The shanty town literary gatherings that are transforming Brazilian culture


Last week Brazil was the 'guest of honour' at the celebrated Paris book fair, the Salon du livre, to which a delegation of 48 leading Brazilian authors was invited. Among them were writers from the favelas, or urban shanty towns, who are behind the 'literature of the periphery', a major cultural trend sweeping the giant South American nation. The emergence of these writers has coincided with a growing taste for prose and poetry among the residents of Brazil's deprived residential districts. This has been fuelled by the phenomenon of grass-roots gatherings known as 'saraus', which are attracting more and more people to listen to and take part in literary readings. Lamia Oualalou reports from Rio de Janeiro on this dynamic movement in Brazilian popular culture, one that might just have some lessons for France's own deprived and troubled suburbs.

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“Hello! Have you had your daily dose of poetry?” Jacqueline's voice struggles to make itself heard above the noise of the samba trio that has set up on the corner of the street. As on each first Saturday of the month, the Lapa district in the heart of Rio de Janeiro is busy with hundreds of vendors and artisans. Here is where you come to buy a replica of a 1970s chest of drawers, a knitted skirt or a vinyl record. But shoppers in the area are also now being invited to delve, quite literally, into literature. Jacqueline, an attractive, smiling black woman, holds out a jar for passers-by from which they can pull out a small roll of paper. Later, as they pause at the corner of a street, they will discover on it a verse by 20th century Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade or by the 19th century French poet Baudelaire.

“Our aim? To get literature moving,” explains Gledison Vinicius, who is behind this initiative, and who himself comes from the northern Rio suburb of Maréchal Hermès. He has launched a range of objects and clothes under the brand name Poeme-se, with the products including coffee cups, notebooks and tee-shirts, all stamped with sonnets and quatrains.