Portuguese-American literature comes of age

 By FRANK F. SOUSA

 

Dr. Sousa is professor of Portuguese at UMass Dartmouth and director of UMD's Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

The Standard Times, New Bedford, Massachusetts, Wednesday, October 03, 2007

In 1951, Alfred Lewis published "Home Is an Island," an autobiographical coming-of-age novel about growing up in the Azores with the constant lure of America as the Promised Land. This fictional work, published by Random House, was the first by a Portuguese-American to command the attention of the English-reading public, garnering over 80 reviews, including two in the New York Times.

One review, in the San Francisco Chronicle, acknowledged that "Home Is an Island" was "a pioneer effort from this particular group," and went on to express the hope that Lewis would "inspire other descendents of Camoens "¦ to take up the pen, to explore and relate the story of the Portuguese pioneers in California."

Unfortunately, with the exception of Julian Silva, whose first novel, "The Gunnysack Castle," was published in 1983 by Ohio University Press, the Chronicle's call for genuinely distinguished and aesthetically compelling works of imaginative literature about the Portuguese-American experience had to wait until the 1990s.

But things began to change in the last part of the 20th century, when Katherine Vaz, granddaughter of immigrants from the Azores, published the critically acclaimed novel "Saudade" in 1994, to which she has since added her second and equally well-received novel, "Mariana," and a short story collection entitled "Fado and Other Stories." Unlike Portuguese-American writers before her, Vaz was received — triumphantly at times — by an ethnic and immigrant community yearning for a strong literary voice to give aesthetic form to its experience.

The first nationally celebrated poet is Frank X. Gaspar, whose collection, "The Holyoke," won the Morse Poetry Prize for 1988. Gaspar, who hails from Provincetown but lives and works in California, is the author of three more award-winning works of poetry and a highly praised novel, "Leaving Pico," that the New York Times termed "an expert portrait of the Portuguese immigrant experience, from its resistance to full integration to its more domestic squabbles." In fact, this was the first Portuguese-American novel since "Home Is an Island" to be reviewed in the Times at all.

Charles Reis Felix, though of the same generation as Julian Silva, saw his first published work, "Crossing the Sauer," published in 2002 at age 79. This account of his experience as a combat infantryman in World War II was hailed by the historian Paul Fussell as "one of the most honest, unforgettable memoirs of the war I've read."

With his subsequent memoir from 2004 about growing up in New Bedford and provocatively titled "Through a Portagee Gate" (the work has been adapted for the stage by Culture*Park of New Bedford), and his more recent novel, "Da Gama, Cary Grant and the Election of 1934," whose setting is a mythic mill town very much like New Bedford, Reis Felix has shown, along with José Saramago, the Portuguese author and 1998 Nobel laureate in literature, that it's never too late to start publishing first-rate literature.

The Luso-Canadian Erika de Vasconcelos' first novel, "My Darling Dead Ones," published by Knopf in 1997, introduced a powerful new voice into North American-Portuguese fiction by examining the lives of three generations of women. Significantly, in terms of ethnic literature and the notion of a hybrid identity, the novel evokes the Portugal of the early 20th century as well as the Montreal of the 1960s and the Toronto of the 1990s. Following this impressive debut, de Vasconcelos added the lyrically titled "Between the Stillness and the Grove," which among many things evokes, in passing, Fernando Pessoa, the greatest Portuguese poet since Camões.

As already seen in Lewis, and also evident in the writings of Vaz and Gaspar, among others, a writer of Portuguese descent dialogues with Portuguese literature and culture, and weaves, through memory, the Portuguese past in the American present. All of these writers explore what Werner Sollors, in the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, describes as the central theme in ethnic literature—"the relationship of the New and Old World in the struggle for an American Identity." They thereby speak to all of us, Portuguese-Americans or not, as Americans in a nation of immigrants.

These five writers, Charles Reis Felix, Frank X. Gaspar, Julian Silva, Erica de Vasconcelos and Katherine Vaz, are the most celebrated Portuguese-American writers today. They were the focus of a recent author-led symposium, "Escrita da Vida — Vida da Escrita," organized by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities (MFH) and the UMass Dartmouth Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture at the John F. Kennedy Library, with major sponsorship from the Luso-American Foundation, several Portuguese-American businesses and individuals, and this newspaper, among others in the region.

As a follow up to the symposium, the MFH is presenting a five-part scholar-led reading and discussion series based on works by the five authors at public libraries throughout Massachusetts, including New Bedford and Fall River. For more information, visit www.mfh.org.

The writings of the five authors represent a response to the call from the San Francisco Chronicle and to the question posed by literary critic Nancy Baden in a 1979 article polemically titled, "Does Portuguese-American Literature Exist?" The answer then was that neither the quantity nor the quality of published works by Portuguese-Americans justified such a designation. But today, these five authors, among others, whose prose and poetry map the Portuguese-American experience from a literary perspective, lead us to affirm, unequivocally, the existence of such a literature.

In other words, Portuguese-American literature — works produced by Americans of Portuguese descent for whom a sense of ethnicity and heritage is a central component of their literary sensibility — is not just fledgling but has already taken wing.

 

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