Azorean Authors and Their Role in Shaping Our Understanding of the Islands

We have studied multiple literary works by authors of Azorean descent in the course, ranging from short stories through excerpts from novels to poetry. Each of these writers has a unique and passionate voice, and together, their stories converge to form a kaleidoscopic image of Azorean identity. The works we studied early in the course focus on the beauty and hardship of life on the Azorean archipelago, while the short stories and essays introduced recently discuss the immigrant experience of the Azorean diaspora and of the Portuguese Canadian community as a whole. This essay will examine a few examples of literary works studied in the course and the glimpses into “Azorianity” that they provide.

The term açorianidade was coined by the Azorean writer Vitorino Nemésio who, although he was educated in Lisbon and built his literary and academic career in mainland Portugal, never stopped feeling defined by his Azorean roots. Best known for his novel Mau Tempo No Canal, Vitorino Nemésio is an example of an Azorean who left the archipelago to take advantage of the better opportunities for professional growth in mainland Portugal but carried the spirit of his native island of Terceira through his life and work.

Another example of a quintessentially Azorean author whose literature we have read is Dias de Melo, the austere baleeiro so eloquently described by Professor Dodman. The excerpt from his novel Dark Stones that was included in our course pack paints a grim but awe-inspiring picture of life on his native island of Pico where whaling used to be a major source of subsistence. His writing captures the atmosphere of hardship and constant struggle for survival that defined the daily life of an average Azorean. He also emphasizes the resilience and determination of Pico’s inhabitants, their toughness and character. There are very evocative descriptions of Pico’s landscape and, above all, of the sea. Dias de Melo’s writing is infused with the salty breeze of the ocean and captures the complex relationship between the islanders and the Sea – a source of both constant danger and life!

Professor Maria Dodman, who gave us a moving and personal account of her admiration for Dias de Melo and all that he represents, also wrote a biting essay that ridicules the divisions she perceives to this day between Azorean expats and people who came from mainland Portugal. In her essay, she emphasizes the inadequacy of the widely held stereotype that all Azoreans are alike, speak with an “Azorean” accent and have less education or potential than their mainland counterparts. She expresses hope for a recognition of the diversity among the nine islands and a more tolerant relationship between the many different members of the Luso-Canadian community.

Aside from Professor Dodman, we were fortunate enough to hear from two other contemporary authors who write about the Portuguese experience in Canada: Emanuel Melo and Anthony de Sa. Emanuel Melo’s moving short stories “Avó Lives Alone” and “The Cottage Visit” focus on the older generation of Portuguese immigrants to Canada. In both stories, we see an elderly person who has lost their spouse, whose children have assimilated into Canadian society, and whose grandchildren, even if much loved, are essentially foreign to them because of the language and cultural barrier. These stories are poignant in their portrayal of the vast chasm between generations that often results from immigration. They capture the loneliness and isolation that can be the price of leaving one’s leaving one’s homeland in search of a better life.

This idea that it is children and grandchildren of immigrants who really reap the rewards of life in Canada was echoed by Anthony de Sa in his guest lecture. He talked about his upbringing in Toronto in the Portuguese neighbourhood around Queen subway station. His short story “Urban Angel” from the anthology Barnacle Love shows the strain and the sacrifices endured by his parents in order to give their children a bright future in Canada. His father would try himself at many jobs and toy with constantly changing ideas for small business ventures while his mother struggled to raise her children in a foreign country and comply with her husband’s strict “English-only household” policy.

Anthony de Sa’s short story “Urban Angel” also raises the issue of tradition versus integration: Antonio’s father does not want his children “kissing the Pope’s ass,” while his mother insists on partaking in the Portuguese community’s Catholic celebrations. It also brings to light the way Toronto, including the Portuguese area, was in the 1960s: more seedy and dangerous than today. The narrator, telling the story from the perspective of a child, has a complex and realistic relationship with the Portuguese community: one that mixes tenderness with embarrassment, belonging with condemnation.

All of the literary works that we have studied this term, although very different, share a common love for the Azores, whether seen as the locus of daily reality or as a distant, half-mythical homeland.


Anna Broytman
(Anna Broytman was a student in 2016 PRT252 course)


(Traduções para a Manuela Vaz Marujo)

Voices in the Dublin Sky

There was a woman sitting by the low stone wall in an early autumn afternoon when I visited the ruins of Howth Abbey.

The tourist guide provided by the hotel front desk had informed us that Howth «has long been a favoured dwelling place for writers», but any mention of a literary life in Dublin will always redundant. Anyway, that morning was taken up by a visit to the Writer’s Museum of Dublin and a leisurely walk through the Martello Tower, also known as the James Joyce Tower, with its hiding and stairs seeming to quiver still inexpectation of a possible Napoleonic invasion.

The voice of Buck Mulligan, which had already taken us through the beginnings of the nineteenth century in a slow pace verging on monotony, acquired a sudden vivacity when describing the memorial o f Joyce. It now gained an expected sequence of modulations and remembrances when it bean evoking the happenings of that clear morning in June 1904 as Leopold Bloom left his house to buy lamb chops and, upon entering the butcher’s place, asked instead for tomatoes ina strange moment of physical and linguistic confusion, with reverberations eventually reaching the Cape Verdean islands through the writer Arménio Vieira.

In Howth  there wasn’t any Buck Mulligan telling us of the prestige of the Abbey or the fascination it once exercised in the minds of European medieval intellectuals. We wandered without any direction through  its interior hoping to hear the resonant footsteps and voices of men that retired here in isolation and contemplation of Ireland’s Eye. Separated from the shore by a narrow strip of sea, Ireland’s Eye nevertheless seemed a far away island surrendered to its lonely destiny and abandonment. And all of this came together at last in harmony with the melody that the woman sitting on the low wall began intoning.

That night Briege Murphy was performing at Howth’s Center, but only when she began singing «The Sea» did I recognize that she was the same woman that we had come across the ruins of the Abbey. Her voice produced a melodic cordon risin up in oscillating movements, accentuated by the firm pulling of the guitar strings. And in such a high I must have also imagined the maritime rhythms of Saint-John Perse, the come and  go of this verbal waves, his lyrics swooning over the body of an island remembered. Maybe I was tempted to follow the path of that voice to the distant appeal of the sea that secretly echoes in the poetry of Emanuel Félix, having also decided forever the destiny of Enrico Mreule, making him exchange the closed-in Mediterranean ocean for the endless  Atlantic without even knowing that this was, after all, the other sea of Claudio Magris where everything happens and Natália Correia discovered the winding voyage of Ulysses.

Gradually, however, the song became a whole in the words that told of a painful love story in which a woman slowly lost her own self in the repeated absences of her man in the vast savage Atlantic: he takes a piece of me with him, each time he leaves the shore. Then, a delicate longing invaded the lyrics and the melody leading to a last complaint, when all is lost and without consolation: he won’t stay home for me, cause my love he takes a mistress, she’s the sea. In that story of love and jealousy, I suddenly heard echoes of Katherine Vaz’s beautiful opening of the novel Saudade, and in it the vibrations in the voice of Conceição Cruz, as if José Francisco had decided  to definitely part with the land. And I found myself thinking how god it would be to know that every time we give in to the intimate calling   of the sea a woman’s song will rise up to weep our destiny and perdition.

Far from the Azores and California, listening to Briege Murphy at Howth’s Abbey Center, I was simultaneously reader and character in Katherine Vaz’s novel.

Translated  by Vamberto  Freitas
(original português em Que paisagem apagarás. Ponta Delgada, Publiçor, 2010)


On the apparent suicide of my grandfather

When I was born my grandfather was swaying calmly by the neck from the branch of an infertile, naked figtree that he as a child had planted. On that day the north wind was throwing the sea onto the land pushing it always always within the tacitly established limits. The fishes invaded the houses nearest the coast the ships fled to the hills the gulls smashed up against the windows and even a whale came to die at the door of an abandoned shack. On that day I was born. Perhaps because of all this no one paid much attention to my grandfather’s death; they mourned him and buried him with the rapidity the circumstances called for. <

Years later, however, somebody again brought up my grandfather’s strange finish. On this, opinion was divided. Some of the neighbors said that he had committed suicide out of passion. Imagine! At seventy, my grandfather, an old bird who had known the hardships and solitude of Newfoundland and Greenland, who had measured the winter nights of a still undiscovered island by walking the Voltas do Norte at a time when roads were a dream yet to be realized: my grandfather, who spent hours and hours crouching in holes along the coast waiting for the ships smuggling tobacco! Others testified that he was already half-crazy, the fruition of an adventurer’s limitlessly errant life, and could not stand the joy of seeing his first grandson.

As for me, seeing things from this distance, I think otherwise, that my grandfather hanged himself from the figtree merely to keep the sea from reaching his boots.

Translation  by George Monteiro

(in ALMEIDA, Onésimo T. , The sea within. A selection of Azorean Poems.
Providence, Rhode Island, Gávea Brown, 1983)


Urzelina 93

They are still ablaze, the eyes
of the fishes under these blood-red waters
in eighteen-hundred-eight,
and they are select, the oranges
of that May, suspended
between the branch and the act of picking them
(Blood oranges,
who will pick them?
Not Roberto,
who isn’t from around here).
The Old Bell Tower stands guard
over the Channel
and to Lacerda’s ballads it marks
the adagio assai of their tempo:
«I have as many saudades
as the sea has grains of sand…»
– what cliff will shelter
the bird that, in the voice of Mar-
garida gains altitude?
Like Ulysses I reject deafness:
I raise from the ground the stick spared by the fire,
I shall cling to it as I row
from shore to shore
from island to island.

Translation by Katharine F. Baker

(original português em Lugares Sombras e Afectos, com ilustrações de Seixas Peixoto. Figueira da Foz, ed. dos autores, 2005)


“Nas Lajes, um chá imprevisível” / “In Lajes, an unpredictable tea.” In Que Paisagem Apagarás, by Urbano Bettencourt. Ponta Delgada: Publiçor, 2010, pp. 15-23.
* * * * *

“In Lajes, an unpredictable tea,” by Urbano Bettencourt

Translated into English by Katharine F. Baker & Dr. Bobby J. Chamberlain, Pittsburgh, PA.
For Vera Sabino and Semy Braga

When I arrived on Pico for the first time, a low cloud ceiling reduced the island to a very smooth green-gray bar slightly flattened at the ends. In vain I searched for that mountain that photos taken from São Jorge transformed into the perfect profile of a breast – a breast useless at night, as Chateaubriand would write.

I took the remainder of the afternoon to settle into my room and rest up from my journey. After dinner, I set out on a brief foray through Lajes, a bit aimlessly but not forgetting some of the recommendations made by Mr. Amílcar, the Residencial’s proprietor. Truth be told, in Lajes one does not walk aimlessly, because the village’s layout almost predetermines people’s steps leading them to the main street, which runs parallel to the shoreline and from which the cross streets radiate on their way to the ocean. This was one of the features that had most impressed poet Wang Yong, who roamed there disguised as a humble traveler with a backpack, in which he kept lava samples, sheets of tissue paper with poems and erotic drawings, shells, pebbles, bits of Camilo Pessanha’s bones. It’s as if the urban grid obeyed a geometry that provided an inner life between the Cruzeiro monument and the Largo da Matriz church plaza, while at the same time maintaining a constant dialogue with the sea, a factor inseparable from the history and economy of the village – simultaneously isolated yet open to the world. But I could not fail to be amazed by the notable harmony and cohesion of the civic architecture that fills the space between these two poles, although only later did I come to identify the different epochal features that draw us back to the 16th century, perhaps even to the 15th.

Unexpectedly, however, everything leads to the Igreja Matriz, in the enormity of its volume a Gothic shipwreck in the mid-Atlantic. It was this vision that haunted Raul Brandão in 1924 when he saw it still unfinished, the work on it suspended by the republicans’ extraordinary foolishness. That did not preclude the writer from doing justice to the determination of the priest who had, in vain, expended spirit and fisc in trying to make a dream come true: “A dead black carcass erected across from the ocean, and separated from land by thick hills that threaten to submerge it. Seabirds live there... It was a dream, and no dream comes to an end – dreams do not fit into the world.”

For better or worse some dreams can actually come true, I was thinking as I arrived back at the Residencial, when only a faint light beyond the tip of the island revealed the world to the West. I was there to prove it, ready to fulfill a dream that had been taking shape since the Whaling Museum invited me to display photos I had taken at the Baía dos Golfinhos when I accompanied Edson Bittencourt’s scientific expedition to the Dolphin Bay habitat in southern Brazil.

The next morning I awoke early. The mountain was still shrouded in its balls of ashes and wool.

In the restaurant, a picture hanging over the buffet table caught my eye. In the background, a somber-toned landscape that could be seen through a window; the white impression of a horse was crossing the sky above houses and trees, its head and mane replaced by a woman’s face and hair – perhaps a centaur of the opposite sex. Inside, closer to the observer, a teapot in shades of yellow and pink, on which the figure of a woman in a long black dress was delineated; in her right hand, a lily anticipated the whiteness of the steam that was emitting from the teapot’s spout. On its lower section, a brief inscription: “Unpredictable tea of the imagination.”

“A gift from the artist,” Mr. Amílcar said from behind me, seeing my interest in the painting. “He was here for a few days with his wife, also a painter. Brazilians from Santa Catarina. They split their time between fascination for the mountain and anxiety in the face of its mysteriousness.”

Before mounting my exhibition I ambled through Lajes a bit more, and found myself walking along the wall that starts in front of the museum and ends out on the wharf that is used for mooring. Within this stretch, a recent monument breaks through the darkness of the basalt, its top curling over a gate that epitomizes the destiny of Lajes, perhaps even of Pico, between the ocean and the island. Seen from that vantage point, the village affords a better understanding of the nature of its setting on this spit of land resulting from ancient lava flows. It was also from that moment that I began to understand the insistence with which Fernando Alvarez speaks of Lajes’ dried volcanic ash mud called fajana in his book Islands of Fire.

I busied myself that day installing my photographs. I had to rearrange them to suit the particular conditions of the available space, so as to make best use of existing frames and light, and that took longer than expected. In the end, I felt satisfied. My photos were finally receiving their full due in a museum where the voices of ancient whalers seem still to echo and the proximity of their deeds makes us complicit in an adventure of laughter and tears, euphoria and death.

That evening I dined with Richard Johnson, an American entrepreneur also staying at the Residencial, whom Mr. Amílcar had introduced to me. The story he told me had the effect of dispelling my unconcealable initial surprise at the fluency of his Portuguese, spoken with only the slightest of accents.

For several years he had worked for a Texas company devoted to exporting democracy, with major dealings in South America. For that reason he had traveled extensively to Brazil, where he stayed for long periods during the time of the generals. Later, the company turned its attention to Iraq, but by then Johnson no longer belonged to its ranks. He had discovered tourism and made it the modern passion of which Agustina Bessa-Luís speaks and that, like all passions, is verbose, listens little and precludes people from seeing anything going on around them. Now he was in Lajes on an ambitious and visionary project: transforming the village into a luxurious tourist resort with hotels, restaurants and casinos – because tourism, you must understand, sir, is nothing more than one continuous motion from the dining table to the bathroom to the gambling table. That meant dislocating Lajes’ population to an urban tract built from scratch on the shores of the lagoon at Lagoa do Paul, but with every modern convenience. Nothing extraordinary! One had only to bear in mind what had happened in Alentejo with the Aldeia da Luz or even recall the case of Sete Cidades on São Miguel, with its human community that was resettled on the shores of a yellow pond. Can you imagine Lajes transformed into a Las Vegas under the volcano, do I make myself clear? And he laughed heartily, visibly pleased with his allusion to Malcolm Lowry.

I then told him of scientific studies on the predicted rise in sea level, which according to chronic pessimists will submerge Lajes within fifty years, or a century from now in the opinion of others more attuned to dealing with political discourse. All to no effect. Nothing would budge him. All this will occur gradually, so for some time still we can exploit the tourism potential of a Venice-on-the-Atlantic right here. But when total submersion does occur, covering the other towns on Pico as well – don’t think they’ll be spared! – we’ll have the opportunity to devote ourselves to underwater archaeology, the Azores’ great destiny at a time when “magical nature” will have become an obsolete and absurd slogan.

When I said goodbye to Johnson he was still talking about his projects, with an enthusiasm not totally unconnected to the fig brandy bottle placed at our disposal by Mr. Amílcar (Romana Petri would perhaps prefer a glass of angelica, as she foolishly insists on writing to me). I requested a cup of tea delivered to my room, and before falling asleep set to reading El Mal de Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas. Rosario Girondo had already returned to Faial after his trip to Pico where he met with the writer Teixeira, who lived at the foot of the Mountain; he was now engaged in mapping Montano’s malady and had already recorded Pico’s volcano on it, because of the militant moles within its interior who conspired against literature.

Gradually a sleepiness began to take hold of my body, leaving it in an overall state of relaxation. The portable player continued playing the Carlos Núñez CD, now the tune “Nubes del otro lado,” the strains of which were becoming ever fainter in the distance, until it was finally just a volume of sounds as undifferentiated as the mass of clouds that were surely still obscuring the Mountain. Sometime later, I’m not sure how long, I went whale watching aboard the Cigana; we were sailing along the Rua Direita and the spotter had sighted a pod of dolphins in the Largo da Matriz lagoon. We followed slowly and in silence, except for the voice of our guide, who was discoursing on whaling architecture and buildings from the 16th century, mixing balcony windows with wooden towers and corners made of basalt. I wanted to ask him for a clarification, but try as I might I was unable to utter a sound. Past the slight curve in the street, the tower of the Church of Notre Dame of Bruges suddenly loomed. The boat’s pilot served simultaneously as our guide; his name was Carlos and he spoke to us alternately in English and Spanish with a smattering of Portuguese words that attested to his ancestry, which was the same as his remote Burgundian eponym. He navigated recklessly along the canals, but at certain moments was filled with extreme care, advising us to stayed seated and very still as we passed under the St. Boniface Bridge. The Lago do Amor was filled with agitated dolphins. Carlos proceeded with a lyrical and vaguely erotic flourish before launching into an attempt at humor: Bruges is a very Catholic city with its more than 100 churches. And also very observant; it has 423 bars. The absence of reaction on our part left him disconsolate, and when we docked near the Nepomuceno Bridge, he was not even able to flash us a farewell smile.

Waiting for us next was a young Flemish guide who refused to speak French and who took us to visit the inside of the Mountain. Before entering through the cave opening, she attached to her waist the tip of a long rope coiled up inside a wooden hamper. We hiked through dimly lit passageways, as little by little the sound of voices faded, leaving audible only the intermittent sounds of droplets falling from the ceiling. Finally we caught sight of a vast chamber where a brigade of diligent officials was feeding a huge bonfire with books. One of these officials came very close to us; on his shirt he wore a badge with the initials M.E. Ministry of Economics? of Education? I glimpsed some of the titles he carried in his arms: Fahrenheit 451, The Lusiads, Don Quixote, José Martins Garcia’s Morrer Devagar. Suddenly, we discovered that our guide had lost her cord linking us to the outside. We tried to retrace our steps, but there was no opening in the surrounding walls. In the ensuing confusion, someone threw me to the ground and dozens of moles scampered over me in a frenzied rush. My efforts to stand woke me up.

In the morning, I recounted this dream to Mr. Amílcar. He smiled.

“It was from yesterday's tea. That of the imagination. And as you well know, Mr. Machado, that tea is totally unpredictable.”