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.

10 thoughts on “The Keeper of Sheep

  1. Congratulations on sticking to your brilliant, crazy idea! Great name, Fidalgo. There is nobility in traditional publishing, especially these days when everyone and his dog is self-publishing.

    • Thanks, Tony.
      Would you believe that out of the million or so titles published in the US last year, a whopping 750,000 were self-published? Not surprisingly, the vast majority of self-published books sell fewer than 50 copies.

  2. I’m looking forward to seeing the Portuguese-Canadian anthology. When is it out? Does it include writers of Brazilian-Canadian ethnicity?

    • Hi Lena,
      We’re proceeding (fingers crossed!) with publication in October. This anthology does not include writers of Brazilian-Canadian background but only because I wanted to feature writers of Portuguese/Azorean heritage for this first book. You may be interested in tracking down a copy of revue ellipse magazine (Issue 84-85, 2010), which features contemporary Brazilian writing in translation and includes work and translations by a number of Canadians.

  3. Best of luck on your new venture, Fernanda. I know it’s something you’ve been working towards for a long time.
    I also like your company name!

  4. Fernanda,
    Congratulations on forging ahead with your dream of starting a publishing house. I was moved by reading the history of your journey from dream-concept to this moment, when you are on the verge of launching your press. Fidalgo is a solid word that will serve you in good stead. I wish you much success.
    Perhaps you have been a voice, crying out in the proverbial wilderness, in a desire to advocate for the voices, words, and experiences of our Luso North American writers. I am delighted to see your perseverance and vision come to fruition, as I am sure all your other reader-followers will concur.
    As much as I admire and read the “established” Canadian authors you cite, I am also interested in reading more about the experiences of our “ethnic” community. I use the word “ethnic” with reservation. All literature comes from some cultural and ethnic context. Margaret Laurence wrote about her geography, as do all the other authors mentioned. But we need to add new voices, new writings, new perspectives, from our own community to enrich the Canadian literary landscape.
    When I first became conscious of the need to write, it was as a response to an attempt to articulate my experience of coming from the insular Azorean island of São Miguel to Toronto when I was nine years old; and about the profound impact this had on my identity as a Luso-Canadian. It is my hope that one day my stories will find their way out into the reader’s world.
    How many readers are out there who care about our perspective, our stories? I wish I knew. But I hope that there are more than 300. You will soon find out when you publish your first book, a collection that will do us all proud. I have faith in your vision and I am looking forward, as I am sure so many others are, to hold in my hands Força: An Anthology of Portuguese-Canadian Writers, the first of many more to come, thanks to your origami sheep.

  5. The odds are against you, Fernanda, as they always are against someone with a vision to do something important. Market schmarket. Your market is human beings with a pulse. One million people have seen Ruben Alves’s new film in France “A Gaiola Dourada” (La Cage Doree) about Portuguese-French immigrants. It’s coming to Canada, but not the U.S. yet. Presumably, it’s a hit because it speaks to something human, not merely Portuguese. Perhaps someone here will see it and be inspired to put pen to paper about their own experience. And the more specific the writing, the more universal the appeal will be. Few authors have made me think as hard about my Portuguese-American upbringing than Jhumpa Lahiri, and her characters are all Bengali immigrants! She writes so beautifully, so humanely, that I can’t help but think of my own life, even though the circumstances and cultrures are so different. That’s what a great writers does. My hunch is that the Portuguese Jhumpa hasn’t emerged yet… You’ve chosen a tough path, so I will root for you. Meanwhile, I salute you. Coragem, Fernanda! Vem a hora…

    • The goal, of course, is to transcend the label of ethnic literature, but in the meantime, without the ‘niche’ of ‘ethnic literature’[s], talented writers in North America are often overlooked by large publishing houses in favor of the next vampire trilogy or ghostwritten celebrity tell-all. Yes, it’s only a matter of time before the “Portuguese Jhumpa” emerges—and it’s my hope I’ll be the one to discover her. One can only dream….

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