Friday, November 12, 2010

Portuguese-American writing

Not under the influence!

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.”

Silly adults.

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.

Then I picked up Through a Portagee Gate and was instantly grateful that I had not read it earlier. Had I already been familiar with the work of 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.

Finally I turned to two collections of stories by 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.


William said...

Zeno, something I've been wondering -- are you going to give up your anonymity when your book comes out? Or are you publishing under a pseudonym? Or, will you use your real name on the book, but still not reveal it on the blog? (That one might be tricky.)

William said...

P.S. Please don't mistake my question for pressure or anything; I'm just genuinely curious (about how you'll handle it, not about what your name is).

Zeno said...

Yes, William, that question has come up before. If my novel gets published, I think my real name will simply become one of those open secrets that no one cares about. For example, Orac has been outed several times by anti-vaccinationists but he continues to write his blog under his pseudonym and "Orac" is how people continue to refer to him. I figure I'll remain "Zeno" on this blog even if there gets to be a link in the sidebar for people who want to go to Amazon to buy my book.

Miki Z. said...

I come to this blog mostly for the teaching stories, but I do use the sidebar as a suggested reading list, as well. I think I found out about Anathem (Neal Stephenson) from seeing it on your blog; I had read other works by Stephenson before, but didn't know he had a new one out.

I look forward to seeing your book in the sidebar.

Zeno said...

Reading tips? Now I feel a sense of responsibility!

Thanks for the good wishes, Miki, but why should my book appear in the sidebar? I've already read it!

(Oh, that's right. A sales link. I hope so!)

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

How do you find the time?

I'm slacking off on work and papermarking as it is, and I can't even find the time to keep up with the blogs.

How little do you sleep?

(I was a voracious reader as a kid, but the Internet has ruined me.)

Kathie said...

Zeno, have you also read Alfred Lewis' earlier novel "Home Is An Island" (Random House, 1951), a semi-autobiographical account of childhood on the west coast of Flores ca. 1900-1920 (he was born Alfredo Luís in Fajãzinha in 1902)? I imagine you're likely to enjoy it, since you enjoyed "60 Acres and a Barn." "Home Is An Island" is long out-of-print, alas (with no prospects for reissuing, according to reliable sources, alas). However, it is widely held in public and college libraries, chiefly in California (where Lewis immigrated and spent the rest of his life). I consider it superior literarily to "60 Acres and a Barn" (which is nonetheless a good read).

You can check book availability at:
(I assume you can borrow it through your college library via Inter Library Loan).

Modesty precludes excessively promoting my own published endeavors on your blog -- unless, of course, you were to twist my arm -- ouch! Ouch! OUCH ;-)

Zeno said...

Not yet, Kathie, but thanks for pointing it out. I've heard of it, but have yet to search a university or college library for it.

Although Lewis's 1951 book might not be a candidate for a normal revival, someone who scanned it might be able to create a print-on-demand edition that would make it available again. Is it old enough yet for the Gutenberg Project?

(And you are welcome to mention your own efforts, Kathie.)

Rhoadan said...

I think the most recent works to enter the public domain due to copyright expiration did so in 1921, and I recently read that with the way that the rules were reworked when US copyright law was brought into compliance with the Berne Convention, no copyrights will expire until 2019. Material can, of course, be placed in the public domain by the creator, and anything produced by the government is considered public domain.

Short form: If it was published in 1951, it's still under copyright unless the author said otherwise.

The things you learn following a major copyright infringement scandal.

Kathie said...

Zeno, you might also enjoy a fairly recent collection of linked short stories by a young Azorean-Canadian author: "Barnacle Love," by Anthony De Sa (whose family's roots are on São Miguel Island in the Azores). The book was published first in Canada, then in the US; both the Boston Globe and NY Times gave it brief but favorable reviews! Google for lots more info.

"Barnacle Love" is available via Amazon -- or you could check to see if a library near you holds a copy, or if not, you could doubtless borrow one via Inter Library Loan.

Full disclosure: A friend of Anthony's in Toronto had enthusiastically recommended "Barnacle Love" to me, and when I read it I was delighted with it. Then I had the pleasure of meeting Anthony at a writer's conference in the Azores last year, to which I brought along my copy for him to autograph. Anthony mentioned that he was trying to finish his first novel (full-time teaching job and family notwithstanding!), so I'll be watching for the novel to come out in the not-too-distant future, I hope, and will let you know when it does.

Kathie said...

Rhoadan, in 2004 I was translating Álamo Oliveira's novel "Já não gosto de chocolates," which in a dramatic scene contains the Portuguese translation of an Ezra Pound poem (no title given, alas). After flinging myself at the mercy of our main public library's (most gracious) poetry expert for assistance in finding the English-language original, I wound up leafing through a 1,300-page volume of many (though not all) of Pound's published writings. The good news was that only 100+ pages into the tome, I located what I realized had to be the English original from which the Portuguese version was excerpted and translated, which (under the fair use doctrine) I promptly photocopied.

What I was hoping to do was to reproduce the original poem in the English translation of the novel, but I didn't know whether the poem was still copyright-protected -- and, if so, how to proceed (presumably one would require clearance from the Pound estate, a prospect I found daunting, since I'd never done any such thing before). The aforementioned librarian and I determined, however, that said poem had been published no later than 1909 (possibly even a year earlier); he also knew that the longest possible copyright coverage then was 95 years -- how lucky can one translator get?!?

P.S. As for why I wanted to use Ezra Pound's English original, I'll leave to your imagination what an English translation of a Portuguese translation of a Pound poem turns out to be ;-)))

rigel said...

I would certainly prefer to read more foreign fiction which were translated from Portuguese translation to english, or in any languages.Because in that way I could have an idea what do people think,feel or their culture is.When we read books from a foreign country it seems like travelling in that country through the stories plot.We could recognize how they have been living afar from our own culture.

Millicent said...

Greetings. I enjoyed your post about Portuguese-American literature and thought you might be interested in a few other sites:

1) list of PA writers

2) my interview with writer Frank Gaspar at the Portuguese American Journal (I also have other interviews with PA writers too)

3) The Kale Soup literary series of readings by Luso writers about family, place, food and Portuguese culture.

email me if you want more information.

Millicent Borges Accardi

ally said...

Nice post. It shows how rich could a literature be in terms of translation.Through translating shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.Whether in Portuguese translation or in any foreign language translation helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region.

kltranslations said...

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KL Translations