Being Through Words

House in Provincetown, Massachusetts, USA

My parents brought me to Canada when I was nine, and I have lived in Toronto ever since. But those first nine years of my life in São Miguel, in Portugal’s Azores islands, remain a constant reminder that my deepest roots are still Azorean and that my first language is Portuguese, even though the English language easily seduced my soul with its charm and beauty after my arrival in North America.

It is primarily through language that I have found a meaningful way to understand and define who I am to myself. When I read or write or speak in Portuguese I am accessing a part of me that is separate from my English language self. The same is true in reverse. I find it painful to recognize that I have never been able to combine both languages into one holistic and fluid expression of myself. What I experience is more like an interior move from one linguistic room to another: a Portuguese room and an English room in my mind’s house. I have tried to find a third inner room, a common room where my Portuguese-English selves can be together and co-exist fluidly and naturally, but the search eludes me, and so I continue to move from one room to the other, always leaving a part of me behind before I enter each separate space of the same house.

As palavras são a maneira mais significativa que tenho para manter a minha identidade. Words are the most significant means by which I express my identity. This is why in my writing I often feel compelled to weave Portuguese words and dialogue through my English text. I strive to merge the words from the two languages that make up my soul and define my experiences of the world as a whole person and not as a divided self.

I belong to an older generation of immigrants who share a similar saudade, a nostalgic memory. We are the collective consciousness or witnesses of another geographical place of a long time ago; we belong to the terra onde nascemos (the place where we were born) and the terra onde vivemos (the place where we now live).

I still carry many detailed recordações inside myself, and these dormant memories of my past come alive with a word, spoken or read, taking me back to a part of me that still exists in my soul. But when I try to write about these memories in English they lose part of their nuanced meaning in the translation, perhaps because inevitably the memories, like all memories, resonate with the one remembering, and so I find it easier to write about them in Portuguese because it’s the only way I can conjure up the tastes and smells and sounds of my past.

When writing about my Portuguese experiences in English I am conscious of the reader who does not understand Portuguese, and I struggle to find a way to convey these untranslatable emotions. It is a process akin to the parables in the gospels where Jesus tries to explain the kingdom of God through metaphors and images. The kingdom of God is like a mansion, a pearl, treasure buried in a field…; saudade is like missing the ocean, it’s a longing for the smells, sounds, sights, and feel of home… but we are never really able to capture the essence in translation fully.

Yet, translation is the means by which we allow others a glimpse of what the original is like. Without translation we would be impoverished in our ability to access, understand, and know other cultures and ways of thinking beyond the few languages each of us can realistically manage to acquire in a lifetime.

May Sarton, the American poet and writer, who was born in Belgium, was an immigrant, too, and she succinctly describes her challenge of translating from French into English in a way that resonates with my own experience: “Translation makes one aware of words and the value of each word. There are so many nuances. It’s fascinating to try to find an exact equivalent, and of course, there is none.” At Eighty-two: A Journal (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996)

In translating, like in the parables, we can reasonably approximate the essence if the words are carefully chosen to convey a meaning and a feeling that we can make understandable to the reader of the translated language. In my case, Portuguese into English.

There was a decisive moment in my life at the age of fifteen when speaking, writing, and thinking in Portuguese faded from my consciousness through less and less usage as English became the dominant and more meaningful language for articulating my thoughts and ideas not only to others but especially to myself, in the privacy of my own thoughts.

In Avelina da Silveira’s powerful poem on identity and language, Palavras onde me perco, I was reminded of that psychological experience in my adolescence, of leaving the linguistic world of my mother tongue behind: “Já não sonho em português.” “I no longer dream in Portuguese.” When I first read these words I cried, for they were like a stab of truth in the heart. They painfully reminded me of that inevitable moment I experienced when my mother-language receded to make room for the new language of the country that became home.

I admire people who can switch language code easily and who do not agonize about whether or not they still dream in their mother tongue. They can be happily themselves in one language or the other and even with both simultaneously. But this has not been my experience and so I rely on hope or is it simply naïve wishful thinking? that after five decades of living away from my country of origin, I will somehow still find a way of intertwining the two linguistic worlds that make up my soul into a fluid and equal expression of myself.

I strive to reclaim an inner space where I can “sonhar em português” (dream in Portuguese) once again, dive into Portuguese letters, swim in Portuguese words, and luxuriate in their Portuguese sounds as effortlessly as I do in English, that once-upon-a-time foreign language that is no longer foreign but is even more intimate, familiar, and an integral part of me than the language of my childhood.

Yet I can still be lured back to the mother tongue when the siren words of Portuguese beckon to me and then I lose myself in the words of my childhood, fico perdido nas palavras da minha infância; I dive into the infinite ocean of words, mergulho no mar infinito das palavras; I swim on the waves of a persistent longing that teases my parched soul for the past, nado nas ondas de saudade que me perseguem e torturam a minha alma, faminta pelo passado longuínquo. But I almost don’t remember the words anymore, quase que já não me lembro das palavras, so far are they from me now, tão longe que estão de mim agora, in this world, neste mundo, of English words that seduced, and mothered my Portuguese soul.

 

Palavras onde me perco

How I long for the days when words were essential!
Outros tempos quando a palavra encerrava uma certeza
existencial
— coeur et mots, moi même in a fabric of being.

Foi há tanto tempo que parti…
As palavras custam a vir;
como se eu as quisesse articular mas houvesse uma pedra
na garganta.

A voz lusitana escorre sem que dela eu beba,
quase alien, porque já não sonho em português.

Palavras, words, mots perdus…
Labirintos de imagens onde me perco
na ânsia de chegar à outra margem de mim.

J’ai changé le profil du jour
et j’ai perdu mon visage en ce temps,
never again myself between the sea and the maples.

Oh tragédia de imigrar, de partir sem chegar
tecendo na diáspora un être d’ici et de toujours.

Demain será un autre pays, un autre matin,
De identidade dispersa
I’ll be searching in yesterday
for the name of a water bird among the snow.

Avelina da Silveira

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A Splash of Winter Snow in Early March

 Old Vic building, Victoria University, Toronto

The snow came back yesterday to remind us that winter in Toronto is not yet over. I could not resist but take the time to walk around the campus where I work and capture images of the beauty around me. By noon the snow had mostly gone and what remained for me was the memory of a good start to a Friday morning. Sometimes it pays to get to work early.

The robin vigilantly waiting for spring!

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Beyond Bullfights and Ice Hockey: A Reader’s Response

“Tourada à corda” in Terceira Island, Azores

 

I overheard a conversation between a father, his wife and daughter while at lunch at Le Petit Château in Quebec City the other day.

“What are you planning to do this afternoon?” he asked.

“We’re going to the Museum of Civilization.”

“Great. That’ll give me time to watch the game and then we’ll meet up after.”

I could say that I found it shocking that someone would take the time to come all the way to Quebec City to stay cooped up in a hotel room to watch a game while ignoring the charm of the city, but I won’t. This retelling of the dialogue I heard from a family on holiday is an observation, not a judgement. For some, the world of sports and easy entertainment is all they want or need; for others, it takes a little bit more to satisfy the soul. I am one of the latter and have no further comments to make on the former. Let those who wish to sit on their couches during long Sunday afternoons cheering their favourite team do so, undisturbed. I have no quarrel with them.

However, bullfighting, well, this is more problematic for me because I am willing to be judgmental on the issue of cruelty to animals. Years ago I watched a Tourada à Corda on the island of Terceira, and although this is a gentler form of bullfighting, in fact, it’s not a fight at all, just a teasing of the bull, I found myself unable to stay and watch the humiliation of the majestic black beauty running in confusion to the sound of the shrieking delighted mob spectators. I am someone who won’t even visit a Zoo. I’d rather live without ever seeing tigers and bears, oh my, up close; I’d rather watch nature documentaries on television where I can enjoy watching creatures in their own habitat instead of in the caged prisons people willingly pay money to show their kids the cute little darlings (not the kids but the animals).

And I would rather walk in a forest, afraid to crush a blade of grass, in awe of the privilege of just being there, entering its life without disturbing it or destroying it.

Now you know, I hope, where I stand on Life, and it is in the context of who I am, that I read and connect with your essays.

On Identity and Language
I suppose I have the advantage, Dear Writer, because I know your name and you don’t know mine. If you did, you would not have referred to me as Dear Reader, but would have instead used my name. Emanuel Duarte Cabral de Melo. Well, you would not have used all those names in-between the first and the last. We are not in Portugal, after all. You would just know me as Emanuel Melo. I diminished my full name, naively, in my eagerness to comply with Canadian standards when I filled out my application for Canadian Citizenship at the age of 20. In my zeal to please, I even dropped the “de” and by doing so stopped belonging to the Melo family; I made myself an outsider with the simple striking out of a preposition that signifies belonging to someone or something.

“Oh Canada! My home and not native land…” That’s clever of you. Insightful. Yes, Canada became my home but I have always subconsciously found it disturbing and disingenuous to think of it as my native land. There should be a National Anthem version for immigrants turned citizens. Just insert “not” in exchange for my deletion of “de” in my name and we might just call it even.

I was born in the Azores and came to Canada when I was nine, on a cold February night. I experienced the shock of arriving at a place that was white and gelid (I could have just written the word “cold” but the Portuguese word gélido lingers in my mind, even after all these years, and inserts itself into this sentence unceremoniously). I remember that I wore a linen suit, adequate for leaving the island on that morning’s rainy damp day, but no longer effective protection by nightfall when I landed on the place I eventually came to accept as home.

Within a few short years of living in Toronto, the language of my birth, mostly stagnant since the age of nine, faded behind a heavy hazy cloud. Entre as Brumas da Memória…..
Contrary to the popular belief, absence makes the heart forget, and without awareness, English seduced my young Portuguese soul with its swanky cool sounds, a foreign language that became more intimate to me than the heavy somber words I brought to “this country,” as I referred to Canada at first, until I gravitated towards the Anglo world and found a home there. As a teenager, I abandoned my cultural past for many reasons, none of which I will go into here, unless you want to hear about them another time. Suffice it to say that I felt welcomed in my adopted home and soon forgot the heritage of my childhood. Not that I completely forgot, I just let it be on the periphery of my existence, a mere nostalgic reference to a long ago past.

Years later, when I went searching for vestiges of any withered roots left inside of me, I discovered Palavras onde me Perco by Avelina da Silveira. As I read her tri-language poem describing the fate of those who leave their roots and establish themselves elsewhere, one crucial line stabbed my hardened heart and tore open a memory so painful to me that I had not even realized I carried this ache until I read the poet’s lament: “Já não sonho em português.” As I felt a jolt shake my body, I remembered exactly when “I no longer dream in Portuguese” ended my Portuguese world of childhood in exchange for the beauty of English.

Yet, I have never been able to feel completely at home in either language. I find myself moving interiorly from one linguistic room to another. My inner house is not an open concept where dining room and living room and kitchen and perhaps even bedroom are all part of one big living space. I live compartmentally even as I search for, but yet have to find, a third inner room where my Portuguese-English selves can co-exist fluidly and naturally. Recently, I have begun to build a room in my mind’s house where I hope the two can be together as one. Until then, I continue to move from one room to the other, always leaving a part of me outside the door before I enter each separate space.

Words are the conduit that give meaning to my understanding of self. When I want to experience myself, or remember myself, as the Azorean child of long ago, I suspend thinking in English, and in my mind, I return to um outro lugar geográfico and I think in Portuguese words, the portal to my world das procissões, dos tapetes de flores e do farelo que cobriam as ruas para a passagem dos andores da virgem e dos santos, das loiças de barro vendida nas barracas durante as festas, da pureza e frescura da àgua da Noite de São João, dos foguetes, do Hino do Senhor Santo Cristo, do som e cheiro do mar. There are many other recordações that I still carry inside myself; memories that eu trouxe comigo, and that, despite all the love and good life I have experienced in Canada, continue to pull me back to a clichéd saudade.

If I think or write about these same memories in English, the essence of what I feel vanishes in the translation, just like the words I just wrote in Portuguese will have no meaning whatsoever to an English reader. The memories I reflect on, like all memories, are deeply personal, and because they happened to me when I lived exclusively in a Portuguese world, I have to go back to that language to give them true life. In English, they are no longer my true memories but rather something different. I am reminded of how Jesus tried to convey meaning through parables. He would say, “The kingdom of God is like… a mustard seed, a vineyard, a found pearl.” And I say, “Saudade is like…” but I have to settle for metaphors and images that can only offer the “likeness” of the untranslatable.

Sometimes, I wish I could dive into Portuguese letters and swim in Portuguese words, luxuriate in Portuguese sounds. Alas, I live and breathe in a foreign/no longer foreign language that is as intimate to me as the core of my being, yet I can still be easily seduced back to Portuguese and then fico perdido nas palavras da minha infância, mergulho no mar infinito das palavras, nado nas ondas de saudade que perseguem e torturam a minha alma, faminta pelo passado longuínquo. Mas quase que já não me lembro das palavras, tão longe que estão de mim, neste mundo inglês que seduced and raptured my portuguese soul.

This is enough rambling for someone who never quite adjusted fully to change of place, language, and culture. And yet in many ways I also feel myself a citizen, not just of Canada, but of the world; so my struggle with belonging and identity is perhaps disingenuous. My home and native land…..not.

————————

Four am and I’m up, stirred from sleep by the anticipation of getting back to you in the next room. I sneak quietly out of bed, leaving the warmth of my partner’s body under sheets to be with you, this time in Review the Reviewer. The lamp light is spot-on in the otherwise darkness and as I read, I am conscious of the fact that I have gone from just “hanging out with paulo” to falling in love with you. Maybe it’s the feeling of vulnerability upon waking in the dark quiet stillness of the ending night that makes me feel so tender and raw but the words you whisper into my ears almost sends shivers up my spine and I am having a Tantra experience. You planted that word in my mind and now I can’t ignore it as you touch me, subtly, but like touching a live electric wire, I feel a jolt of energy run through my body when your words enter my consciousness. “Sensual strokes…the touch of beauty, the attention to language or the existence of phenomenological insight, intercourse with literature, literary Tantra.” Keep talking.

By the time I read that “The universe of silence is an endangered experience across every continent on this planet.” and that, “It is rare to find a person who reads the silence with the fluency of stone angels,” I feel myself surrender into emotional literary orgasm and I wonder if my partner in the next room will suspect that I am now with someone else. Is it cheating? Is it unfaithfulness if it’s just words?

————————

(paulo says the things I want to hear. He knows what I like, and even though he casually calls me Dear Reader, we both know that I have a proper name. I wish he had the guts to use it. “In my books language occupies space… The language is not shy. It dresses up to accentuate the contours of that body. It enjoys the attention…” My God, make him stop. Yet, I can’t put the book down, I need, I want more. He has a way with words that makes my head spin and my heart flutter. And his self-assertion in defence of his beautiful collection of short stories, The Green and Purple Skin of the World, is sexy. No self-effacement modest humility here. He know who he is, he defends his under-the-radar writing style, and he shouts it up more dramatically than the ludicrous mob yell in a hockey arena when some overdressed bull-in-a-china-shop player manages to score. He is like Yasujirō Ozu, the slow master of cinema. You can fall asleep, wishing you could fast-forward to the end of the two excruciating hours of nothing really happening, but you are watching him at Harbourfront during a Japanese Film Festival, and so you have to breathe and count the minutes until it’s over because it’s impolite to leave, unless. Unless you surrender to the quiet undertow of his images and then you experience the charge and the beauty of life below the surface and two hours will be like two minutes. Cinematic experiences can also be contemplative and moody and full of beauty but they, like paulo da costa, are not for everyone. No Oscar nomination, no Giller Prize.)

————————

I wonder if you were able to read my mind just now. I hope not, because my thoughts are too embarrassing to share with you, my dear Writer. For a moment I forgot myself and gave in to dreaming. Must be the morning hour and I probably should get back to my cozy bed. I’d like to, but your words keep pulling me back to stay with you. Your voice trances me. How could you have known that I am such a sucker for words; that I can melt at a beautifully phrased thought written on paper.

The Casual Reader
Now I feel embarrassed. I have read the part where I sense you are putting me in my place, disguised in your almost academic dissertation on the role of the Reader verses the Critic. The casual reader. Is this what I am to you? I feel a slight pang of hurt when I realize you have turned harsh and analytical. “By and large, the casual reader is distanced from the core and the mechanical aspects of the art… the casual reader approaches the work without gloves, tweezers and magnifying glass…in general, this reader opts for an emotional encounter with the word, foregoing cerebral, dissecting and analytical approaches.” I guess you did hear my professing of drunken love for the word, your words, and now you want some distance, you want to sober me up. You chastise me even more when you say “The casual reader tends to feel captivated by a work within their preferred aesthetic language and accessible to their personal framework of values, reflecting their experiences and interests.”

I understand what you say but you can’t persuade me to ignore my deeply personal connection with your point of view and ideas on topics dear to my heart. Yes, as a “reader” I know my place. Obrigado. But as a reader I am also drawn to what I like based on exactly all those attributes you mention. Does it mean that I can be a critic of what I read? Alas, I lack the skill and the interest, so I must concede that you and I are indeed not in the same league. You write literature, and you write it well. You have honed your craft admirably to the point that you have the confidence to out those who are just trying to get their words out on blogs and writing contests and win local literary prizes, anywhere where they can gain that 15 minutes of fame you would deny them because they don’t practice the craft with full seriousness and the skill of the writer as sacred prophet and priest, which, of course, you are. At least in your own mind you are. You should not have made such a fine-line distinction between who you are and who you take me to be. Truthful as it is, it’s still hard to be put into one’s place.

So, I wasn’t going to bring this up, but since you want honesty in your communication with others, not that I want to be petty or to take you down from your writing pedigree, but if I were you, I would not be talking about Jian Gomeshi the way you do. “I regard (him) as a thoughtful human being who reveals the candour of his spirit and the sensibility of his heart….”

This is not Victoria, 2011 anymore, my dear Writer, and you did have the opportunity to edit that reference from your essay, in light of more recent events. Have you heard…? Or are you too lofty and pure in your understanding of what a real writer is to care that most people will be horrified to read your praise of the man in light of certain allegations against him.

I should have stopped reading you before I ventured into The Word in Sword. Such a sibilant phrase foreshadowing the end of my honeymoon period with you. And I thought we were soul mates. In the beginning, you enticed me with your talk about identity and language and I felt we were sharing something beautiful but then you showed your true self and I don’t know if I want to go all the way with you now. But there’s just one long essay left, The Story. Alright, I’ll be civilized about this, even analytical and somewhat critical, so I will hear you out before we part our separate ways.

————————

Backtracking. You mentioned the sacredness of silence: “Silence should only be interrupted with great humility and only when we have something relevant to contribute to the conversation.” Oh, boy. I wish I had remembered these words before spewing my word diarrhea all over the page because of one touchy point you raised about my place as a reader. It’s still not too late to erase my embarrassing rants (but then you would not see me in all my vulnerability, so I’ll let the words stay and take my chances with you). I do love silence and I connect with what you wrote in a personal way: “The silence surrounding words highlights their importance, assures us that the word was weighed, polished, contemplated, and deserves the light of day. Words without such reins are excessively dumped in the sea of everyday life, such as one purges interior contaminants—dumped far away from us into an atmosphere that we unconsciously pollute and which we all share. Such words exorcise our private dementias but ironically saturate the art until it risks drowning in a bog of mushy cacophony.”

There is nothing I can add that would be as eloquent and profound and true as these words.

————————

“The relevant writers touch the wounds.”

I once wrote a short story that, unbeknownst to me, revealed a painful truth and even though it was written in a gentle manner that was not condemning or finger pointing, it stirred the anger of some who saw themselves in the story and in their outrage and anger, crucified me and banished me from their lives forever, taking down innocent lives as collateral damage. I paid the ultimate price for writing and revealing my truth.

If this can happen at the personal level, how much more insidious is it when a writer’s words offends not only a few individuals but entire nations. Yes, indeed, “my courageous writers” are all those who speak truth, whether it disturbs and offends those in political power and large corporations or even just individuals who, frightened by the revelation and possible exposure of their dark secrets and desire to control the lives of others, will use the same tactics to silence the truth tellers. Such has always been the power of the word that those who don’t understand it, don’t want to see it, fear it, are willing to kill, destroy, and crucify the spirit (and usually the body, too, of storytellers) in order to keep complacency, lies, deceptions, errors, ignorance, under cover.

It is true that often hate seems to conquer and crush love, but I will always be on the side of love, raw and honest, like Cordelia’s love in King Lear. And look at the price she paid because the foolish king was blind to truth and in love with his vanity. We are banished when we reveal truth to those who are incapable of accepting it, incapable of a change of heart, of redemption, of change, but it doesn’t mean that we must silence ourselves because of their ignorance and perhaps genuine inability to feel empathy. There is always hope, even in the face of the impossible. Words, like the proverbial seeds, can grow, but the pace of that growth, the direction of where it goes, is not ours to control. We may never see the fruit ourselves but knowing that we have planted the seeds should bring comfort in itself.

————————

Writers who write thoughtfully, be it through fiction or fact, offer the world substance and nutritious mind food in a much depleted diet-on-offer by mass produced ideas and mindless slogans.

There is too much confusion today with competing technologies bringing us ever more ways of accessing and gathering information. There is plenty of information everywhere, but almost no knowledge. But we have convinced ourselves that the more information we acquire, the wiser and more knowledgeable we become. We urgently fill our minds and our time with endless internet searches, countless blogs and websites enticing us with their offer of what we are supposed to want, of what we believe we desperately need to consume. There are thousands of writers hawking their wares in the sinister cyberspace market fairs where we can shop without leaving the comfort of our living room sofa, our fingers gathering the information with convenient taps and key strokes of the pick me, pick me, competing websites, clever designs promising more enlightenment than the previous one.

How do we discover those who are showing simple truth (and they do exist) when flashy entertainment sound bites of information are so much more convenient and accessible? Who has time to read your essays, paulo? Your triptych of Identity, Language, and Writing Culture, gives the reader much to think about, to experience and savour, but you are relying on readers who are willing to put down their IPhones, their internet suite of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, You Tube, Snapchat, Flipboard, Wattpad, (and more), and instead pick up your book and spend time reading it. I know that there will be many, who, like me, will make time for you, and these are the “courageous readers” of our time, those I want to meet, have time for, and call kindred spirits.

————————

I wish that we had been friends since childhood, even though we are of different ages. But in this great cosmic space we inhabit, the past and the present and the future interlaced into one seamless-world-come-alive through the magic of language, the words that bind us, we could be friends in a secluded place, let’s say the Queen Charlotte Islands. I’ve never been there, but in my ideal dream, I would want to be stranded there with you, two little boys gathering stones and shells on the shore and throwing words around like a soccer ball, scoring every time.

Oh, but don’t get the wrong idea, paulo, it would not be just a world for two. As much as I admire your fine mind and could live off your words, eventually I would get bored, for even beauty tires us out, and then, for relief, I would conjure up all the other misfits and outsiders of this great Luso Canadian/American diaspora who, like you, are writing and searching for communion with other kindred souls; and I would transport them all to our great big dream world in this Haida Gawii paradise. We would gather around a great camp fire and eat sardinhas assadas and azeitonas and laugh and smile radiantly, our voices sending word-stars up into the silent dark sky, words from the old country as well as the new, taking us home, my Writer.

Originally posted on paulo da costa’s blog January 29, 2016

——————-

Today marks the 50th anniversary of my arrival in Canada on Sunday, February 4, 1968. Thank you, O Canada, for being a place of welcome and, ultimately, of home.

Photo taken by my father, Antonio Cabral de Melo, of the airplane that brought us to Canada from the island of Santa Maria to Montreal where we transferred to a flight to our final destination, Toronto.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Guest who refuses to be polite – My first impressions on Beyond Bullfights and Ice Hockey: Essays on Identity, Language and Writing Culture

I’m hanging out with paulo da costa these days. On the crowded subway ride to work in the morning and again in the evening on the way home I listen to him; those around me don’t. But I prefer listening to him when I get inside my solitude, sitting on my sofa, in the quiet of my library, where I can be attentive without the pull of people’s chatter. Even at four in the morning, when I cannot sleep, he is still talking. Non-stop. He is the guest who refuses to go home at a decent hour and so, to be polite, I let him speak his words. He gives advice, reflections, meditations; he tries out his thoughts on me, even though too late to change his mind for they are all written down permanently on paper and can only be left alone or ignored or forgotten, if I simply turn the page.

paulo, in the minúscula, is easy, lightweight on my hands, malleable and fluid to the touch, a pleasurable sensation to flip through pages whose words jump out, making my fingers stop the flipping before moving on to the next page, to ponder, read again, turn the page back even. Did I miss the meaning of that sentence? Can I savor the pleasure of repeating that phrase? He says things that I wish I had said. Perhaps I have thought about many of the points he makes, his observations, his conclusions, but he does it so much better and I have been too lazy to give life to my thoughts, I have left the words unwritten, floating in my memory, in chaos. And I find them coherently plagiarized by osmosis. My thoughts are not your thoughts, cautions Jesus. His thoughts are words written down, but he speaks them to me: stories in more than one language. He assumes that I understand. And, of course, I do. That’s why we can hang out together before the dawn breaks. But that’s not the point. He inhabits several worlds, at least two that I am familiar with. I can follow his português side by side with his inglês train of thought. I don’t need the translation even when he, thoughtfully, explains the context of one lexicon to another.

I get up to make tea and when I return he’s still there on the sofa, waiting, alert, eager to keep talking, to keep showing me words, and I sit again and listen some more. My eyes, getting blurred with exhaustion, take in the letters and translate them into inner linguist sounds in my head, heard in his calm, mellifluous, slow voice, with a hint of an accent, foreign yet not foreign.

It all depends on which side of the accent you find yourself. I finally tell him to stop, for now. My brain is fatigued and I need to be alert to grasp the meaning of what he says. I tell him; no, I don’t really tell him anything. I just close him up tightly inside the smooth blanket parchment cover with the drawing of a hockey player and a Palaeolithic bull against a clean white background. BEYOND BULLFIGHTS AND ICE HOCKEY Identity, Language and Writing Culture paulo da costa.

I will open him up again later, and listen some more. We’re not done yet.

Originally posted on paulo da costa’s blog, December 20, 2015

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Presépio

Presépio by Diniz Cabral

Each time I travel to Ponta Delgada, I look forward to stopping at the Mercado da Graça to visit Sr. Diniz Cabral in his small shop along a row of merchants who sell souvenirs to tourists. He is an engaging artisan who cares deeply about preserving traditional ways of making presépios (crèches) and Nativity figurines. Sr. Diniz also works with escamas de peixe, fish scales, transforming them into beautiful delicate flower petals and floral arrangements, as well as creating decorative ornaments out of conchas (scallop sea shells). Both crafts are very popular in the Azores.

He sells clay figurines as well, representing the famous “Romeiros,” the men who walk the island of São Miguel in pilgrimage during Lent wearing shawls and carrying staffs and rosaries, singing and praying at every church along the way. They are an integral part of the traditional Azorean presépio composed of not only of the Nativity Scene of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the Three Wise Men, and the shepherds with their flocks, but also elaborate representations of various scenes of village life, especially the “matança do porco” (the annual tradition of the pig-killing, a two-day event held in December involving the making of sausages, smoked hams, and salting the rest of the meat for family use during winter). The little streets of the presépios also include a re-enactment of a religious procession with priests, altar boys and men carrying a statue of a saint on a traditional litter called an andor.

All this is to say that a visit to Sr. Diniz affords me delight and joy! He has a charming smile that accentuates his good nature as he talks to me about current political shenanigans both at home and abroad, as well as filling me in on local history. I love listening to him. I can tell that he is an avid reader, and has a curious and intelligent mind. It is always worth the trip to see him!

It was therefore with great sadness and disappointment that I discovered his shop was closed the last time I visited Ponta Delgada. I even went back a few days later full of hope, but found the shop still shut. After inquiring about Sr. Diniz, I learned that he was away that week and since I did not have his contact information, I had to resign myself to returning home empty-handed and without new stories or mementos.

The last time I had the good luck of seeing Sr. Diniz was on the final day of my previous trip. Not only was my luggage already full of books and souvenirs, I had also used up most of my euros, so were I to buy anything it would have had to be small. Sr. Diniz pointed to a little wooden crèche he had made and thought I would appreciate. He gave me the background story to his simple and beautiful triptych of the Nativity scene in the centre of two Azorean-style homes on each side.

The blue, pink, green, and yellow colours he chose all have interesting significance, and he described it to me at great length. At the time of the telling, I assured myself I would remember the details. Unfortunately, my memory failed me, so by the time I sat down to write up this fascinating information, I could no longer remember exactly what each colour represented. I have some hazy recollection of them being symbols for political parties of the past or even of a royal era when Portugal still had kings. I know that each of the nine Azorean islands is associated with a colour: São Miguel’s is green for its vast fields, forests and woods. But this was not the typical definition he referred to. It was something else, something more obscure and rare that is probably passed on by oral tradition and not easily found in books.

So it is with some sadness that now, as I try very hard to recollect these details, I find them missing from my head; all that’s left is a vague impression of his recitation on that day several years ago. I hope that the next time I go to Ponta Delgada he will be there so I can ask him to tell me again, but this time I’ll take a pen and notepad so I can write down every word while he speaks them.

For now, I will continue to treasure his presépio whose meaningful symbolism in colour, although not in my head, resides in my heart.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Rosetta McLain Gardens in winter

Our first snowfall. I just had to be with the snow and the solitude of this early winter’s day.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

My Agustina Bessa-Luís

Agustina Bessa-Luís (1984) Photo: Emanuel Melo

This year, Agustina Bessa-Luís, one of the most important and significant Portuguese writers of all time, celebrates her 95th birthday.

Although her books have been translated into several languages, her vast work has yet to be translated into English. In 2016, the writer Inês Pedrosa, called the absence of Agustina’s novels in the English world a ‘scandal’.

There is, finally, however, good news. Margaret Jull Costa is in the process of translating Agustina’s most famous and early novel, The Sybil. Costa is a prolific translator of Portuguese literature who has already coordinated the publication of one of Agustina’s short stories,  Mushroom Weather, earlier this year. This is the first of Agustina’s short stories, translated by Victor Meadowcroft, we can read in English. The biographical notes following the short story in The Missing Slate will give you enough background to get you interested in knowing more about this writer.

I was also delighted to discover that currently there is a revival of interest in Agustina’s novels in Portugal, with new editions of her books coming out under the auspices of Relógio D’Água; each with prefaces from important writers such as Gonçalo M. Tavares, António Lobo Antunes, Hélia Correia, and others. There are also new publications underway of never-before-published material, starting with Deuses de Barro, a book she wrote at the age of nineteen, and now available for the first time. A recent article in Observador, updates readers on this renewed interest in Agustina’s work, and is worth reading, if you can read Portuguese.

Although I have read most of her forty novels over the span of thirty years, I am only a devoted reader. I am not competent to critique them or to analyse her literary genius. However, it is my hope that, with the eminent arrival of English translations of her work, eventually others will start to give serious attention to writing about Agustina in the English language.

I like to read Agustina simply for the pleasure of her command of words, her often meandering thoughts, sometimes philosophical and reflective, but always to expand our knowledge of a character or a situation, weaving her storytelling prowess into an endless, intricate web of detail and background that leaves you breathless; the way she describes a world, whether interior or exterior, never rushed, and with the sense of having all-the-time-in-the-world to stay in it, like in a Proustian or Dostoyevskian world, and I lose myself in her words, as if hypnotized and seduced by the magic of her literary creations.

I had the great honour and privilege of meeting Agustina when I travelled through Portugal in 1984. I had gone there after completing university, and stayed two weeks in Porto, in my Professor of Portuguese, Laura Bulger’s apartment. She had been gracious enough to let me stay there, but even better, she considered Agustina like a mother to her, and was delighted to give me an invitation to drop by and meet the writer at her house, named Golgota. I remember approaching the gate, waiting nervously for it to open, and being greeted by a maid who walked me through the garden into the house where Agustina waited with the most welcoming smile. I was to return to her house several times, and we had simple conversations and shared meals. I was twenty-six then, and she, sixty-two. She looked so humble and unaffected that, at the time, I had no idea that I was in the presence of such an important person in the Portuguese Literary World. All I really knew of her was through the reading of A Sibila and Fanny Owen in a university course on Portuguese Literature. But she was so delightful and warm, treating me as if we were equals, that I immediately felt at ease in her presence.

In one of our conversations, I mentioned that I wanted to go to Fátima for the religous October 13 celebration and, without fuss and almost unoticed by me, she quietly arranged for a ticket for me to travel there by an excursion bus, which I thoroughly enjoyed with stops in Nazaré, Barcelos, Batalha, and other places. Imagine the reaction of the ticket agent when I showed up at the travel agency and told her that I had a reservation in the name of Agustina Bessa-Luís. I think the expression on her face and the fact that she whispered something to her colleagues while giving me a look of, what was it, respect? Envy? I got the sense right away that this writer I was visiting meant something much deeper to the people in her city.

A few days later, when I returned to Porto, she wanted to know everything about my trip and she asked me, with all seriousness and curiosity about human nature, rather than mere gossip, if I was religious. She really wanted to know. I saw it in the urgency of her eyes as she looked at me waiting for the answer. I almost asked her the same question, but out of embarrassment, or fear that I was prying too much into her life, didn’t.

During the days, I explored the city and discovered its great many bookstores. Out of interest for my new found friend, I sought out her books on beautiful old shelves. Later, when I returned to her house, I would show her my findings, and she would look at the book covers of Conversações com Dmitri e Outras Fantasias, Os Incuráveis, A Bruxa, with a big smile of delight as if she was seeing them for the first time and in disbelief that these titles were still available.

To my surprise, when I showed her my copies of Santo António and Sebastião José, without saying a word, she quietely took them from my hands, found a pen nearby on her desk, and without any fanfare, autographed them for me: para o Emanuel como lembrança da sua passagem pelo Porto. A couple of months later, when I was already back in Toronto, I received a copy of her then most recent book, Um Bicho da Terra, autographed on Christmas Eve.

One night, she invited me to have a formal dinner with her charming husband, Alberto Luís, an equally brilliant personality in his own right, who put me at ease with his grace and good humour while we sat in their elegant yet cozy dining room. Her maid brought out a platter of a famous regional dish that Agustina was proud to serve me and which she had prepared herself: Rice with Chicken Feet. Well, as luck would have it, I have never liked chicken feet and despite my wanting to, I could not bring myself to eat it. I picked at the rice and left the feet behind. I felt such relief when I heard her tell the maid to clear the table without ever drawing attention to the fact that I had snubbed her dish. I have never forgotten her kind gesture as she avoided humiliating her guest by changing the subject. I remember her smile then. A kind and generous smile that made me love her.

I came away from that two week visit with memories that have stayed with me to this day as some of my most sacred memories I will treasure to the day I die. But I never had contact with my generous Agustina again except through her prolific writings.

Over the years, I always looked for her books until the last one to be published in 2006, A Ronda da Noite. In the eighties and nineties, I would buy her latest books in a Portuguese bookstore in Toronto which no longer exists: A Monja de Lisboa, Adivinhas de Pedro e Inês, Prazer e Glória, Eugénia e Silvina, Vale Abraão, Um cão que Sonha, Memórias Laurentinas, O Comum dos Mortais, and others. In the last ten years, it was on trips to Lisbon that I found other books, usually in her editor’s bookstore, Guimarães, and when the store closed for good, I found her books at Babel, in the Príncipe Real quarter. Another book, in Ponta Delgada, in the Azores: Alegria do Mundo. I remember the joy I felt when I found the trilogy O princípio da IncertezaJoia de Família, A Alma dos Ricos, Os Espaços em Branco, in a bookstore in Vila Real de Santo António, in the Algarve. These are some of the books I have bought over the years. I have others, too, but I still search for others to complete my collection.

Her books accompany me like silent friends, and at any moment, I can retrieve them from my bookshelf and read them again, encountering my Agustina in their pages, just like being again in her presence during that visit of long ago. And when I read her, I can hear her voice in my head, with that musical lilt and the formation of a smile, and I listen to her again, just as if I was still sitting next to her in her Golgota home.

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments