Excavating Memory

IMG_0786 (3)

“Luso-American narratives are also answering the “dominant” cultural discourse in the US, or “talking back to the empire,” finally giving our people there the voice that they, along with any other ethnic or national group, have deserved since the beginning. This is also a very legitimate role of literature—excavating memories and defining the common soul of a people.”

~ Azorean literary critic and author Vamberto Freitas, (from an interview, “Contemporary Azorean and Luso-American Writing,” with Oona Patrick)

In my own small way, I’m adding a few more voices to the Luso American narrative with the forthcoming publication of Memoria: An Anthology of Portuguese Canadian Writers. The book showcases contemporary prose and poetry that reflect the changing Portuguese Canadian community while supporting new voices in the diaspora. Contributors include Clemente Alves, Edith Baguinho, Nelia Botelho, Esmeralda Cabral, Tony Correia, paulo da costa, Humberto da Silva, Aida Jordão, Irene Marques, Antonio M. Marques, Emanuel Melo, Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto, Paul Serralheiro, Richard Simas, and Laureano Soares. The foreword is by noted academic and author Onésimo T. Almedia. It was an honour to work with the writers on polishing their final pieces for the book.

Memory is a common thread running through nearly all of the pieces. I couldn’t help but see my own life reflected in many of the stories and poems and I imagine many readers will feel the same. In my preface, I write: “I hope the collection of writing within this book widens the realm of possibility for Portuguese Canadian writers and offers insight into who we are as individuals, as members of an all-too-silent ethnic group and more importantly, as the keepers of memories for those who come after us.” This is particularly true at this time. So many of the first generation who landed on Canadian shores back in the 1950s are passing away. As they leave, so do their memories, and their stories…

I’m currently working on a website for Fidalgo Books, my new publishing company, and will post the link once it’s ready for the public.  I’m also collecting manuscripts from Luso North Americans and Azorean authors writing in English for my Fall 2014 season. Drop me a line at fidalgobooks (at) gmail.com with your proposals.

Is Sexism in Publishing a Double-edged Sword?

I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman. ― Virginia Woolf

In the same way that some people enjoy reading memoirs or biographies about famous writers, I enjoy reading books about publishers. My most recent find is Woolf’s Head Publishing: The Highlights and New Lights of the Hogarth Press. It is a beautifully-designed book that catalogues the surprisingly diverse range of titles published by feminist writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard during the early twentieth century. As every fan of Virginia Woolf knows, she wrote a great deal about how difficult it was to be a female writer during her time. In fact, the struggle of women trying to make it in a man’s world forms the central theme in many of her novels so it’s gratifying to see how she simply forged ahead and started her own press, and quite successfully too. She did not allow her gender to become an issue.

In a previous blog post I mentioned a proposal to publish an anthology of writing by Luso North American women. It triggered an angry email from a reader who insisted a women-only anthology was sexist and demeaning. Her point was that niche themes based on gender or ethnicity were putting up roadblocks to that Utopian future in which full equality will reign and people will be judged by the quality of their writing and not by their gender, race or ethnicity. Okay, I get it, I really do. After all, I too was incensed by Wikipedia’s segregation of American women novelists earlier this year. In my defense, my reasons for wanting to do this anthology are simple: As an emerging independent publisher, anthologies would be a way to develop a community of writers who may go on to produce more polished work in future—I’d be getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, and nurturing the development of new authors. The anthology’s niche theme—writing by Luso North American women— would allow for the book to be specifically targeted to my audience, primarily members of the Luso North American community. Lastly, I enjoy working with women.

I was quite chagrined by the woman’s email until I came across her comment on another blog later that day about the Vida count in which she accuses the publishing industry of intentionally offering more publishing opportunities to male writers. Whaaat? I guess I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.

According to VIDA and CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), there appears to be a bias, borne out by startling statistics, against women publishing in North America. What’s so difficult about addressing sexism in publishing is that you often can’t point to a deliberate decision or unscrupulous motive on the part of those in the literary industry. There are too many moving parts—agents, editors, publishers, publicists and the sales team—between the author and their potential reader. In addition, why would there be a conspiracy against women writers? First and foremost, publishing is a business. Publishers are looking for books that will capture an audience, books that will sell—regardless of the author’s gender. In Forbes’ newly released list of the world’s highest-paid authors, women took three out of the top five positions. Furthermore, there are a number of successful women-only publishing houses like Virago, Perugia Press, Alice James Books, Artemis Press, Paris Press and Second Story Press. And yet, I do believe women writers continue to get short thrift in the publishing industry. It’s subtle but I’ve experienced it. Sexism in publishing exists.

The whole issue of discrimination against women writers is a prickly topic, that it makes me rather nervous to even voice an opinion in case a lynch e-mob appears but I’m curious: if a woman publisher decides to put out a book composed of pieces by Luso North American women writers, is she helping the cause or contributing to a double-whammy marginalization of a minority group?

The Keeper of Sheep

How Not to be a Sheep

When I sit down to write a poem
Or when ambling along the main roads and bypaths,
I write lines on the paper of my thoughts,
I feel the staff in my hands
And glimpse an outline of myself
On top of some low-lying hill,
Watching over my flock and seeing my ideas,
Or watching over my ideas and seeing my flock,
And smiling vaguely like one who doesn’t understand
what’s said
And likes to pretend he does.
(an excerpt from The Keeper of Sheep by Fernando Pessoa)

One day, say ten years ago, after reading My Darling Dead Ones by Erica de Vasconcelos, you have this brilliant crazy idea: I’m going to start a press publishing works by Portuguese Canadian writers!

Okay, more crazy than brilliant.

You mention the idea of this press to several colleagues, editors and instructors and publishers (mostly men, all 3rd or 4th generation Canadian), who express similar qualms – are there enough writers in the Portuguese immigrant community to warrant such a press, is there even an audience for this type of literature –and who question the labelling, concerned it might move you into the ghetto of “ethnic literature,” the death stamp in mainstream publishing.  Chastened and disappointed, you fold the idea into a small origami sheep and slide it into the darker recesses of your mind. You think, maybe some day…

A few years go by. You move from being an editor and publicist at a small publishing house to running a provincial writers’ organization, and then later, producing large-scale literary events. You do your best to organize and promote writers of ethnicity but you can’t help but notice how, too often, they’re treated like the black sheep of publishing, demoted to the sidelines by their publishers while others get top billing. You see how ethnic writers, in particular, do a lot of asking—asking to be heard, asking to be included, asking to belong, asking for validation. You think, Is this fair?

You’re invited to sit in at a meeting where members of the literary industry in Vancouver are discussing how best to lobby the provincial government to include Canadian literature in the teaching curriculum at British Columbian universities. Titles by Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, W.P. Kinsella, Alice Munro, Farley Mowat and Margaret Laurence, among others, are proposed, and you find yourself thinking, wait a second, all of those books are written by “old, white people” and describe environments unfamiliar to Canadians who grow up in bilingual, bicultural immigrant households.  Shouldn’t those students read books that reflect their lives as well? You speak up. “What about books by immigrant writers or First Nations?” Your comment is received with blank stares so you repeat yourself, only to hear, “Well, we should start with books by Canadian authors first,” leaving you, rarely, at a loss for words.  And you think, This is bullshit.

But then something changes. Another novel by a Portuguese Canadian writer is released to great fanfare. You come across books by Frank Gaspar and Katherine Vaz and interviews with Vamberto Freitas and Onesímo Almeida.  You attend the first annual Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon and discover there are people like you, and more amazingly, there are hundreds more, who did not attend the conference for one reason or another, back home.  You’re not alone. And that perhaps it’s time to bring that brilliant crazy idea of yours out to join the rest of the flock.

****

At a recent publishing workshop, the instructor discussed market share, demographics and targeting readers via niche publishing.  He turned to me and asked, “How many readers are there in the Portuguese North American community? Five thousand? Three thousand?”

My immediate answer was to laugh. “3000? More like 300.” Afterwards, I realized I was not only flippant, but clearly mistaken about the low number.  A scarcity of readers may have been the case ten years ago but in the last two years alone, I’ve witnessed a sea change in the Luso North American literary community.

Thanks, in part, to the Disquiet Literary Program in Lisbon, a growing community of writers are finding their voice, and escaping isolation, insularity and obscurity. Other initiatives engaging and promoting Luso North American writers have included websites, Facebook groups, reading events, workshops and panels at the AWP.

My only concern is that the Luso North American literary community, which is small, appears to be dominated by male writers, male editors…and male publishers.  And unlike Frank Sousa of Tagus Press and Onesímo Almeida of Gávea-Brown, I’m neither an academic nor an authority on Luso North American literature; I’m learning as I go along, supported and motivated, in large part, by the readers of this blog and by an online community also eager to see change and progress.

In spite of these reservations, or perhaps, because of them (Canucky rebel that I am!), I’m moving forward. There have been a few missteps along the way to be sure. One, I’ve had to change the original name of my publishing venture in order to avoid potential confusion with a long-established publisher on the east coast.  Two, I underestimated how much time I would end up devoting to the first book, an anthology of Portuguese Canadian writing, due to launch this fall—a year later than my original publishing date.  Three, I had assumed that people would be throwing manuscripts at me once they learned of my plans, but that didn’t happen, at least not initially.

It’s changed recently. A respected Luso American author has contacted me regarding the reprinting of his first novel, and I’ve been awarded the rights to translate and publish a children’s book by a Lisbon author. A Portuguese Canadian poet is interested in sending me his manuscript, and a proposal to publish an anthology of Luso North American women is in the works. Things are picking up. But again, a colleague asked, “How large is YOUR market?”

Well, I still don’t know. I have a rough idea of the numbers, pulled from databases like BookScan, but in the end, I’m not going to know until the first few books are out there, in your hands, in the hands of the people who care about the same things I do.

I have faith in my own talents as a new publisher, but more importantly, I have a greater faith in the talents of an emerging group of writers coming out of the Luso North American literary community. Faith, too, that there is an audience for books written by writers with a Luso-North American perspective.

Oh, and the name of my small origami sheep? Fidalgo.

Taking Up the Pen

Home  alfred_lewis  home_is_an_island

In the Azores, you can’t travel far without tripping over a statue or dedication to one of its many illustrious writers. One such writer was Alfred Lewis (Alfredo Luís), a promising scholar who left his home on Flores in the Azores in 1922 for the far shores of America, and achieved considerable success as an author and municipal judge in California.  Remarkably, Lewis was the first Portuguese North American writing from an ethnic perspective to claim the attention of the American reading public. His autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Home is an Island, was published in 1951 by Random House alongside J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  The publication was well-received, garnering over 80 reviews, with the San Francisco Chronicle heralding the book as “a pioneer effort from this particular group,” and adding that Lewis would be an inspiration for other Portuguese Americans “to take up the pen.”  The novel was reissued by Tagus Press several years ago and has also been translated into Portuguese, reaching a new audience both here and overseas more than sixty years after its original publication.  I was pleased to see several copies in both English and Portuguese on library bookshelves in Fazenda and Santa Cruz when I visited Flores last summer.

In this excerpt from Home is an Island, young Jose Castro speaks of his fascination with writing to the bewilderment of his friends.

It was during a summer such as this, that Jose began—for no apparent reason, it seemed—to put words on paper again. He began to miss his books. He began reading again.

He did not quite understand this desire. He discussed it with his friends, one afternoon. They were sitting by their swimming hole, looking into the water, saying nothing. What was the matter with himself? Jose asked Francisco. Why should he do these strange, unnatural things? Yes, why must he want to read and write?

Francisco said, “The lives of the saints are good to know. I like to read and meditate upon the denials of the flesh.”

“You would like that,” Miguel put in. “But me, I don’t read. I want to run, play, chase the animals up there,” and he pointed to the far hills, lush green and yellow.

“I must learn how to write, so that I can write to my mother when I go to America,” Alvaro said.

“You mean,” Jose asked, “you don’t write just because you like to?

“Anybody who does that is crazy,” Miguel announced. “Besides, I can’t spell. No good to write the wrong stuff; show it to the teacher and have your hands slapped with a ruler. Besides,” he went on, “what can you find to write about?”

“A lot of things,” Jose said. “A cat dies, or your dog. You think about it, and write.”

“It must be terrible to be this way,” Miguel said.

In recent weeks, I have been reading and reviewing 91 individual entries submitted by 53 Portuguese Canadian writers for an anthology I’m launching later this fall. In reading the entries, many of which touch upon themes of  immigration, loss, love and childhood memories, I am reminded of Alfred Lewis and his own humble beginnings as a writer on an island far off in the middle of the Atlantic. I am reminded, too, that decades later, his novel endures as a testament to his Portuguese past while honoring his Portuguese American ethnic identity.

A story may never change our lives with a single brilliant epiphany—though we may treasure the profound shift in understanding it carries—but for the Portuguese North American community, “taking up the pen” may impact how—or even whether—we are remembered a century from now. Is that so terrible, Miguel?

The Portuguese Kids and the Perils of Ethnic Comedy

Portuguese immigrants in Vancouver, BC.Proud Portuguese immigrants in Vancouver, BC, circa 1960
Photo credit: Frank Trigueiro


“The Portuguese are the unknown people. We are lost in this vast country. No one knows we are here. To be Portuguese in America is to be a stone dropped in the middle of the ocean.”

—Charles Reis Felix, in Da Gama, Cary Grant and the Election of 1934 (Tagus Books)

I once wrote that one of the largest obstacles we face as Portuguese North Americans is the inability to claim an identity and culture that are defined by those of us within the community, rather than how mainstream society defines us.  But what if one of our own chooses to represent us in a manner that stigmatizes our ethnicity?   To be more specific, does ethnic comedy at our expense constitute a kind of betrayal?

An American-based comedy troupe known as the Portuguese Kids performed a week ago in Vancouver. I didn’t attend the show but I’ve seen the group’s online videos so I’m familiar with their brand of comedy: ethnic humour that typically involves amplifying and exaggerating negative verbal, physical and intellectual stereotypes.

Little of their online material is funny or original; much of it deals with broad generalizations about Portuguese immigrant culture and the conflicts between generations shoving up against each other in a boxing ring of clashing values and social attitudes.  It’s all so familiar: the jokes where every woman is named Maria, where paycheques are prized over career or academic success, where a cerveja in the closely-guarded quintal is the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon, where women are portrayed as gossipy moustached harridans, their men as hen-pecked, plaid-wearing oafs, and their children as eye-rolling, rule-breaking survivors of  thrown slippers and malapropisms.

I understand that this particular group is simply expressing an affectionate caricaturing of the Portuguese immigrant community in an attempt to recall the “old times” and share similar childhood experiences.  Their comedy may serve to remind us of our beloved grandparents, or growing up in a Portuguese neighbourhood, or because it gives us the opportunity to love something about ourselves or how our inclusion in a particular tribe makes us feel. It’s a shame though that these skits seem to relish in portraying our immigrants as dollar-obsessed brutes hopelessly stuck in dated traditions and spouting peculiar home-spun beliefs.  Much of the comedy veers towards the disrespectful and absurd. Don’t we owe it to our parents and grandparents to show a little dignity?  If the same comedic material were performed by 5th generation Irish Americans, or Asians or another immigrant comedy group instead of by a group of Portuguese American men, would we be laughing? Eh, probably not.

But like I’ve said, I wasn’t there.  I’m basing my comments on their online video segments, not their live shows.  I imagine those who attended didn’t over-think the ramifications of ethnic humour as I am prone to do these days. Self-deprecating humour about one’s culture or ethnicity can be a source of identity and pride but it can also cause a great deal of harm. For some of us, travel, work or education broke the cultural scripts that we had been ingrained with growing up but it seems we can’t go very far without coming across outdated stereotypes about our ethnicity or who we’re “supposed” to be.

Some people express surprise when I tell them I’m of Portuguese origin. “Really? I thought Portuguese people were —-.” Fill in the blank. I’ve heard it ALL over the years and much of it left me feeling less than proud — and invisible.

Worse, it was through literature and later, popular culture, that I became even more aware that the Portuguese had a poor reputation among the general populace. From Twain (“The community is eminently Portuguese–that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy.  The people lie, and cheat the stranger, and are desperately ignorant…”) to Steinbeck, from Hollywood to television (Nelly Furtado’s stint as “Tia Maria” at the 2007 Juno Awards didn’t do us any favours), the Portuguese are represented as rude, lazy, ignorant and promiscuous. How did this happen? What can we do to change these perceptions? I think it begins with us.

Successful North Americans of Portuguese ethnicity owe it to themselves to use their public platform (be it through literature, art, music or even comedy), to educate and inspire our community rather than spread ignorance, reinforce embarrassing stereotypes or encourage self-mockery.  The articulation and reinforcement of Portuguese immigrants and their children as simple-minded buffoons unfortunately limits everyone, not just those of Portuguese ethnicity.  And I have to wonder if ethnic humor within our community doesn’t make people outside the community feel they have implicit permission to make the same jokes or believe the same stereotypes—or as Anne-Marie Ross of the Prodigal Lusophone says, simply ignore us.

She writes:

“They [the Portuguese Kids] do incredibly funny imitations of their immigrant parents as they were raising children and working in this odd landscape of America. “What better way to celebrate the Portuguese culture than to laugh and remember your childhood? they ask in their bio. And yes, what better way?

When I read that, however, a chill comes over me thinking of my mission of breaking past the guns, germs, and steel about why nobody outside the community understands who we are….Here’s my downer for the day: this humor is still an inside joke. It’s Portuguese comedy for other Portuguese people, mostly people who had immigrant parents. It’s barely even for the immigrants themselves!!”

Unlike yours truly, Anne-Marie thinks the Portuguese Kids comedy troupe is funny and would like to see the group’s popularity grow outside the community. (Please God, no.) However, she then wonders why the Portuguese barely exist in the American landscape. “It’s not because there aren’t enough accomplished people here of Portuguese origin,” she writes, and adds tongue in cheek, “They’re just too busy and not focusing on what it takes to get some notoriety in America.”

All kidding aside, I would argue that the Portuguese Kids’ brand of ethnic humour is a form of notoriety since it perpetuates and reinforces a long-existing stereotype of the “dumb Portugee.” If Twain were still alive, he’d be laughing. At us, not with us.

So stop already. Rewrite the scripts, the skits, the parodies—everything that disparages our ethnicity. Give us comedic material we can be proud of, something we can laugh at that doesn’t reinforce embarrassing stereotypes or encourage self-mockery. Give us comedy that honours our immigrant stories, the stories that bind us together, that connect us to the incredibly deep and rich history of our ancestors. Give us a little Portuguese pride, people.

Am I getting my cuecas in a twist over nothing?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that we are still an unknown people—sometimes even to ourselves—and that what we say about ourselves to ourselves is important.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject.

The Creature in the Cellar

 

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott writes of the little assistant that lives inside a writer’s mind, or dwells deep down in one’s gut:

There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on, is that little kid or the Dr. Seuss creature in the cellar, arranging and stitching things together.

Her words resonate with me as I use my post-flu recovery downtime to brainstorm my current projects and outline a new set of goals for the coming year. Goals, or dreams? I have projects that seem too ambitious but in setting the bar higher I believe I am giving myself  permission to feed the strange creature in the cellar, the one arranging and stitching things together, the one keeping me up with all sorts of crazy Nyquil-induced ideas until the early hours of the morning.

This will be a brief post. I’m still groggy and tired and my thoughts are all-a-swirl. But this much is clear:  Our dreams, our creations—arranged and stitched together in the dark cellar of our unconscious—are an extension of who we are and who we hope to become.  But commitment—to a goal, to a place, to a person—is what separates a dream from reality.

I’m looking forward to re-committing myself to this blog and to the many projects I initiated last year. I’m committing to working on culturally potent projects with the primary purpose of strengthening a sense of Portuguese-North American identity. I’m committing to writing about cultural identity and psycho-geography while exploring my deep interest in Portuguese literature. I’m committing myself in order to commit you. To your dreams. Honor your creature in the cellar.

Flores, the “enchanted” island

Fazenda at sunrise

I was asked if the photograph that accompanied my previous post had been taken in the Azores.  And yes, it was. The image in question is the tomb of Antonio de Freitas which is located in the idyllic village of Mosteiro.  De Freitas, born in Mosteiro in 1792, left his homeland for Macau and made a fortune in opium trafficking and child slavery before returning to Flores in 1845.  In an effort to relieve his conscience and atone for his sins, de Freitas established a church in Mosterio, the “poorest place of his island,” and set about decorating the Igreja da Santíssima Trindade (Holy Trinity Church) with religious ornaments and cloths brought back from China. He had also brought back with him a beautiful Chinese-Portuguese wife, Ana Pulcreana. Driven by jealousy, de Freitas often locked her in their home. Plagued by loneliness, Ana became ill and eventually died, along with her young daughter, several years after her arrival on Flores.  After his own death in 1864, de Freitas was buried in Mosteiro in the cemetery located behind the Holy Trinity Church.  His tomb is unusual in its sinister details: tiger paws support a coffin adorned with a sculpted skull among two crossed shin-bones.

The small village of Caveira (skull) on the southeastern coast of Flores is home to the Legend of the Luminous Skull and as recently as ten years ago was also home to a young and charismatic witch doctor, Carlos Medeiros. People from all over the island would travel to his residence in Caveira to learn about their future, acquire monetary gains or to have curses cast on their enemies. As it turns out, one of his sons works as a laborer for my husband’s sister in Fazenda. He was amused, or perhaps surprised, to discover I had heard of his father’s reputation by way of a book (Flores, Azores: Walking Through History by Pierluigi Bragaglia) but not as amused when I asked if he had inherited any special psychic powers.

On my last night in Flores, we drove around the island’s southwestern hills before heading back through the town of Lajes to visit the marina one last time. Slowing at a corner, I looked out the window upon an older home tucked behind a stone wall. In the garden, naked dolls with dark eyes and missing limbs were hanging from a clothesline over a garden of kale and fava beans. If this was the Florentines’ version of the North American scarecrow, it was certainly effective on a scaredy-bird like me.  The effect of the moon shining down upon this strangely unsettling vignette only served to cement my belief that the island—or rather, its inhabitants,  are cursed—or blessed?—with a sense of the macabre. Goodbye Flores, my freaky little friend, I thought.  I’ll return one day. Maybe.

Many of the YouTube videos featuring the Azores seem to be accompanied by cheery or tranquil music which I simply can’t relate to as the islands harbor far too many mysteries and complexities to ever  be mistaken as a typical tourist destination.  Clearly, the folks who created these videos have never delved into the dark underbelly of the islands. However, the following video incorporates stunning time-lapse photography with a menacing soundtrack and an increasingly ominous progression of cloud formations that should be a warning to some of you… You will not come away from the islands untouched.

Here is the Place

here is the place where sadness
has the depth of a well
and the face of absence
here where my shoulders
are submerged
coincidental with distance and permanence

let it be a poem where water
is always near
water and music of seaweed against rocks
let it only be an image in the mirrors
growing in silence against the bones

but if I write to you water
water liberates
it spells your name
it drinks your splendor
here on this page
the sea rises up
floods me dissolves me
in its furor

~Madalena Férin
Translation by John M. Kinsella, Voices From the Islands

That Damned Island…

Mosteiro gravesite large pix


Damned island

where a day has months, lasts years
island of waves and disappointments
island of tiredness and misfortunes:
what enchantment do you hold?
what truth is only yours?
that makes me leave
thinking of leaving forever
thinking of leaving alone
but I take with me
as a stigma, a punishment
the certainty of a desired return,
the incapacity of leaving definitely
your company that I didn’t want
and you make me return, now without pain
now, all of me, once again, pleasure and happiness

~Gabriela Silva
Translation by Diniz Borges


Ilha maldita

onde a dia tem meses, dura anos
ilha de marés de desenganos
ilha de cansaços e desditas:
que encanto é o teu?
que verdade é a tua?
que faz com que eu parta
pensando ir de vez
pensando ir sozinha
e leve comigo
como um stigma, um castigo
a certeza de um regress desejado,
a incapacidade de partir de um só vez
a tua companhia que eu não queria
e me faças voltar, já sem dor
já toda eu, outra vez, prazer e alegria

~Gabriela Silva

The Florentine poet Gabriela Silva perfectly captures the enchantment of the small island of Flores and its effect upon both residents and visitors alike. I’ve been reflecting on my six weeks in the Azores this past summer, most notably on the four weeks I spent on Flores. It was my third visit in seven years and I am no closer to resolving the hold this place has on me. In my previous post I confessed to the “stoic breakdown” I experienced upon my return home. I was only half-joking. My sister, upon hearing of my “misadventures”—and we shall call them that in order to protect the innocent—insisted I never return to the island, but she, like my brothers, don’t understand my fascination with the place.

Flores is a damned island. I believe it is home to magic, some old-school thaumaturgy that begins to work its strange powers the moment you set foot upon its earth. It is a magic that permeates its landscape, its people and its history.   The Island (yes, it totally deserves capitalization) began working its dark magic on me within a few days of my arrival. Between bouts of truly gloomy weather, a family feud involving my capricious elderly aunt, graveyard visits, talk of exorcism involving a local teenager and the unrelenting weight of memory, I struggled to set aside a little time each day to write. More often than not, the urge to shave my head or jump off the cliffs into the churning waters interrupted my thoughts.  After two weeks, I gave up. True, I had some internet connectivity issues with my laptop the first week but once that was resolved, I was able to post on my blog. But I didn’t. There was simply too much to process while I was there, on that Damned Island—and I’m still processing. Not to make light of those who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I believe I’ve been suffering from Post-Flores Melancholic Disorder these last few months.

I don’t wish to portray my time on Flores as a completely miserable experience. I did have some wonderful times. There was an unbelievably scenic boat trip around the island. Long hikes on treacherous but breathtaking cliff-side paths.  Watching the breaking waves swirl in among the glinting rocks at Santa Cruz during a midnight dock-side concert.  Strolling through the mist-covered—and strangely empty—village of Mosteiro and experiencing a sudden rush of skin-prickling déjà vu. Exuberant family dinners that began late in the afternoon and went on past the midnight hour.  Getting my very own copy of Roberto de Mesquito’s Almas Cativas & Poemas Dispersos, a book that is all but out of print and impossibly hard to come by.

But I had expected to be swept off my feet in a blur of church festivals and dances, days filled with laughter and sunlight and writing inspiration galore.  I had expected carefree coffee-shop afternoons reconnecting with relatives and friends I hadn’t seen in years and swimming for hours until my skin puckered like a raisin in the warm salty ocean. I had expected The Island to steal my heart again.

And it did, but not in the way I had expected.

After the Storm…

The east coast of Flores

Yes, I know. I have tragically neglected my little blog and feel the worst for it. Would you believe me if I told you I’ve been busy with work, with life, with the myriad of responsibilities that come with being a citizen of the 21st century? No? Fine, I confess. I had a stoic breakdown following my trip to the Azores this past summer and it’s taken a lot of reading of sad poems by dead poets to revive my interest in Portuguese literature. That, and the realization that today, November 1, is a national holiday in Portugal: O Dia de Todos os Santos.

All Saints Day is celebrated throughout Portugal and the Azores with special masses and processions.  In many small towns and cities, young Portuguese children go door to door collecting “bread for God” in recognition of the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 which coincidentally took place on the morning of November 1, O Dia de Todos os Santos.  Thousands of people were attending church when the earthquake struck. Every church in Lisbon was destroyed. Those who escaped crumbling buildings fled to the port for safety only to drown in one of three tsunamis that swept through the region. Fires ravished the city and those who survived were left to starve among the rubble and ashes. Upwards of 40,000 people died in Portugal, Spain and Morocco with many of the deaths attributed to drowning. The earthquake was felt as far away as northern Europe and along the western coastline of Africa. In the Azores, every island port suffered serious damage from tsunamis.

That one of the largest natural disasters in history occurred on All Saints Day in a notably Roman Catholic country, and where so many perished in collapsed churches, had a strong influence on the theologians of the day. It had many Christians questioning the benevolence of God.

Communities sinking into the abyss of a roiling sea, miles of darkened and abandoned buildings, homes razed to the ground by fire, and most heartbreaking, a rising number of dead.  I’m referring not to the Lisbon of 1755, but to the eastern seaboard of the United States today. I imagine there are many Americans questioning that same God as they mourn loved ones who perished as a result of Hurricane Sandy. But that’s the thing about natural calamities. Bombarded with all the beauty and tragedy that the world has to offer, we are ultimately faced with the knowledge that we control so little in life. We can only control our response to tragedy. It is heartening to see Americans of all national origins, classes, creeds and colors work together to restore and rebuild their lives following such a large-scale disaster.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected, and especially to the many Portuguese-Americans residing in Newark, Providence, Cape Cod, New York and Rhode Island.


Romantic Burial 

There where the sea breaks in a roaring
And monotonous boil and where winds
Rear their lamentations along the beach,
There it will be that they bury my heart.

~Antero de Quental

 

The Island Within Me

Flores 2012 020

Seven, eight, nine. The tolling of the church bell here in Fazenda das Lajes on the island of Flores heralds my arrival as I enter my parents’ summer house. The plaster walls are mildewed and the wooden floor is buckling here and there but otherwise the place is as I had left it five years ago. From the back porch I can see the hilltop village of Lomba at my far left, and to the right, a narrow road leading up to the cliff-top cemetery. Behind the grove of cedars past the neighbouring cow pasture one can walk up the hillside to the vigia da baleia, a long-abandoned whale lookout. Beyond the tended pastures and lush woods, the hills fall steeply to the coastline but it is the v-shaped view of the sea from the back of the house that I have looked forward to seeing the most since arriving here. At this hour in the morning, the waters appear pearlescent and it’s difficult to gauge where the sea ends and the horizon begins; the wide swath of palest blue fades into the clouds.

Although I have already begun to question my presence here, I have yet to abandon my emotional connection to the enigmatic, beautiful and moody homeland of my ancestors. Flores has once again cast its spell upon me.

… Olhai, ei-la que surge esplendorosa
A minha linda terra,
A filha predilecta do Oceano:
Além, no horizonte
Do sol, a chama ardent e luminosa
lhe beija a leda fronte.

Remai, remai marinheiros,
Ai vamos, tocar a remar,
Que além já veio na encosta
Dúm monte o meu doce lar!

… Look, there it rises in splendour
My beautiful homeland
The ocean’s favourite daughter:
Beyond, on the horizon,
The Sun, the luminous and fiery flame,
kisses her joyful forehead.

Row, row seamen,
Let’s go and row,
Because I already see in the hills
My home sweet home!

~ João dos Santos Silveira, 20th century Florentine poet

When Home Becomes a Foreign Country

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.

― Beryl Markham, West with the Night

 

In little more than a week, we leave for the Azores. I should be notifying the utility companies, researching a new camera and making a list of the items we still need to purchase but I’m distracted by the manuscript I have yet to finish editing and the small tower of new books on my desk.  Distracted, too, by the aquarium my husband has moved into my office. Another goldfish has died. His companion nudges the body over and over again but I can’t bring myself to remove the dead fish from its home. And I’m tired, having woken numerous times throughout the night by the sound of heavy rain and fleeting dark memories of my last visit to Flores. It didn’t rain last night, my husband tells me, you were dreaming.

I first visited the Azores thirty-three years ago and fell truly, madly, deeply, in love with Flores.  My inexplicable passion for the place was like one of those crazy infatuations that end up with somebody dead. I’ve visited several times since then—each time more disturbing than the time before—with the most recent visit taking place in 2007.  The weather had been unseasonably gloomy and jellyfish warnings had kept us away from the beach. Ignored by my cousins and still grieving the death of my father, my daughter and I spent most of our time playing cards, visiting elderly relatives and hanging out in the internet café in a nearby town.

One afternoon, hypnotized by the stunning view of the beach below the winding road from Lajes to Fazenda and walking far too quickly, I slammed into a metal lamppost, chipping a tooth and splitting my temple. The doctor in Santa Cruz (“an inch to the left and you would have bled out in an hour and died!”) shaved off half my eyebrow and carefully put in eight stitches. If you’re lucky, your eyebrow will grow back over the scar, he said. I spent the next few days with a large gauze bandage over part of my blackened eye pretending not to be bothered by the teasing of the locals. I’m reconnecting with my pirate roots, I quipped to my daughter, but in all honesty, my time on Flores that summer was tinged with sadness, and a realization that perhaps I did not belong there after all.  The island was too small and my father’s ghost followed me everywhere.  The romance was over. We left Flores two weeks early and spent the remainder of our vacation on Terceira.

And yet, I can’t stop myself from returning to Flores again, to give it one more chance. One more chance at what? I have to ask myself.

In July 1979 my parents returned to the island of their birth twenty years after they had immigrated to Canada. I was a teenager and excited to travel outside the country for the first time. For my parents, it was an opportunity to share their roots with their four children and to reconnect with family and friends they hadn’t seen in over twenty years. It was a magical summer filled with outdoor barbeques, soccer games, trips to the lagoons, golden afternoons, swimming on rocky beaches, cliff-side drives on hairpin roads, church festivals, teenage romance and dancing to Abba. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. It was truly the best summer of my life.

But I remember my father expressing disappointment at some of the changes that had taken place in Flores while he had been away. My parents had regaled us with stories of their youth, of walking miles to milk the cows and hours spent washing laundry at the creek. We only wore shoes to church, said my father, who at the age of 12 had completed his schooling and was working 18 hours a day tending the family farm. But now, people did not appear to work as hard as they had twenty years earlier and the village teenagers seemed to enjoy a disturbing amount of freedom along with a highly-honed sense of fashion.  Their jeans were far cooler than my own. My mother’s childhood friends did not make their own bread any more—meu deus, no. Instead, there was a baker who arrived in the village every morning to sell fresh loaves from his horse-drawn cart.  My mother had warned us to expect chamber pots and rustic cooking but our relatives showed off fresh tile-lined bathrooms and new-found skills in American-style cooking.

In Tales from the Tenth Island, a collection of short stories, author Onésimo Almeida takes a humorous and sometimes bittersweet look at the Portuguese-American community of Rhode Island.  In “Brief Trilogy” the narrator Chico Avila returns to Sao Jorge time and time again with the intention of one day retiring ‘back home’ only to realize there is no going back to the life left behind—and that “his Portugal was no longer back there. He was living it all over here”:

“Things have changed a lot there. No one needs anything, even when they’re down on their uppers. No wants to be humbled. Everyone dresses well and no one goes around barefoot. They don’t even let a fellow buy his friends a glass of wine, because folk there have also got money now! An Americano turns up there now, and now one takes a blind bit of notice. Only a few of their nearest neighbours visited them at home and the local priest didn’t’ even invite him to sponsor the sermon on feast day. The gifts he took… But never again! In the old days, folk there would take anything we gave them. Now, second-hand stuff’s no good. It’s got to be new and not any old thing because American clothes are made of good cloth, but their cut and colours are too out-of-date!…To hell with them!

That’s final! He doesn’t need the islands! There are festas here, and in a few years they’ll be better than the ones there. Take the Santo Cristo festivities in Fall River!… The Espírito Santo, the Senhor da Pedra, the Senhora dos Anjos. There’s one every Sunday, just like in the islands. And massa sovada isn’t just eaten once a year on the day of the parish festival. You just go and get it at the baker’s. And malassadas too. As if Carnival was whenever we felt like it… My Portugal is here, for I’ll tell you this too, that place isn’t the same now as when I was growing up!…”

I think my own parents had assumed that their island would remain frozen in time, exactly as they had left it as young newlyweds awaiting a new life in Canada. They had gone back home with the idea of recapturing that life left behind, but the island had gone on without them. And I know now that my father’s melancholy–along with his brief bursts of temper–that summer may have had something to do with a realization that he had changed and that his home was on another island, an island on the west coast of Canada, where he had built a successful farm but still worked 18 hours a day.

In ‘Existential Migration’ (2006), psychotherapist and counselling psychologist Greg Madison states that “returning home can be a complex geo-psychological process of healing as well as relocation, while also an opportunity to assess the transformations that have occurred in one’s self while away.” The following passage illustrates the conflicted feelings of an immigrant relunctant to return home but aching for a sense of connection with his homeland:

“I think about returning home almost every day. Sometimes I am clear that I would never return, sometimes I fantasize about it, yet other times I feel a dull homesickness, a kind of pull to the only place that could have been home but never really was. I think this signifies a desire for a kind of spiritual and psychological reconnection, a healing of the self in some way, a reconciliation where originally there was mutual rejection. Return would be a complex process necessitating a melancholic recognition of time: home did not freeze the day I went through the departure gate. Home has changed, though deeply familiar it is also different, and I would return as a stranger in a strangely familiar land. But again, how could I stay and not succumb to the suffocation that led me to leave in the first place? How could I protect my fluid self, elaborated by all my experiences in the world, and withstand the sustained demand to cement into sameness? How can I balance my desire for home with my need for self-direction? Any feeling of being at-home is now forever tinged with feeling not-at-home; the two come inextricably intertwined. Homesickness is a given, not a demand to return home, where the feeling paradoxically continues unabated.”

I suppose the question for me remains whether it is valuable or even possible to re-create the summer of 1979 where for a few brief weeks I found my sense of home–only to lose it over and over again with each subsequent visit.  Beryl Markham points out, “never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead.” Perhaps it’s time to put one more ghost to rest.

Losing your Mother Tongue

1024px-MafraPalace-Library

“My homeland is the Portuguese language,” said Pessoa.

So what happens when you lose your language?

Like many first-generation Portuguese Canadians, I grew up speaking Portuguese at home but my fluency had eroded by the time I entered junior high school.  My father, anxious to see his children assimilate and succeed, encouraged my siblings and me to use English at home even though he and my mother nearly always spoke to us in Portuguese.  As a teenager, Portuguese represented “the old country” and my parents’ old-fashioned ideas so I was eager to leave the language —and my heavy accent—behind me in an effort to fit in with my classmates. It would be decades before I would begin to feel the loss of my mother tongue.

As a child of Azorean immigrants, it was my parents’ language more than anything else that connected me to their homeland—and to my heritage.  It was the language of my first words: mãe, pae, leite, vaca, bicho, Cala a boca!… It was the language of food, lullabies and superstitions whispered in the night. More than anything else, the language takes me back to a time in my childhood when our large extended family was a tight unit of outsiders struggling together to fit into a new life, a new homeland. Portuguese was the language I was raised in, disciplined in, loved in.

I see how my mother, with her limited grasp of the English language, lacks the words to communicate with her grandchildren and how even I simplify and edit much of what I share with her because there is a limit to what she can understand in English—and a limit to what I can convey in Portuguese. I cringe at the sound of my own accent and more often than not, revert to English rather than continue to slaughter the language.

In the following poem, Portuguese writer Jorge de Sena (English translation by George Monteiro) eloquently captures the grief and bitterness of immigrants who find themselves unable to communicate with their children through a shared language.


Notions about Linguistics

I listen to my children talk English.
Not the smallest alone but the older
Ones too, and they to the young ones.
Born elsewhere, they grew up
With Portuguese in their
Ears. But it’s English they speak,
They who will not be merely Americans;
Melted, they continue to melt in
Seas not their own. Tell me about
Poetry’s mystery, a tongue’s traditions,
A race of people, all that is inexpressible
Save in the untranslatable essence
Of a people. Bastards. Languages
Last centuries and will survive even when
Hidden within other tongues, but they
Die every day in the stammer of those who
Inherit them. So immortal are they that
A half dozen years suffice to suppress them
In mouths dissolving into new shapes,
Impressed by another people, a
Different culture. So metaphysical
Are languages, so untranslatable, that they
Melt thus, not unto the highest of heavens, but
In the quotidian crap of another tongue.

I wonder if most immigrants carry this burden of existential angst about the loss of their language and how this loss created a communication barrier between them and their children.  However much our parents may have encouraged us to speak English in order to assimilate, I think they were saddened by the repercussions of introducing a new language into the family home.  Losing one’s mother tongue is often the first step—the largest step—towards moving away from one’s ethnicity towards a new identity and culture.

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with navigating the Portuguese-English divide in your family. Have you lost—or reclaimed—your mother tongue?

Translation: A Complex Universe of Music

 

NO PEGO DO MAR
Na ilha parada
O menino-do-mar
Que sou e hei sido,
E vela molhada
Num ar de resdoma,
Envolto e pesado:
–Não passa de si!…
Persiste quem é
O menino-de-mar
Que tenho de ser,
A nuvem não pode
Ao vento que sopra:
–Desfaz-se é perdida
A vida fundada
no mar retraido
de um sonho incontido!
E o menino-do-mar
Que sempre eu serei
Ficou-se passado
E há-de morrer
Pelo dom de saber
Que a rua sem onde
Não força ou deslinda
O firme poder
De ser sem querer.
~João Afonso
IN THE DEPTHS OF THE SEA
On the motionless island
The child-of-the-sea
That I am and have been,
Like a wet sail,
Wrapped and heavy,
In the air of a bell jar
–Never to be other in itself.
He stays as he is,
The child-of-the-sea
That I have to be,
The cloud that cannot take
The wind that blows
–It dissolves and is lost,
A life rooted
In the withdrawn sea
Of an incontinent dream.
And the child-of-the-sea
I shall always be
Was left behind
And must die
From the gift of knowing
That the road nowhere
Neither compels nor clarifies
The stern power of being
Without wanting to be.

“No Pego do Mar,” along with its English translation, is taken from The Sea Within published by Gávea-Brown in 1983. The book is a collection of poems by Azorean writers (some of whom live in the States) translated into English. It’s interesting to read the originals in Portuguese and compare them side-by-side with the translations by George Monteiro, a renowned scholar and professor at Brown University. I’ve been working on my own poetry translation skills and am finding The Sea Within to be a terrific teaching guide as I’m able to compare the original with Monteiro’s translation.

I’m not as fluent in the language as I’d like to be despite it having been my only languge until elementary school but I have a pretty good comprehension of written Portuguese.  At last year’s Disquiet International Literary program in Lisbon I was privileged to participate in a translation workshop series with the noted professor and translator, Margarida Vale de Gato, a respected poet in her own right.

One of the things Margarida taught us was that a competent translator had to recreate the stylistic sensibility of the poem while honouring the meaning and intent of the poet. No easy feat as the best translations involve a form of lexical choreography — a substitution of slightly different lyrics without disturbing the melody, or meaning, of the song and where the translator’s voice is only a hum-in-the-ear and not an entirely new or different tune. A good translator substitutes words according to both sound and nuance. It is in translation where having a good ear dovetails with instinct. As most writers are aware, vowels and consonants, words and sentences, have a complex universe of music all their own.

In addition, language is inextricably connected to cultural identity, geography, history and even religion, so a weak translation results in a distinct loss when it comes to conveying the “cultural psyche” of the author. Saramago’s translator, Margaret Jull Costa, understood this. In speaking of her work, Jull Costa has said, “Translation is always a balancing act between faithfulness to letter and faithfulness to spirit. You have to understand what the author means not only at the level of denotation, but also of connotation. You have to be aware of the sound of words and their register, as well as the rhythm and sound of the sentence in the translated version, so that the finished product is as cogent, fluent and convincing in the new language as it is in the original.”

Saramago himself stressed the important cross-cultural role of translators. “Writers create a national literature,” he said, “but it is translators who create international literature.”

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

A Profile of the Azorean

old books

I received a number of enquiries about A Profile of the Azorean, a slender book published in 1980 which I quoted from in this post–which so far, is the most popular post on my blog with just over 300 views.  I came across a pdf version of the booklet on the website of the Canadian Centre for Azorean Research and Studies (CCARS) and contacted Onésimo T. Almeida, the author of the publication, to request permission to post the pdf on my site.

Almeida was surprised I had a copy of the actual book in my hands, a copy he had autographed and sent to  Janet Ladner over thirty years ago. Ladner was a popular Vancouver philanthropist who went back to school after raising her family, becoming fluent in Portuguese and a specialist in Portuguese royal history. I met her son, Peter Ladner, a city councillor, at a literary function and he happened to mention that he had just donated several boxes of his mother’s Portuguese book collection to the offices of Lusitania, a Portuguese-Canadian newspaper based in Vancouver.  The Lusitania office also served as a small library and contained about 500 Portuguese-related books and periodicals, many of them in English. When Lusitania editor Terry Costa decided to pull up roots and head back home to Toronto a year ago I purchased some of the books from the library. It was pure serendipity that Janet Ladner’s autographed copy of A Profile of the Azorean ended up in my hands.

Almeida graciously agreed to let me post A Profile of the Azorean on my blog provided I include the disclaimer he wrote for the CCARS. Here’s the disclaimer:

“I was asked permission to have this paper (A Profile of the Azorean) included in this website. I hesitated for good reasons. This is a paper written in the late 1970s almost as a guideline for workshops I gave to teachers in New England and California dealing with Azorean immigrant students in bilingual programs. It aimed at addressing some common questions from those who were trying to understand the cultural background of the students. Even though I tried not to generalize, some generalizations were unavoidable.

In any event, much has changed in the Azores since the 1974 revolution that took shook up Portugal. The islands have opened up to the world, and people who return there, after decades in Canada or the United States, often can hardly believe how much life conditions have improved, how modernized the infrastructures are. This is not to say that the culture has changed radically, but simply to underline the fact that this paper now can only serve as background for part of the story – to help understanding, in rough strokes, how the Azores came to be what they were in the 1970’s.

In the last decades, the history of the Azores has been studied in depth and there are many publications in the fields of sociology, anthropology, economics as well as other social sciences with a wealth of information on the many facets of Azorean history, life and culture. Unfortunately very few of them are available in English and that is why I bowed to the persistent request of letting an outdated piece such as this be included here.”

Download: A Profile of the Azorean

Azorean Profiling

Youth of Flores

I’m not sure what to make of a curious little book in my library.  A Profile of the Azorean is an offprint extracted from an academic paper on bilingual education published in the late 1970s. An online search revealed that the author, Onésimo T. Almeida, wrote the text as a guideline for workshops he held for teachers in New England and California dealing with Azorean immigrant students in bilingual programs.

In the introduction, Onésimo is careful to note that the rough characterizations of the Azorean sub-groups are not meant to perpetuate stereotypes but were included to help teachers understand the values, habits and beliefs of the Azorean immigrant children in their classrooms. More recently, the author referred to the papers as outdated since “much has changed in the Azores since the 1974 revolution that shook up Portugal.”

Outdated, yes, but these highly generalized character studies make for fascinating reading. The Azores were inhabited slowly over the course of two centuries by people who originated from the Iberian Peninsula, mainly from Portugal, but each island’s cultural history was further defined by the non-Portuguese who immigrated there. For example, Flores was settled primarily by Flemings in the early years of settlement whereas Terceira eventually attracted Sephardim Jews and Spaniards.  The eastern islands of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel saw greater numbers of people of southern Portuguese and North African settlement.  One has only to travel from one end of the archipelago to the other to observe the diversity of the Azorean people.

In this slender tract, Onesimo has collected observations of the Azorean character from several well-known islanders including the novelist Vitorino Nemésio and the nineteenth-century scientist and anthropologist Arruda Furtado.  He also includes remarks from “outsiders” like Joseph and Henry Bullar (A Winter in the Azores and a Summer at the Baths of Furnas, published in 1841) and the Portuguese writer Raúl Brandão.

I learn that Nemésio believed there were three major and distinct character types among the islanders, a view shared by Azorean ethnologist Luís Riberio: “The Micaelense is the hardest worker of the archipelago and is also the most different from the mainlander – rough, industrious, sturdy, and tenacious; while the Azorean from the Central and Western Islands is affable, somewhat cunning, fond of festivities, indolent; and finally, the Picaroto, dividing his time between land and sea, is vigorous, wholesome, sometimes heroic, and always takes life seriously.”

Nemésio, a native of Terceira, attributes the qualities of suave politeness and chivalry to the Terceirense noting that the islanders’ chivalry is “both testimony and legacy to a half-century’s occupation of Terceira by the Castillians.” However, he is particularly taken with the people of Pico and refers to them as the “cream of the islanders…He surpasses all other Azoreans in the seriousness of his life view, yet this seriousness is tempered, all the while, by an ingenuity that makes him triumphant in almost all of his endeavours. He is physically the most handsome…a great rifleman.”

What I found particularly interesting was the significance given to the roles of weather and geography in determining the nature of the islanders.  For example, the people of Terceira were considered the “most fun of the Azoreans” as were the people of Pico who “are generally more lively, agile and joyful. This latter trait usually attributed to the fact that Pico’s climate is dryer, sunnier and more healthful than on the other islands.”  On the other hand, Raúl Brandão experienced a sense of isolation among the people of Flores and Corvo which he attributes to the geography: “…the people are condemned to feeling lost, sentenced forever to the single unchanging view before them. An entire life faced by this, with nowhere to run other than death…glued to the windows beneath glass panes, sad faces of old people wait for longer than one can remember for someone to pass by, and no one passes by.”

Ribeiro refers specifically to the influence of the sea on the Azoreans:

“The contemplation of the sea makes men dreamers, saddens and depresses them with its monotony. The green of the land, the blue of the sea, sometimes dreadfully dark, sometimes whitened by the clouds, seen in the subdued and diffuse light filtered through the clouds, increase the sadness of the environment and spread sadness in the soul already downtrodden by the effect of the temperature. The sea is thus one more factor of the indolence of the saudosismo (nostalgia) of everything that makes the Azorean somnolent and apathetic … The rhythmic cadence of the waves and of the tides regulates his slow steps and wooden gestures, gives a tone to his drawl and song-like intonation, wrinkles his face and sharpens his sight.”

Online sleuthing uncovers several old public domain books which further delve into the behaviour, appearance and culture of the Azoreans – as perceived by outsiders – during the 19th century. In the 1878 book, The Atlantic Islands as Resorts of Health and Pleasure, American journalist and statesman Samuel Benjamin notes that the people of the Azores vary widely, in both appearance and disposition, from island to island. He deems the youth of Flores of “having a piquant beauty that is very attractive,” and considers the men and children of Sao Miguel to be especially beautiful. His highest praise is for the women of Pico who “are the handsomest of the Azores, finely formed, and with features of almost classic beauty. Their wealth of massive black tresses are done up in a simple beautiful braid, crowned by a straw hat or a scarlet cloth. Blithe and buxom, they seem to bear the burdens of life right merrily. Where ignorance is bliss, there is indeed no greater folly than to be wise.” Say what?  

Fortunately, the writer redeems himself with detailed descriptions of the radiant beauty of the islands and the industriousness of the natives.

My own family has roots in both Terceira and Flores. I would like to think that my relatives back home are cunning and fond of festivities but in truth, many of them are quite strange. I suspect there is something in the air in Flores besides “the deep fear of isolation” because people seem to go mad there. But that’s a story for another time…


Download: A Profile of the Azorean

Unbiased Book Reviews

“Reviews should be an occasion, not for tears or vendettas or shoe licking, but for dialogues.”
~ Heidi Julavits

I’m tracking online conversations about a recently published novel by a Portuguese-North American author and I’m befuddled.  There are glowing reviews and ecstatic blog posts and jacket blurbs by writers big and small but nobody mentions the elephant in the room: the book could have used a good editor.  And judging by the vagueness of the compliments, I have to wonder how many people actually read the book. I enjoyed the story and admired the ambition of this talented new writer, but it wasn’t all that. Hush now, you say, don’t knock a book by one of our own!

Unbiased book reviews are rarer than ever. In an essay published in The Believer way back in 2003, editor and novelist Heidi Julavits wrote:

“A writer/reviewer would sooner toss himself off the Brooklyn Bridge before he’d give a fair or truthful assessment of a colleague’s book, for fear said colleague will be in a position to ding him from Yaddo next summer or stand between him and his Guggenheim. I don’t deny there’s truth to this. I don’t deny that writers have all become a little bit too greedy about praise, that the manner in which writers assess other writers has suffered from a sort of grade inflation, until everyone’s got an impressive if meaningless 4.0 average on our career transcripts, the hacks and the quasi-hacks alike.”

However much I believe in supporting the development of our own literature, I’d hate to see us (members of the Portuguese-North American writing and publishing community) turn a blind eye to mediocrity. We’re not traitors to the movement when we critique a book nor should we feel an obligation to recommend a book solely on the basis of the author’s ethnicity.

Having said that, here’s one book I highly recommend: Julian Silva’s Move Over, Scopes and Other Writings.