“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.