“Unwriting American History: Frank X. Gaspar’s Leaving Pico.” Pp. 139-149.
The question of whether Azorean literature should be viewed as an expression of regional identity within the broad literary canon of Portugal, or whether it is as independent of its matrix as other lusophone literatures, is a subject of ongoing disagreement and debate. The situation is rendered more complicated by the literary activities of writers who inhabit or have inhabited the significant Azorean diasporas in the United States and Canada. And when those writers use English as their chosen linguistic medium, then the attachment of language to national, regional or community identity becomes central to the debate. Is a literature in English (or arguably in Portuguese) about the Azorean diaspora to be considered a peripheral expression of Azorean literature or an equally peripheral manifestation of North American literary identity? Moreover, it is not so much generation or place of birth that determines the language used (or indeed the adoption of an English name). Alfred Lewis (Luís), born on Flores in 1902, emigrated to the United States at the age of 20, eventually settling in California. An autodidact in English, he wrote in both English and Portuguese. But it was his English-language novel, Home is an Island (1951), which became a bestseller in the United States, and won him fame as a Portuguese-American writer. Others wrote autobiographies in English, among them the Pico-born Laurence Oliver (Oliveira), who emigrated in 1903 and published Never Backward in 1972, and more recently, Francisco Cota Fagundes, born in Terceira but resident in the United States since 1963, who wrote Hard Knocks, an Azorean-American Odyssey (2000), supposedly so that his son would later be able to understand his life and hardships. Onésimo Almeida, on the other hand, who also migrated to Rhode Island from his native São Miguel as a young man, and who, like Fagundes, is an academic in a Department of Portuguese, and is at ease contributing to the press in English, writes his fiction in Portuguese, albeit often exploiting the lingusitic mixtures that his raw material, the immigrant communities around Providence, Rhode Island, use when speaking their native tongue[i].
The issues surrounding this diasporic literary manifestation are of course akin to those concerning the more abundant and widely known Chicano and Latino literatures, and their production, not to mention reception, provide a likely blueprint for the long-term perception of Portuguese-American literature. Whether or not these ‘Hispanic’ literatures are written in Spanish or English, they are far more likely to be the subject of academic scrutiny in departments of Latin American studies, and they tend to be regarded by the reading public at large as ethnic literature, a contradiction in a society that purports to be multi-cultural, and for whom, it might be argued, there should be no such thing as mainstream culture. The fact is that these literary expressions are products of the migration of large numbers of immigrants from south of the Rio Grande into the United States and more recently Canada. They are in a real sense North American. Yet at the same time, diasporas of whatever ethnic origin are essentially frontier societies and cultures. Their tendency is to abolish the borderline between past (the land of origin) and the present and future (the host country): in their very fluidity, they belong to both and at the same time, perhaps, to neither.
With regard to the literature by writers of Portuguese Azorean descent, it might further be appropriate to consider them in terms of region. There were two major currents of Portuguese immigration into the United States, the first to New England and essentially to southern and eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the other to California, while other smaller groups settled elsewhere in North America (Pap, 1992: 46), including Hawaii and in the course of time Canada. Clearly, these two main diasporic groups have much in common (most notably, social mores moulded by the influence of the church and traditional rural Catholicism), but there is a sense too in which they should be seen, at least socially and economically, in terms of the region in which they settled: notwithstanding their maritime origins as sailors or fishermen, after the 1880s, many Azoreans established themselves in inland California and became involved in cattle and dairy farming (Pap, 1992: 68), while those in New England settled in and indeed helped develop the coastal towns and cities, and were involved mainly in urban-based factory work or in fishing and maritime trade with the islands. In spite of movement and re-migration between these two main diasporic communities, region must therefore be seen as a defining factor in determining Portuguese American identity. Indeed, it is important to stress this aspect given the common tendency to generalise or stereotype identities rather than look for the determinants of specific experience. One example from recent literature might illustrate this. The Canadian writer of Portuguese origins, Erika de Vasconcelos, published her first novel, My Darling Dead Ones in 1997. Some Portuguese Canadian critics claimed that it did not reflect the experiences of the large mass of Portuguese immigrants in that country simply because of the social origins of the characters in the novel. If this was the case with Vasconcelos, it was also that of Frank X. Gaspar, the focus of this article, whose novel, Leaving Pico (1999) was, according to the author, criticised by Portuguese Californians for focusing on the relative poverty of an Azorean immigrant group in New England that did not seem to match their own experience (or perhaps expectations) on the Pacific coast. It may be because Portuguese-American authors are still relatively scarce, that when one appears, he or she is somehow assumed to be holding up a mirror to each component of an entire ethnic group. Inevitably, by viewing literature in this way, some readers, if not all, are going to be disappointed.
Gaspar was born and brought up in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, and although he now lives and works in California, his writing, by his own confession, is infused with the memory of the place in which he grew up, a town where, in its heyday at the turn of the century, the fishing industry lay almost solely in the hands of the Portuguese (Pap, 1992: 60), but which, by the time of Gaspar’s childhood in the 1950s, was increasingly becoming a tourist haven, while fishing was dying. In the following citation from an interview he gave to the literary magazine, Margin, the notion of place, memory and a particular (Portuguese) community are suggested as being central to his work:
That I grew up in Provincetown, deeply rooted in Portuguese culture, is something that is indelible. It’s as much a part of me as my gene pool. And the old town, which was far more Portuguese than it is now, is the landscape of my psyche. Everything I see, I see in terms of those formative years. About reality and truth, I am unreliable. About my experience of my small, small world, I can go on for quite some time. (Sellman: 7)
In another statement, this time referring specifically to his novel, he acknowledges, with qualification, the autobiographical nature of his work, and his attempt to recuperate a vanished time and community:
The book is not a memoir, nor is it sociology or history. I made it up. Having said that, it is a story of a specific time and place and it is based on how I grew up. Fictional though it is, the book, I believe, captures the deep heart of that vanished world. (Gaspar: 2)
[i] Donald Warrin (1983) suggests that the rapid linguistic assimilation of Portuguese migrants in California might have been due to their isolation and therefore loss of a cultural affinity with Portugal, especially at the beginning of the twentieth century. The situation was to change with more recent waves of immigration. The question of education, and attendance at seminary or secondary school back in the Azores, might also explain linguistic choice, along with the maintenance of cultural and intellectual links with the home country (226).