“The Language(s) of Memory”: A Review of Memória: An Anthology of Portuguese Canadian Writers

by Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen

Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen is a writer whose work has been published in BlogTO, Drain Magazine, Canada Arts Connect, Spirit of the City: Mississauga Life Magazine, and The Town Crier. She graduated with high distinction from the University of Toronto (2009) with an HBA in English. She also graduated with honours from the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines (2004), with a BA in Management Economics. She writes the book review blog Literary Treats and has taught social media and creative writing workshops for various community organizations. She currently oversees Communications at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

Memória: An Anthology of Portuguese Canadian Writers, Edited by Fernanda Viveiros
Fidalgo Books
fidalgobooks.com
fidalgobooks@gmail.com

2013, 152 pp., $15, ISBN: 978.0.0860565.0.5


When encountering a book such as Memória, an anthology of Portuguese Canadian writing, it is tempting to read the text as a definitive representation of Portuguese Canadian literature. It is also tempting to ask questions about what distinguishes these works from their Portuguese American counterparts, or those within Canadian literature as a whole. Both the foreword by Onésimo T. Almeida and the preface by editor Fernanda Viveiros caution against this approach. Almeida admits the Portuguese communities in Canada and the U.S. are very similar, because they come from similar places of origin within Portugal, and because there is significant cross-border movement between them.

For Viveiros, the book’s project is not so much to create a definitive look at Portuguese Canadian literature as it exists currently, but instead to address “a sense of responsibility to add the voices of Portuguese Canadians to the multicultural chorus heard across this nation.” The key word here is “voices,” as the book’s call for submissions encouraged a plurality thereof. Viveiros deliberately avoided setting “too many limits” on the subject matter or style for the submissions. The book also resists the temptation to add the marketing heft of more well known Portuguese Canadian writers such as Anthony de Sa or Erika de Vasconcelos. The result is a wonderful selection of surprises.

“The book celebrates the emergence of Portuguese Canadian literature, not by being the definitive voice, but by showcasing several among many.”

Most memorable among the works is Aida Jordáo’s play “Funeral in White,” which was presented in May 1991 at the Women and Live Words Festival at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. Publishing a script in print form is a bit of an artistic risk—much of the impact of a stage production is understandably lost. However, even on the page, the stage directions are so descriptive that one can clearly picture the scene, perhaps at times to an even greater extent than would have been evident on stage. For example, in the opening scene, a man tries to sneak his mistress out of the bedroom past his blind wife. The wife trips on the mistress’s shoe, the mistress sits up on the bed, and Jordáo writes, “There is a yellow smile on her face.” The yellowness of the smile would likely have been unnoticed by a theatre audience, but on the page, characterizing the mistress’s teeth as “yellow” paints us a vivid picture of the character.

Another risk in writing for a national audience is determining how much Portuguese to use. As someone who doesn’t speak Portuguese and only very basic Spanish, I admit to being lost at times while reading Jordáo’s play, particularly without the actors’ movements giving me any visual cues. Much of the dialogue in Portuguese can be interpreted by the context and by English responses, but there are long stretches where only Portuguese is spoken.

Still, even reading it phonetically sounds beautiful, and the advantage of reading the script rather than watching the performance is being able to find an online translation. Most importantly, as this is a celebration of Portuguese Canadian literature, the sections in Portuguese add a richness to the text, inviting the reader to immerse himself or herself fully into the lives of the characters, for whom transitioning from Portuguese to English and back is effortless, and translation unnecessary.

Translation does add resonance when the anthology’s poems are printed in Portuguese on one page with the English translation opposite. Most memorable among these is Paulo da Costa’s “ser português” (“to be portuguese”), translated by Hugh Hazelton. The musicality of the lines in Portuguese works well with a different type of musicality in the English translation, and adds an extra layer of appreciation for the reader. Da Costa’s poem is striking for its simplicity, for the depth of insight in such seemingly straightforward statements as “to be portuguese is// to travel abroad josé/ and come back joe.” A simple name change, yet it hints at so much more, including the inability to fully return home. Da Costa also prods Portuguese Canadian culture with sly humour: to be Portuguese is “to be born with pains in there, poor thing, living/ with pains right here in my side, doctor,/ and dying with pains over there, god help us.” Perhaps the verse will remind other readers of people in their own lives; perhaps it will resonate in a specific way with Portuguese Canadians. For this reader, at least, the verse immediately calls to mind a middle-aged mother in a housedress, whose comic relief is softened by the verse immediately following: “it’s offering the barbecued chicken breast to the kids/ fighting off your own hunger with a few puny wings.”

The figure of the mother is prominent in many of the works in this collection. In the Philippines, where I’m from, the significance of the mother is central to the culture, partly because ours is a Catholic country, and the Virgin Mary is highly revered. I’m not an expert in Portuguese culture, but I clearly detect a similar prominence of the Catholic Church in Memória, as well as reverence for mothers and a strong connection among the extended family.

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.”

“The musicality of the lines in Portuguese works well with a different type of musicality in the English translation.”

Also powerful in its simplicity is Tony Correia’s “One Man’s Island.” “It was summer 1978,” the narrator says. “I was too young to get a job but old enough to be embarrassed by my Portuguese parents.” His father brings home some chickens whose cawing annoys the neighbours. “This was crazy, even by Portuguese immigrant standards,” the narrator says. The health department is finally called in to demand the chickens be killed. The parents don’t speak English and the narrator speaks little Portuguese (which strikes me as unrealistic—how does he communicate with his parents when his bilingual older brother isn’t around?), so the parents go a full day after the inspector arrives before understanding the full story. The ultimate thrust of the story is disappointingly pat—the narrator realizes that while considered weird at the time, given the rise of “sustainable” livestock in today’s residential neighbourhoods, he believes his father’s desire to raise his own chickens for food can actually be seen as forward-thinking. However, the scene in which the father kills the chickens to satisfy his neighbours is particularly emotionally resonant:

The rooster’s choking call seemed to go on forever. […] I often wonder if my father hoped the neighbours were listening, if he was trying to make them feel uncomfortable for making him extinguish this small piece of happiness, this lembrança of where he came from, of the man he used to be.

Keeping a rooster reminds the father of home, an ultimately futile act of defiance against cultural assimilation. The irony of a “capital ‘I’ immigrant” custom later becoming common practice pales in comparison to the emotional impact of the custom being suppressed in the first place.

Although not all the works are strong, the best works bookend the anthology (Paulo da Costa’s “ser português” and Aida Jordáo’s “Funeral in White”). But as a celebration of Portuguese Canadian literature, Viveiros certainly succeeds in turning the spotlight on some lesser known voices, each of which presents a distinct perspective, and I am particularly impressed by how this anthology doesn’t feel the need to make every piece have distinctly Portuguese Canadian elements. Nelia Botelho’s poetry, for example, makes no overt reference to Portuguese Canadian culture. Yet it is still a Portuguese Canadian voice, and the anthology is stronger for it. Botelho’s imagery is beautiful—in “Moon Jelly,” she writes: “it tolls a silent bell-shaped body/ unfurls its umbrella/ with limbs glowing and careless.” The final verse is particularly potent:

It is mariner
astronomer
wanderer
who calls no place home.

Perhaps the impact of the book can best be described in Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto’s poem “Abril entre a chuva” (“April between rain,” translated by Viveiros with the author). Pinto writes: “Be the torch within this music, the powder and sandalwood/ its scream.” Similarly, the writers in this anthology add their own voices to those across Canada. The book celebrates the emergence of Portuguese Canadian literature, not by being the definitive voice, but by showcasing several among many, and thereby encouraging others to add their own. By adding new texts to the likes of established voices such as Anthony de Sa and Erika de Vasconcelos, the anthology is a clear and rousing invitation for more.

 


Jaclyn Qua-Hiansen is a writer whose work has been published in BlogTO, Drain Magazine, Canada Arts Connect, Spirit of the City: Mississauga Life Magazine, and The Town Crier. She graduated with high distinction from the University of Toronto (2009) with an HBA in English. She also graduated with honours from the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines (2004), with a BA in Management Economics. She writes the book review blog Literary Treats and has taught social media and creative writing workshops for various community organizations. She currently oversees Communications at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.

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