Brazilian history, this week we look at Rachel de Queiroz, who would have celebrated her 102nd birthday yesterday.

Rachel de Queiroz (1910-2003), author, chronicler, journalist, and translator of fiction into Portuguese across nearly 70 years. Her multifaceted literary achievements make one of the more important literary contributors to Brazilian arts in the 20th century.

Rachel de Queiroz was born in 1910  in Fortaleza, capital of the Northeastern state of Ceará. Her father was a judge, and on her mother’s side, she was a not-too-distant relative of José de Alencar, author of O Guarani and one of the most famous of the Brazilian romanticists of the nineteenth century. After a few years in Rio de Janeiro and Belém in the state of Pará in the North, her family returned to Fortaleza, where at the age of 15 she completed her secondary schooling as a schoolteacher. In 1927, under the pen name Rita de Queluz, she sent off a piece critical of a contest to the local newspaper, O Ceará, supported; the editor, impressed with her style, published it, and thus began her journalistic career. In the newspaper, she regularly published poems, chronicles, and commentaries.

In 1930, at the young age of 20, de Queiroz gained national fame with her first novel, O Quinze. The work drew on her experiences as a child in the northeast during the drought of 1915 and her memories of her family’s suffering, and the novel’s realistic portrayal of poverty and society in the Northeast made a deep impact on the wealthier southeast and came to serve as an early example of the ways in which realism in Brazilian fiction could address and raise awareness of social struggles in different parts of the country.

The cover of one edition of de Queiroz’s “O Quinze,” which has now gone through over 70 editions and remains an exemplary piece of 20th-century Brazilian fiction.

In 1932, she married poet José Auto da Cruz Oliveira; that year, she also published her second novel, João Miguel. She also began to affiliate with leftists and communists, as well as with other realist authors like Graciliano Ramos whose work chronicled the suffering and poverty of the Northeast and embraced explicit and implicit political messages of social justice. These ties led police to label her a “communist agitator.” By 1937, with the emergence of Getúlio Vargas‘ repressive right-wing Estado Novo, she was accused of being a communist herself, and some of her novels were publicly burned, as were works by Jorge Amado, Graciliano Ramos, and others.

By 1939, she had separated from her husband and relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where she continued to write novels even while working for newspapers like Correio da Manhã and O Cruzeiro, where her commentaries and works were published into the 1970s. She continued to produce fiction and other works at a fast pace; in 1953, she published her first play, “Lampião,” and in 1957, at the still relatively-young age of 47, she was awarded the Machado de Assis prize for her works. Nor did she limit herself to her own works; a voracious reader, she began translating renowned novels from Europe and the US into Portuguese, including works by Dotstoyevsky, Daphne du Maurier, Jane Austen, Pearl Buck, Honoré de Balzac, Jack London, and Agatha Christie, among others.

Politically, de Queiroz became increasingly conservative as she grew older. The assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City led de Queiroz to break off her ties with the left, and by 1961, when Jânio Quadros was swept into the presidency by conservative elites and the middle-class, she was offered the position of Minister of Education, a position she would turn down (Quadros himself would resign only 7 months into his administration for reasons that to this day do not remain entirely clear). However, four years later, when the right-wing military regime overthrew progressive João Goulart, she openly supported the coup, and in 1966, the first military president, Humberto de Castelo Branco, nominated de Queiroz as a Brazilian delegate to the United Nations. In 1967, she also became a member of the government’s Federal Council of Culture, a position she retained until 1985, when the military regime ended. Throughout these years, she also continued to publish and to receive awards for her fiction, her children’s books, and her overall contributions. Perhaps the peak of these rewards, in 1977 she became a member of Brazil’s renowned Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters), making her the first woman to hold a chair in the academy. Some feminists and women were critical of her, though, given her politics and her ties to the military; de Queiroz rejected their criticisms, however, proclaiming that she was inducted for her works and not for her status as a woman, insisting many of her friends were in the academy, and that her friends were men and that she did not trust women.
In spite of her conservative politics, her works continued to be published and read throughout Brazil. After the dictatorship ended, she returned to journalism again in 1988, writing for newspapers in São Paulo and the Northeast. Her  audience continued to expand as her works were translated into films and television series. In 1995, she published her memoirs, and in 2000, her final work, Não me deixes, a “gastronomical memoir,” was published. In 2003, just days after her 93rd birthday, Rachel de Queiroz died in her home in Rio de Janeiro, leaving behind more than 70 years worth of fiction, chronicles, children’s stories, and translations that are found on bookshelves throughout stores and homes in Brazil today.

A statue of Rachel de Queiroz in Fortaleza, Ceará.

This is part of an ongoing series – other posts have included Clarice Lispector and Gilberto Gil. My thanks to David McKenzie, who alerted me to the fact that this past week marked 102 years since her birth. You can check out his blog here, and follow him on Twitter

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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One Response to Get to Know a Brazilian – Rachel de Queiroz

  1. monica says:

    just now reading Dora Doralina. Thanks for this post

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