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Remembering Brazilian Writer Lygia Fagundes Telles

Uma versão em português deste post do blog está disponível aqui.

The following is a post by Henry Granville Widener, Portuguese Language Reference Librarian in the Hispanic Reading Room of the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division.

April 3, 2022 saw an extensive career in Brazilian letters come to a close with the passing of writer Lygia Fagundes Telles. Born on April 19, 1923, Fagundes Telles began writing at the age of 15. A recipient of distinguished literary accolades such as the Jabuti Award and the Camões Prize for Literature, and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters since 1985, Fagundes Telles’ illustrious career will surely be commemorated throughout the Portuguese-speaking world in the coming months and years. We would like to do our part in remembering Fagundes Telles by briefly surveying the dialogue that has existed between the author, her work and the Library of Congress.

For those, like myself, who will take this solemn opportunity to acquaint themselves with Lygia Fagundes Telles, the Handbook of Latin America Studies (HLAS) is an invaluable resource. Since the 1970s, contributors to HLAS have followed Fagundes Telles’ work, offering critical commentary to guide readers in their selection of her works. Unsurprisingly, this commentary often praised Fagundes Telles’ literary skills. In HLAS v. 42 (1980), contributor María Angélica Guimarães Lopes called Fagundes Telles’ “Seminário dos ratos” (1977) a “splendid achievement” which displayed that Fagundes Telles “possesses the first quality for a fiction writer: a combination of the old craftsmanship and the new approaches.”

In HLAS v. 66 (2011), professor Dário Borim wrote that “Few women writers in Brazil have had the superb critical and commercial success which this Paulista novelist and short story writer has achieved nationally and internationally.” Borim added that “Conspiração das nuvens” [Conspiracy of the Clouds] (2007), a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, offered “loyal readers of Telles’ fiction” insight into the genesis of her works. A Paulista refers to a person from the state of São Paulo.

Far from universal in their views of Fagundes Telles’ work, HLAS contributors have also offered disapproving, if not slightly comical, criticisms into the author’s work and its potential reception. Writing in HLAS v. 38 (1976) on “As meninas” (1973), considered by many to be the author’s most important work, professor Alexandrino A. Severino predicted “the ingredients, dirty language, sex, and drugs, assure the novel’s success but lessen its impact.”

For those hoping to read Fagundes Telles in English, HLAS also offers commentary on the author’s translated works, such as “The girl in the photograph” [As meninas],Marble Dance” [Ciranda de pedra] and “Tigrela” [Seminario dos ratos], all translated by Margaret A. Neves.

Three clippings on author Lygia Fagundes Telles from the Romy Medeiros da Fonseca Collection at the Library of Congress spread out on a large wooden table.

Clippings of articles on author Lygia Fagundes Telles from the Romy Medeiros da Fonseca Collection available in the Hispanic Reading Room. Photo: Giselle M. Avilés

In total, the Library of Congress holds 39 items attributed to Fagundes Telles, documenting the author’s career from 1938 to 2018. One testament to the impact of Fagundes Telles’ work is her presence in newspaper clippings in the papers of Romy Medeiros da Fonseca, a distinguished lawyer and feminist who propelled many of the movements for women’s rights in Brazil in the second half of the twentieth century. And possibly the most precious record of Fagundes Telles in the Library’s collections is the PALABRA Archive’s 1983 recording of the author reflecting on her life as an author and reading excerpts from her works.

As the author recollects in the recording, love of storytelling began as a child, when she, along with several other children, would gather in the evenings to hear her a local domestic servant tell stories. One night, after this young woman had run away with a trapeze artist,

…I decided, spurned by audacity, to substitute her, to take her place. That was when I realized that I was less afraid when I spoke. That it was more exciting to tell than to listen, because while I spoke, I diverted a bit of that anxiety which was too heavy a burden for me…I felt relieved. Drained, too, as if all of my blood had been spilled along with my words, but at the same time, I felt so powerful, so independent.

Lygia Fagundes Telles drew a lifetime of inspiration from her parents. Her mother “was unconsciously a feminist when she encouraged me to write a book…[telling Lygia] This is a man’s profession, but if you chose it, why not?” On Lygia’s choice to study law, her mother recognized “men do not like to see women taking up their spaces. I don’t know if this will help you in marriage. But you are earning a diploma, you can work with whatever you please. That is what is important for a poor girl like you.”

Photograph shows the quilombo Cafundó, a small community of descendants of formerly enslaved people, and surrounding landscape, São Paulo, Brazil.

André Cypriano, photographer. Quilombo Cafundó, São Paulo, Brazil. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

From her gambling father who had left the family almost penniless, Fagundes Telles claims to have inherited a love of games: “I play with words. I lose, I win. It makes no difference. What matters is the emotion, the risk, the joy of undertaking this task, which is one of passion.”

While deeply aware of the feelings that drove her to write, Lygia Fagundes Telles seems less confident about how her work should be interpreted:

…the act of literary creation is always a mystery. It is impossible to establish the borders between creator and creation, between imaginary and real. I know there are writers that can explain themselves well. I can’t. I write, and just being cheek to cheek with my words takes all of the time which only gets shorter in these times that devour us. There are those who view my work as a type of dark bitter drama, but I am not of that opinion…I have hope in the dawn. And so I hope that this morning, with its grain of madness and the unexpected, might save me.

Fagundes Telles did however seem confident in the place of literature in society:

…I consider to be alive that book which is on the shelves within reach of the reader…I believe that the role of a writer is to be the witness of their time and of their society. They are participant witnesses. They watch and gather, and in watching and gathering, they console their neighbor and write for those who cannot do it themselves.

Though Lygia Fagundes Telles may no longer bring new stories to our ears, the Library of Congress will continue to provide access to her work so that her words might continue to “extend like a bridge, seeking to touch those around us in the hopes of helping them, even as that solution may be ambiguous in its struggle and in its hope, it is that hope that the writer holds in their heart.”

Discover more

Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS): A Resource Guide The Handbook of Latin American Studies is a bibliography on Latin America consisting of works selected and annotated by scholars.

The PALABRA Archive at the Library of Congress The PALABRA Archive is a collection of original audio recordings of 20th and 21st century Luso-Hispanic poets and writers reading from their works.

Lygia Fagundes Telles in Library of Congress StoryMap “Traveling Words and Sounds” StoryMaps are multimedia storytelling publications on Library’s materials that can include rare books, photographs, audio recordings, music, maps, and more.

Library of Congress Research Guides Library’s guides organized by research topic and collections – these include both online materials, and materials only available on site. The guides related to the Caribbean, Iberian, and Latin American Studies can be found here.

The Library’s catalog contains millions of records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources. The following is a selection of books by Lygia Fagundes Telles and another related to the author’s work.

Telles, Lygia Fagundes. The marble dance. (1986). translated by Margaret A. Neves

Telles, Lygia Fagundes. Lygia Fagundes Telles: seleção de textos, notas, estudos biográfico, histórico e crítico e exercícios. (1980)

Telles, Lygia Fagundes. A estrutura da bolha de sabão: contos. (1991)

Telles, Lygia Fagundes. Antes do baile verde. (1970)

Silva, Vera Maria Tietzmann. A metamorfose nos contos de Lygia Fagundes Telles. (1985)


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