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Irene Maria F. Blayer, Lélia Pereira Nunes

2013-03-03 11:59:25

Revisiting Texts Published in Comunidades (03.03.2013)

An Interview with Francisco Cota Fagundes
(Parts 1 and 4 of 5)

 [Published on July 9th, 2009]

Mid-Atlantic Margins, Transatlantic Identities: Azorean Literature in Context (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 2007) is the title of volume V, special edition of the Lusophone Studies Journal published by the University of Bristol, United Kingdom. In this volume, the editors, John Kinsella (National University of Ireland, Maynooth), and Carmen Ramos Villar (University of Sheffield, United Kingdom) compiled a number of essays written by Lusophone writers and scholars, thus offering an introduction to Azorean literature and culture. In addition to the nine essays herein included, the volume contains an interview with Francisco Cota Fagundes (pg, 221-242). In his answers to the questions posed by Carmen Villar, Fagundes looks at Azorean literature and culture from various perspectives, such as literary, sociocultural, historical, etc.
The importance of the issues herein presented brings challenging viewpoints to our understanding of 'Azorean' identity construction, and draw on a particular notion and awareness about aspects of our 'narrative fabric' as Azorean emigrants, academics, writers and others. It is within this landscape that we have selected some sections of the interview with Francisco Cota Fagundes. His discourse conveys a free, and candid view of what Bakhtin (1981) would call "un-fleshed-out-humanness" and we anticipate that his reflections are a means for others to learn, understand and reflect about the 'other' the 'self' the 'emigrant' in his/her cultural meanings and contexts.

Irene Maria F. Blayer

(Part 1 of 5)

Q: Is there a lot of contact between the intellectuals in the United States and those in Portugal?
FCF: [...]

Q: Why is that?

FCF: What's most interesting about my (sometimes) lack of desire to return to my country of origin is the fact-quite strange, really-that I also do not like America, for the most part. Maybe if I stayed in Portugal for lengthier periods of time, I might relearn to like it. It's just painful to re-experience pain all over again. And Portugal, to me, is pain and suffering and humiliation and "brothers" and "sisters" who feel superior to me just because I am an emigrant, or was a poor fellow from not a good family. I am not comfortable here in America, either. I would say that there are immigrants-my friend Onésimo Teotónio Almeida, for example-who seem to manage to be here and there, to keep, as it were, two homelands going at the same time. It has to do, I think, with our respective backgrounds. He studied there. I never did. All I remember from my childhood, as my autobiography clearly shows, is pain. When I get back, even to the Azores, I smell the delicious salty sea, see our beautiful women, but I also smell the pain that was and that, in my memory, still is. But there are differences between the Azorean emigrants and the mainland emigrants. The latter, for the most part, maintain their ties to Portugal, much tighter bonds with the mother country. We Azoreans detach ourselves-which does not necessarily mean that we have an easier time than mainlanders attaching ourselves to our adoptive country. Do Azoreans suffer more than mainlanders in their emigrant pilgrimages? I would not be too surprised if we did, on account of our looser emotional ties to the there and the here. Am I unique? Weird? Perhaps. I know that Azoreans tend to visit our islands less frequently than the mainlanders from Ludlow, Massachusetts, for example. Mainlanders seem to go home all the time. We Azoreans only drop in once in a while.

Q: Do you think, therefore, that part of the Azorean make-up is not being able to go back?

FCF: Azoreans are migrants from Portugal, to begin with. Perhaps we retained in our psyches something of the instinct of migratory birds. (I think I learned this from Vitorino Nemésio.) Perhaps most important of all, life, for the peasants, was very hard during the time I was growing up (1950s and 1960s). Many Azoreans, upon arrival in the US, even neglect preserving the language, going to the extreme, sometimes, of declining to enroll their children in bilingual programs. In the 1970s, I was a kind of liaison between schools that had English-Portuguese bilingual programs and parents in a community in California (Artesia, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles) where my wife was a bilingual teacher. I was to intercede with parents to allow their children to be part of the bilingual program; the children could, that way, preserve the language; they would be able to, later, speak Portuguese with their grandparents, their parents. Otherwise, the children would forget their Portuguese, the parents would not necessary learn English-and the family would not be able to communicate. A powerful argument, I thought. But the parents' (some parents') arguments were, for them, equally powerful: Why should their children study Portuguese now that they were in America? English was what they needed. What would be the importance of studying a language that could not help them get ahead in their new country? Why drag the heavy past along? Of course, elements of Portuguese culture were extremely important to the emigrants-the Holy Spirit celebrations, the foods, the festivities. But these cultural traditions were important for the emigrants, not necessarily their children, particularly those born in America. The latter-with many exceptions, of course-did not participate in the festas, or did so for a time, until they got an education, those who did, and left their "Portuguese" communities for greener pastures. As for the emigrants, they sometimes return to the Azores for the summer. A few retire there. Quite a number of them, even those who intend to retire to the Azores, often return to America, after they discover that life in the old homeland is incomplete, sometimes even harder than in the new.

Q: It is interesting to hear you say that, since, at least in the literary field, the Azorean wants to go back. Furthermore, this desire is one of the main themes in their writing.

FCF: The pen, or the computer, as the case may be, often does force us to say and even feel what we, in reality, do not necessarily say or feel. And when we literarily speaking want to go back-to what Azores do we wish to return? Azoreans have been in America in significant numbers for 150 years. Mainlanders, as is well known, emigrated to America much later and in far fewer numbers. This explains, to a large degree, why we have more writers at this time who are descendants of Azoreans. But there are a few writers who trace their ancestry to the mainland. Although, lest people think there is a Portuguese or Portuguese-American literature in America, let me disabuse them of that idea. There are a few individuals who have written and a few others who are writing books. In the case of autobiographies (a dozen or so), at least half of them have been written by emigrants from the mainland. The mainland Portuguese who came here, and who were already consummate writers, such as José Rodrigues Miguéis, Jorge de Sena, Clara Pinto Correia, were already known in Portugal. These people, therefore, are not emigrants in the more traditional acceptation of individuals who migrated to improve their economic lot or, as happened throughout the 1960s, to avoid the colonial wars in "Portuguese" Africa. Those people came here already schooled, and with published works to their credit. I would never call, therefore, Jorge de Sena, who has, in fact, written very little about emigration, or José Rodrigues Miguéis, emigrants, in that traditional sense of the word. These people entered on a better footing than the common emigrant; they did not milk cows, work in factories, fish in San Diego, or lumber in Humboldt. I am not saying that the emigration experience must necessarily involve humble labour in order to qualify as emigration. But there is a difference between those who came here to earn a living, who had to learn the language or suffer the isolation of not having learned it, and those who came here as self-exiles from the politics back home; or who claimed the label "exiles" because it is, after all, more chic than that of "emigrant." In the end, whether you work in a factory or are a professor, or a post-doctoral researcher, you are the one who can decide what the emigrant experience has meant to you. An emigrant is a person who thinks he or she is an emigrant; an exile, one who, with some legitimacy, claims that label for himself or herself. Still, there is a difference, I think, between the educated person and the labouring poor fellow who makes minimum wage and cannot even talk to the bossa because he has not had the time or the wherewithal to learn the bossa's language.


(Part 4 of 5)

Q: What do you see as being the future of Luso-American literature?

FCF: The future of Luso-American literature will depend, to a large extent, on the interest of the Luso-Americans. Now that ethnic writing is more largely acceptable, more and more people will feel the time has come to tap into an immense reservoir of experiences, wonderful grist for the mill of fiction, of poetry, even of plays, not to mention the musical and visual arts.

Q: Do you think that one can speak of a culture that is being constructed to express a particular experience that is not found elsewhere?

FCF: Do you mean elsewhere in the world? I think we have the conditions in which to do so, but we are only taking the first steps with Frank X. Gaspar, Erika de Vasconcelos, Katherine Vaz, Laura Bulger and, in Portuguese language, with Onésimo Teotónio Almeida, José Francisco Costa, Valadão Serpa, José Brites, Adelaide Batista Freitas, and a few other writers. I think that this literature is conditioned by two things; firstly, the writer will try to satisfy the imaginary needs of a non-Portuguese readership and, if so, the writer stops being simply Portuguese, stops reflecting anything that can be identified as ethnically Portuguese. If the writer is ethnically excessive, let us say, he is recognised as an ethnic Portuguese as a result, and will stop being of interest to the American readership. I would not be able to, therefore, define the kind of novel that is relatively positioned for a Luso-American readership - a readership that, it is worth noting, is not very big and does not buy many books - and that, at the same time, would satisfy the curiosity and interests of a wider public. Luso-American writers will probably write a fiction that, deep down, carnavalizes the mother culture. This, to some degree, has been done by Katherine Vaz and, to a far lesser degree, by Gaspar. Is that a moral crime? Of course not. Culture is culture. And literature, although it, too, is culture, is literature, first and foremost.

Q: Do you think that there is a symbiotic relationship between the works written here and those that are written in the Azores?

FCF: Yes, to an extent, especially in recent years. João de Melo's Gente Feliz Com Lágrimas, for example, is a novel by a writer who knew, not as first-hand experience, but who knew, about emigration and its attendant human dramas. He gained this knowledge from his family, and also through his own experience, and through that of the Azorean emigrants who left the Azores to go to the mainland. For the Azorean of one or two or even more of three generations ago, to leave the Azores to go to the Portuguese mainland was almost like emigrating to America, only an "America" without America. Sometimes it was a much worse experience in terms of the pain always attendant to migration. The Azores were a very isolated, abandoned, part of Portugal. Any break with one's roots was, of course, very traumatic. It represented a limitation, as can be seen in the seminarian experiences of João de Melo's character, and is also represented by the migratory experience of the trips to and from Canada of his characters. João de Melo is a writer who wrote of migration experience with causal knowledge, as is the case with Álamo Oliveira, who visits America frequently, and is an extremely sensitive person. Já Não Gosto de Chocolates, for example, is a novel based in Tulare, California (partial and painful setting for a great portion of my own Hark Knocks), by a man who has not lived in Tulare but who has visited on many occasions. Álamo has family in America, has engaged with the emigrant experiences, and has positioned himself in the milieu of the people who emigrated. Although he has not experienced emigration first hand, he has "second hand" experiences that approximate to the emigration reality. I think that Pedro da Silveira has a very sui generis image of emigration, a neo-Realist image of the emigrant experience, on the one hand. On the other hand, though, Pedro da Silveira's books (A Ilha e o Mundo, 1952, for example) sometimes exaggerate the Azorean emigrant's contribution, for example. It is a good perspective on emigration from the other side, from the side that has not experienced migration but which is aware of the effects that emigration has on the families who are left behind, or on the people who return. I would also like to mention another book, Mau Tempo no Canal, a justifiably famous novel by the foremost Azorean writer of the twentieth century, Vitorino Nemésio. This book has a character who represents a particular migratory experience. The character I am referring to in Mau Tempo no Canal is Damião Serpa, who is a caricature and stereotype of the emigrant that somewhat (speaking as an emigrant and not, strictly speaking, as a reader and translator of the novel) offends me; he is a show-off, he lies, he pretends to be what he is not, and he presents America, or the Portuguese emigrant experience in America, in an exaggeratedly adventurous way, minus the pain and suffering nearly always present in the migratory experience. It represents an emigrant experience that would not happen, except in an emigrant's wildest dreams. And perhaps that's what Nemésio meant to portray. This is not to say that Damião Serpa as a character is divorced from reality. The fact that Damião Serpa, at the end of the novel, goes back to America is an aspect of the migrant experience that is done very well by Nemésio. He represents the emigrant who, like me, is not able to be here nor there. I see that these four writers portray the four ways in which the emigrant experience is generally depicted: Nemésio largely parodies the emigrant; some of Pedro da Silveira's poems are a romanticized portrayal; João de Melo and Álamo Oliveira, maybe because they are more recent writers, produce a literature that is more real in the sense of being more faithful to the reality of emigration, without failing to fashion wonderful literary works. Onésimo Teotónio Almeida and José Costa-the first in his short stories, crónicas and dramatic pieces; the second in his short stories and poetry-give us what amounts to perhaps a more complete, fair-to-experience literary portrait of Portuguese, particularly Azorean, emigrant experience in America, especially the East Coast. Both Almeida and José Costa are also Azorean writers, and writers of the transitional experiential space between America and the Azores, which we perhaps need to have experienced ourselves in order to successfully (re)create in literary terms.
We must also mention José Rodrigues Miguéis, and Jorge de Sena. José Rodrigues Miguéis wrote about a dozen short stories and crónicas dealing with migrant experiences in America. Jorge de Sena, although he has many poems about exile, wrote relatively little about emigrant experiences. Other writers I have not yet mentioned-without distinguishing between "emigrant" and "ethnic"-are Thomas Braga, Eduardo Mayone Dias, Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto, Vamberto Freitas, and a few others. We don't yet have a Portuguese-American literature, and who knows whether we ever will. But the corpus that already exists is worthwhile, and it tells, literarily, of our experiences as a group of people who call America home or our place of residence and daily toil.

Q: This looks like the debate about Azorean literature, whether it is a question of quantity and quality, which Onésimo Almeida has examined and provided proof...

FCF: Yes, Onésimo Almeida has written a lot and well about Azorean and Portuguese-American literature. I think the answer to whether there is a Portuguese-American, even an Azorean-American literature, is yes, the beginnings of one... The future? Who knows...

Q: Do you think that Luso-American literature is a literature in its own right or do you see it as being part of Azorean literature?

FCF: Well, that which is written in Portuguese is part of Azorean literature, and that which is in English is part of American literature, whether America wants it or needs it or not. Take Katherine Vaz and Frank X. Gaspar, they are part of American literature because they write in English. They might be thought of as belonging to Azorean literature to some degree, in that the human reality they focus is of Azorean provenance. They can be seen as an extension of Azorean literature in America (this is an issue that critics may wish to address), as well as American ethnic literature. It would be a loss to Azoreans back home to ignore these writers. On the other hand, for Americans to ignore writers like Vaz, Gaspar, and Vasconcelos would also be unfair to them as Portuguese- and Canadian-Americans, and unfair to ethnic Portuguese living in the United States and Canada. But if unfairness is to be avoided, it is Portuguese-Americans and Canadian-Americans who must start doing the reading. One cannot expect others to become interested in our ethnic group, unless one has demonstrated that interest oneself and brought it to the attention of outsiders to the group.


Francisco Cota Fagundes is a full professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA.

por: Irene Maria F. Blayer - Lelia Pereira Nunes

Este blogue é  sobre a perspectiva da distância, o olhar de quem vive os Açores radicado na América do Norte, na Europa, no Brasil, ou em qualquer outra região. É escrito por personalidades de referência das nossas comunidades com ligações intensas ao arquipélago dos Açores (25.02.2007).

Irene Maria F. Blayer - Nasceu em São Jorge, Azores, e vive no Canadá.  
She holds a Ph.D. in Romance Linguistics and is a Full Professor at Brock University, Canada -Doutorada em linguística, é Professora Catedrática na Univ. Brock. Neste espaço procura-se a colaboração de colegas e amigos cujos textos, depoimentos, e outros -em Inglês, Português, Francês, ou Castelhano- sejam vozes que testemunhem a  nossa 'narrativa' diaspórica, ou se remetam a uma pluralidade de encontros onde se enquadra um universo  que  contempla uma íntima proximidade e cumplicidade com o nosso imaginário cultural e identitário.

Lélia Pereira da Silva Nunes - Brasil
Nasceu em Tubarão, vive em Florianópolis, Ilha de Santa Catarina. Socióloga, Professora da Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, aposentada, investigadora do Patrimônio Cultural Imaterial (experts/UNESCO,Mercosul), escritora e, sobretudo, uma apaixonada pelos Açores. Este é um espaço, sem limites nem fronteiras, aberto ao diálogo plural sobre as nossas comunidades. Um espaço que, aproximando geografias, reflete mundivivências a partir do "olhar distante e olhar de casa," alicerçado no vínculo afetivo e intelectual com os Açores. Vozes açorianas, onde quer que vivam, espalhadas pelo mundo e, aqui reunidas num grande abraço fraterno, se fazem ouvir. Azorean descent.-- Born in Tubarão(SC) and  lives in Florianopolis, Santa Catarina Island,Brasil. She holds postgraduate degreees  in Public Administration, and is an Associate Professor at Federal University of Santa Catarina.



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