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The Inspiration Behind Geovani Martins’ Critically Acclaimed Favela-Centered Book [BOOK REVIEW]

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June 19, breakout author Geovani Martins spoke at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) about the launch of his critically acclaimed first book, O Sol na Cabeça (The Sun on the Head).

Martins—who was born in Bangu in Rio’s West Zone, spent his teenage years in the South Zone’s Vidigal, and now lives in neighboring Rocinha—drew from his own experiences in Rio’s favelas to construct a series of thirteen short stories centered around fictional, primarily favela-based characters across the city. Through a range of unique narratives, O Sol na Cabeça develops a complex image of life in favelas while highlighting common problems such as living alongside Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) and daily prejudice at the hands of Rio’s more affluent population. Since its launch in March of this year, the book has been met with tremendous success. Critics have published praise across national Brazilian media and O Sol na Cabeça became the first Brazilian book in history to sell publishing rights to translations in nine countries in anticipation of its release. Rights have even been sold for a film adaptation.

At PUC-Rio, Martins discussed his inspirations for the book, citing first and foremost his experience across many of the city’s favelas. Aside from moving nearly twenty times throughout favelas, through the Literary Festival of the Urban Periphery (FLUPP) Martins visited a different favela every weekend in 2013 to exchange feedback and experience with other favela authors. He said that until that period, he “could not simply look at [the favela] and imagine a book made up of those stories” of the people and places within, and only began to see the potential in them after participating in FLUPP. Additionally, the idiosyncrasies he noticed in different communities, from slang to varying mannerisms and attitudes, gave him material to write a book full of different characters placed across the city.

To provoke reflections on racism in the city, Martins made the decision not to describe any of the characters in the book by their skin color except for the few white characters. Most books, he feels, even those by some of his favorite authors, tend to put “‘black’ as the definition of black characters in the book,” from the character’s introduction onwards. Meanwhile, nondescript characters are assumed to be white by default, as if literature—which is a reflection of society, he stressed—were a space for white characters and black characters did not belong. With that in mind, Martins placed his “colorless” characters in situations that are “impossible to imagine with all white characters,” such as being stopped, patted down, and threatened by Military Police in the streets, and made the whiteness of the white characters a defining trait. The book “says all the time without really saying and rubs it in everyone’s face that this is the view society has of that population,” he explained, emphasizing the naturalized forms of prejudice that Afro-Brazilians face in the supposed racial democracy of Brazil.

O Sol na Cabeça is especially unique in its extensive use of slang, with some stories exclusively using slang-heavy, colloquial speech contrasted with others in the book using only formal Portuguese. While many books that employ slang follow it with an explanation for readers who are unfamiliar with it, Martins sought to make his dialogues as natural as possible, not explaining the meanings of any words or phrases and consciously leaving many readers out of the loop while giving voice to under-heard populations that speak that way. In not catering to those who do not understand, he “ended up obligating [readers] to have that conversation” with friends, neighbors, peers, and coworkers from different areas about the language in the book. He “didn’t want to present any universe as if it were something new,” he explained, referring to his decision to present the reality of the favelas and their language without any context or translation for strangers to that reality. “I asked myself, ‘Who am I saying this for?’” he told the audience at PUC-Rio.