“The First Communion” in Cleaver Magazine, Issue Number 17, March 2017
The First Communion presents the reader with a diaspora that is as much generational as geographical–a combustible combination that, as with all of Emanuel Melo’s stories, evokes profound and tragic ironies.
If, as the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, “communion” is a “sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings”, then the word functions as near-parody in our consideration of the main character, Eulalia Dias. Time after time, she reaches out in love to her family, who respond with a patronizing, cavalier insouciance that would do credit to the straw-brained, addled “Hollow Men” of the T.S. Eliot poem. Her world contains little humanitarian compassion and communion in any sense—secular or religious. Caught in a desperate attempt to break free of her cocoon of isolation, she simultaneously grapples with the impossibility of ever actually doing so.
Despite being surrounded by a church full of congregants at her granddaughter’s communion, no one has created a “place” for Eulalia, at the church or in life and, at the story’s end, her symbolic isolation becomes brutally concrete at the level of plot when she is physically imprisoned in the washroom of the Church–once a source of joyful anticipation–now, thanks to the neglect of her family, a potential mausoleum that threatens physical death along with emotional entombment.
Ironically, those who know Eulalia least, are the ones who treat her best. Her taxi driver, who transports her to the church, is himself an immigrant and understands her dilemma, reassuring her that “you will be with your family for the celebration and then you have lots to eat back at the house”, implying a non-existent familial context, more consistent with his native India than with the social rigors of tony Toronto. Like Eulalia, he suffers from what might be termed the diasporian delusion. His attempt to overlay the ideals of the past with the reality of the present is a throwback to a time when there were homes rather than restaurants and meaningful communication rather than empty gestures.
Initially, Melo’s technique of conveying information about the character may be a trifle too “convenient”, detracting from the internal conflict that breathes life into so many of his characters who tend to struggle against painful personal knowledge rather than to broadcast it. As the story progresses however, the Melo magic pulls the character back from the brink of over-articulation and fully integrates her into his universe of grippingly authentic individuals who pay a price for their humanity as they wander ghost-like, amidst new worlds in which they are unappreciated and, too often, invisible.
Susan K. Riggs
April 21, 2017
“Tiago” in Cleaver Magazine, Issue Number 13, March 2016
Melo’s Magic: “ Tiago”
Whether it’s a little boy discovering Toronto Harbor for the first time, or a loving matriarch struggling to uphold old world values against a tsunami of cultural indifference, the Melo universe of characters sparkles into existence while riding bareback on a plethora of grim realities, all intimately related to the theme of the diaspora. Melo roots this concept in a paradox of movement that reflects geographical change (“The Cottage Visit”, “The Weekly Visit”, “The Emigrantes”), paralled by a kind of stultified emotional paralysis within characters who live perpetually in a no man’s land, caught in the crosshairs between their golden memories of a past world and a stunningly superficial contemporary one that strands them on the far side of a great emotional schism—one they desperately try to bridge, with varying degrees of success.
Melo weaves this now-familiar spell in “Tiago”, where the main character strives to knit together the stitches of his rich, culturally embroidered past in the Azores and enshrine them in his current, modest but well-appointed, Cabbagetown home, replete with a complicated art deco rug, meticulously organized art supplies, and hydrangeas filling a Lalique vase, all carefully positioned on a stark, hardwood floor—the hard reality underlying all his attempts to integrate the physical and moral beauty of his past.
Like others in Melo’s literary universe, Tiago is caught within a tangled, geographical, social, cultural, and, particularly evident here, artistic and generational divide, as the polite, sixty-year old artist and retired teacher prepares for the visit of his two beloved, young nephews, now symbols of every banal stereotype of modern youth imaginable, and, as such, representatives of the new that is destined everywhere to clash with the old, a theme that also plays out at the level of recent history as the boys’ interests have moved from the sedate and readily containable (jigsaw puzzles) to sports and a love of sheer pandemonium. Tiago’s fear that the boys will “stumble and crush his new flower beds” is essentially a foreshadowing and betrays the powerful, nearly unbreachable, metaphysical divide that could crush his relationship with his nephews, as it has stunted his relationship with their mother, (his sister Rosa), and caused the break-up with the love of his life, Martin, who fails to understand Tiago’s commitment to his family (another clash of world and values) and ultimately deserts him, leaving Tiago isolated and rejected yet again. The inevitable climax of this current generational clash occurs with the shattering of the Lalique vase after what seems to be an (overly?) long scene of argumentation between the brothers—although it is difficult to envision understandable impatience in the character without inciting it in the reader.
Overall, Melo has done a stellar job of reinterpreting the definition of diasporic isolation. Through the multi-faceted character of Tiago, he deftly creates dimensions that still include and complement traditional, diasporic issues, (such as anglicized names), while simultaneously moving beyond those issues and into universal spheres, in a clear appeal to even those who “bloom where they are planted”. When Melo describes Tiago’s loss of Martin as “spark[ing]… the instability that spiraled and crashed, unfixable, in his brain”, he successfully shifts all readers into an awareness of that universal diasporic state, that ultimate journey into the unknown that haunts us all.
Always in the work of Melo, is the redemptive spirit, riding alongside the tragic: in a classic “it’s always darkest before the dawn” moment at the end, Tiago sits reading to his nephews and recaptures some semblance of their prior relationship. Like the less sophisticated Avó, he has moved through blind hope, to gradually thwarted desire to a successful act of sharing.
Dare one call this reconciliation? I think so—one built on shifting sands— but a reconciliation nonetheless.
Susan K. Riggs
“The Cottage Visit” short story in Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora in the United States and Canada: An Anthology, 2015
I can’t remember if I’ve used this metaphor before with respect to your work, but this story, in particular, reminds me of a beautifully woven tapestry. The overall picture presented is universal and reflects the human journey as it wends its way through the experience of immigration to a new land. The title is perfectly representative and the term “confusion of introductions”, is emblematic of the story at its most profound levels, as readers are left adroitly picking their way through the various thematic strands of old versus new that so beautifully weave together to form an intricate picture of humanity. The story may be short in length, but it is long and deep in meaning. I could easily see it as a “must read” for a diaspora studies course.
I find it intriguing how the convergence of worlds encompasses everything from setting (country to country, rural versus metropolitan), to the linguistic (different languages, the fading of the Portuguese language in Canada and its relegation to children’s games), to parallel cultural divides including a national culture that itself exists on shifting sands, given the omnipotence of our southern neighbor (references to Disney world).
Everything folds beautifully into the overall theme of the human journey with its implicit reference to the passage of time (another factor that divides on one level but not ultimately). It is wonderful how all these themes evolve through the central character, through his relationships to family and friends. Francisco’s consciousness both frames and anchors all the interaction and the story has, I think, an inherently optimistic ending as the ever-shifting potentialities for division finally merge into a greater coherency. By the end of the story, the reader is no longer uneasily straddling potentially divisive worlds, but rather partakes of a new reality that is deep and unified.
Susan K. Riggs
“The Weekly Visit” short story in Cleaver Magazine Issue Number 8, December 2014
What a delight (yet again) your story was! As I was reading, I was reminded of your earlier work (Avó Lives Alone)…the woman at home, watching Portuguese TV, expecting to see her son’s family at Easter? and then being disappointed when he and his family made other plans. Here too you portray the fraying at the edges of the relationship–one brought about through the gap between traditions, culture. This former work anticipates, to some extent, this recent story, as if the fraying has ripped apart to reveal an open wound that is becoming more and more difficult to heal.
In this latest work, there is a greater (for lack of a better term) equivalency of responsibility for the tension. i.e. no longer is it a subtle movement away by one thoughtless son with the mother adapting to the reality. Here relations have become far more “hollowed out” and conflict takes center stage.
Your literary devices are beautifully crafted–nature, the weather, images of light and darkness, the potted plant, various forms of neglect or lack of communication reflected in the language difference. All reinforce the central image of a kind of frieze of living death as the two are imprisoned by their own resentments that mesh into an unfortunate pattern leaving both of them flailing in a no man’s land of emotion.
I did sense some movement toward the light in this relationship towards the end as the son makes the attempt to “kiss or…wave…” Even though he can’t, the instinct is there, as is the potential.
I find your writing intriguing!
Susan K. Riggs
“The Emigrantes” in Twas on-line magazine Fall/Winter 2014-2015, Volume Two, Issue
One, December 2014
This is beautifully, beautifully rendered. Particularly impressive is the structure… i.e. the concluding sentences act as a staircase along which the reader gently steps and experiences the painful transformation of the small child’s wrenching divorce from his homeland, through to the re-awakening of past feelings, their ramification in his present and finally their reconciliation.
Your pivotal centralizing image of the bronze family “in a permanent act of immigrating” wonderfully conveys the sense of a paralytic moment in time–a moment that represents but also contrasts with the human journey of the self, both physically and emotionally as it seeks to move out of the static immobility of pain and into the light of a new and better internal “place”. The stark, inanimate existence of the statue is a wonderful counterpoint to the ebb and flow of a moving and often painful identity exploration in which “home” and “self” are almost inextricable.
Finally, the subtle theme of imprisonment is resolved happily as the narrator breaks through the shackles of “bronze” and, unlike his frozen counterpart, is able to reconcile–at least in part–to the multiple realities.
Susan K. Riggs
A writer by profession, Susan has published in both print and electronic media and in 2009 was appointed adjunct scholar to the James Madison Public Policy Institute in Florida. Along with newspaper and journal articles, her background includes writing drama for CBC radio and speeches for senior representatives in the academic, government and business communities. Her “America” series of articles has been published throughout the United States.
“Avó Lives Alone” “The Language(s) of Memory”: A Review of Memória: An Anthology of Portuguese Canadian Writers” by Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen, in The Puritan
Emanuel Melo explores this theme with heartbreaking candour in his short story “Avó Lives Alone.” The author is perhaps a bit heavy-handed in his attempt to elicit sympathy for the lonely grandmother in the title, but he uses enough restraint to keep the story strong, rather than overly maudlin. Avó’s daily routine is devoid of excitement, and is sadly perhaps one that other elderly people can relate to. She looks forward to her daily call from her elder son, and wishes she could see her younger son and his family more often. Her reasons for living alone are all too understandable—a widow, she views her home as “all she had left to remind herself of the only man she’d ever loved, and of the life they had built together in Canada.” This reference is particularly resonant because Avó at some level feels apart from both her new and old homes. Watching Portuguese television, she hears:
words she doesn’t remember from her youth, technological and environmental words that were not even part of the vocabulary until recent times, and she attributes her lack of understanding to the fact that she has lived in Canada for too many decades of her life.
Through such details, Melo depicts Avó’s loneliness as a sense of double isolation—alone within Canada, yet also separated from the Portuguese roots she is unable to completely maintain. In the most poignant moment in the story—a flashback to when doctors discover that Avó’s husband’s cancer was to be fatal—the responsibility to break the news falls upon the eldest son, who has to translate the doctor’s words into Portuguese. “But how do you translate ‘you’re going to die’ in any language?” the narrator asks. How indeed. “You can’t. So, the son simply took his father home.”