When Giovana Xavier looked at the lineup of writers who would attend FLIP 2016, the International Literary Festival of Paraty, she held her breath. Not one black woman author was invited.
“I felt overlooked, left behind; I felt anger and pain. I wondered how could I turn those feelings into something creative, something beautiful, how could we evolve? That's what history is all about,” said Xavier, a university professor at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro who is behind the Intelectuais Negras group, a nonprofit that relies on the "commitment of black women activists."
“Black women don't want to be objects of study; we want to be able to tell our own stories," she said.
Xavier wrote a protest letter that gathered support and generated attention in Brazilian media.
“In a country where the majority is black and female, it is absurd that the main literary event in the country chooses to ignore the literary work of black women.”
According to the 2010 census, 97 million Brazilians, or 50.7 percent of the population, define themselves as black or mixed race.
Last year, as a democratically elected female president was impeached and her vice president formed a government of white men only, Brazilian women took to the streets to protest.
During a rally in the center of Rio de Janeiro, as the crowd chanted “se cuida seu machista, a América Latina vai ser toda feminista” ("look out you male chauvinist, South America will be feminist"), women vowed to keep on fighting for their rights and to make their voices louder.
“Women will be the protagonists of resistance!” said Bia Lopes from Comissão da Defesa dos Direitos das Mulheres, a women’s rights group. In 2017, a UN report ranks Brazil in 154th place when it comes to women's participation in parliaments. Comparatively, the US ranks 100th and Rwanda is No. 1, with more than 60 percent of seats held by women.
In Brazil, women protest for access to abortion, for equal pay and against sexual and domestic violence. Black women add the struggle against racism and the lack of opportunity.
According to IPEA (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada), only about 17.4 percent of women get a college education. The number is even lower when it comes to black women; only 6 percent get to finish their college studies. In Rio de Janeiro, the state declared bankruptcy and public servants haven’t been paid in the past three months, which includes teachers and police officers. Scholarship payments and day-to-day operations at public schools and universities are unfunded, as well.
With unsettling corruption scandals and uncertainty about the ability of the current parties to find candidates suitable for election in the upcoming year, the political climate in Brazil is unstable.
“These major setbacks we are suffering have a huge impact. It is pretty terrible what is happening. Black women are obviously the most affected group when it comes to losing rights,” said Xavier. “And in Brazil, there is still some resistance when it comes to recognizing that black women or white women can be intellectuals.”
But this year, and for the first time in 10 years, there is a female curator at FLIP 2017, which starts this week. And she is shaking things up.
Professor and writer Joselia Aguiar is responsible for an event that has the potential to set a standard not only for future editions in years to come, but that also may become a turning point for literary events in Brazil and in Portuguese-speaking countries.
For the first time, female writers (24) will outnumber male writers (22), a black writer will be honored (Lima Barreto), 30 percent of the writers will be black people and black female writers (such as Conceição Evaristo, Scholastique Mukasonga and Ana Maria Gonçalves) will be among the main highlights of the festival. The program also includes writers from African countries (Djaimila Pereira de Almeida will release "Esse Cabelo," a tragic comedy book about growing up with black hair), as well as African activists.
“When I became FLIP 2017's curator, I was aware of what happened last year. I got in touch with Giovana Xavier, I wanted to know more about her work and about the Intelectuais Negras group,” said Aguiar. “This is not about activism. These are great writers, and they are being invited because of the quality of their work. This year, we have added diversity and enriched the creative debate.”
Yet the FLIP 2017 curator believes this year’s event could be seen as a counterculture reaction to the political moment Brazil is going through.
“Just as it has been happening in other countries, for example, after Trump’s inauguration we watched the Women’s March. The main voices of resistance were black voices like Angela Davis.”
Intelectuais Negras will launch a catalog during FLIP 2017 to promote black women's work, featuring 120 black women intellectuals and their first-person narratives.
“We want to make them visible, to showcase their work — we want to get people's attention,” said Xavier. “Black intellectuals is a strong name; it challenges the national belief that black women are things, sexual objects. It's a name that stands against the male chauvinism of white men's politics.”
On a YouTube video, one of Xavier's student, Alice Meireles, highlights why learning about her African Brazilian heritage was important to her.
“I was tired of only listening to white men's narratives,” Meireles said. “[Now], we read Conceição Evaristo. She describes the suns her mother would draw on the ground so the clothes she had washed and hanged would dry up faster for her boss. That reminds me of my own mother, she was a domestic worker, too.”
About 18 percent of black women in Brazil are domestic workers. In 2015, legislation was finally enacted to regulate that activity. Evaristo struggled financially to publish her first books as she worked as a domestic worker. Today, she is one of the most important writers in Brazil.
“In Brazil, people don't read that much, and so most of the time a writer cannot make a living of what he or she writes. You're a writer but you need to have another job. This ends up restricting the publishing world to a white population,” said Aguiar. “But I do think this has a tendency to change, especially with new technologies.”
Xavier believes literature should be looked at as something diverse and plural.
“This is a matter of genre and race, of female empowerment. There are many black women writers, and we just want to be recognized for our work,” said Xavier. “We want to celebrate, and we want more women to see themselves as black women intellectuals. I've already seen many young women referring to themselves in a powerful way as 'I, the black woman intellectual.'”
Ahead of FLIP 2017, the windows of the main bookstores in Brazil showcase the works of many of the women who will attend the festival. The books kept on the back shelves are now up front.
FLIP 2017 will take place from July 26-30 in Paraty, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The festival is sold out, but all events will be livestreamed on FLIP's official website.