Rachel de Queiroz, grand dame of the Brazilian literary community, passed away quietly this week. A published author at 20, Queiroz was a remarkable novelist, playwright, raconteur and columnist.
Rachel de Queiroz was always ahead of her time.
Born on 17 November 1910, in Fortaleza, capital of Ceará state, she began the writer’s life early on. Queiroz started writing at age 17 in a local newspaper called O Ceará under the pen name Rita de Queluz.
In 1930, a gutsy Queiroz published 1,000 copies of her first book O Quinze (The Fifteen) – inspired by a drought in 1915 – using her own money.
And this was the beginning of a series of romances inspired by social issues.
Queiroz, who was approaching 93, led an active life until she suffered a stroke in August 1999. She died on 4 November 2003.
She wrote prolifically for newspapers and magazines, at the same time penning numerous plays and short stories.
Her last novel, Maria Moura, published in 1992, became a hugely popular TV mini-series and introduced her name to a new generation of readers.
In 1957, the Brazilian Academy of Letters awarded Queiroz the Machado de Assis prize for lifetime achievement.
She had already received the prize from the Graça Aranha Foundation for O Quinze in 1931.
Her novel As Três Marias also fetched her the Sociedade Felipe d’Oliveira award.
On 4 August 1977, she became the first woman to be elected to the 40-seat Academy of Letters, an appointment she later referred to as "a coming of age" for women in Brazilian literature.
In 2000, she received the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro.
Queiroz was only five when she read Ubirajara by José de Alencar – one of the top literary figures in Brazilian literature and a relative from her mother’s side – "Obviously, without understanding a word," she liked to stress.
Her father, a district attorney and geography teacher, was her first tutor, teaching her not only how to read but also to swim and ride.
She did not go to college after graduating as an elementary school teacher in 1925. At home she immersed herself in books with a preference for French novelists.
Queiroz’s first book was not applauded by local literary critics.
Her talent was acknowledged only after she sent the work to writers in Rio and São Paulo.
Writers Augusto Frederico Schmidt and Mário de Andrade praised O Quinze, transforming her into a key literary figure.
The communist interregnum
In 1931, Queiroz met leaders of the Communist Party in Rio and went back to Ceará where she helped found the local unit of the Communist Party.
She was soon labelled a "communist agitator" by police.
However, the writer would abandon the party soon after being told by party leaders that João Miguel, her second book, cannot be published because it told the story of a worker killing a colleague.
"I left the place running," she would say later. "The Party had no authority to censor my work."
Some intellectuals don’t forgive Queiroz for having backed the military coup in Brazil that installed a dictatorship in the country from 1964 to 1989.
Queiroz was a relative of General Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco, the first president after the 1964 coup. Castelo Branco sent her as a Brazilian delegate to the UN in 1966.
From 1967 to 1985 she was a member of the Conselho Federal de Cultura (Federal Council of Culture).
With the death of Rachel de Queiroz, the Brazilian Academy of Letters has four vacancies to be filled by "immortals", as members of the institution are called: seat number 5 (the one occupied by Queiroz); seat number 6, which belonged to Raymundo Faoro who died in May; seat 39, formerly of media tycoon Roberto Marinho who died in August and seat 19, occupied by Marcos Almir Madeira until his death in October.