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?