Rios e florestas são principais características da literatura da Amazônia (José Carlos, Divulgação).jpg

A social history of Amazonian literature

From the spells of the forest to the frenzy of cities: literary production carries strong signs of the region's socio-political and economic constitution process

Eduardo Laviano

Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (UFPA/ET-Multi)


Romances by the river, secrets of untouched forests and legends that live under our feet. 

Deep feelings of missing home, childhood and how the world was prior to the arrival of white men.

 Cities as lively as they are now, overflowing with love, violence, sex and faith. 

There is room for everything in the Amazonian Literature. Even for what has never been written, according to Professor Paulo Nunes, PhD in Portuguese language.

“The Amazonian literature emerges from oral narratives before the arrival of the colonizers. Mythical narratives orally told are, in fact, the beginning of everything. Because the letter, the written literature, is an imposition of colonization. Native people’s narratives existing before the colonizers should be considered as a literary monument of the region and they are the beginning of everything. Unfortunately, much of this was lost with the violence and extermination", points out the professor, who works in the Graduate Program in Communication , Languages and Culture at the University of the Amazon (Unama), in Belém.

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If the first steps of Amazonian literature are not recorded on paper, the second steps not only survived, but crossed oceans five centuries ago as well. 

This is why Spain and Portugal appointed chroniclers to accompany the fleets of explorers who traveled around the world on the behalf of their kings. 

The mission of these chroniclers was to report everything they witnessed. However, this fact did not stop them from adding fictional aspects to reality, according to Amarílis Tupiassú – doctor in Literary Theory. 

The Spanish Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, for example, accompanied Francisco Orellana on the mission that crossed the Amazon River in 1542, from Peru to the territory that today comprehends the state of Pará. 

It was the first time the Amazon was described and dealt with in great detail. 

These first reports gave rise to myths such as: Amazonas, the  fearless warriors of the forest, and El Dorado, the place where men jumped into rivers and emerged dripping with liquid gold.

According to Amarílis Tupiassú, these moments defined the imaginary dimension of the people in the region. 

Amarílis Tupiassu (Anderson Silva, Agência Pará).jpg
Amarílis Tupiassú highlights the impact of chroniclers' narratives on the creation of the imaginary about the Amazon (Anderson Silva/Agência Pará)

“We have personalities like Felipe Bettendorf, a Jesuit who came here still very young to indoctrinate the indigenous peoples and replace Tupã with Christ. He writes a book about the history of the indigenous people after the arrival of the Europeans. And there is also Father Antônio Vieira, such an important man that Fernando Pessoa dedicates a poem to him and calls him the Emperor of the Portuguese Language. He lived here, in Pará and in Maranhão, where he wrote beautiful letters about the Amazon. These letters illustrate moments in which the poet replaces the missionary", points out the professor, who is writing a book on the subject.

19th century writers

Born in Barcelos, in the state of Amazonas, Bento de Figueiredo Tenreiro Aranha is the one who initiates purely literary creation in the region, according to Amarílis Tupiassú, with a lot of inspiration coming from European classics. 

Much of his work, however, was lost. The first episode was in 1832, when a piece of luggage belonging to his son, the first president of the province of Amazonas, João Batista Figueiredo, was shipwrecked in Icoaraci. 

His suitcases were full of his father's manuscripts. 

In 1835, the Tenreiro Aranha House in Belém was ransacked, once again sheets and sheets of originally Amazonian poetry were lost. 

According to Paulo Nunes, however, the region's literature started gaining notoriety with Inglês de Souza. Born in Óbidos, western Pará, the author works on the memory of the Amazonian culture along with the naturalist aspect. 

According to Nunes, the work of Inglês de Souza – the author of "O Cacaulista" (1876) and "O Missionário" (1888)  made room for names such as that of  Dalcídio Jurandir, Márcio Souza and Milton Hatoum.

"It is a work that creates a kind of heritage of the region. The main characteristic is his connection to the riverside culture and the forest, fixing the riverside people in this space, describing everything with great propriety. His writings portray everything very faithfully, whether in the countryside or in the city. He produces one of the most beautiful descriptions of Ver-o-Peso street market, in 'O Missionário'", says Paulo Nunes, who also highlights the importance of "Contos Amazônicos" (1892).

Paulo Nunes points out that the Amazonian literature goes beyond the local writers. He highlights the arrival of Euclides da Cunha – writer and journalist – to  the Amazon as fundamental. 

According to Nunes, Euclides da Cunha was the one who best described the Amazon as rough, inferior land, which struggled to insert itself in the rest of Brazil, a vision that lasts until today. 

The publication of "À Margem da História" (1909) is the result of Cunha's journey with the purpose of cooperating in the demarcation of boundaries between Brazil and Peru. 

It reports not only the daily life of the region, but also denounces the exploitation of rubber tappers in the forest, at a time when Belém and rubber were synonymous. 

"Everything that comes later will either refute or contrast what Euclides da Cunha says", explains Nunes.

Other "travelers" have also influenced the writing about the region, especially the modernists. Born in São Paulo, Mário de Andrade landed in Belém in 1927 and started a robust production of poems about the Amazon, in addition to the column "O Turista Aprendiz", he used to write for the newspaper "O Diário Nacional", containing chronicles and even photographs taken by himself. 

All this intimacy with Amazonian daily life flows into the work entitled "Macunaíma" (1928), considered the author's masterpiece and which dissects Brazilian society through the eyes of an indigenous person who ends up in São Paulo in a humorous plot full of twists and turns, as well as good doses of fantastic realism. 

"There is an endogenous and an exogenous Amazonian literature. Raul Bopp also comes here and says that we need to hear the voices of the forest. 

Manuel Bandeira writes the poem “Belém do Pará” (1928) and verses “Nortista gostosa, eu te quero bem”, refering to the city. They are outsiders who helped to build the literary heritage of the region", says Paulo Nunes.

“Cool” and decolonized writers 

If Henry Miller was the Proust of the working class, the members of the Academia do Peixe Frito were the Amazonian modernists who wanted to distance themselves from the bourgeoisie, they had no nostalgia for the Belle Époque and dreamed of putting blacks, caboclos and the periphery at the top.

 At this time, many famous poets and writers gained prominence, such as Bruno de Menezes, Jaques Flores, Dalcídio Jurandir, Rodrigues Pinagé and Eneida de Moraes. 

Agents in favor of the Baixadas [city outskirts] renounced epistemic reproductions of the past and wanted to launch something new, all starting with lunches at Ver-o-Peso, of course, with lots of fried fish.

"Bruno de Menezes is the author who starts black literature, whose central theme is the black human being. It is a beautiful and deeply social literature. The focus is on all the movements of workers, the merriment of the poor people of the outskirts. It has no connection with the European literature anymore, but it is  integrated with the rest of the world. Many think of the literature of the Amazon as something very regional, but in Bruno's work, this vision is overcome, as he portrays, above all, the human condition" , says Amarílis Tupiassú.

At this time, with the publication of the Marajoara novelist's debut book, "Chove nos Campos de Cachoeira" (1941), we might assure the world fell in love with the words of Dalcídio Jurandir.

The masterpiece inaugurates a sequence of 10 books known as Ciclo do Extremo-Norte, which describes the saga of the Amazonian people in the wake of the 20th century and the challenges faced on the islands and cities of the region, mixing imagination and autobiography. 

"There are 10 books with the same characters who enter and leave the story. It is a complex, beautiful literature, translated all over the world and studied in universities, with flows of memory between prose and poetry. Dalcídio is proof that our literature is by no means inferior to the greatest world literary works", says Tupiassú.

The subsequent generation of local writers presents names such as Max Martins, Benedito Nunes, Haroldo Maranhão and Ruy Barata. 

Paulo Nunes points out that they are middle-class artists, who are inspired by English and French literature. 

Paulo Nunes durante Trilha Literária da Academia do Peixe Frito (Narramazônia, Divulgação).jpeg
Paulo Nunes studies the literary production of Academia do Peixe Frito members, precursors of modernism in the region (Narramazônia/Divulgação)

"There are many influences, used in a very dynamic way, that is, there are no precisely defined features. Although it is a very neat writing and attentive with the words, focused on the employment of the words", highlights the professor. 

"After that, there was strong poetry by alternative groups that faced the dictatorship, such as Fundo de Gaveta, in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, the main name was João de Jesus Paes Loureiro, who in 1984 received the prize for best book of poetry by the São Paulo Association of Art Critics, for "Altar em Chamas'", he says. 

It was also in the 1980s that Milton Hatoum published his debut novel "Relatos de um certo oriente" (1989), followed by other important books by the writer from Amazonas state, such as "Dois Irmãos" (2000) and "Cinzas do Norte" (2005).

Literary diversity is enhanced by indigenous people and women

Born in the Ticuna village, in Belém dos Solimões, in Amazonas state, Márcia Kambeba was a “die-hard fan” of her own grandmother, who composed songs and wrote poetry. 

When Márcia was seven years old, she loved to recite them. At the age of 14, she started writing poems herself. At first, her poetry was apart from environmental issues. 

Over time, artistic maturity emerged, consequently, the urgency to deal with the forest, as well as the fears and anxieties of indigenous peoples. 

Today, Márcia's words are even mandatory reading at universities, for example, the book "Ay kakyri Tama: eu moro na cidade" (2013).

"There is a point of view of denouncing the mistreatment that the Amazon has been suffering, the violence against its peoples. Through literature, we announce that we are alive, our existence and resistance. It is political poetry, since it talks about territories, rights, polluted rivers, illegal mining. Having poetic literature being studied is inspiring and is also a burden, as it forces me to write even more and with more and more foundations and study", she says. 

Kambeba says that it is difficult for publishers to be interested in poetry books, so she followed the path of self-publishing.

She paid for the debut book herself and began to distribute it in squares and tourist spots in cities she visited throughout Brazil. 

Marcia Kambeba (Carlos Araújo, Divulgação).jpg
With literature, Márcia Kambeba reinforces the resistance of indigenous people (Carlos Araújo/Divulgação)

Today, under the Jandaíra publishing house seal, Márcia already has two new books being developed.

 "There are still people who get shocked, doubting that there are indigenous writers or intellectual indigenous people. And there we go, we explain with all affection, showing our work. After the cruel contact with the Europeans, many villages were emptied, burned. This colonization process still persists. So, we seek to deconstruct it through art", she reflects.

Iaci Gomes, writer of horror stories, also chose self-publishing for "Nem te conto" (2021). 

She recalls that as horror is an uninviting literary environment for women, it  has always incited her even more. 

A passionate reader and fan of Stephen King and Walcyr Monteiro, Gomes portrays the streets of Belém from a perspective of the fantastic, driven by the minds of contemporary characters.

Iaci Gomes, Divulgação.jpg
Iaci Gomes sees Belém through the lenses of contemporary terror (Divulgação)

"I’ve always read that we have to write about what we know. So, the writers who portrayed Belém in the old days were writing about their reality. Now, we live a new era, with the internet and social networks, we need to attract young people for literature, balancing tradition and contemporaneity. I write about my wandering trips around Belém and even so there are places in my history that no longer exist. I love it when people say they want to visit places I mention in the book, especially the younger ones", comments the writer and journalist.

According to Iaci Gomes, the fact that she and Kambeba started with self-publications is evidence of little incentive for literary production in the region. 

According to Gomes, publishers need to be more and more open to new things. 

Márcia reiterates that the recognition she gained was accomplished far from her home town, in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. 

"That is, first someone from other state has to say that we are good enough. It should be opposite. Amazonian people must read writers from the Amazon, especially women and indigenous peoples. It is still a barrier, so culture public calls should help to overcome it. Unless we change that, we will not prosper", says the writer.

Professor Paulo Nunes also highlights other women who tell the story of the Amazon in the 21st century, such as Monique Malcher, from Santarém, who won the Jabuti Prize in the Short Stories category for the book "Flor de Gume" (2020). 

He also states the importance of other writers, as Giselle Ribeiro, Isadora Salazar and Rosângela Darwich.

Local publishers develop precious work

Based in Bragança, northeastern Pará, the publisher Pará.grafo, owned by writer and editor Denis Girotto de Brito, prints classics and new classics, such as "Cabaré dos Bandidos" (1989), by Salomão Larêdo, and "O Cheiro dos Homens" (2019), by Marcos Samuel Costa. 

It's a small operation, mostly outsourced, but focused on discovering new authors without letting the old ones being forgotten. 

In some years, Brito manages to publish seven books. In others, the number of publications was not more than one. 

He says it is a rewarding job, but also challenging.

"The main obstacle is logistics, as we have great difficulty distributing these books. From here, I can supply bookstores in Belém and a few ones in the State of Pará. So, the strength of our work is the internet, as Amazon company. Logistics is complicated in a continental-sized state and the number of bookstores in the region is very small, this scenario makes it difficult. We try to sell the book as affordable as possible, so we try to sell it for less than R$ 50. Eighty percent of our books are available in e-book version, which also helps. Besides, we are always opening calls for new authors", says Girotto de Brito, who runs the company with his wife, both of them do a little of everything.

Characters from contemporary Belém arrive in France

Unlikely much of the region's canonical literature, writer Edyr Augusto Proença's focus is not on forests, rivers and beings of flesh or imagination. 

It is in the dead of night on the streets of Belém that he seeks inspiration for his characters, among criminals and escort girls, always filled with a lot of perversion and sensitivity, between crimes and love. 

Edyr Augusto Proença (Luiz Braga, divulgação).jpg
Plots by Edyr Augusto set in the Amazon are successful in France (Luiz Braga/Divulgação)

For "Os Éguas" (1998), Edyr won the Caméléon Prize from the University of Lyon and became a success in France, with several subsequent works also translated to French. 

"I'm amazed at the level of foreign interest in the stories, but I'm from Belém and my dream is that my own people read my book. I want people to recognize the streets where the stories take place", he confesses.

Edyr Augusto, who also writes theatre plays, says that he managed a theater that operated in the red-light district of the capital of Pará. 

There, he used to always talk to everyone around, for instance, a friendly drug dealer or a stressed car watcher. 

Not being judgmental to anyone, he realized that people were approaching, getting things off their chests, complaining about life and telling stories. 

"You learn the cadence of the melody, the speech, the stories, the vocabulary. I don't want the reader to read a chapter and go to sleep. Every writer has their own method and mine is quite delirious, frenetic. I write like someone who lives that in real time and I don't plan anything. I think about the first 15 lines at most, because they are decisive for the reader to continue", he reveals.

Known for his short paragraphs and quick sentences, Edyr Augusto is also notable for the merciless hyperrealism how he describes Belém. There are those ones who criticize him, but he keeps calm and very aware of his role: 

"Some people complain a little that I say not very nice things about my city. But I think the opposite. Once someone told me that my journalistic vein resulted in books as a high dose of denunciation. And that's what the artist does. If I write something, I also think about showing the world as it is, in the hope that it can be changed for the better".