Meet the Mother of Afro-Brazilian Literature

Maria Firmina dos Reis is Brazil’s first known female novelist

By Google Arts & Culture

Maria Firmina dos Reis

An anti-slavery campaigner and educational activist, Maria Firmina dos Reis dedicated her life to teaching the country’s poorer population and opening people’s eyes to the scourge of slavery.

Born in the early 1820s on São Luís Island, Maranhão, Maria Firmina dos Reis was a free black woman in an era when slavery was still commonplace. Raised by women in her mother’s family, she showed academic promise at an early age.

When still a young woman, dos Reis secured a scholarship to become a primary school teacher, one of the few occupations open to women at the time. She excelled in her job and remained in the profession for 34 years before retiring in 1881. 

Leitora do romance Úrsula, de Maria Firmina dos ReisBiblioteca Nacional de Brasília

Maria Firmina dos Reis had always had an interest in literature and wrote a number of short stories and literary works during her lifetime. Her most famous book, Úrsula, was published in 1859, and is considered the first novel by a Brazilian woman.

Úrsula is the story of a young girl with two potential suitors. One is a good man, the other a villain. Contrary to expectations, Úrsula falls in love with the villain who badly mistreats her. Dos Reis uses Úrsula to show how women are punished if they deviate from the norm.

As well as exploring how women are treated in a patriarchal society, the book examines slavery. Much of the story is told from the perspective of female slaves, giving them a voice and inviting the audience to sympathise with their plight, something that was unique at the time.

Maria Firmina dos Reis

At the age of 55, dos Reis founded a school for poorer students from the local area and lessons were taught in a shack on a nearby plantation. However, locals were unhappy that the school was co-educational and it closed after just a few years.

Despite setbacks, Maria Firmina dos Reis constantly pushed forward to give back to the community. She even adopted 11 children over the course of her life and was hugely respected throughout her career.

For many years, Úrsula and her other works were little known outside of her hometown. However, in 1975, her novel was rediscovered and by the 1980s, academics were organizing her archive and publishing her many texts, finally giving her the recognition she deserved.

85199 (1970-09) by John OlsonLIFE Photo Collection

Find out more about the talented and pioneering women of arts and culture.

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