Voltas: The 2019 Encontro Pedras Negras on Flores by Elaine Ávila

Voltas: The 2019 Encontro Pedras Negras on Flores
by Elaine Ávila

“Remember how?” asked the 90-year-old Senhor José Lisandro, the last whaler on Flores Island, as he handed me the harpoon.
“Sim,” I said, taking the front of the harpoon with my left hand, holding the back end with my right, squatting slightly to engage my thighs to deal with the rocking of a boat, because, as Sr. Lisandro said, “o mar não é a terra,” (“the sea is not the land”). Then I swooped the harpoon up high, arcing it down, while taking aim.
He chuckled, shook his head. Not quite. The first thing is to balance the harpoon in your left hand. As I opened my hand, it balanced perfectly. Like most gear used in life threating situations, it was very well-designed.
This was the beginning of the last day of Encontro Pedras Negras, a weekend during the Azores Fringe Festival. Terry Costa, the Artistic Director, had arranged time for this meeting, along with the help of Gabriela Silva. Soon most of the writers at the festival would join me in listening as Sr. Lisandro brought his experiences to life with his stories. Poet José Efe from Porto, Portugal, prepared to write him a tribute. Dutch painter Pieter Adriaans drew a sketch of him. “You’re famous!” I said to Sr. Lisandro and he laughed with delight.

I’m here because of my appointment as the Fulbright Scholar to the University of the Azores, researching and writing two new plays inspired by my ancestors, motivated by my Azorean grandmother’s writing. I have a photograph of her with her sisters, at Carnaval (Carnival) in the 1920s-30s on the island of Pico. She and her sisters are all dressed in men’s suits, holding guitars, dangling cigarettes, laughing, joyous. On the back of the photograph, perhaps after she emigrated to America and observed the process of assimilation, my grandmother wrote, “those beautiful days that will never return,” or “que já não voltam.”

“Voltas,” the noun associated with the verb voltar, has twenty-two definitions in one online dictionary. A plethora of meanings for one word can be one of the difficult aspects of the Portuguese language, but on Flores island these multiple meanings proved invaluable. One by one, the meanings of “voltas” came to pass:
1 .the act of returning to a place from which you came,
2. turning and turning
3. an interpretation or solution
4. a sinuous curve, like the ones we traversed by car to get to the village of Lajes das Flores, where Sr. Lisandro lives.

On my first night on Flores, the village was having a procession, just like the ones my ancestors used to walk, to celebrate their official designation as a sister city with Santa Catarina, in Brazil, where people from Lajes had been emigrating for decades. As writers arrived for Encontro Pedras Negras, we joined in the procession. There was a mass, a parade, a flag raising with music, including the Portuguese national anthem my grandfather taught me to sing and the Azorean anthem (the first time I’d heard this lovely song), and we ended in the Espirito Santo Hall for a banquet feast. This is where I met Sr. Lisandro who informed me that he knew my grandfather, great grandfather, and great uncle, all the “Ávilas of Ribeiras” on Pico island who were whalers, especially the trancodores, or harpoonists. He let me know he could meet me at the museum, patting his chest pocket: he had the keys. I promptly agreed. Next there was a serenade with the village band, like the one my great-grandfather led in our village. I had never been invited to take part in these rituals before, I’d never heard this music, but this is part of the magic of Encontro Pedras Negras. Doors fly open, which have been closed for years.

At Encontro Pedras Negras, we too have rituals:
- The visiting of the high school and elementary school to encourage the next generation of artists in every discipline: writers, musicians, theatre artists, painters, puppeteers, singers, songwriters
- The tour of the island to see and be inspired by its beauty (including a visit to Aldeia da Cuada, a village founded in 1676, which was abandoned by emigrants to American 60 years ago, now devotedly restored into an unique accommodation/restaurant)
- The reading of poems inspired by the Azores in gardens
- Terry Costa’s theatre warmup, which helps us celebrate and experience feeling with our entire bodies
- An honest discussion of the obstacles we face
- Reading excerpts of each other’s new books, to celebrate their launch
- Writing in an outdoor space
- Sharing of our dreams and our plans
- Presentation of the award to an artist who exemplifies the spirit of the festival
- Visiting the spaces created on the island to encourage the creation of every type of art (this year we saw Italian photographer Stéfano Folgaría’s 300-year-old home, German author Rainer Würth’s emergent artist retreat centre/garden/jam patio, French singer-songwriter Nina Soulimant’s centre/garden)
- Events for the community (these included superb work: an art exhibit at the main museum, featuring Martine de Baecque’s lithographs, Pieter Adriaans’ watercolors from his residency on Flores, Martim Cymbron’s oils and acrylics from his residency on Pico; two book launches-- A Viagem de Juno by Almeida Maia, and In-Pico by José Efe, with paintings by Judy Rodrigues and the musical debut of Pieter Adriaans Azorean suite on viola da terra).

These rituals were developed by Terry Costa (for full details on his work, the events and the participants, please see colleague Sandra Henriques Gajjar’s terrific blog:

These rituals have a deep power. They foster courage.

The culture of the Azores can be very traditional. Writers from history are constantly celebrated and those writing now are rarely mentioned. Despite the efforts of many publishers and authors, books published locally are frequently unavailable in the bookshops or public libraries because these publications are not considered prestigious enough. It is difficult for Azorean writers to be published in mainland Portugal, creating a vicious circle. This can be true for all the art forms, each in their own way. This has the effect of discouraging Azoreans from articulating their own experience.

Terry Costa created a remedy: Encontro Pedras Negras, named for writer Dias De Melo’s great novel, Pedras Negras, which is brave enough to critique the impact of whaling and immigration on his community on Pico. Encontro Pedras Negras inspires us to write (and speak) courageously about the challenges of our own time, many of which we discussed: how do we acknowledge the legacy of slavery and piracy in the islands (rarely spoken of), listen to the women’s stories—now and throughout history, evolve away from our dependency on gas and oil (perhaps not unlike our transition off our dependency on whales), go back to more agricultural self-sufficiency on the islands? These conversations were held throughout the weekend, as we recognized affinities in each other.

One of my favorite conversations was with Diana Zimbron---a novelist from Terceira now living on Pico. She shared that she used to see no value in history, as it is taught in a conservative way in school in the Azores, but she was starting to see that it held many treasures. I shared that for me, a footnote about a woman in history is like a small bone from her body. If I write and write, then she will come alive again, in a play, and we can hear her voice.
Then Diana told me that a woman, Brianda Pereira, led the successful rebellion in 1581 against the Spanish on Terceira (the only place which “remained Portugal” at the time), in the Battle of Salga, where residents gathered all the bulls on the island into a central caldeira, then let them loose in the streets, driving off the invaders. Diana also told me she once stood at the entrance to the tunnels which had been dug beneath the city of Angra to withstand piracy, wondering, how, how could our ancestors do this? Digging tunnels beneath your city to survive is a seemingly impossible, endless task.

I told her I felt the same on Pico, where my ancestors, 500 years ago, were left to wait eight years for the next supply ship. They began moving black lava stones into a network of small stone walls to protect plants in a maze so beautiful and extensive that it has become World Heritage. How could you get the mettle to move the first stone, and the next and the next?

We felt the same about José Lisandro. No matter how you feel about whaling, the question remains. How could an individual find the power within himself to kill one of the largest animals on earth from a small and rocking canoe with a small, pointed stick? I asked Sr. Lisandro, what was the most important thing to remember when harpooning a whale—aim? Force? He exclaimed, without a doubt, “Força!”

Diana and I agreed, we absolutely must draw upon the incredible fortitude of our ancestors. After each stop in each turn in our own writer’s “parade” of many days, I realized this festival worked its magic on my soul: I began to feel the passion and courage to continue my work, the “força” that Jose talked about.

Nina Soulimant (Associação Reinventar Ilhas), the recipient of this year’s prize for exemplifying the power of the festival, played her beautiful song for us on our last day, which brought tears to my eyes, as it so beautifully expressed the força in art, with its ability to build community and hold up mirrors to society:
Amigo, irmã
Vizinho, avózinha
Palhaços, maestros
Estrangeiro na rua
Companheiro de vida
Se tens medo,
fecha os olhos e espera
Só um pouco
para o coração abrir e ver
(Full translation available on a short video she recently released:

One of the events of the festival was a reading of part of my new play in Valzinho da Fazenda movement studio (Nina´s home), performed by musician/artist Pieter Adriaans, novelist/poet Carolina Cordeiro of São Miguel, novelist/dancer Susana Júdice of Bombarral, Portugal, and Festival Director/Theatre Artist Terry Costa. They poured so much love, humor and understanding into the play, it was an incredible privilege for me to share it on Flores island.

Diana said my play reading reminded her of something she missed most of all about Terceira: Carnaval. I immediately thought of my grandmother’s writing on the back of her photograph. She wrote that those beautiful days, of Carnaval, would never return. However, thanks to the inspiring work and conversations I had with leaders, writers and artists at Encontro Pedras Negras, especially with Azorean women, the times had, indeed, returned.