Taking Up the Pen

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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?

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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.

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