I’m Going to Have a Little House, the English translation of the second diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus, is the most recent phase of an oral history project initiated in 1990 by the United States scholar Robert M. Levine and the Brazilian José Carlos de Bom Meihy. This project attempts to recover the experiences of the forgotten character of de Jesus, who in the early 1960s enjoyed a mercurial moment of fame in Brazil with the publication of her first diary, Quarto de despejo: diario de uma favelada (São Paulo, 1960; translated into English as Child of the Dark, New York, 1962). De Jesus’s second diary was originally published as Casa de alvenaria: diario de uma ex-favelada (Rio de Janeiro, 1961) and narrates the period (May 1960 to May 1961) immediately following the success of the first book. The Portuguese title, literally Cinder Block House, refers to Carolina’s long cherished and finally realized dream to buy and live in a house made of cinder block, a dramatic change from the living conditions of her former life as a favelada, the theme of her earlier diary. As the cover picture illustrates, favela houses are shacks precariously built with wood and other materials picked from the garbage. The choice of this cover for the American edition is a strange and unfortunate one, since it perpetuates the very stereotyped favelada image of Carolina that the study fixes to surpass. The change in theme perhaps accounts for the modest sales of this second diary. The de Jesus who interested editors and middle-class readers was the favelada.
Although the format in I’m Going to Have a Little House follows that of the first volume—each diary entry begins with de Jesus rising in the morning and continues with her daily activities—the content is different. The emphasis on hunger and the deplorable living conditions of the favelados, which first gained the attention of the “discoverer” of de Jesus’s diaries, the journalist Audálio Dantas (whom Levine absolves from accusations of having distorted the original texts), gives way to “a psychological portrait of the dizzying effects of sudden celebrity, of the small and large shocks experienced by a woman, once a scavenger, now a guest at governors’ mansions, media interviews, and book signings across Brazil” (p. 160).
In his preface and afterword, Levine tries to discover who this woman was. Besides the diaries themselves, he uses as his sources the testimonies of de Jesus’s surviving children and of some lower-class women readers who call themselves “Carolinas.” His text depicts an individual who did not fit into the sociopolitical models of the sixties. Carolina Maria de Jesus was a poor, black, and recklessly self-educated single mother of three hard-to-manage children, born of fleeting relationships with white men. In other words, she incarnates all the values that would leave her repudiated, or forgotten, by the Marxist left, black movements, feminism, and the literary canon, each in its turn. On the other hand, the diaries show that de Jesus passed through all these groups without being affected by them. She could neither adapt herself to the disenfranchised life of the favela, nor to the middle class she rose to as the result of her sudden fame. Thus the most interesting elements of her testimonial are her ambiguous opinions about the reasons for her poverty and its possible solutions.
I’m Going to Have a Little House depicts a peculiar figure that only the historical methodology of the late twentieth century could help reveal. And Levine’s treatment demonstrates the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach for increasing the comprehension of supposedly literary texts. As a document of the daily life of disenfranchised Brazilians, this book is of interest to specialists both in oral history and in cultural studies, to contemporary Brazilian and Latin American historians, and to the general public. All readers would benefit, however, from a more detailed exploration of the political context surrounding the rise and fall of the protagonist. More notes concerning the political figures with whom Carolina had contact during the time of the narrative would be helpful, although this omission is somewhat offset by the maps and photographs that have been included in this English edition.