Brazil’s São Paulo is the largest city in Latin America, with a population of around 20 million people. Where Rio de Janeiro, a few hours up the coast, delights tourists with its beautiful scenery and relaxed beach lifestyle, São Paulo often horrifies visitors. Dubbed ‘blade-runner in the tropics’ by the Serbian-born musician DJ Suba, who was one of Brazil’s most important producers, the city can seem, at first, like a dystopic mess of concrete towers and roads which continue endlessly into a shimmering grey horizon.
What makes the city so vast is the miles and miles of densely packed poor neighbourhoods that border the city. Locals call this a peripheria—the periphery—or as margins—the margins. This border was built over the last few decades by immigrants to the city. Finding jobs but nowhere to live they began building their own homes on the outskirts of São Paulo. Poorly constructed houses and unplanned streets with very few amenities, the periphery has been described as medieval by some local commentators. Life here is often characterised by violence, crime and isolation. Locals with low-paid service jobs in the centre of the city often commute four or five hours a day to get to work because of problems with roads, transport, and traffic.
All of this makes the fact that the São Paulo periphery is home to one of the most popular Brazilian literary movements in recent years all the more surprising. Poetry salons, called Saraus, happen all around the periphery every day of the week, where writers and poets recite compositions detailing life in their neighbourhoods. The best of these events are packed with people of all ages and from all backgrounds. There are very few established writers who have not made the pilgrimage to a periphery Sarau. The movement even has its very own bookshop, devoted to all that is marginal, located in the centre of the city.
The author Ferrez is known as the father of the Literatura Marginal movement. His novel, Capão Pecado, published in 2000, was one of the first contemporary accounts of life in the periphery by an author who grew up there. Its descriptions of violence, use of city and hip-hop influenced slang, and characters who often seem to have no future made the book a classic and Ferrez himself a household name. When he coined the phrase Literatura Marginal, he became a symbolic role model for a generation of marginal writers.
Ferrez still lives in the same neighbourhood he was born and grew up in, Capão Redondo, in the south of São Paulo, which is known as one of the most violent districts in the city. In early 2016 the newspaper Agora São Paulo reported that there had been seventy murders in Capão Redondo between January and December. It was also among the neighbourhoods with the highest number of robberies. Armed guards with bullet proof vests man the entrance to the São Paulo Metro Lilac line, which ends in Capão Redondo station.
Despite this Ferrez remains a committed member of the community, running a hip-hop inspired clothing shop on the main road, where he sells trainers, baseball caps, and t-shirts, many emblazoned with the words I LOVE CAPÃO REDONDO. Ferrez himself is a big bearded man, always dressed in the kind of caps and clothes he sells. I met him at his shop and we walked with his daughter to a local cafe for a traditional Brazilian lunch of meat, rice, beans, and salad. The owners of his regular lunch spot were pleased to see recording equipment and a camera and took photos of the interview themselves. Afterwards, Ferrez walked me back to the main road where I could catch a bus to the train station. At first, the neighbourhood did not seem as depraved or deprived as news reports made out, with many shops and regular buses going past. I mentioned this to Ferrez. He shook his head. We were right in the centre he said, pointing out towards the ocean of red breezeblock shacks that crested and fell as far as the eye could see. The problems he was trying to address, he told me, were para lá—over there.
Kathleen McCaul (KM): Could you tell me a little bit about your history? Where you were born, your childhood, when you started to write?
Ferrez (F): I was born in Valo Velho, a neighbourhood near Capão Redondo, with a few hundred thousand people. I stayed there until I was three and a half years and then I moved to Capão and I have been here since. So I’ve been living in Capão Redondo for thirty-seven years. I grew up here, studied in the municipal school. Nowadays there are around three hundred and twenty thousand people living in the neighbourhood . It’s grown significantly over the years, but we still don’t have the infrastructure we need, a health centre for example. The city centre is far away, good doctors are far away as well, and we have difficulties with transport.
My life growing up here was normal, with friends, flying kites. The only difference was that I was always reading. I started to write poetry and short stories early, when I was twelve years old. I didn’t even know what short stories were. It was my Portuguese teacher who told me that I was writing short stories and not simply a composition.
KM: How did you end up writing novels?
F: From 1995 to 2000 I worked hard to be recognized, showing my texts to different people. They were surprised to find a writer in the neighborhood, they found it strange because nobody here reads. People laughed about it. Even I didn’t believe that I could really become a writer but I carried on writing anyway because I liked it. And not having any writers around here in the periphery, I thought we should have one at least.
I was working for a company in their document archive and they sponsored my first book of poetry, Fortaleza da Desiluzão, which was sold here, locally. When I left the company I began to write my first novel, Capão Pecado, which was published in 2000.
KM: The book has been very successful. It made you famous and is in print even now, sixteen years later. Why do you think this is?
F: Before I wrote the book I used to go to second-hand bookstores to buy books, and I never found a book that was like me. I read Vidas Secas [Barren Lives] by Graciliano Ramos, who talks about the northeast in the past, but nothing about now. I was looking for a book that talks about today’s problems, drunk driving a motorcycle, crashing a car, dating girls. I started to write about these things. I think that Capão Pecado was a success because people recognised themselves in the book. A guy thinks, ‘Oh! here is my story’. I also meet my girlfriend in a playground, and not in a hotel. Most Brazilian literature is made-up. Many writers I cannot read without feeling sick. Why are they talking about the Copacabana beach, staying in a hotel which costs five thousand reais a night? No one I know can afford to get a plane to visit Rio. It’s because of this that normal people avoid reading. It is not that they don’t like to read; they love what speaks to them. And it is not an accident that the Brazilian elite do not support writers who talk about the Brazilian reality. They told me that I will never gain a literary prize because I talk about the poor people of Brazil.
KM: You are known as the father of the Literatura Marginal movement. Can you talk a little about how this label came about?
F: When I published my first book people kept asking me ‘What kind of writer are you? Are you contemporary?’ I didn’t know. I said I write literature from the margins, Marginal Literature. It has two senses: the literature of marginalized people and the literature of the people that are from the margins of big cities. The marginal rivers are the ones that go on to fill up the big river. By 1999 the idea had gained strength and some writers started to say that they were from Literatura Marginal too.
There were marginal writers in Brazil in the past. Lima Barreto, Plinio Marcos, and João Antonio for example. The biggest author from this movement was Maria Carolina de Jesus, the first female writer to come out of the favelas. She was a black woman who lived on the margins of the river Tiete. We consider her the queen of marginal literature.
The intention of the movement today is to create access to literature. In 1999 we started a magazine called Literatura Marginal, with illustrations and designs to interest people in the periphery that don’t read. My concern has always been to catch people that have not begun to read. They are the ones without knowledge.
KM: Your work seems to have paid off. Literatura Marginal is now astonishingly popular in São Paulo. Far more, some people say, than established literary genres. Poets have complained to me that if they put on a poetry night in the centre of São Paulo, six people will go, whilst a poetry night in the periphery will attract an audience of three hundred people or more.
F: I have already seen several such cases. We do an event here in the neighbourhood every month and it is always packed. When you go to a normal literature event no one is there. Last year I went to an event where you had to pay to get in at a library inside of a shopping centre. There were five people there. We do something around here and organize a bar, there are hundreds of people. The difference is that Literatura Marginal is written for everybody, it is inclusive, not something difficult, for only a few.
KM: What stylistically marks out marginal literature from other contemporary poetry and prose?
F: I think we engage with social issues in a way that other writers don’t. Other writers don’t want to talk about corrupt politicians or the periphery. We do. We are in it, we talk about it, we talk about people’s lives here. Other authors create literature which makes it appear as if they are not even in Brazil. There are no social problems in their work, everyone is well in them.
Our literature movement was born from a need. People here wanted something to free themselves, they wanted to go to university, to treat their children better, but they didn’t know where to look for it. So many teachers have stopped me in a bar and told me that they are teaching my book. I go to the school afterwards and the students say ‘There is a writer here!’ I didn’t have that in my day. I had no writer role model, but they do and because of this we are discovering our own culture, not seeking culture from the centre. In 1999 politicians said we need to bring culture to the periphery, but we changed that. We don’t wait for writers to come here, we have created our own kind of art.
KM: Has the upsurge in periphery culture changed the margins of the city for those who live there?
F: I think that culture changes and renews. I know people that went to university only because of my book. Others say that they changed the way they treated their wife because of one of my books. Literature can do a lot of good things. You are not going to read a book and be the same. Literature serves to add to a person and I think that people here understand this. In the beginning it was really hard work. We went through a lot to make the community understand us and many rejected us. People threw stones at me when I walked around with a book in my hands. Now people are starting to understand.
There are improvements coming to the periphery and I think these are coming because people are running after them, fighting for them. But there are still so many people living para lá—over there—who are far away from the tube station and the centre of the neighbourhood and have no access to anything. Millions of people.
KM: What do you think of the fact that in some ways the periphery has become fashionable in Brazil now? There is a soap on the Globo TV channel that’s set here, for example.
F: It’s big companies that decide to produce movies based on the City of God. But that was movie made by a really good, talented director. They aren’t all like that. These people have money because they advertise disgusting products that mislead people. They don’t legitimize people from the periphery so you won’t see me working with any of them. If you watch a Globo soap that talks about the periphery, it is written by the same writers that wrote about the Wild West in a past soap opera. They try to copy us. They have always done it, with music like Forro and Samba too. What we do is take literature from the Brazilian elites and I think that is the biggest revenge. You took everything from us so we’ll get the word. The verb is the source of everything, so we’ll take the verb. We’ll take it and we’ll bring it to the street.
Kathleen McCaul is the author of two novels. As a journalist she has written for the BBC, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English and The London Review of Books. Her new novel, part of a PhD thesis at the University of East Anglia, investigates the megacity and the idea of Megacity Fiction. It is funded by CHASE.
Ferrez is the author of Capão Pecado, published in 2000 and is known as the father of the Literatura Marginal movement.
Read More about Literature from Brazil: