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.

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

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