Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th August, 2016
Just a stone’s throw from the stadia where the Olympic Games are taking place in Rio de Janeiro tends of thousands of impoverished Brazilians live in conditions that would be unthinkable in Europe. Despite several years of strong economic growth, before a sharp fall-back the past two or three years, Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies on earth. The rich have a luxurious lifestyle, waited on hand on foot, and a depressingly high proportion of the affluent middle class think of the poor as almost sub-human. It was among those poor, in a small village in the south of the country, that Rozana McGrattan, grew up, in a family that was a dysfunctional as many trying to make ends meet. As a small child, she suffered sexual abuse from a young neighbour before going to work, still a child, as a live-in maid and joan-of-all-trades for a couple of families, in conditions akin to slavery. From there she migrated to Sao Paulo, Brazil’s economic powerhouse, oscillating between “respectable” but abysmally paid jobs and destitution, including a spell in Cracolandia, the underworld of glue-sniffers, child prostitutes and drug gangs who subsist in a run-down part of town not far from the previously elegant Praca da Republica. Life expectancy there is short, violence is endemic and as Rozana describes in her searing memoir Street Girl (PWM, £7.99, co-written with John McDonald), she survived by petty thieving and relying on the charity of strangers, some of whom turned out to be monsters. Corrupt police and sexual perverts thrive in a place like Sao Paulo, where innocence is a luxury only the privileged can afford. Miraculously, Rozana managed to hold down a better job in her 20s and to get sent to England to learn English, though her bouts of mental illness and her habit of falling madly in love with the image of what she thought were ideal boyfriends meant even in the UK she had a bumpy ride. She married a Scot and had two children, though the marriage itself broke down, partly, she believes, because she found sex unappealing — apart from one unexpected, late encounter with another woman. Yet she has established herself in the UK as a relatively successful businesswoman running a cleaning company, while writing prose poems in her spare time. I suspect some European or North American readers might find parts of her story hard to believe, but as someone who has spent a great deal of time in Brazil over the past 30 years I know it rings true, even when she is effectively hallucinating. Despite occasional flashes of humour, it’s a saga of the misery of the human condition of a kind that Honoré de Balzac would have understood. But at least there is a kind of epiphany at the end, even it is one that is not conventionally Christian.