Cancellations of literary works and works of art in general are on the agenda inside and outside Brazil. So far, nothing new. Censorship has already taken Flaubert and many other writers to the courts of accusation at different times in the history of humanity. The causes and ways of applying censorship take on new contours depending on the time and context of production, reception and circulation of these works. One of the most interesting reactions to the current prohibitory winds has been the opening in October 2023 of the Museo del Arte Prohibido (Museum of Forbidden Art) in Barcelona. This is the first museum space whose collection is made up only of works of art that have been censored and banned throughout history. There are more than 200 works, including Picasso, Goya, Klimt, Andy Warhol and other outcasts.

Recently, two Brazilian states ordered the withdrawal of The Inside of the Skin (by Jefferson Tenório) from school libraries under pretexts of a moral order. Writer Lia Neiva had a book banned by the City of Rio Claro (SP) in 2022, under the same allegation. Considering the necessary differences, cases of institutional censorship are related to informal censorship practiced under the guise of “cancellation” on social networks. JK Rowling, Road Dahl, Camões, Dante, Shakespeare, are just a few cases among the classics of international literature. At the national level, the most emblematic and controversial case is that of the writer Monteiro Lobato. We will stick to it from now on.

An Instagram post recently published (04/03/2024) on the official account of the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at Unicamp caused controversy. The communication strategy adopted by the IEL management when posting the event publicity card, a semiotic bomb with high potential for social media, was the following: a photo of Monteiro Lobato's face vandalized with the inscription “RACISTA” scratched on the forehead by the writer is topped by the title question of the event “Should IEL cancel Lobato?”. The post informed that, on March 14th, at the IEL amphitheater, there would be a debate table in which it would be discussed “whether or not the institute should cancel Monteiro Lobato, whose collection is at CEDAE/Unicamp.” And so it was. Professors from IEL and the technical coordinator of CEDAE, Roberta Botelho, participated in the panel. This time, what was at stake was canceling (or not) an archival collection. We have some questions here that deserve discussion.

Unicamp keeps an important part of Monteiro Lobato's archives at the “Alexandre Eulalio” Documentation Center (CEDAE), located at the entrance to the IEL building. Cedae was part of the event that discussed the writer's cancellation. Let's assume that IEL admitted to canceling Lobato, responding to demands from some students and social media. What would this mean? Remove the two thousand documents from CEDAE and return them to the family? Delete your books from the university library? Cross out Lobato's name from the subject syllabi of Literature courses (if it's still there...)? Judging by what has been happening over the last few years and considering that the proscription of literary works in educational institutions is already a reality, nothing is surprising anymore. Institutionalized interdiction could well be on the way.

The stakes are greater than one might think when a university discusses such a serious issue with an air of banality. It is worth noting here that a writer's personal files do not fall from the sky. Nor are they made of random papers or any documents, but of historical sources that testify to the past and allow scholars to produce the existing historiography of Brazilian literature – which is still a product of its time and is always subject to new interpretations. The process of donating an archival collection by the heirs of a writer, until the acquisition by the supporting institution is formalized, is legally complex, laborious, has a series of steps and multiple actors.

The documents that make up the important collection of the writer Monteiro Lobato would never have ended up at Cedae without the initiative and competent work of the teacher, now retired, Marisa Lajolo when she was in charge of the thematic project “Monteiro Lobato (1882-1948) and other modernisms Brazilians”, financed by FAPESP. In numbers, we are talking about more than two thousand documents including rare books in first editions, leaflets, periodicals, hundreds of handwritten and typewritten letters, photographs, drawings and watercolors, in addition to seven objects.

On the premises of IEL and CEDAE, many students were trained to rigorously carry out scientific research and teaching, all with research projects approved and financed with public resources by FAPESP. The research carried out in this collection was legitimized by several awards from the main academic bodies in the country. From it, two books were produced that are references for studies on the writer. I quote just one: Monteiro Lobato book by book: Children's Work organized by Marisa Lajolo and João Luís Ceccantini (Ed. Unesp, 2008), winner of the Jabuti Award in the “Book of the Year Non-Fiction” category and in the “Literary Criticism” category, in addition to having received the Highly Recommended seal FNLIJ 2009 (Fundação National Book for Children and Young People).

It does not seem reasonable to assume that it would be the purpose of the teachers involved in the event to cancel anyone. In fact, the direction of the discussion followed the opposite direction, according to the published news. Probably, the conclusion was reached that a university is not the appropriate space to practice cancellations. If this were the case, IEL would be violating its institutional mission of preserving the memory of Brazilian culture and literature, violating the collective right of access to this memory. There are the collections of Oswald de Andrade, Menotti Del Picchia, Hilda Hilst and many other artists and intellectuals who could one day enter the spotlight as “the canceled one of the time”.

Professors know – or should know – that collections are assets of public interest, as does the university. Archives in custody institutions such as CEDAE are not “cancelable”, therefore the discussion, in the terms in which it was stated, lacks merit and relevance. Due to its social and educational mission, the university has the duty to discuss the cancellations of literary works and their consequences, but it is expected that the discussion will be conducted from a perspective of understanding the phenomenon and analyzing the works in all their complexity, considering its aesthetic, social and historical dimensions.

The racism present in the biography or work of a writer or artist is not denied, it is discussed. The danger of universities adhering to mass communication strategies specific to social networks is the lowering of the level of discussions, when their role is to qualify the debate, present arguments based on reading and research, stimulate critical thinking through which can disagree in a democratic and civilized way.

Social media users cancel writers daily; educational institutions, no. Digital influencers manipulate other people’s emotions; teachers study, debate, research, build knowledge. The simple fact that this question is the topic of the debate promoted by IEL points to the admissibility of the idea of ​​cancellation, flirts with it. Furthermore, organizing a discussion that already begins with a dissemination strategy along the lines of internet censorship courts undermines the university. I hope the debate was productive and allowed the IEL to get out of the straitjacket in which it found itself.


Tamara Abreu

(Professor at UFRN)

March / 2024


1 For more details on the history of the creation and organization of the Monteiro Lobato Fund at CEDAE/IEL, see: Lajolo, M., Bignotto, C., Tin, E., Bastos, GS, Chiaradia, K., Camargo, L., Martins, M., Silva, RA da ., Abreu, T., & Albieri, T.. (2022). From papers to documents: Monteiro Lobato (1882-1948) and other Brazilian modernisms. Brazilian Journal of Comparative Literature, 24(46), 131–142.