Carolina Maria de Jesus was born in 1914 to a single mother in a rural town outside of São Paulo. After de Jesus’s father left her and her mother destitute, de Jesus’s mother took the only job available—working as a housekeeper in a brothel—and endured scorn from those around her. De Jesus’s childhood was marked by prejudice and ostracism for several reasons: she was black, the child of a single mother, and very outspoken, even at a young age. A benefactor’s intervention allowed de Jesus to attend school at the age of seven, but she had to leave only two years later due to a family move. De Jesus continued to read and learn in her spare time, despite the fact that people accused her of being a witch.
When de Jesus was twenty-three, her mother died, and she decided to relocate to São Paulo. De Jesus did not last long working as a maid, one of the few jobs a black woman could hope for at that time—the families that employed her found de Jesus too educated, too spirited, and not docile enough. At age thirty-three, de Jesus became pregnant with João, and after being fired from another maid job, she took refuge in the favela (shantytown). The postwar economic boom had changed residential patterns in large Brazilian cities like São Paulo and Rio. As luxury buildings were going up, poor families were being pushed to the outskirts of town, and many ended up in the favelas.
Always interested in books and writing, de Jesus continued to write throughout her time in the favela, where she wrote many plays, stories, and aphorisms, as well as the diary that made her famous. In April 1958, a young reporter named Audalio Dantas decided to write a story about the favela and happened upon a scene unfolding at a playground. As a group of men made trouble, Dantas observed a tall black woman threatening to write about them in her notebook. He asked her about it, and de Jesus showed him stacks of writing she had in her hut in the favela. With his guidance and editing, de Jesus published Quarto de Despejo (“The Garbage Room,” later published in English as Child of the Dark) in 1960, to national and then international acclaim. Magazines the world over wrote features about de Jesus, heralding her harrowing description of the life of the poor as one of the first accounts of poverty actually written from the inside.
Soon after the publication of her diary, de Jesus was able to realize a long-held dream of moving her family out of the favela. However, the price of fame was high. People constantly bothered her at home for autographs and money, while at the same time, de Jesus and her children were shunned by their new white neighbors. The boys found the adjustment from favela life most difficult because of their more advanced ages. De Jesus yearned to publish her poems and stories but found no assistance in Dantas, who did not have interest in anything beyond her more political writings. Dantas had also lost patience with de Jesus, whom he saw as a difficult, demanding prima donna. The press and public also viewed this prideful, outspoken woman with mixed emotions. De Jesus, for her part, embraced the fame she thought she deserved and refused to conform to any role that society imposed upon her. About a year after the publication of her first book, de Jesus published a continuation of her diary Casa de Alvenaria (“The Brick House”), but it was much less successful than the first installment. De Jesus continued to write until her death, but she never forgot the pain of being so quickly spurned by a fickle public.