Numbers are my vocation, but words are my avocation. There is always a book on my nightstand and a few (or several) minutes of relaxing reading before turning in is my reliable preventive for insomnia. There is always a book (at least one!) in the back seat of my car, just in case I need a luncheon companion. And there is always a book lying on the table next to the recliner in the living room, where I'm likely to pick it up in favor of the television remote control.
This habit of constant reading goes back at least to my grade-school days. It became such a pronounced trait of my childhood that adults occasionally tried to intervene and encourage me to “put that book down and go have some fun.”
Of course, if you don't take their advice, some people (especially if they're grown-ups and you're a kid) will take more intrusive steps, e.g., confiscation. Dad, for example, didn't like it when I read in the car on the way to Sunday mass. He caught me smuggling a copy of Tarzan of the Apes into the back seat one morning and insisted that I hand it over. (I lost ten minutes of reading time on that trip that I'll never get back!) Something similar happened when I tried to take a book with me to an Oakland Athletics game at the Coliseum. I was supposed to “enjoy” myself watching grown men swing sticks at balls and run around a square. Thank goodness I managed to grab a copy of the Oakland Tribune at the stadium, which I pointedly read throughout all nine innings. (Poor Dad. The things he had to put up with.)
My habit has survived all attempts to suppress it. If anything, it's grown. My taste in reading is broad. The sidebar of this blog demonstrates that, having played host to titles that involve science, history, biography, politics, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy. I don't, however, make a point of keeping up with the modern novel or current bestsellers. I prefer to meander my own way through the embarrassment of literary riches without worrying about what's popular at the moment (or whether Oprah likes it, which is often the same thing).
Although the scope of my reading has been broad, I did not stumble across much Portuguese-American literature. I had not specifically sought out works by others who shared my ethnic heritage, but—had I thought of it—I would have expected to run across the occasional Luso-American writer. But I didn't.
And, before you mention him, I'll point out that John Dos Passos doesn't really count.
I casually assumed—never having thought too hard about it—that we had been assimilated beyond recognition into the mainstream of English literature.
But I was wrong, as I discovered after cranking out a book-length manuscript stuffed with Portuguese-American anecdotes and realizing I needed to do a proper literature search to learn whether my book might find a niche. Once I actually started paying attention, I learned that Reinaldo Silva had written an entire book titled Portuguese American Literature. Silva's book revealed that I had been anticipated in my literary endeavors by Alfred Lewis (Alfredo Luís) and his Sixty Acres and a Barn. Then there's Charles (Carlos) Reis Felix, the author of Through a Portagee Gate, and the award-winning Katharine Vaz, author of Fado.
Who knew we were a genre?
See how I said “we” right there? Cheeky.
I started digging into the Portuguese-American oeuvre. Sixty Acres and a Barn was a quick and enjoyable reading experience. Lewis was writing a version of his own experience of coming to the United States as a young man and earning his keep on a dairy farm in Central California. He told a story of new experiences and old traditions—and the conflict between them. When I finished the book, it seemed to me that Lewis had blazed a trail that I was following with my own novel, which is based on the history of my grandfather's dairy farm and family, also in California's central valley. Lewis, however, was recounting a more circumscribed story and his timeline was earlier in the 20th century than mine.
Charles Reis Felix, I would not have been able to avoid the conclusion that he was a powerful influence on my writing. Instead, reading it after the completion of my manuscript, Through a Portagee Gate became a strong validation of what I had done. Without rashly suggesting that I am Felix's equal in prose style, I can at least lay claim to sharing an innate predilection for episodic achronological storytelling.
Felix has an ear for dialog that I envy and his prose rings with authenticity. I have since read other works by this author, including Tony and Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934. I can recommend them to anyone who enjoys a good book, especially someone curious about the Portuguese immigrant experience.
Katharine Vaz, Our Lady of the Artichokes and Fado. Where Felix tells stories, Vaz weaves spells. Where Felix is more likely to startle you with some spot-on account of some characteristically Luso-American quirk (yes! we are so like that!), Vaz surprises us with intrusions of fantasy into the mundane. “How to Grow Orchids Without Grounds: A Manual” was an entertaining and peculiar story about clandestine nocturnal plantings of orchids and the varied reactions of those who discovered these unsanctioned efflorescences. But it suddenly got really weird when a character's nail clippings came to life and ran off to see the world. I could not help but think that Vaz was resorting to a magical gimmick (“magical realism”?) to wrap up a story whose denouement was giving her trouble. In fact, it reminded me of Graham Chapman walking into a Monty Python skit in his military uniform and wrapping it up by announcing that it had become too silly to continue.
Overall, I find Vaz a fascinating writer who fills her tales with authentic Portuguese touches. At the same time, she bends the English language to her will, creating odd phrases and metaphors that strike the eye and ear in amusing ways. I'm often tempted to read her work aloud. Here's a sentence I like from “The Man Who Was Made of Netting”:
There was a lightness about Daisy that was not weightlessness but a grip on the power of light.The use of “light” is nicely ambiguous, drawing on both of its principal meanings: illumination and mass measure. You hear a kind of echo in your head when you read it. And “grip” and “power” are both strong words that reinforce each other, slightly startling in the context of describing a young girl.
But here's one, also from “The Man Who Was Made of Netting,” that doesn't work (at least, not for me):
Her weeping at her grandpa's funeral had broken Manny in so many places that he sometimes felt gusts of wind were bandages, scarcely holding him together.Huh? Vaz is trying to piece together things that won't adhere to each other. Manny is broken? Okay. Wind holds him together? More likely blow him apart. Vaz doesn't give us enough to work with, no good way to reconcile the counter-intuitive linkage between shattered fragments and gusts of wind that (magically?) gather the pieces together instead of scattering them. I don't get it, but I'm sure Vaz will not be disturbed by my occasional confusion or lack of comprehension. Besides, I admire her rhetorical bravery even when I don't like (or, perhaps, understand) the results.
I have so far read only her short stories. She has written novels that may yet end up on my reading list.
The past year has slightly diminished my ignorance when it comes to Portuguese-American literature. The next year will diminish it further. And—who knows?—perhaps next year I will be a part of it.