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

Immigrant Nostalgia

Colour. Catalogue. Cheque. Favour. Harbour. Centre. Fibre. Grey. Behaviour. Rumour. Savour. There’s nothing like a list of Canadian spellings to cheer me up when I’m feeling blue. That and the secret stash of Coffee Crisp bars stacked in my filing cabinet between file folders Portuguese Travel Articles and Rare Books.

I’m feeling homesick for Canada today. I’m only a half-hour south of the border—and cross it often to visit family, friends and former colleagues—and yet, I miss my old life, my former home, and all those places that hold such strong memories of my childhood.  My feelings pale in comparison to what my parents must have felt when they left a small rural island in the Azores and travelled 4400 miles to live on another small rural island south of Vancouver, but even so I’m exhibiting signs of immigrant nostalgia.

The only cure is work. That, and poetry. Here is one of my favourites by Azorean poet João de Melo.


On this island there is no looking out
that isn’t ship-focused: in the sea
man has his destiny awakened and the
course for embarking.

Everyone is born looking out from the island
at water ripped slowly
by the edge of the keel
of ships on the high seas.

And courage bespeaks courage
maybe a ship placed
in the eyes of this voyage
the whole dream a shipwreck.

Facebook Feedback

A friend of a friend (I’m being vague to protect the innocent) published a chapbook of her poetry several months ago and presented an autographed copy to a colleague and fellow writer. This colleague, eager to promote the new writer’s work, extracted a few stanzas of poetry (complete with awkward sentence breaks and missing punctuation) and placed it on his Facebook page. Dozens of “friends” chimed in to “like” while others offered unsolicited feedback.

You can imagine the author’s dismay when she found her work posted for public consumption especially since she is one of those social media luddites and privacy freaks (ahem) who is not on Facebook. She argued that she had offered her book for a “professional” review, preferably in a literary journal, and that Facebook was not an “officially sanctioned platform” for book reviews period. In so far as literary feuds go, this was no Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa dust-up but it severed a long-time professional relationship.

As a fellow Facebook abstainer I could understand her feelings—but not her naïveté. According to one study, 95% of all communication online is through social media. Over a billion people—and their pets—are on Facebook. You can’t slap a restraining order on people who post your photos, your vacation plans, your poetry! on their Facebook page. Anything you write—be it in a journal, blog or magazine—can be extracted, linked, posted or tweeted on a friend or stranger’s Facebook without your consent or approval.

A few months ago I would have said this was a terrible thing, but now I’m not so sure. After all, a writer’s greatest fear should be obscurity.  Millions of titles are published every year by amateurs and professionals alike and they’re all competing for publicity.  If you’re lucky, your book will attract attention–and potential readers. Facebook, despite its creepy pokers, photoshopped images, moronic comments, and narcissistic vibe, could very well be the perfect place for a writer to build an audience—and get some honest feedback.

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.

Day of Freedom

Lisbon 1975 april 25 celebration a year after the revolution

Portuguese poets were among the first to celebrate the liberation of Portugal on April 25, 1974.  Sophia de Mello Breyner Andersen’s poem, “25 de Abril” captured the mood of the Portuguese as the authoritarian regime fell and the disappearance of repressive policies opened the doors to freedom of speech.

25 de Abril

Esta é a madrugada que eu esperava
o dia inicial interio e limpo
Onde emergimos da noite e do silêncio
E livres habitamos a substância do tempo

(This is the dawn I was waiting for
The first day whole and pure
When we emerged from night and silence
Alive into the substance of time)

~ Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

World Book Night

Today is a symbolic date for world literature. It’s the anniversary of the death of Cervantes, the great Spanish writer, and the birth and death day of William Shakespeare.

It’s also the day I will give away my beloved copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak in honour of World Book Night.

World Book Night was launched in the UK last year and is making its American debut tonight. Thousands of volunteers from coast to coast will each give away 20 specially printed and publisher-donated copies of one of the 30 books on the WBN list.  The grand idea behind all this is for book lovers to spread the joy of reading by handing out books they passionately love to light readers and non-readers.

Of the thirty books listed for this year’s World Book Night giveaway, I’ve read seventeen, and own nine. My favorite is The History of Love by Nicole Krausse. I have two copies, one a hardcover, the other a much-thumbed paperback I purchased for a dollar at a library sale here in the City of Subdued Excitement. I was reading The History of Love on the day my first love called me up out of the blue 28 years after we first met so the reading of the book coincided with a life-changing moment in my life. I could never part with either copy of the book.

My second favourite would have to be The Book Thief. As it happens, I have a hardcover in pristine condition, perfect for re-gifting.

According to the website, World Book Night is all about spreading the love of reading, person to person. I’m not a volunteer in this year’s event but I was inspired to do a little book-gifting of my own.  Tonight I’ll spread the love and place a brand new copy of one of my favourite World Book Night titles upon the doorstep of a neighbour. And pray that it does not end up in the recycling bin.

Of the thirty books listed for this year’s World Book Night, which is your favourite?

DISQUIET International Literary Program

“Sometimes I dream that Lisbon doesn’t exist and will only be a legend that one can recount, not to those who live here, but to those who come here visiting.”
~ Azorean novelist João de Melo

I was one of nearly fifty North American writers who attended Disquiet’s inaugural program last June in Lisbon and I can say that the city has an elusive and magical quality that affected – and infected – many of us.

Last year’s faculty included Portuguese American poet and novelist Frank X. Gaspar who led the workshop Writing the Luso Experience for our small group of fifteen. Since then, we’ve gone on to produce reading events (Kale Soup for the Soul), publish articles, essays and books, create an online community (Presence/Presença), and of course, continue with our writing careers. In my case, the program cemented an interest in starting a literary press specializing in translations, Azorean literature, and works by Portuguese North American writers.

As it turns out, the second annual DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon is still accepting entries for its July 2012 session. I would urge Luso-North American writers with an interest in Portuguese literature to attend this well-organized literary and cultural program. It’s a rare opportunity to participate in workshops, lectures, literary excursions, film screenings, and informal meetings with Portuguese writers, editors, professors and translators. Frank Gaspar will be returning to Lisbon for the 2012 program, along with Philip Graham (The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon), Josip Novakovich, Kim Addonozio and many other award-winning authors.

In addition to innovative and challenging two-week workshops in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, Disquiet also offers one-week workshops in songwriting with indie legend Dan Bern, and photo-documentary storytelling with Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice. The program will host an exciting group of contemporary Portuguese and North American writers including Anthony de Sa and José Luís Peixoto, renowned translater Richard Zenith, and editors from Dzanc Books, Open Letter, Ninth Letter, and Guernica.

Read this interview with Jeff Parker, director and co-founder of the Disquiet Program.
Visit the website for details or contact disquietinternational@gmail.org.

A New Day

I had a blog. It died.

My blog postings became sporadic as family, home and work issues took precedence. You know how it is. Eventually, life became a little more predictable but by that point, ennui had settled in. It took up residence in my office over the long damp Pacific Northwest winter and eventually began to smell. Not like teen spirit but like grumpy middle-aged attitude. I couldn’t muster the same gung-ho enthusiasm for projects I’d been obsessed with just months earlier.

But last week I had something of a breakthrough. It may have been the new brand of coffee I had at breakfast or the sight of magnolia trees in full lilac bloom but it was as if I turned a corner and the universe started sending me hints of new possibilities and new dreams – along with a resurgence of interest in some old dreams.

The first hint was an email from a writer I met last summer at the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon asking about the current status of my publishing company. I confessed it wasn’t exactly proceeding at the pace I had originally hoped for but with three manuscripts currently under revision, my plan to launch the press later this year was going ahead.

The second hint was the arrival of two books courtesy of Tagus Press: a new edition of Home is an Island and Sixty Acres and a Barn, both written by Alfred Lewis, a Portuguese American born and raised on the island of Flores in the Azores archipelago.

I first discovered Home is an Island in 2005 while rummaging through the shed at my parents’ summer home in Flores. It was a first edition published by Random House a half-century earlier and yet there it was, in a broken crate, keeping company with romance novels and German tourist guides.  At the time, I was working at a publishing house in Vancouver with dreams of starting up my own press.  The discovery of this slender book, along with a reading of the classic Azorean novel Mau Tempo no Canal, triggered a new interest in Portuguese literature. More importantly, it sparked a desire to publish writing by Canadians and Americans of Portuguese descent and to contribute in some small way to the development of Luso-North American literature.

This morning I pulled out the binder of lecture notes, assignments and business cards I’d collected at the Disquiet program. I was searching for a colleague’s contact information and came across my workshop manuscript. As I began reading through the marked-up pages a shiver of happiness went through me. My mojo was back! Or perhaps it was the new coffee. In any case, the writing wasn’t as good as I had remembered but it didn’t matter. I was reminded of the camaraderie and enthusiasm that our small workshop group had experienced during our time in the enchanting city of Lisbon, reminded of my own long-delayed dreams, and finally eager to resume work on several abandoned projects…including this blog.

Ennui has left the building.

Até breve,