LITCHFIELD — From the slums of northern Brazil to the classroom at Litchfield High School, Maria Souza Hogan has fairly mimicked the legendary phoenix bird, rising from what could have been the ashes of her challenging childhood to fly on self-made wings and become an eminent scholar, teacher and now writer.
In her memoir, “Club of Stars, A Samba of Survival in the Slums of Brazil,” the West Hartford resident and teacher of Spanish at Litchfield High School, “details life and death in the inhumane slums” where she lived with 10 brothers and sisters. The lives of her extended family, her poverty-stricken community, women in particular, are key to her story. Evoking the rich South American heritage, Souza Hogan “shines a light on the blunt reality of Brazil’s inequality and social injustice.” She talks about what it was like to go hungry for days, to go to school without shoes or books, and her remarkable ability to tutor well-fed students in order to pay for school supplies and food.
Souza Hogan spent her early childhood in a small Brazilian town, Castro Alves, before moving to the slums of Salvador, capital of the State of Bahia in northeastern Brazil. She was able to lift herself up from the slums that entrap and destroy so many young lives by excelling in school, and was the only member of her family to attend college. In 1978, after graduating from a Brazilian university with Bachelor’s degrees in French and Portuguese, she left to study in the United States, earning a Ph.D. in Hispanic Literature and Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Souza Hogan said her first book did not flow easily. “It was difficult writing it because I reminisced about some of my most painful memories. Also, I wrote it in English, a second language to me. It was a challenge finding the right word to express a deep feeling, a thought, or just to describe a cultural tradition. But after writing one paragraph that sounded right, it got me started. I learned a lot, and the little seed of writing in me wants to grow.”
By writing her memoir, her past experiences “became real” to her. “I have learned from my readers that my memoir is an honest account of the tragic reality of deprivation, but nonetheless, ‘profoundly inspiring...for the inherent hope it highlights.’ Once I put the pieces of my life story together, I kind of repossessed myself, giving me a deeper understanding of the reality I lived in. Living it daily in search of survival — from the time of my birth to age 24 — I only saw a fraction of that reality, the deprivation imposed upon my family and me. Writing helped me broaden my perspective to see the pieces of the reality that I lived as part of a whole reality of a vast gulf between poverty and wealth in Brazil.”
Souza Hogan is pleased with her first book. “I learned a lot from processing my experiences, my dreams and nightmares, from creating sort of a painting that unveils the culture and the history of a subculture in Brazil. I am sure that the knowledge that I have gained will help me in the future.” She is “happy that my life story is out.” She hopes her readers realize that it is not easy getting out of poverty and getting an education when there is no social safety net. “I had to overcome many difficult barriers, such as hunger, discrimination, and extreme deprivation to get where I am now. The book describes my struggles and triumphs, despite growing up in a culture of oppression, inequality, and injustice.”
Souza Hogan began writing her memoir when she entered graduate school at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1997 after reading “many” books and “falling in love” with Spanish American literature. However, after writing a few pages, she had to put the project on the back burner because she was too busy, taking courses and teaching as a graduate assistant at the university. She finished her memoir two years ago, in 2018, and it was published in late August of this year.
“I was fascinated by the philosophy of the Argentine writer Jorge Luís Borges, by the brilliance of the Portuguese author José Saramago, by the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez and by the realistic portrayal of the Latin American way of life by many others,” Souza Hogan said of her inspirations. “My need to write surfaced from a deep urge that I nurtured to tell my story of growing up in the Brazilian favelas, a space unfit for human beings, without electricity, running water, or sanitation — between a rock and a hard place — with a dangerous highway in front and a ferocious ocean in the back. Then, the writing process for me became a catharsis rather than a fascination.”
She admires Afrohispanic female writers, especially Maria Santos Febres, Ana Maria Goncalves, and Lucia Charún-Illescas for their use of the historical past and the Colonial Era of their countries in their works to create an “idealized and critical counter-narrative of the abuses common during slavery that persists into modern times.”
Souza Hogan believes her writing career is just beginning to bloom. “It is a difficult process but very rewarding at the same time, especially when I accomplish expressing my deepest thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and emotions. The creative process allows me to search for and hear my own voice, my true self and learn more about my wants, my fears, and my place in the world.”
She continued, “Writing is a solitary act, but one that reveals the world within the `Self’ like an open window. In my memoir, I dig deep into remembering and putting the pieces together to repossess who I was, how I survived extreme poverty and inequality, and who I have become. Being around resilient, resourceful, and compassionate women taught and inspired me to be humble and simple and to look for the essence in people and the simplicity in life, to appreciate the majestic but simple gifts of life, such as nature, the sun, the moon, a flowing river, a friend, a simple wild flower, and — above all — the humanity in us all.”
Souza Hogan plans on writing about her experience in helping her family get out of poverty, what has worked for them and what has not worked. “I will describe my own practical approach to it, not an academic one.”
As for her present position at Litchfield High School, Souza Hogan said, “I love working with the Litchfield parents and sharing my knowledge with their children. The way that they honor education inspires me to try to be better each day.”
And it is certain her students and their parents are inspired by Maria Souza Hogan and her remarkable story of survival in the worst of conditions and reaching supreme heights of accomplishment.