Excavating Memory

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“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.