As vivências açorianas do Ramo Grande

foto Terra Lavrada De Trigo

A matriz ideológica introduzida nos Açores no século XV tem-se mantido ao longo dos tempos com o mesmo sentido de fé e esperança num mundo melhor.

Alisalda Pacheco, Terra Lavrada de Trigo

Vamberto Freitas

A minha epígrafe aqui transmite o que retirei, e foi muito, da leitura desta narrativa antropológica de Alisalda Pacheco, que foca o estudo da origem e evolução de uma parcela da vida açoriana e da sua cultura popular durante a primeira metade do século passado, tendo o Ramo Grande, da Ilha Terceira, e o seu histórico cultivo do trigo, como ponto de partida. Mesmo que a autora nunca o diga nestas suas páginas, a verdade é que Terra Cultivada de Trigo funciona para mim como se fora uma sinedóque de toda a nossa sociedade arquipelágica, historicamente uma das primeiras comunidades europeias fundadas como resultado imediato dos Descobrimentos portugueses. Por certo que o Ramo Grande tem as suas características geográficas muito próprias – foi um autêntico celeiro adentro das nove ilhas, e durante mais de 70 anos acolheu uma das maiores bases militares em Portugal, primeiro com os ingleses em 1943, e logo depois com os norte-americanos. Esqueçamos por agora a sua importância estratégica na defesa do mundo ocidental e no apoio aos seus aliados, particularmente no Médio Oriente. Não esqueço que quando Portugal “autorizou” a passagem de caças americanos em auxílio determinante durante uma das guerras nos anos 70 entre Israel e os seus inimigos árabes um estudante judeu na minha faculdade californiana veio dar-me um abraço e “agradecer” pessoalmente por ser eu o único português que ele conhecia. Fiquei perplexo, pois para mim toda essa geografia quase se transformara mais numa memória longínqua do que no meu berço natal, mas entendi a sua emoção, só que nunca lhe disse que eu era natural de uma freguesia que ficava mesmo ao lado Lajes, que meu pai tinha construído a sua casa e criado a família com o seu trabalho para os americanos, e que essa mostra de uma América imaginária no nosso quintal fazia parte fundamental da minha vida até à adolescência, apesar de eu, uma vez mais, tentar esquecer por algum tempo essas origens no processo deliberado de reinvenção da minha própria pessoa, e na construção de um futuro-outro. A ironia é talvez a grande constante da vida de nós todos, a curva na estrada quase sempre inesperada. Pertenço, como a autora deste livro, a uma geração para quem o cultivo do trigo era já pouco importante, e no nosso imaginário eram mais os aviões de guerra a aterrar e levantar voo mesmo ali ao lado, ou de pasmar quando um daqueles grandes carros americanos passavam devagarinho nas nossas estradas, ou então nos verões em que recebíamos as visitas dos nossos amigos e parentes de regresso à ilha, com as suas roupas coloridas e as suas linguagens recortadas entre o português e o inglês, os que alimentavam ainda mais o nosso fascínio generalizado por esse outro mundo. É certo que todos os açorianos viveram – vivem, ainda hoje – quase todas estas experiências de idas e vindas entre as ilhas e o mundo lá fora, mas só o Ramo Grande proporcionava esta intimidade com uma pequena América portas adentro, o seu cheiro único e sedutor despertando em nós imagens de aventura e desejo. Ninguém tinha lido o poema de Nemésio a lamentar tudo isto, e que a autora também relembra aqui, poucos teriam chorado as transformações sócio-económicas que melhoravam radicalmente as nossas vidas no Ramo Grande.

De tudo isto e de muito mais me lembrei enquanto lia estas belas páginas de Alisalda, dando-me conta naturalmente que ela própria viveu esta fase das nossas vidas nas Fontinhas, conhecendo intimamente esse passado que é parte indelével da nossa história, lançando agora um olhar sistemático através de metodologias e práticas da sua área de estudo na recuperação ou resgate possível de toda uma cultura popular que nasceu do cultivo do trigo, para depois se expandir por outras e muito maiores partes do mundo, desde a América do Norte ao Brasil, onde ainda hoje existem e estão activas Casas dos Açores. Não quero entrar aqui pela parte teórica referente à antropologia cultural, que não domino e que é amplamente abordada pela autora na primeira parte do seu livro, dando assim ao leitor o devido contexto e objectivos principais que a orientaram, e que resulta essencialmente de um estágio no Museu de Angra do Heroísmo após uma licenciatura na mesma área científica, no ISCTE. Parte fundamental deste projecto envolveu inúmeras entrevistas com homens e mulheres cuja memória guarda a experiência da vida pessoal e comunitária no Ramo Grande, algo de inestimável valor, pois esta narrativa é também construída pelo que poderemos chamar de história oral, vozes que se não forem gravadas a tempo perderemos para sempre a essência humana de se ter sido e vivido num determinado espaço e época. Diz-nos a autora que o presente livro foi (re)escrito e repensado para o leitor leigo. Só lhe devemos agradecer este gesto e esta disponibilidade para uma partilha intelectual que, estou em crer, ainda é pouco comum entre a maioria dos estudiosos a nível superior. Há dois tipos de leitores que muito desfrutarão desta leitura – os que viveram pessoalmente muito ou tudo do que aqui se reconstrói, por assim dizer, e haviam suprimido da sua memória na azáfama que é a sobrevivência “modernizada” no nosso quotidiano, e particularmente os de uma nova geração que provavelmente quase tudo ignoram do que ainda há bem poucas décadas era um mundo radicalmente diferente, subdesenvolvido em termos económicos, isolado de ilha para ilha e destas para os continentes a leste e oeste, o “primitivismo” de um tempo que a nossa geração recorda vivamente sem meios de transporte para a maioria dos cidadãos, sem os meios mais elementares de comunicação de que outros já dispunham há décadas noutros países ou regiões comparáveis à nossa. A leitura de Terra Lavrada de Trigo proporcionou-me momentos de grande prazer pela torrente de memórias que me reavivou, pelos valores que enformam as nossas pequenas comunidades, que estruturam o homem que sou, que somos, pelos ritos e tradições religiosas e profanas que ainda hoje são indissociáveis do nosso ser e estar, e que, por entre a modernização, globalizada e implacável, das ilhas no seu todo, reafirmam o nosso enraizamento enquanto se renovam na nossa diáspora, desde as festas do Espírito Santo às danças de carnaval, dois exemplos de uma herança que nos vem desde tempos imemoriais.

Oriundo de comunidades – escreve a autora, dando ênfase a esses nossos mundos no além-mar, e quanto à vida dessas primeiras gerações na América do Norte, mencionando, para minha surpresa, neste contexto, a semelhança com o que se passa numa grande cidade brasileira – pequenas e fechadas, com uma cultura padronizada, o emigrante não se revê no estonteante mundo-novo, e a maior parte dos açorianos empenha-se na comunidade e nas tradições que estão ligados. Foi o caso do culto do Espírito santo, fundado nos alvores da emigração no estado da Califórnia onde se constitui na comunidade de San Leandro em 1882 e em Point Loma, um porto baleeiro na baía de San Diego. Mais tarde, com o crescimento da população, forma-se multiplicando as irmandades e os halls (recinto onde se organizam e efectuam as Festas do Espírito Santo) por todo o estado da Califórnia… Tal como acontece na comunidade açoriana do Rio de Janeiro, os emigrantes são reservados em relação à cultura norte-americana. A distância linguística, aliada à religião anglo-saxónica, dificulta o convívio e a integração nestas sociedade mais vasta”.

Os arquivos de um povo nunca serão feitos meramente de monografias dirigidas aos pares nas universidades, tantas vezes acabando esquecidas em estantes que poderão ou não ser consultadas por futuros estudiosos. O saber especializado nada deve conter de misterioso quando comunicado em linguagens claras, e em que a informação, pensamento ou propostas de análise se aliam ao prazer do texto, como é caso de Terra Lavrada de Trigo. São trabalhos como este que quase sempre incentivam outros a perseguir em investigações e escrita sobre facetas sócio-culturais inexploradas, a desenvolver outros ângulos ou abordagens das mesmas “realidades”, ou a rever a história legada na tentativa de se entender ou clarificar um pouco mais as nossas origens – tudo o que se combinou para sermos o povo que fomos e somos, tudo o que, mesmo ideologicamente, queremos manter ou transformar.

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Alisalda Pacheco, Terra Lavrada de Trigo, Ponta Delgada, Letras Lavadas Edições, 2016. Parte deste texto serve de prefácio ao presente volume.

Provincetown Arts: Interview with Vamberto Freitas By Oona Patrick *

Provincetown Arts

Vamberto Freitas is a Portuguese literary critic who has specialized in Luso-American literature for much of his career, and has been watching and waiting for the emergence of American writers of Portuguese descent, such as Katherine Vaz and our own Frank Gaspar. Freitas, a native of Terceira island in the Azores, lived for twenty-seven years in the United States, where he earned his degrees. He now lives with his wife Adelaide, a well-known poet and novelist, on São Miguel island in the Azores, in a beachfront community just outside the main city of Ponta Delgada. He teaches at the University of the Azores, which was founded in 1976 after the Portuguese revolution of 1974.

Freitas is the author of several works of criticism, and has published opinion and criticism in many reviews, journals, and magazines in Portugal, including the Lisbon paper Diário de Notícias. He has translated Provincetown native Frank Gaspar’s poetry into Portuguese, and while editing an Azorean newspaper’s literary supplement, he published a special edition devoted to Gaspar in October 2005.

The nine volcanic islands of the Azores lie over 900 miles off of Portugal in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, and were first inhabited by Portuguese and Flemish settlers in the fifteenth century. It’s well-known that many of Provincetown’s Portuguese came from São Miguel, the largest island. But Provincetown may have more in common with the more isolated Flores island, which is known for producing many writers and intellectuals despite its small population. In Santa Cruz on Flores, the native poet Roberto de Mesquita’s house has a plaque on it; in a nearby square a bust of him looks out across the town. Such plaques, statues, parks, and avenues honor poets, writers, and teachers throughout the Azores.

Mass emigration shaped Flores, and the Azores as a whole, like erosion. On Flores it left abandoned villages and a current island population of about 4,000, only slightly larger than Provincetown in the winter, and much diminished from its peak of 10,000 in the nineteenth century, when the islands supplied the whaling industry and other passing ships. The story of emigration is a central theme in Azorean culture today—there, the emigrants, loved or resented, have not been forgotten.

Oona Patrick – Many in Provincetown may not be aware that Frank Gaspar’s poetry, and his Provincetown novel, Leaving Pico, have been translated into Portuguese and published here (with the poetry translated by you). How would you describe the reception of Frank Gaspar’s work in the Azores?

Vamberto Freitas – To begin I might say that Luso-American writers only recently have become present among the most informed readers in the Azores. Katherine Vaz’s novel Saudade, particularly after its translation into Portuguese and published by a major and prestigious house in the continent (ASA), with its “power” to move and influence literary reception in the national press. It received major, major, attention in the leading weeklies and daily newspapers in Lisbon. Prior to that she was already being read and studied in some of our best universities. Frank Gaspar was read and known in limited literary circles in the Azores who recognized in him a major and of course original voice in Luso-American writing. They soon became aware of his prestige among certain literary circles in the US, the magazines where he published, the prizes his books continuously received up to that time, the names of poets and other writers who reviewed and/or recommend him to the American reading public in general (Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Jay Parini, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ray Gonzales, Hilda Raz, among others). I made it a point of calling attention to all this when I began writing commentaries and essays in our regional and national press about him and others, or in academic conferences in Portugal and in the US. So when Frank first appears in translation, his fiction and poetry provoked an immediate “shock of recognition”, leading to a literary dialogue that included other poets and writers from here, “answering” him in their own writings, considering him one of “us”. The poet and essayist Urbano Bettencourt, a native of Frank’s ancestral island of Pico, lost no time in taking off from his discoveries in Frank’s work to sort of “complete” his own vision of the Azorean experience in the homeland and in the American diaspora. Rather than being widely known, Frank has become, for us, a writer’s writer, a status no one would reject, I suppose. Today, most official institutions in the Azores recognize his status among us, and invitations for him to come here for readings have followed since then.

OP – What has been the impact of the success of Luso-American and Luso-Canadian writers both here and on the mainland of Portugal?

VF – Fortunately for us, some continental intellectuals and academics for once have recognized these other “Azorean” writers from the American diaspora, and have been instrumental in giving them a Portuguese “national” status. Doctoral theses on their work – or allusive to their work – have already been defended in some of our best universities, and some of these writers have been repeatedly invited to major conferences and other literary events in Lisbon. Luso-American writers, in fact, have achieved what we resident Azorean writers have never enjoyed, with a few exceptions: national recognition. This is historical among us, the discrimination or, more aptly put, “denial” of our cultural life in the Lisbon press. Never mind that some of the canonical works in Portuguese literature have come from the Azoreans since the nineteenth century! I realize that my calling writers such as Frank Gaspar an “Azorean” might raise some tired and cynical eye brows in Lisbon. But so what, new world literature is necessarily cross-cultural with multiple callings upon diverse ancestral histories (think of Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Bharati Mukherjee, Chang-Rae Lee, Vikram Seth, Sigrid Nunez, Pico Iyer, Michael Ondaatje, and Ana Castillo, to mention here just a few names from a substantial canon). Those who still don’t recognize this simple and positive fact of globalization should cure their provincialism and inform themselves. Paraphrasing Hunter S. Thompson, we could try to teach them, but it would be wrong. Let them do their own homework. As I wrote in a recent revisitation of Bill Cardoso and one of his books (The Maltese Sangweech & Other Heroes), the recently deceased Luso-American journalist who coined the term “gonzo” for Thompson: Luso-American writers will soon be the only consequential “memory” of our place in American society and history. They are an inseparable part of our history and soul, they are the creative (re)inventors of the country that failed their ancestors, and they are most of all the liberated witnesses of our tragedies and triumphs in the New World. Portugal without its diaspora would be a much smaller country, and until recently, a rather “failed” society where a small elite governed and plundered a whole empire in Africa and in Brazil without ever having taken much care of its own courageous and suffering people. Until recently, I said… And, no, I’m not a communist or a neo-anything, just a reasonably informed citizen who truly loves his native country and region of birth.

OP – What are the stereotypes of the emigrants in the Azores? And vice-versa? What are some of our images of each other in our respective literatures?

VF – The stereotypes here have been many, sometimes cruel, ignorant and, once again, provincial. Those who stayed through a troublesome history -underdevelopment, colonial war in Africa, dictatorship – greatly, if secretly, envied those who left. Upon the return of the emigrants, we only saw strange and wild clothes, unrecognizable “language” that creatively reflected the emigrant’s new realities and cultural and materialistic references in American society, great boasting, if sometimes false, of triumphs in the new land. Resentment being stupidly justified by putting on airs of superiority on the part of those who had never left. All the contradictions of an unhappy people. Our intellectuals, even in the Azores, suffered from the same ideological anti-Americanism, as some of their fictional and poetical works attest in their supposedly comical representation of emigrant characters.

Salazar was a strange and primitive political creature, a medievalist in twentieth-century Europe, always suspicious of political freedom and democracy. Ironically, the Azorean left never broke free of this fascist idea that Portugal was, despite all this, “superior”, at least culturally. My father worked most of his life in the American Air Base at Lajes (island of Terceira), a humble man making his living, but visited occasionally, like many of his colleagues, particularly those like him who spoke a bit of English, by Salazar’s secret police: no looking at American magazines, no “commerce” of any kind with American ideas. So instead, and to our everlasting gratitude, he brought home American ice-cream on Sundays, reaching us half melted after a long walk from the military base. But it was enough, these small and delicious gestures, to motivate the family to emigrate to the US in the early sixties, and later to cure me of nationalist fantasies of any kind. Of course some of my writer colleagues in the Azores still consider me rather strange because all of this cultural and political “ambiguity”.

The stereotypes in the US have been just as ignorant and cruel. Look at some of the canonical works of American literature, from Melville to John Steinbeck. Look at the way they represented Portuguese characters as nothing but bullies, idiots and whores. Professor and poet George Monteiro of Brown University wrote about all this, and then I followed in his tracks here in the Azores. Racism and prejudice is everywhere in these works by intelligent and creative writers who nevertheless were incapable of escaping their northern European heritage of chauvinism vis-à-vis southern Europeans. Tortilla Flat, for example, is a truly libelous novel against our people in California. Is it just fiction? Sure, but where do these “fictional” views come from? Where does Allen Ginsberg – Ginsberg! – vociferous poem of jealousy against Fernando Pessoa, one of the greatest European modernists, today recognized as such even in the US (particularly after the publication of some translations by Richard Zenith and George Monteiro), come from? Forget Hollywood movies, from Jerry Lewis to Julia Roberts. Didn’t George W. Bush recently ask why the Portuguese language should be taught in the US? Where do these views come from? California without the hard work and loyalty of the Azorean communities probably would never have been the greatest agricultural producer and fishing industry in America, at least until mid-twentieth century. Remember Big Dan’s in New Bedford (1984) and how we Portuguese in America became all suspects of being unrepentant rapists in the national media?

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.

OP – In your opinion, what are some of the most important novels to come out of the Azores in the past 20 years or so?

VF – Let’s begin with João de Melo’s O Meu Mundo Não É Deste Reino, translated in the US (My World Is Not of This Kingdom) by that great master, Gregory Rabassa. Follow that with his Gente Feliz Com Lágrimas (no English translation yet, but known in many other languages), and you have, in my opinion, the most eloquent fictional testimony of the tragic Azorean history as lived by our generation, including in the North-American diaspora, Canadian version this time. It is a sustained poetical take without parallel in contemporary Portuguese literature, Lisbon jealousies aside. My World Is Not Of This Kingdom proved that a conservative and superstious Catholic culture, as Latin-American writers had discovered a few years before, was inevitably opened to magical realism (as Katherine Vaz would later show us in Saudade), the pleading of our people for life and death in the face of governamental abandonment, corruption, oppression and isolation in the middle of the Atlantic, becoming a sort of chant or biblical poem out of the Old Testament (João was once an ousted seminarian in Lisbon). Faulknerian, almost, in its despair, violence taking the place of love among a gentle people, as modernization begins seeping in, and our society once again saving itself despite its stupid and forever commanding elite. We have a letter here in our home from Rabassa telling my wife, who was once his student in New York, that it was the greatest novel he had read since his translation of Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Debatable, maybe, but the point has been made. Rabassa wrote again in his recent memoirs (If This be Treason) that once he read it, he had to translate it even without knowing where he would publish his “labor of love”. You’ve told me that My World Is Not Of This Kingdom is one of your favorite books. You’ve chosen well.

Raiz Comovida (3 volumes) by Cristóvão de Aguiar is another great artistic journey into the soul of a people in a small town of S. Miguel, a sustained and sometimes painful excavation of memory where the narrator comes to terms with his fate among the laboring classes in times of darkness and want. Sometimes a sweet revisitation of all those who formed the narrator’s tormented world, sometimes a bitter and violent “libel” against those who would oppress and trivialize the human soul, America always there as a dream of escape, its universal impulse coming from another Faulknerian theme: the capacity of people to “endure and prevail” under similar circumstances Everywhere. Aguiar belongs to same generation as João de Melo and Onésimo Almeida (who happens to also be from Aguiar’s hometown, Pico da Pedra, that serves as the geographical reference to Raiz Comovida), sharing the fate of other well known Azorean writers among us who left the islands to study in Lisbon or Coimbra, and who have received national attention, winning major literary prizes and deservedly being widely reviewed in the best of the Portuguese press. Raiz Comovida is also a linguistic feat, where semantic “regionalisms” give color and deeper meanings to the unique experience of being an Azorean in the most isolated territory of the nation, comedy and tragedy coexisting to create a whole world to which one would want to belong to but then run away with some of its characters to an imagined salvation of wide spaces and liberty. No other writer among us (at least in our generation) has made language itself become almost a “character” in the novel, making the reader want to read out loud many of its sections for the sheer pleasure of its music, never losing its multiplicity of meanings constantly signalling the Azoreans’ historical fate. I believe that only a Gregory Rabassa could tackle its translation into the English language, and American readers of serious literature would experience another “shock of recognition”, particularly in the reading of the first volume of Raiz Comovida. Aguiar has written much after this, fiction and a long running diary, once again distinguishing himself with the novel Um Grito em Chamas.

Then we have José Martins Garcia’s novels, a true canon of the existential pain of an Azorean writer and intellectual let loose in the world, and forever castigating his own destiny as a perpetual and incurable Azorean/Portuguese exile everywhere, always a “stranger” even in his indefinable and unwanted “homeland”. We have the power of raw language here, the “islands” as metaphor for the concentration of all human vices and virtues, honor and perfidy. Usually, humanity at its worst. He once told me in an interview published in a Lisbon daily that his happiest five years in life had been spent in Providence, Rhode Island, when he taught Portuguese Literature at Brown University, and wrote what became his doctoral thesis on Fernando Pessoa. If you read one his novels, (Imitação da Morte/An Imitation of Death) you would never guess this biographical detail. A Lisbon journalist, who had been his student colleague in the university there many years before, told me during a few drinks that Garcia’s problem had always been clear to him: He had rasgos/moments of a literary genius, who never received his due recognition in his own country. I totally believe that today. When Martins Garcia died in 2002, he had been a Full Professor of Portuguese Literature and Literary Theory at the University of the Azores. I was and still am a mere lecturer there in the same department, but Garcia’s generosity, engaging intellectual dialogue and refusal to pull rank always fascinated me in the context of a straight-jacketed Portuguese academic hierarchy. Is this the same man who created the most nauseating and, to me, sickening protagonists of his genial fiction? Is Martins Garcia the writer who sees the world totally as an unsurpassable abyss? Among us, I believe he was our only total literary artist, uncompromising and absolutely true to his own vision of the human condition, as he perceived it. Do read A Fome, Contrabando Original, and Lugar de Massacre, perhaps our “strangest” war novel fictionalizing the campaign of the reluctant Portuguese army in Guiné-Bissau. America, by the way, is always present!

And, finally, Adelaide Freitas and her Sorriso Por Dentro da Noite. Published in 2004, Sorriso would soon be reviewed very favorably here, in the continent and in other publications of our communities in the US. At that time the author was an Associate Professor of American Literature and Culture in the University of the Azores, and was better known for her poetry and essays in her field and on contemporary Azorean writing. Her novel gives voice to a narrator that “retells” the senses, feelings and sorrows of a small child that is left behind with her grandmother in the islands when her parents emigrate to the US. America is here “imagined” by this child as she develops her own cognitive powers, through pictures, clothes, and the accompanying American “smells” and “colors” that arrive at her home in S. Bento, the fictionalized name of her native village here in the island of S. Miguel. Besides giving “voice” to a woman-child in her search for love and identity in her depressed and oppressed surroundings of the Azores in the 50’s, Sorriso is the first major creative narrative that looks at emigration from the point of view of those who stayed behind, the consequences of the need and obsession with America as a savior country for our people since the ninetieth century, economics tearing the family and the social fabric apart. When Katherine Vaz read the manuscript of Sorriso she wrote back saying that (aside from all these perspectives) she had never read such violent prose when dealing with the child’s “woman-nature”. I understood Vaz all too well. And here’s the disclaimer: Adelaide Freitas is my wife!

The Azores have a very active and productive literary life, publishing an incredible number of books every year. Of course the contemporary Azorean canon is now substantial and is increasingly being the object of studies at the post-graduate level in many other countries, particularly in Brazil, but also in the US and in Europe. Every reader of our literature will find wide and diversified choices in fiction and poetry. The war novel (African colonial wars of the 60/70’s) has been a very distinguished literary act, even at the national level. A professor in Lisbon has attempted to explain this phenomenon, and I think he hit it right: Azorean writers who participated in the violent African campaigns always felt “doubly” estranged: from their own country at large and from not believing in the fight to maintain an empire that they and their people had never known or identified with.

OP – What’s the significance of the debate over, if I can get this right, “Há ou não uma literature açoriana?” Is there or is there not an Azorean Literatura?) What’s the latest view?

VF – As some of my colleagues would also tell you: that has become a very tiresome question. Of course there’s an Azorean literature. Was my father and all my ancestors ghosts or real people? The controversy began when in the seventies some Azorean academics and intellectuals began proposing what to some of us was rather obvious: That 500 years of island life, almost always abandoned by Lisbon, the Azoreans had created a “distinct” culture of their own within the nation, remaining very Portuguese but necessarily having created their own view of the world, their own discourse and narratives. Something like, to use just an example, the case of Southern literature within the American traditional canon. Now, since at the same time, after the liberating Portuguese revolution in 1974, there was a separatist movement in the Azores, almost every one forgot to read the essays of these writers and intellectuals and just assumed that it was all connected to the attempt at creating an Azorean “nation”, justifying its eventual and total independence. Strangely enough, most of those who defended the existence of an Azorean literary canon were associated with the Portuguese left, or so inclined ideologically, strongly against the separatists among us. Onésimo T. Almeida of Brown University was the foremost defender of an Azorean Literature, and created the first course on our literature at his institution. Urbano Bettencourt and the decesased J.H. Santos Barros founded a magazine called A Memória da ÁguaViva in Lisbon, taking the same position on the whole question. At that time the Lisbon daily Diário de Notícias asked me to do a whole series of essays explaining “Azorean Literature” to their readers in the continent, from which I took my book O Imaginário dos Escritores Açorianos, and forever acquired new friends and many enemies (particularly those who were left out). On the other hand, many well known Azorean writers still reject the label of “Azorean” for they are convinced it “belittles” them in not being exclusively included in the larger national literary canon. Think of those in America who don’t like being called “ethnic” writers (as William Styron, I believe, once rejected the label of “Southern” writer), and you’ll better understand our little “semantic” problem here. Very strange.

But let me add another bit of information concerning the solid existence of Azorean literature, now being studied and disseminated through translation in various countries. Gávea-Brown came out a few years ago with The Possible Journey (selection and translation done by John M. Kinsella, of the National University of Ireland), poems by the recently deceased Emanuel Félix from the island of Terceira, considered even by some major continental critics (Eugénio Lisboa, for example) and academics one of our great poets who hasn’t received the more than deserved national recognition. Diniz Borges in California put together not long ago and translated another selection from contemporary Azorean poetry, under the title of On a Leaf of Blue, published by The University of California, Berkeley. Just out of the University of Bristol (UK) and edited (once again) by John Kinsella and Carmen Ramos Villar, the magazine Lusophone Studies (Mid-Atlantic Margins, Transatlantic Identities: Azorean Literature in Context) dedicated a special issue to our literary production here. David Brookshaw also translated and published in the UK (2006) some of Onésimo Almeida’s short stories, Tales from the Tenth Island (a reference to our Azorean communities in the US). The University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, has been in the past few years publishing not only the better known Luso-American writers, but also recently dedicated a whole issue of their journal Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies to the works of Vitorino Nemésio. Various masters and doctoral theses have been defended in some Brazilian universities, others now being worked on in Continental Portugal and Italy, both on Azorean and Luso-American literatures. In Great Britain, Carmen Ramos Villar did her doctoral thesis taking on an “overview” of contemporary literay production here in the islands. And a new anthology of Azorean and Southern Brazilian poetry (from the state of Santa Catarina) was published with the title Caminhos do Mar/Sea Routes (2005), organized by Lauro Junkes and Osmar Pisani (Brazil) and Urbano Bettencourt (Azores), strongly incited and promoted everywhere by Lélia Pereira da Silva Nunes, writer and intellectual in Santa Catarina who dedicates much of her time to the cultural relations of our region with that part of Brazil.

For reasons I don’t yet understand very clearly, some Central Europeans have become interested in our literature. It could be, who knows, shared feelings or “marginality” within the now vast EU? A Slovakian intellectual and diplomat, Peter Zsoldos, not only had been writing about, and translating, Portuguese “national” poetry, but also became fascinated with the Azorean view of things, and managed to publish in his country another anthology of our poetry, Zakresl’ovanie do mapy: Azory a ich básnici (Bratislava, 2000). Although I did the preface for this anthology, I still have no idea what this title means, but I like it immensely! The major literary journal in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Svetovej Literatúry, dedicated special sections in two issues (1998 and 2000) to Azorean contemporary poets, as did another of their literary journals, that also circulates in Hungary, Kalligram, in June, 2000. And I have information that another anthology of Azorean poetry is currently being worked on and soon to be published in – imagine! – Latvia.

Not only do we know that Azorean literature exists, and exists well, but so do many others. The only people who seem not to know about our literary existence are our compatriots in the continent, two hours from us.

OP – What is “açorianidade”?

VF – The term was coined for us by one of our great writers, Vitorino Nemésio (born in the island of Terceira) in an essay written in1932. He lived in and died in the continent most of his life but the Azores were a permanent “obsession” with him. Most of his fictional works reflect this, particularly the masterpiece of Portuguese modern literature, the novel Mau Tempo no Canal, translated in the US (Stormy Isles: An Azorean Tale, 1998) by Professor Francisco Cota Fagundes of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Basically, açorianidade is the cultural stance, the feeling of belonging, and, I would also say, the inescapable history for those who were born and raised in the Azores, or adopt the Azorean vision of the world, a whole way of life, a consciousness of being Portuguese in a particular geographical island-space. I still remember when the Azorean political left would shiver at the mention of the word (the fear of “separateness”, always…), believing in a supposed “universality” of being Portuguese, but only as canonically defined and legitimized by those with institutional power. But the Socialists, in power here since 1996, have wholeheartedly adopted the concept and now use and abuse it constantly wherever they find Azoreans in the world who will listen to them, or in their very justified political dealings with the central government in Lisbon. Their exercise of power in an autonomous region such as ours apparently taught them what others knew all along: Portugal is a continental and insular country, unified by centuries of a common language, culture and history, but also irremediably diversified, richer at all levels for that very reason.

For those interested in finding out more about açorianidade, I suggest a reading of A Profile of the Azorean (Gávea-Brown, 1980) by Onésimo T. Almeida.

OP – Does the feeling of being considered “marginal” weigh on writers here, or did it once? It seems more and more Azorean writers are being recognized and reviewed on the mainland and elsewhere. Was there a point at which things began to change for Azorean writers?

VF – Yes and no, as an answer to all your questions. We’re still a bit resentful of our absence in the national press as far as our literary life is concerned. Azorean writers can only escape this fate by moving to the continent, and it better be Lisbon or Coimbra, and the writer better be able to “cultivate” those in the publishing world, everyone from journalists to editors to publishers of all stripes and interests. And when the book is “about” Azorean life, things become harder still, it is almost as if we were from a foreign country with a culture of little interest. Most continentals outside these two cities have the same complaints, Lisbon centralizing the whole life of the country. But things are changing for all of us. The foundation of new universities all over the country has brought pride to their communities, and local governments underwrite some local authors. I suppose the same happens in America, this feeling of “isolation”. Move to New York or perish in the backlands? Faulkner once said that the major sources of his fiction, his references for local history and life in general, were the local writers in Oxford, Mississippi, those nobody else, we assume, ever read. Precisely because we live in what were once “isolated” islands, we now have in the Azores a very strong intellectual tradition; we’ve had to reinvent everything here, and our newspapers and other periodicals are very generous with the space they dedicate to literature. And yes, our isolation probably led to our love of literature, the need to “communicate” with others and among ourselves. Poetry is very much loved and cultivated here. A friend once joked with me: I’ll probably be the only famous Azorean, he said, for never having written a book! When I picked up Frank Gaspar at the airport on his first visit to the Azores a few years ago, we stopped at the university coffee-shop early in the morning and began discussing poetry. He looked at me and said, I can’t believe this; I’ve been here for fifteen minutes and already talking about what I love most! We’re very proud of this cultural ambience – book launchings (or book parties, as you say in America) occur every week, sometimes one event competing with another.

OP – What can you tell us about NEO magazine, with its interesting mix of Azoreans and writers from all over the world—why so inclusive?

VF – Neo was founded in 2001 here in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures by my colleague John Starkey, a Luso-American who chose the Azores to live and work. It was such an original little magazine that even some of the inattentive press in Lisbon noticed and reported it in glowing terms. He decided from the beginning that Luso-American writers would be included – fiction, poetry or any kind of creative or academic writing. But then he opened it to any writer or poet whose work deserved being published and recognized, whether a student or a full professor, a famous writer or an unknown author. Neo, really, is to me a kind of metaphor for the Azorean inclusive cultural attitude. Located between two great continents, Europe and America, deeply attached to the “idea” of getting on in new worlds, always searching for “an unknown island ahead”, language discrimination, particularly where English is involved, makes no sense for us. Neo is published yearly and has survived up until now, issue number 7 having just come out and paying homage to Patricia Goedicke, recently deceased.

OP – I’m curious about an early twentieth-century Azorean woman writer you compared to Gertrude Stein. Was she a lesbian? Did she embrace her outsider status, or did she simply have no choice?

VF – In attitude, absolutely, but she even has something of Stein’s look and dress, as they lived approximately in the same time period. More, she was born in Paris in 1867 (where Stein lived many years and exercised her influence among such young writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and many of those associated with the American “lost generation”). She died in 1946, always having lived way ahead of her time, in ideas, life style, and as a courageous “inventor” of a true “public life” in the Azores. She challenged centuries-old mores in a conservative and old culture. Fiction writer and poet, early protector of animals in the islands, a place and time where to violently kick a dog in public was perfectly acceptable. Yes, she assumed her lesbianism and, of course, took an unrepentant feminist stance, becoming a fearful polemicist in the local press, and still greatly respected by the community in general. Today, her house in Ponta Delgada is an officially and publicly recognized cultural point to be noticed, displaying a prominent plaque with her name. Her literary works are, in my opinion, rather limited, but her presence alone helped to liberate a whole generation. For more, you may read Alice Moderno: A Mulher e a Obra/Alice Moderno: The Woman and Her Works, by Maria da Conceição Vilhena, retired Professor of the University of the Azores. Alice Moderno was a true human monument to our liberty and political-cultural dignity. Not bad for a so-called “isolated” community.

OP – Who do you see as the most neglected Portuguese writer, or the one most overdue for translation into English and other languages?

VF – Neglected, I don’t know, but I would venture that two Portuguese writers definitely deserve to be translated into English, and both of them lived and worked in US for many years: José Rodrigues Miguéis and Jorge de Sena. Miguéis lived in Manhattan from the 30’s until his death in 1980, but wrote all of his works in Portuguese and for a Portuguese reading public back home. Some of his short stories, dealing with the diverse immigrant experience in American society, have been translated by George Monteiro (who also edited and wrote the forward to a book of translations by various people who had read and very much appreciated the works of our New York “exile”, published by Gávea-Brown in 1983 as Steerage And Ten Other Stories), and David Brookshaw also translated some of Miguéis’ writings under the title The Poliedric Mirror. Some of his novels are definitely relevant for readers anywhere interested in twentieth-century European “historical” or “existentialist” fiction, perhaps Portugal as metaphor for political upheaval and totalitarianism in our time. Jorge de Sena, who died in 1978, was a Professor of Portuguese Literature in the University of California, Santa Barbara, and also one of our foremost poets and novelists. Some have claimed that his Sinais de Fogo is one of the best novels in our modern literature, dealing with the Spanish Civil War and its impact on Portugal across the border. Sena had been an “exile” in Brazil from Salazar’s Portugal before arriving in the United States, never forgiving the Portuguese fascists for the fate of our nation until the 70’s, and this uncompromising stance characterizes all his works, fiction and poetry. I am convinced that once translated (and published by a major house) his literary stature among informed American readers would equal that of Fernando Pessoa. Let me just add here that Professor Francisco Cota Fagundes, the foremost specialist on Sena’s works in the US, and the poet James Houlihan did translate two of Sena’s books of poetry (Jorge de Sena: Metamorphoses and Jorge de Sena: The Art of Music), apparently never receiving the attention long overdue among the larger reading public of world literatures.

OP- From what I can understand, few Azorean writers actually live in real isolation outside the larger towns or cities. Is isolation a real fear here, or do certain landscapes suggest something that’s just not the case on all the islands?

VF – You’re right, very few of us live in real isolation. How can you live in isolation in the twenty-first century, in a world of globalized communication and transportation? I constantly listen here to my favorite radio station in California, Pacifica Radio in Berkeley and in Los Angeles. Our only writer here in S. Miguel living in a “rural” town (Maia) is Daniel de Sá, a well known and respected novelist. He is a retired school teacher, and I’ve noticed recently that besides publishing regularly, he spends a great amount time in the net talking to his friends all over the world! Our smallest island, Corvo, with a population of a little over 360 people, has now even attracted some Brazilian women who met their men through the internet, then married and moved there, as the music teachers who have arrived from countries such as Russia and the Ukraine. We’re five hours by plane from Boston, and two from Lisbon. There was recently a local colloquium on multiculturalism in one of our smaller cities in order to discuss those who have moved here from Africa, Brazil and Eastern Europe, and how we can all get along and “profit” culturally from the richness of this new “island” diversity. No, isolation is no longer “a real fear here”.

OP – On the other hand, maybe isolation can be good for certain writers. You told me that Flores, the westernmost island, almost an hour by air from the central group, has long been famous in Portugal for its writers and intellectuals (despite a current population of only about 4,500). Why writers at the end of the world? Is it, like Norman Mailer says, that artists have a “tropism” for the end of the land (Key West, Provincetown, etc.)? Or maybe it also has something to do with the traditional distance from authority of both Provincetown and Flores? Or have writers from Flores simply had the need to speak to the world, despite their seclusion, sort of like Emily Dickinson?

VF – Norman Mailer might have been right, and maybe the distance from “authority” creates in us a certain audacity in freely communicating to the world – and to ourselves – what is going on in our heart and soul. Some political elders tell me that even Salazar’s secret police was much more “tolerant” in the Azores than in the continent, they probably felt, So what, let these “isolated” heretics say what they will! Yes, “distant” Flores has given us some of our best writers and poets. Alfred Lewis, who left the island at a very young age, would become the first Portuguese immigrant in the US to publish a novel (Home Is An Island, 1951) with Random House, and actually be favorably reviewed in The New York Times. Roberto de Mesquita (Almas Cativas/Imprisoned Souls) is now recognized as having introduced symbolist poetry to the whole country, even though it took decades for the national literary establishment to recognize this. Pedro da Silveira, poet and essayist, is now perhaps the most quoted Azorean literary figure among us, having put together the first proposal for a canon of Azorean poetry and for having been one of the first and foremost defenders of the existence of Azorean literature as an autonomous body from the national canon. With Pedro (who lived and died in Lisbon a few years ago) America was always present in his poetry, and he actually held American citizenship somehow inherited in other and more tolerant times from his father who had lived in California. Here’s George Monteiro’s translation of one his poems, simply titled “Island”, from the anthology The Sea Within (Gávea-Brown, 1983), which is now out print, but soon to be updated and published in Great Britain with translations by John Kinsella:

Only this:

Closed sky, hovering heron. Open sea.

A distant boat’s hungering prow

Eyeing forever those bountiful Californias.

OP – What are you working on now? Can you tell us a little about your upcoming book of essays?

VF – I have almost ready for publication a book of essays on Luso-American writers tentavely titled Imaginários Luso-Americanos: O Outro Lado do Espelho. I’m also working on the collected essays on the same subject by deceased professor Nancy T. Baden, of California State University, Fullerton. She was one of the first students of our literature in America in the early 70’s and, as my teacher and mentor, led me in this direction from the beginning. It is a theorical framework that helped us in the broader contextualization of our own Portuguese-American writings by bringing in other ethnic groups and their literary historicity in the US.

OP – You’ve said that mass tourism is inevitable in the Azores—the mass tourism of cruise ships and casinos. (They’re building a new cruise ship and ferry terminal on reclaimed land along the waterfront of Ponta Delgada right now, in front of the harbor walk and the sidewalk cafes.) Do you think there is a future for “cultural tourism” here? What are your fears about the impact of mass tourism on the culture, or the soul, of the Azores?

VF – This is provoking a very lively debate in the Azores at this time. Yes, cultural and ecological tourism is a possibility, National Geographic having recently described the Azores as the second most desirable group of islands in the world for those looking for “restful” and uncrowded tourism. I now think we’ll never have mass tourism here: the weather is too unpredictable and one casino will not (Las Vegas style) a playground make. The culture and the soul of the Azores can only be consoled by the calm and intelligent presence of others among us.

OP – Many believe that some kind of mind-set came to Provincetown with the Portuguese that wasn’t present in majority Anglo-American areas nearby, and this ingredient led to the town becoming both an artists’ colony and later a gay resort. I was also interested to read that there’s a large open gay community and well-known gay beach on your home island of Terceira. Is there anything you can identify in the attitudes or worldview of the Azoreans, who are a mix of cultures and races themselves, that might have made Provincetown such a supportive place for people who might not have fit in elsewhere?

VF – Maybe. Paradoxically, we’ve always been a conservative Catholic culture, but a most tolerant one. As a matter of fact, some of our most significant religious festivals are still a real indication of this. The Holy Ghost Festivals, for example, come from a tradition of the people’s challenge to the Church’s “canonical” notion of things, it is a religious and profane ritual that not only remains strong in all the islands, but it is deeply celebrated in all our communities in the US and in Southern Brazil, bringing together all the generations. We’re a very easy going and tolerant people, with an “inclusive” culture. Don’t forget our early contacts with other peoples in the world during the globalization process that Portugal initiated with the Discoveries. In fact, one of our kings during the heyday of that adventure “ordered” the first Portuguese leaving to colonize Brazil to go there “and mix our blood” with those they encountered. We have never shared the Anglo puritanical attitudes toward sex or any other fundamental human pleasures. Perhaps this is where Provincetown’s tolerance has also come from. Frank’s novel Leaving Pico depicts its young protagonist first encountering his love for books by borrowing them from a gay couple that vacationed there, in Provincetown, during the summers.

OP – You visited Provincetown after having read Leaving Pico. What did you think of the town? Was it what you expected? Could you see the Azorean influence?

VF – I loved it! It reminded me in many ways of the Azores, it’s relaxed life style, the absence of the stressful rat race that characterizes the American suburban cities where I had always lived in Southern California. And then Provincetown represented to me America at its best, a place where artists and some writers retreated to create one of the most vital literatures in the world. Not too far way, in Wellfleet, one of my literary heroes lived and worked for many years: Edmund Wilson. I hope women in Provincetown, who may be reading this, forgive me for my intellectual choice here! I saw the Azores everywhere, but perhaps I was still under the deep impression and “suggestions” of Frank’s novel. I could almost “hear” our people in the streets echoing Frank’s reinvented community of the 50’s, the women gossiping in chopped up language and the men boasting under the wonderful influence of a few cheap beers or whiskey.

OP – You lived in the US for many years. Are there any attitudes in the US toward the Portuguese that still make you angry? What did you think of the recent film Passionada? How far has it come from Mystic Pizza’s representation of a Portuguese-American woman? (And why do you suppose the women always have to end up with Anglo men in the movies?)

VF – They don’t make me angry, just sad at such persistent ignorance about any people not belonging to the so-called dominant culture in the great human mosaic that is America. I never enjoyed being called a “Portagee” when I first arrived at the age of fourteen (1964) in the San Joaquin Valley. Our resentments concerning these and many other attitudes are many, including those of the older immigrants or Luso-Americans of that time, for we were “trivialized” in many ways by them; please do read Francisco Cota Fagundes’ powerful and incomparable memoirs, Hard Nocks: An Azorean-American Odyssey. He speaks for many of us who underwent the radical change of leaving our native culture in Azorean small towns and confronting the process of readjusting our lives and vision of the world in an America before the advent of multiculturalism and greater sensitivity to the Other.

Never mind about Passionada, and much less about Mystic Pizza. So in the movies our women always fall for Anglo guys. Let their audiences live the fantasy. Women coming from an ancient and rich culture in Europe, themselves the offspring of a great and wonderful mixture of peoples in the Iberian Peninsula, not seeing a way out except by falling madly in love with those they sneeringly called “white bread”, rich looking on the outside and totally empty on the inside. Right. But then so what if they really – or in the movies – do fall in love with others?

OP – What was the Portuguese diaspora literary scene like when you first became interested in it? What made you decide to specialize in it?

VF – Up the until the 90’s, very limited, even though George Monteiro (author of The Coffee Exchange, a wonderful dialogue with his own Luso-American past and with the most significant Portuguese modernist writing) and Onésimo Almeida had already founded Gávea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese-American Letters and Studies precisely to spread the news and give us all a serious intellectual platform for studies of all kinds, and for creative writing. A few years later, Katherine Vaz and Frank X. Gaspar appear on the scene, and many other writers and poets who believed they were alone in various parts of the country began realizing they were actually part of growing literary community. To mention a few of those names: Julian Silva, Charles Felix Reis, David Oliveira, Sue Fagalde Lick, Lara Gularte, Art Coelho, Michael Garcia Spring and Joseph Faria. After having dedicated myself to Azorean literature for many years, I realized that through this Luso-American generation I could combine my two significant worlds, Azores and America, an on going act to better understand my own life experience and to some day leave a record for future generations of those who are defining and rescuing our life in America.

OP – What’s behind the recent publication or republication of some early Portuguese-American writers (Alfred Lewis’s second novel—and the one in New York?)? How has the Portuguese diaspora literary scene changed? What would you like to see from such Luso-American/Canadian writers as Gaspar, Vaz, and Vasconcellos in the future?

VF – I believe I’ve given you part of the answer explaining the current creative surge and spreading interest in Luso-American writing, even in our national universities here. And then academia everywhere is always following the trends that it previously ignored. Governmental and other institutional grants all of a sudden become available, and so does academia’s new found love. That which had been ignored, now occupies center stage, and perhaps academic tedium with the same old literary and “national” canons leads some to a “rediscovery” of familiar grounds. This is all for the better, of course. Some in Lisbon are now talking about organizing a major conference bringing together most of the Luso-American writers and those who study them. The power structure here is always very attentive to possible new and influential allies in America, and to those who can give them “prestige” in their support for the arts in a culture such as ours. One could say much worst things about them; not bad at all for a young but successful democracy in Southern Europe. By the way, the first great book written by a Portuguese intellectual from Lisbon on our Azorean communities in California was by António Ferro, a prominent member of the Modernist movement in Portugal during the 20’s, sometime official Propagandist for Salazar’s dictatorship. His book, published in 1930 (Novo Mundo Mundo Novo/New World, World Anew) had a simple message: wish our people in Portugal, he wrote, could be as creative, as free and as audacious as our emigrants in California, greatly impressed as he was with seeing Azorean women wearing overalls on top of tractors cultivating the land.

As for the last part of your question, I simply wish Luso-American writers continue to be good writers, no matter what subject or cultural matter they decide to work on.

OP – As a critic who has specialized in their literature, what would you say to Azoreans and their descendants involved in the arts in diaspora communities? How are they doing? What’s still missing?

VF – Be proud of our history in America, trust your instincts, and, yes, be audacious and forever free. Honor, above all, your cultural and literary heritage in your ancestral land and in America. Not many people can count Camões, Fernando Pessoa and Jorge de Sena as masters of language and thought, not that many people can claim artists as different from one another as John dos Passos, Frank X. Gaspar, Katherine Vaz, Julian Silva and Erika de Vasconcellos (in Canada), and some others, as their models on North American soil. Don’t ever be afraid to fail as writers – just write, and see what happens next.

_______________________________

November 25, 2007.

Ponta Delgada, São Miguel, Azores.

An Interview with Vamberto Freitas by Millicent Borges Accardi

V FREITAS 3vol prova1

Since the 1970’s, Vamberto Freitas has published the most significant reviews and literary criticism available on Portuguese-American literature. A recognized expert on the literary landscape of the Portuguese Diaspora in the US and Canada, Freitas is a writer, essayist and literary critic from the Azores. His critical works include studies and essays on American literature, Portuguese-American literature and criticism, and profiles of Azorean and Azorean-American writers. An eminent translator of Portuguese-American writers like Frank X. Gaspar into Portuguese, Freitas is a life-long champion of the written word. His publishing credits have included coordinating the Azorean Culture Supplement (SAC) and directing the Atlantic Supplement of Arts and Letters (SAAL). He is a member of the Advisory Board for the peer-reviewed Gávea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese American Letters and Studies at Brown University, Rhode Island.

Born in Fontinhas, Terceira Island, Portugal, Freitas immigrated to California with his family as a child, and graduated from California State University, Fullerton, in 1974, with a degree in Latin American Studies. He returned to Portugal as an adult, and now resides in Ponta Delgada, in the Azores. A lecturer at the University of the Azores, Freitas was a regular contributor to the literary supplement of the Lisbon newspaper Diário de Notícias, and still publishes periodically in Jornal de Letras (JL) in Lisbon, and in other national and regional journals.

We conducted this interview in English, over a period of many months via email from 2013-2014.

*

Millicent Borges Accardi — Your critical book borderCrossings, (2012) what impact do you anticipate or hope it will have on Portuguese-American literature in the US? North America? Globally?

Vamberto Freitas – Probably not much, I’m sorry to say. Never mind “globally.” On the other hand, we now have cultural and literary niches everywhere, due to global and instant communications. Any text published in an Azorean island can be transmitted to a fair number of interested readers everywhere, as most writers have experienced by now. Portuguese-American literature is just now reaching a maturity – quantity and, I dare say, high quality – in search of a reading public, most probably still limited to a few interested academics and other writers within the lusophone world. But I know for a fact that some of these Portuguese-American writers are already well known as far as Brazil, the novelist Katherine Vaz and the poet/novelist Frank X. Gaspar at the forefront.

The interest in modern Azorean literature will naturally lead to an interest in Portuguese-American writing. After all, Portuguese-American literary works will inevitably become part of two national canons: American and Portuguese. The question of identity in the twenty-first century, in a globalized and increasingly standardized world, is more important to a greater number of people in all modern societies, and especially in multiethnic and multicultural societies, which is practically the whole Western world. As for my book, or books, including Imaginários Luso-Americanos e Açorianos: do outro lado do espelho (Azorean and Portuguese-Americans and Imagination: the other side of the mirror), I’m still waiting to see what results or impact they’ve had among a reduced Portuguese-American public.

BorderCrossings: leituras transatlânticas received quite a few notices, and was generously reviewed by Expresso, the leading Lisbon weekly. I’ve also read with much pleasure (and sense of a “mission” on its way to being completed sometime in the future) the long interview that Michael Colson did with the poet Carlo Matos, especially when Carlo says that my last two books of critical essays place me “on the front lines of our movement. He brings some cohesion to what is, at the moment, nothing more than a wild bunch of hungry and exciting young writers. He has written two books which are must-reads for anyone interested in what is going on right now in Portuguese-American literature.” (Portuguese American Journal, 2013). Let me just add this: Carlo’s words are so gratifying for me that they alone justify my having written those two books.

MBA — You are working on the second volume of borderCrossings. What writers will be included?

VF — As far as Portuguese-American writers are concerned, these among others: Sam Pereira, Frank X. Gaspar, Carlo Matos, Julian Silva, Darrell Kastin, Alfred Lewis, and Anthony Barcellos. I’m also about to read for the first time the poet Nancy Vieira Couto, and will very probably include her in a future BorderCrossings.

MBA — What do you think are the next steps in promoting Portuguese-American Literature in the US?

VF – I believe these steps are presently being taken. Great work is being done at the university level: anthologies such as Luso-American Literature: Writings of Portuguese-Speaking Authors in North America (selected and edited by Robert Henry Moser and Antonio Luciano de Andrade Tosta) and the recently released The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese American Poetry (Gavea-Brown University Press 2012), beginning with Emma Lazarus’ words in a plaque of the Statue of Liberty, and bringing this steady poetical current from the nineteenth century up to your own generation. And then there is the journal Gávea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese American Letters and Studies (Brown University Press, 2013) of the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies that since the early 80’s has been faithfully publishing the best of Portuguese-American writing, thus introducing this literature to many other universities, libraries, and academic and literary colleagues everywhere.

Here in Portugal we are also doing our part in the popular press and in other publications, with most major Portuguese universities now fairly aware of the existence of Portuguese-American writers and their works. Frank X. Gaspar and Katherine Vaz have participated for many years now in colloquiums and other conferences in Portugal dealing with Diaspora literatures and other narratives. In October of 2008, the University of Lisbon organized a major conference titled precisely “Narrating the Portuguese Diaspora: International Conference on Storytelling”.

The same institution, together with the New University of Lisbon/Universidade Nova de Lisboa, will again organize in July of this year (2013), through their respective Faculty of Letters and Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences, another great event under the title “Neither Here Nor There Yet Both: International Conference on the Luso-American Experience”. The yearly Disquiet Dzanc Books Literary Program in Lisbon always includes Portuguese-American writers as active participants. These are huge contributions to both the dissemination and legitimization of Portuguese-American Literature.

As for the US, only the writers themselves and their friends in the press together with a great range of other cultural and literary publications can push for a wider reading public. It takes time, but it will happen. As our young people increasingly enroll in higher education, they will also become aware that they are not alone in their quest or reaffirmation of their dual identities, literature remaining the most serious and lasting repository of ancestral memory and creativity.

MBA — What do you think are important motifs in Portuguese literature?

VF – The notion of “literature and society” has always been a strong thematic pull in our literature, particularly from the so-called first Portuguese literary modernist movement with Fernando Pessoa and Co. The question of bringing and integrating a centuries-old society into the higher European mode has been an intellectual obsession, with the individual artists and thinkers at the center of the storm.

Until very recently, Portugal has been a very homogeneous society, ethnically, religiously and culturally. The question of identity, or of redefining it, has had a rather pointed place in our best literature. It’s been also an epic and anti-epic literature, either the aggrandizement of our long and troubled history, or once again the anti-epic condition after the fall of the empire, an obsessive and masochist turning inward, “the voyage in”, as Edward Said would say.

Obviously, the question of Europe has influenced some of our contemporary writers, but this has only begun to color our best fiction and poetry in our days. The existential pain of being alive in this corner of southern Europe and the simultaneous impulse to move into the Atlantic, now as emigrants and not as discovers and colonialists, is what marks a great part of our best writings, along with a period from the thirties until the seventies when neo-realism, or the protest novel, as was once called in America, reigned supreme, the leftist influence similar to what happened with American literature during the economic troubles in the thirties.

Azorean literature, an integral part of the national canon — even if some continentals don’t know it yet — has had to redefine and reaffirm our regional or island identity, or identities, for there has always been cultural and even linguistic diversity among the nine islands. Obviously, this also includes our first generation of immigrant writers, especially in the United States. Portuguese-Americans are now searching for or establishing a hybrid cultural identity, as they recognize their dual or even multiple cultural heritages as Americans and as descendants of Azorean immigrants, with many of you still having active families and/or distant but recognized relatives within the archipelago itself. The “loyalty”, if you will, towards this fast receding cultural past is an evident development among most Portuguese-American writers. I firmly believe they are rescuing and redefining their own being, and choosing or constructing their own place within the great American human mosaic.
This is why, perhaps, American literature was, throughout twentieth century, and continues to be, one of the most vital and consequential literatures in the world. Its fantastic diversity is what feeds its greatness. No other country in the world, not a single one, can make this claim for its literary arts. The number of American writers who deserve the Nobel Prize every year would be embarrassing for the rest of us, and would cause a new type of rage among others.

MBA – Why do you think P and PA literature has not taken off and become popular in North America like, say for example, Cuban literature?

VF – It’s an old story, Millicent. I’ll give you an example from a few years back. The American translator Gregory Rabassa (who translated One Hundred Years of Solitude, the great translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel Cien anos de Soledad, and of many other Latin American and Brazilian writers as well as some Portuguese novels and creative works in different genres), after having translated João de Melo’s O Meu Mundo Não É Deste Reino/My World Is Not Of This Kingdom, submitted it to a major publishing house in New York, and the answer came back a few days later: great novel, but nobody knows anything about the Portuguese, and even less about the Azoreans! I think out of politeness they also may have wanted to say: and nobody cares about them. Rabassa had to wait until 2003, when an ex-student of his who was in charge (as editor, I think) of Aliform Publishing, in Minneapolis, took and published João de Melo’s novel. In the last few years we’ve seen a small change of attitude due to Fernando Pessoa’s inevitability and José Samarago’s translated novels, especially after he received the Nobel Prize in 1998, and also with much help from such influential critics as Harold Bloom, as far as American readers are concerned.

Cuba, on the other hand, is right next door. And its political history in our time made it popular among left leaning critics and publishers, the Cuban dissidents also being supported by the other side. Cuban writers also profited from the Latin literary boom in the 60’s, started by such authors as Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It seems that for Americans there are only three European countries of any import, both politically and culturally: Great Britain, Germany and France. The rest is mere “periphery”, in every sense of the word.

It isn’t easy to cure such long standing and entrenched ignorance, nor to say anything about the chauvinism with which Anglo-Americans have always looked at southern Europe. Never mind that we’re the cradle of much that is good and virtuous in Western culture: democracy, philosophy and the arts in general (the Greeks), architecture and law (the Romans), and, yes, even the Mediterranean food is an ancient art of goodness and taste. Portugal not only “discovered” or reached most lands that had remained unknown to most Europeans until the caravels left the Tagus River for triumph and tragedy, but began what is called today “globalization,” and on the way “pushed” our part of the world into modernity, both in science and knowledge gained from experience and pure invention. Do read the recent Utopias Em Dói Menor: Conversas Transalânticas com Onésimo (Utopias in Transatlantic Conversations with Onésimo), a summing up of some of these issues by the Brown University Professor Onésimo Teotónio Almeida.

I might be wrong here, but Portuguese-American writers will have to deal with these same issues and resistance within contemporary American culture. You’ll have to be accepted and appreciated one by one, and through literary works that will stand first as great aesthetic performances. Content, theme and referential geographies will then impose themselves on other serious readers of literature. Not every writer in America has the privilege of saying: I also come from a literary tradition of a small nation that, among a few other great writers, produced Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago.

MBA – There is The Interdisciplinary Journal of Portuguese Diaspora Studies which focuses on the Portuguese-American Diaspora. What other literary journals in the US do you read?

VF — The Paris Review, including all the interviews that were collected in the series Writers at Work, now just called The Paris Review Interviews, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Partisan Review, until their last issue in, I believe, 2003, Kenyon Review and The Southern Review.

I check out The New York Times Book Review every week for a review of a great novel or a poetry book, or even any book of interest, such a literary biography or autobiography, and then Onésimo T. Almeida brings me piles of it that he saves every Sunday, knowing that I’ll want to feel and smell the paper!

I used to read the British Granta (I have a few issues here in my bookshelf), especially when they did an issue on American or Diaspora literature with writers from their ex-colonies.

MBA — What books would you use if you were teaching a Survey of Portuguese-American literature in the US?

VF — We now have, fortunately, plenty from which to choose. I would definitely use Luso-American Literature: Writings by Portuguese-Speaking Authors in North America (Moser and Andrade Tosta), Portuguese American Literature, a collection of essays by Reinaldo Francisco Silva, and of course The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese American Poetry (Clemente e Monteiro). What a great contribution the work of these academics has made to our cultural and literary canons in the Diaspora, and here in Portugal. Most examples of our best prose and poems are contained within these two anthologies. I would choose some poems and prose represented in these works, and then extended passages from such works as Through a Portugee Gate, the autobiography of Charles Reis Felix, and passages from Never Backward: The Autobiography of Lawrence Oliver (San Diego, California), written in the 70’s and giving us a whole vision of Azorean immigrants in the fishing industries. For the reading of whole novels I would probably assign Saudade by Katherine Vaz, Leaving Pico by Frank X. Gaspar, and Land of Milk and Money by Anthony Barcellos. I would also use prose, poems and even dramatic writings from a first generation of writers, particularly from those belonging to my own generation, those who introduced a kind of late literary modernism and postmodernism into immigrant writings in the Portuguese language, beginning in the 70’s up to today.

MBA — Can you describe a typical day?

VF – Early in the morning to the university, late in the afternoon home again. In between classes, I try to get done anything related to the infernal (as Jorge de Sena used to say) bureaucratic exigencies now made from every teacher in the Western world, leading, of course, to nothing most of the time. Any free minute I have, I read and/or do some writing. This is really a daily routine. I write every day, even if it is just a single line or a paragraph that will then let me “rethink” about it later until it is completed. For the past two years I have only worked on my weekly columns for the Açoriano Oriental (Ponta Delgada) and Portuguese Times (New Bedford), some of these pieces being also published occasionally in the literary page Maré Cheia edited by Diniz Borges in the Portuguese Tribune/Tribuna Portuguesa (Modesto, CA, newspaper), or even for one or another publication in Lisbon. These are short essays I then compile into borderCrossings: leituras transatlânticas, shaping them into what becomes – or I hope they become – my own narrative as a literary and cultural history here and in the Diaspora, including Brazilian literary works pertaining to our historical presence there.

During the last ten years, my personal life has been dedicated to taking care of my wife Adelaide, limiting almost totally my movements, even within the islands. I seldom participate in literary or cultural events, but then I spent a whole lifetime travelling from one conference to another. I have sort of sublimated my present condition — plenty of time to read at home, reflect upon what I read, and then do as much writing as I wish or need to do.

MBA — You spent most of your youth in Orange County, California: what compelled you to return to Portugal, to live?

VF – Love. I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife when I met her at a literary conference, here in São Miguel, in 1990. But then I was professionally ready to return to Portugal, either the continent or the Azores. I had been teaching for fourteen years at a high school in southern California, but also writing regularly for Diário de Notícias, the Lisbon leading daily until the mid-nineties, and also for Azorean and Portuguese-language weeklies in our immigrant communities. I found myself returning frequently, visiting Lisbon and my native Terceira Island.

Everything fell into place when I met Adelaide and we decide to marry. She was my perfect companion for many years, until she got stricken with the disease that is now slowly destroying her. She was an Associate Professor of American Literature at the University of the Azores, and also an essayist, poet and novelist. Adelaide finished her novel Sorriso Por Dentro Da Noite (now being translated into English in the US) shortly after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Our whole life together had language and literature as the basis for our work, pleasure and passion.

MBA — What do you miss about California?

VF – Space! I miss getting on my car and driving at high speed in the early morning hours through the serpentine (out of LA) and then the flat, mythical California 99 up to Tulare, in the San Joaquin Valley, where most of my family lives. I miss the best bookstores in Orange County or in the LA area, including Westwood where I used to hang out on some Saturday nights, going to film premiers or to a bookstore with huge tables of hard cover remainders. I miss walking through the beautiful campus of my alma mater, California State University, at Fullerton, and sit in the quad in the California spring and summer reading a magazine or simply watching people go by, books under their arms, laughter in their hearts.

Portuguese society is in an extreme depressed state, and we hardly see a way out of this economic and financial mess. The only thought or ray of hope that keeps us going with our lives and professional responsibilities is remembering that Portugal is almost nine hundred years old, and we always survive a maddening State governed by incompetent, corrupt and shamelessly greedy politicians. And I miss the huge cholesterol-filled American breakfast I used to eat by stopping midway on 99, after descending the LA mountains, and right before Bakersfield.

MBA — How often do you return to the US? Do you have family here?

VF – I used to go back every year when Adelaide could still travel, either to visit the family in the San Joaquin Valley and in the LA area, or to participate in literary events on both coasts. Now it’s been more than five years since my last visit. The more I know and experience “Europe” the more America becomes dear to me. I compare the period we’re living through, politically speaking, with the 30’s: America elected a real social-democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and “Europe” elected Hitler, and permitted and then “accepted” the traitorous Vichy regime in France, opposed only by a handful of courageous French in the Resistance; today the US elected Barak Hussein Obama, another great American social-democrat, and “Europe” elected that charming lady by the name of Angela Merkel (greatly admired by right-wing Republicans), and my country is “occupied” by a foreign financial and political power called, without any shame or remorse, “The Troika”.

Please don’t ask me why I write “Europe” in quotation marks. I’m not the only one who does. I now dream of having my country back, and a passport that simply states: República Portuguesa/Portuguese Republic. Obviously, it’s not going to happen. Germany wants and demands a new empire, which makes me miss America, especially California, even more; too late at my age and present family circumstances.

MBA — What are your pet peeves as far as things you do not like in writing. Techniques or gimmicks writers use that irritate you? Or maybe genres you personally dislike?

VF – No idiotic proverbs in my writing, ever. I dislike and avoid writers who are always asking what I’m working on, just as measure of their own “greatness”, or trying their insecure ideas on you, pretending humbleness but actually getting free information out of you. I refuse to listen to a writer telling me about “constructing” a situation or character in their work in progress. I no longer get past any second page of deliberately obscure prose. No, I have never and will never read Finnegan’s Wake, and will die just as knowledgeable and happy about literature in general.

I don’t like reading drama, but I adore a seeing a great play. Opera, for me, is the silliest and most ingenuous genre in the arts, all that supposed love, betrayal, abandonment, blood, sweat, tears and murder — in Italian or German, mostly. Poupa-me!

MBA — What are you reading? What’s on your bedside table?

VF — On my bedside table, just a Chinese alarm clock that often fails to go off. My desk here keeps on getting piled up, as with most compulsive readers and writers. At the moment I have to read books that will fit into the thematic line of my borderCrossings: Páginas sobre Açorianidade, by António M. B. Machado Pires; Late Rapturous (poems), by Frank X. Gaspar; The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese American Poetry, selected by Alice R. Clemente and George Monteiro; The Face in the Water (poems), by Nancy Vieira Couto; Al-Andalus Rediscovered: Iberia’s New Muslims, by Marvine Howe; American Dreamers: How The Left Changed a Nation, by Michael Kazin; Mazagran: Recordações & outras fantasias, by J. Rentes de Carvalho; Os Malaquias, by Andréa Del Fuego (a Brazilian writer who received the José Saramago Literary Prize in 2011); Exílio, by Marcela Tagliaferri (also Brazilian, and little known in Portugal); Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie; the fourth volume of The Paris Review Interviews, a reprint of writers at work from the 50’s to 2008.

MBA — Across the board, there is a lack of exports from Portugal to the US. Portugal has GREAT wines, foods, music and yet most are unknown in the United States. Other small countries seem to have their cultural exports more widely adopted and enjoyed. Why do you think Portugal has been ignored? Hidden?

VF – I believe I have given some tentative answers to some of your previous questions. We have never been part of the American imaginary, or imagination. Their loss, obviously. But you have to remember that we figure in the imagination of some American intellectuals and academics at a higher level. When most American writers think of us, from Mark Twain to John Steinbeck, for example, we’d rather be forgotten: all their prejudices and Anglo-American chauvinism come forth. Again, ignorance is, unfortunately, a universal vice or a widespread condition.

For example, in Innocents Abroad, Twain writes in a passage about visiting the Azores: “The community is eminently Portuguese — that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy.” Even when Barak Obama, in a speech about a year ago, wanted to score some points with the American public, he cried out that “We’re not Portugal.” Well, no, we existed centuries before the United States became a super power, before America, as an organized country, was even “imagined”, and we “connected the world” (as CNN International likes do brag for themselves) way before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, and we also demonstrated to the rest of Europe that they would not fall off the water if they sailed in a straight course, and “we” wrote one of the greatest epic poems in European literature (The Lusiads by Luís Vaz de Camões) at least two centuries before those thirteen British colonies organized themselves into a federal state, and we brought spices from the Far East that the English are still trying to figure how to use in their bland “cuisine.”

Yes, we’re just a small country of a little over ten million people, and presently going through some rough waters. But we’re used to them, we’re survivors. We’ve been around for a long time, and will continue to be around for a long time, European Union — or no European Union.

MBA — Can you give us a short quote from something you have written?

VF – From a critical piece (1980) published in The Portuguese Tribune on a book of great poetical prose, Plural Transitivo, by Urbino de San-Payo, an immigrant from northern Portugal, who lived with his wife for many years in Beverly Hills while in the service of some movie barons: “A América tornou-se-lhe, como talvez para a maioria de nós, numa espécie de ‘bela indesejada’, um fruto proibitivo e logo saboroso demais para largar. Parte dele (de nós) morreu cá; parte dele (de nós) nasceu cá. É de toda essa ambiguidade que nascem as presentes crónicas. Está agora a pagar, com paciência e estilo próprio, a sua pena”.

Translation: “America became for him, maybe for most of us, a kind of ‘Undesired Beauty,’ a forbidden fruit, thus too tasty to let go. Part of him (of us) died here; part of him (of us) was born there. It is out of this ambiguity that these chronicles are born. He is now paying, in patience and in his own style, his sentence”.

MBA — What frustrates you with your writing?

VF – Writing has always been a pleasure for me. What frustrates me? The new graphics in most Portuguese periodicals: it’s as if now the text illustrates the pictures, rather than the other way around. Space! Write just a few words, they demand, even if to discuss with readers a great and complex novel, or any other book! Therefore, I feel privileged in writing for Açoriano Oriental, The Portuguese Times and Tribuna Portuguesa — all the space I need within rational limits. I could publish more often in Lisbon, but book reviews or essays are relegated to whatever corner is left from “cultural” news, and favored “personalities” in the arts. I look at The New York Review of Books with much pleasure – here’s a real literary and cultural journal.

MBA — Is there something you are trying to accomplish but haven’t yet?

VF – Write a literary biography of my Azorean generation, both here and in the United States. Write a book on some currents in the criticism and essays of Edmund Wilson.

MBA — Do you think there is such as thing as Portuguese-American or Portuguese-Canadian literature (as a separate canon?). Like, for example, Italian-American literature? If so, what are the “markers” of Portuguese-North American writing?

VF – Yes, I do, but limited to the United States. Portuguese-Canadians are still lagging behind in their writings in which Portuguese ancestral roots would be present. However, we have two great Portuguese-Canadian writers that I am aware of, and I have written on their novels: My Darling Dead Ones (translated into Portuguese as Meus Queridos Mortos) and Bteween the Stilness and the Grove, by Erika Vasconcelos, and Barnacle Love (translated as Terra Nova), by Anthony De Sa. There is an Angolan-born writer, Paulo da Costa, residing in British Columbia, who has a very good book of interrelated short stories, The Scent of a Lie. But a “canon” they do not make, yet.

I do believe, however, that there is now a substantial canon of Portuguese-American literature. One cannot use numbers of books to define a “canon,” but from the 90’s up to today our literary production (of books written by Portuguese-Americans) in the US has been developing at a great pace (thanks also to your generation) and with undeniable quality. Of course, this is always a subjective judgment – as all judgments are — on any critic’s part.

There is now a whole literary corpus which distinguishes itself for having a clear thematic unifying line: the Portuguese experience of being either a son or daughter, or even of a generation further removed from its roots, of immigrants from all parts of Portugal, the Continent or the islands, in America. In addition, all of these writers (some mentioned here, many others not), whether in prose, poetry or in any other form, make multiple artistic callings on their ancestral histories and memories. As for Portuguese-American writing being a separate canon, yes and no.

Most American literature, from its very beginnings, is richly “divided” into a great human or ethnic mosaic: Anglo-Americans, Irish-Americans, Afro-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Southern Literature, etc. Yet, they, or at least most of them, all fit into the national canon of American literature, as is shown, for example, in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, in which even an Indian-American and award-wining writer, Bharati Mukherjee (who is a friend of Katherine Vaz, let’s appreciate these connections for they are very important) is present. There is no other country in the world that can boast such artistic diversity and richness. Portuguese-American literature has to promote itself to the point where future and “open”, well-informed, national anthologies will include some of our writers. We’ve been much distanced from these cultural objectives, but I firmly believe we’ll get there, despite some of the historical attitudes we’ll have to overcome, mentioned before in our conversation.

MBA — Who are your favorite Portuguese writers? Can you share a significant line or passage and explain its importance?

VF – Eça de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa, Jorge de Sena, José Rodrigues Miguéis, Eugénio Lisboa, Onésimo T. Almeida, Urbano Bettencourt, João de Melo, Eduardo Lourenço, Almeida Faria, and many other literary modernists, including a good number of Azorean, Brazilian and, of course, Portuguese-American writers. Camões is a founding father, and one loves him as such, as well as Fernão Mendes Pinto, the first great anti-imperialist European writer. Wish he’d be around for us in these darkened times.

Jorge de Sena, from his great poem “In Crete, With the Minotaur”, in a translation by George Monteiro (In Crete, With the Minotaur and Other Poems):

I shall collect nationalities like shirts that are shed –

One wears them and one throws them away – with all the respect

Due clothes one has worn and which have given good wear.

I am my own homeland. The homeland

I write about is the language into which by chance of generations

I was born.

This is, for me, part of the greatest emigrant/immigrant poem ever written in the Portuguese language. It encapsulates all the themes, all the anxieties suffered, I believe, by all those who, willingly or unwillingly, become strangers in a strange land, when flags and national anthems say very little to their hearts. It is a ferociously anti-nationalist poem, yet patriotic in the best sense of the word: adherence to a language, solidarity with all who become the others anywhere, and yet survive with courage and dignity.

MBA — If I asked you at age 12 what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would you have said?

VF – Underwater archeologist, after having read a book by Jacques Cousteau, whose title I don’t remember, about his underwater explorations of ancient civilizations in the Adriatic Sea. There was just a little problem with my early ambition: I’m terrified of the ocean, and never learned how to swim! I believe I’ve always been a continental posing as an islander.

MBA — Who has been your biggest influence? Or mentor?

VF – Three great professors at California State University, Fullerton: Nancy T. Baden (Portuguese and Brazilian literatures), Michael Holland (American and European literatures), and William Koon (American, particularly Southern, literature). They taught me the essential theorical or hermeneutical approaches to any text, but also gave me the firm idea that great literature is always a portrait not only of an individual and his circumstances – as Ortega y Gasset wrote – but also of a whole society or community. All the rest is wasteful narcissistic gesture that may be fun but inconsequential at all levels.

Then there was my epiphanic discovery of Edmund Wilson in the early 70’s. Again, literature, society and history are the fundamental references of all great prose and poetry. He showed me that clear and concise writing can only come from deep involvement with a text, from an almost intuitive understanding of subtexts and historical undercurrents in any narrative. He seldom wrote on books he didn’t like, rather ignored or dismissed them in private letters, as he did with his friend/nemesis Vladimir Nabokov about Lolita, even though he helped to get it published in America. He was also a master of, let’s say, critical creative writing, using and elevating the good works of others while creating his own narratives on American literature and culture. On the other hand, Wilson was the first great, canonical critic of the twentieth century to dedicate himself to minority cultures and ethnic literatures: Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies of Four Civilizations (1956), Apologies to the Iroquois (1960), and even Canadian literature, almost totally ignored in the US when he published O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture (1963). We may even include here The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1959). More than from anybody else, I drew from him the certainty that those “isolated” literatures not only have to be given their due, but that we must: these literatures are the aesthetic and permanent records of other cultures and their existence and contributions to the building of societies, to the sharing of their humanity with all others. He did this after explaining to the American readers the early literary modernism, coming first from Europe (Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literatures of 1870-1930 (1930), and cultivated in America, with New York as the center or heart for invention and literary daring.

MBA — What draws you to literature?

VF – All of the above.

MBA — Is there a tune or music that has affected you?

VF – “The World Over”, by Frank Sinatra, and recently “Saudade,” by Mariza, from her fantastic album Terra. “Adagios” by Albinoni and “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi always affect my state of mind, help me remember that sadness and happiness are most natural feelings or sentiments shared by all humanity, as dark winter is followed by spring and summer.

MBA — The critic and writer George Monteiro at Brown University states, “It is time for an anthology of Portuguese-American poetry. If it cannot be called The Oxford Book of Portuguese American Verse, we propose to call it, with little or no levity, The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese American Verse.” What impact do you think this anthology will have?

VF – I have it here in front of me, to read word by word, line by line, including every biographical note of the twenty four poets gathered in its pages. It is one of the greatest and timely contributions to Portuguese-American literature, encompassing various generations, from Emma Lazarus in the nineteenth century to the present. You won’t say it, but I will: your poetry opens the anthology. Congratulations on being so prominently present in such a book.

I also want to take this opportunity to state the following: No one among us has done even a fraction of the work in bringing Portuguese-American literature to the forefront as Professor, essayist and poet George Monteiro. Fortunately, since The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese American Poetry was also organized and selected by Alice R. Clemente, his own poetry has been justly included in these pages. His poems in The Coffee Exchange (1982) and in Double Weaver’s Knot (1988) are now part of the canon we’ve been discussing along this conversation.

I can think of no more important and, once again, timely book for all of us – it is now a permanent book of academic reference, pure pleasure as text, setter of standards among future poets. I also appreciate the criteria in putting it together, and I’ll quote from the introduction: “Early on, we determined that our selection of poetry by Portuguese-Americans would be governed by aesthetic rather cultural criteria… While it will include poems on Portuguese-American themes, the major criterion for inclusion is that the poems themselves – regardless of subject matter or theme – be work of the highest aesthetic quality.”

And so it should be. No hiding here behind fabricated identity excuses. Yet, it is also, and rightly so, questions of identity that come forth in these marvelous and competent poems. All literature is memory and identity, confirmation or an exercise in the search for them. Not a single institution either in the US or in Portugal has done as much since the 70’s to promote Portuguese-American writers – and, no, I’m not forgetting anybody or any other institution. George Monteiro and Onésimo T. Almeida started it all, and now with the active collaboration of Professor Alice R. Clemente, secretaries and others, continue to do their work with Gávea-Brown: a Bilingual Journal of Portuguese American Letters and Studies, founded in 1980. Gávea-Brown continues to be the flag publication for Portuguese-American writing — essays, book reviews, fiction, poetry, and any document pertinent to our studies or curiosity in this field.

With the contributions of Tagus Press at UMass, Dartmouth, in publishing or republishing books by Portuguese-American authors of all generations, we are now probably in a much better cultural and literary position than many other ethnic or minority writers.

MBA — What do you think writers can do to enhance communication between North America and Portugal?

VF – Continue to do the things you’re now doing: publishing, going to readings and conferences, coming to Portugal every chance you get, participate, when invited, in writing and discussion programs, such as the summer gathering of Disquiet, in Lisbon. We here in Portugal should organize more literary events for that very purpose throughout the academic year, and of course invite as many Portuguese-American writers as financial support permits. Unfortunately, you know all too well of our current national situation, financial and economic meltdown with no end in sight, despite government propaganda to the contrary.

MBA — Why do you think so few Portuguese writers’ work is translated into English?

VF – Only a very few foreign writers sell well in the US. Without generous institutional financial support nothing can be done about it. Most of our writers, some of the best in contemporary European literature, would quickly end up in the remainder tables. But again, this is also true of many of the best and serious American writers. Our personal collection here in our house, with hundreds of American hard cover books of fiction, poetry and essays of all types and subjects was practically all bought from those tables when Adelaide and I made frequent trips to America.

MBA — Why do you think the immigrant experience can be bitter sweet?

VF – The greatest spiritual and cultural hurt happens when you leave family, friends,

language, and all native references built and cultivated over many generations to restart life in a foreign and distant land. Eventually, the immigrant readjusts and assimilates a new way of being and living, even reinventing his language, creating new families through marriages and births of sons, daughters, and the following generations.

Nevertheless, an immigrant will forever be a divided soul, permanently longing for what has been lost: longing for his/her homeland, and in periodical visits, if they happen, longing for the new county and the acquired costums. But the Portuguese people have made movement from one continent to another a historical way of being in the world, accept for our traditional elite, always steady, rapacious and unjust. Exactly what we are living at this moment. Just in the last few years, over two hundred thousand of our people have emigrated in search of a better life. Not too long ago one of our sickening politicians actually declared in a public event in Brazil that our well-educated and no so well-educated young people should leave what he cynically called the “comfort zone”, that is, their families, friends, language and all the native references I’ve mentioned, while he, no doubt, excusing himself from such ventures, and continuing to suck out of the public treasury.

MBA — Which comes first? The character or the plot?

VF – Character, of course. Plot is really out of fashion, unless you’re reading a political or a crime thriller. I myself am a great fan of Raymond Chandler (The Long Goodbye and The Lady In The Lake), and of Rubem Fonseca (A Grande Arte and Agosto), Brazilian novelist, and one of the best writers of the Portuguese language who rightly combines politics and delinquent crime in all his novels and short stories. In 2003, he received the most prestigious literary prize in the Portuguese-speaking world, Prémio Camões.

MBA — Do you consider yourself a realist or a romantic?

VF – Perhaps a romantic realist? This is what keeps me, and I think most Portuguese, going. We believe in ourselves despite a country that has been searching for its rightful place in the world since the loss of the empire. We bite our lips and dry our tears, but keep going. Anywhere in the world! A few days ago a television program discussed and showed young and older Portuguese people in other countries in Europe, and far away (Australia and Hong Kong, for example). They talked about missing family and friends, but then would smile and say they were alright, and being successful in their various professions or occupations. This is our people, a great people, or no less greater than those of any other nationality or country.

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A breve tradução da citação tirada de Plural Transitivo, de Urbino San-Payo, é da responsabilidade de Elizabeth Figueiredo Kastin. Publicado no meu BorderCrossings: leituras transatlânticas III, Ponta Delgada, Letras Lavadas, 2016.