Portuguese American Journal

Connecting: Writing the Luso Experience at DISQUIET – Lisbon, PT

By Oona Patrick, Contributor (*)

The Dzanc Books/CNC DISQUIET International Literary Program, a summer program that began in 2011, finished its second two-week adventure in Lisbon, Portugal, on July 13. The program brings 60 North American and international writers to the city for workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The program and its local sponsors also host events in which participants can meet well known writers, editors, translators, and experts on Portuguese literature. Portuguese guests have included José Luis Peixoto, Patrícia Reis, Jacinto Lucas Pires, Gonçalo M. Tavares, and António Lobo Antunes (in 2011).

DISQUIET also features a multi-genre workshop called “Writing the Luso Experience” created for writers from North America who have a genealogical link to Portugal or another Lusophone country. Last year the workshop provided support and community for emerging writers, many of whom had met few, if any other Luso-American writers before. More than one participant in the 2011 program called the experience “life-changing.”

The significance of the Luso-American aspects of DISQUIET had become quite apparent by the start of the 2012 program. The Portuguese-American academic Luis Gonçalves told me in June of this year that he now sees “two eras in Portuguese-American writing: Before Disquiet and After Disquiet.” During the program orientation on July 1, I tried to summarize why this program has become so important to emerging Luso-American writers. As the program’s Luso-American Liaison, and also as a participant in the 2011 workshop, I described how DISQUIET had become something larger in our lives than a two-week seminar, and how part of its unique strength is that it includes us within a larger literary community that is already interested in Portugal.

With 14 participants plus workshop leader Frank X. Gaspar and myself, the 2011 “Writing the Luso Experience” workshop is thought to have been among the largest gatherings of Luso-American writers ever. Four writers were fully funded by scholarships from the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD), and a fifth received a special Canadian-Portuguese scholarship from the Instituto Camões. One of the most memorable moments occurred on the first day of workshop, when we went around introducing ourselves, and nearly every participant shared a story about beginning to write and thinking that they were the only Luso-American writer, or at least the only writer in their community. There was a sense of excitement at discovering the many experiences we had in common, and of relief that our isolation seemed to be coming to an end.


Finding the Way Back to the Luso Roots

This year another full workshop met. It happened to consist entirely of women, three of them full scholarship winners funded by FLAD. Additional Luso-American participants took part in other DISQUIET workshops as well, bringing the total number of Luso-Americans to have gone through the program to 30. Once again we opened with discussions of finding our way back to our Luso roots, experiences of being misunderstood in the U.S., and how to get attention for Luso writing in the future. There were poets, fiction writers, and memoirists of all ages represented. They hailed from Boston, California, Canada, Cape Cod, Colorado, Florida, New Bedford, and New York. One had even returned for a second year.

The DISQUIET workshops meet in the headquarters of the program’s Portuguese partner, the Centro Nacional de Cultura, which has a history as a gathering place of subversive writers and intellectuals, many of whom had a hand in the Portuguese Revolution in 1974. Every few minutes, Lisbon’s famous tram number 28 squeals by in the street below, causing a pause in the conversation, a pause during which, we were told, the revolutionaries used to conspire in whispers to each other, without fear of being overheard.

Oona Patrick and Luso-American Disquiet participant Shana L. Silva of New Bedford at the Mãe d’Água closing reception on July 13, 2011.

In these rooms in 2011, in the breaks between workshopping pieces, Gaspar inspired the first workshop to start a literary movement for Luso-American writers, to be called Presence/Presença (after the influential 20th-century Portuguese literary journal). That group continued after DISQUIET ended, and told this new group of writers about some of its activities, although many had already become aware of them through our online discussion group. The Presence/Presença group on Facebook, begun after the 2011 DISQUIET, grew into something unexpected. I had imagined that we might find 40 or 50 additional people to join us when I first created the group page, but we have since recruited 130 members. Many new members have told the now familiar story: they had felt alone until finding us, or had never met another Luso-American writer, or had never before felt comfortable identifying as a Luso-American writer, even if they were first generation.

I’ve read that the current generation of Luso-Americans is the most highly educated ever. It seems natural that this would result in this rising tide of emerging writers, many of them the first generation in their families to attend college (this is something else that a number of us at DISQUIET have had in common). Quite a few have attended MFA programs or plan to, and are looking for more of the supportive and positive environments that many MFA programs are providing for creative people. It’s important to note that most of these programs work hard to create a welcoming space for women, racial minorities, and gay people—people who may often feel that they are on the margins.


Connecting Through Common Memories

The first reading in the DISQUIET program that was directly related to Luso-American writing was Frank X. Gaspar’s poetry reading at the New University of Lisbon on July 3. One of the prose poems that he read from his book Late Rapturous, which had just been published, begins in the town where we both grew up:

“I was sitting up on the graves in Provincetown, my back against the old Gaspar stone, and I could feel my grandfather angry and restless and hating to be dead. He wanted to laugh and walk along the wharves and streets and be greeted and hailed and loved, and drink cheap wine again. I should have brought that other stone with me, the black lava rock from Pico Azores that I plucked from the beach outside of what is maybe the little village that all the old ones harbored from, how I could push it into the sandy earth and cover it over and something at last would be done. One day I will bear it here.”

The urge he describes here is to bring a family’s story full circle, to retrieve something from the place of origin and literally bury it in order to repair a breach or quiet a ghost. This impulse seems to be behind much of the Luso-American writing of those whose families lost touch with Portugal or avoided passing on memories of it.

The following day, DISQUIET and FLAD held a dinner in celebration of the work of Brown University Professor Onésimo Almeida at Café no Chiado, which is on the street level of the CNC’s building. Almeida told a moving story of coming to the bookstore that once filled this space, as it was one of the few places in which books banned by the dictatorship’s censors could be secretly procured. FLAD also hosted a celebration of the relaunch of Alfred Lewis’ (1902–77) Home Is an Island by Tagus Press on July 5, featuring UMass Dartmouth Professor and Tagus Press founder Frank Sousa, as well as the Portuguese writer and TV personality Rui Zink.

This republication of the first novel by a Portuguese-American immigrant to be published by a major New York publisher has been a long time coming. When I first heard about Lewis some years ago, I had to visit the rare books room of a university library to read the book in their reading room, and I felt the injustice of its obscurity. Home Is an Island gives us the perspective of a boy growing up on Flores Island in the Azores, which is not so unusual now, but it appeared at a time when there were few such voices to be found in English about the Azores. It’s important that Lewis be available for this new generation of Luso-American writers and readers. It’s both empowering to be able to point to a successful Luso-American writer who published with Random House in 1951, and it’s good to know our true history: that none of us are really the first, and we have a tradition to both follow and attempt to transcend.

Another event with some relevance to Luso-Americans who write about views of Portugal and the Portuguese in North America (and the history of discrimination) was the Roundtable on Foreign Travel Writing on Lisbon, which featured several distinguished scholars from the New University of Lisbon. The panel raised the question of why so many Anglo and Anglo-American writers had written such disparaging lines about Portugal, to the point where these attitudes became an undercurrent in some traditional Anglo views of the country.

The Luso-American participants took part in all the other events of the DISQUIET program, bonding with Lusophiles and those who were completely new to Portuguese culture alike. The program’s nonliterary events included a visit to Portuguese artist Paula Rego’s museum, Casa das Histórias, as well as a film screening, and a fado excursion. The film director Bruno Almeida screened his Art of Amália documentary, and this was followed by an evening trip to fado houses frequented by locals. This led to two unexpected encounters: a very small boy playing bits of a fado on a guitar on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with his father later went inside and played a set to an obviously adoring crowd. He turned out to be the great-nephew of the fadista Amália Rodrigues. Another man talking outside the restaurant with Almeida and other friends of the program turned out to be the famous contemporary fado singer Camané.

Multiple events helped participants increase their understanding of the great poet Fernando Pessoa, including an intricately planned walking tour led by Philip Graham, the author of The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon; a workshop called “The Fernando Pessoa Game” led by poet Terri Witek; and a talk placing Pessoa in the context of other 20th-century Portuguese poets by the translator Richard Zenith, who last year treated us to a presentation of photographs and previously unpublished materials from his upcoming biography of Pessoa.

One of the biggest events toward the end of the two weeks was the reading and discussion with the writer Gonçalo M. Tavares in a beautiful room at FLAD that opens out onto a garden. While Tavares’ talk, enhanced by simultaneous translation, did not touch on Luso-American issues directly, what he spoke about was relevant for all of us as writers. He reminded us of the realities of the writing life that we were all about to return to: that it requires long periods of “silence, solitude, and immobility.”

On the last day of the Luso-American workshop, Gaspar repeated his exhortation from 2011 to do “three things differently” in our writing lives. I said a few words about Presence/Presença projects and our future in general. I repeated what is often said: that despite the important successes of writers such as Alfred Lewis, Frank X. Gaspar, Katherine Vaz, and others, Luso-Americans are still awaiting our Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, the powerhouse writer whose success will break us out into the mainstream.

As the scholar Reinaldo Silva puts it:  

Portuguese-American literature is evidently beyond an embryonic stage. It is ethnic literature in its own right. My contention is that a truly ethnic literature emerges when second or third-generation American-born voices attempt to retrieve their ancestors’ roots so as to learn more about where they came from. Such is the case with Gaspar. The great Portuguese-American ethnic novel, however, is yet to be written.”


Seeking More Visibility  

Presence/Presença, true to its name, is insisting on more visibility in the meantime. The first group reading of Luso-American writers ever at the AWP writer’s conference (an annual conference now attended by as many as 10,000 people) took place this March in Chicago, organized by DISQUIET 2011 alum Millicent Accardi. This was followed by more readings in Portuguese communities, including a multilingual event in Montreal in June coordinated by fellow alum Richard Simas, and a reading featuring José Luis Peixoto and Portuguese-American writers in Ironbound in Newark, which was organized by Professor Luis Gonçalves and also took place in June. More are planned, including one at the Cape Cod Cultural Center on August 30 featuring Frank X. Gaspar and organized by poet and active Presence/Presença member José Gouveia, and in several other locations in the fall and spring. The new links forged between previously isolated community organizers on both coasts and in Canada are part of why these events are happening in such rapid succession.

There are also related projects ongoing in Portugal. Pen Pal in Translation, for example, is a project coordinated by Rui Azevedo and others at the University of Lisbon’s Centre for English Studies, another DISQUIET partner. It has led to university students translating into Portuguese the work of a number of emerging Luso-American writers, many of whom have attended DISQUIET.

In all, what the DISQUIET program has done, besides providing the first Luso-American workshop, giving us a place to create a community of creative people (many of whom would be marginalized in traditional environments), and connecting far-flung community leaders, is to give us a larger world of English-language readers, writers, reviewers, and publishers with whom to collaborate. DISQUIET has become an escape hatch out of isolation, insularity, and obscurity.


(*) Oona Patrick is a native of Provincetown, Massachusetts, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She earned degrees from Brown University and the Bennington Writing Seminars and writes about her family’s history in Portuguese Provincetown and the Azores Islands. Her lyric essays, prose poems, and interviews have appeared in Paragraph, Gulf Coast, Provincetown Arts, Gávea-BrownSalamander, the UMass Writing Program’s Text-Wrestling Book, Imaginários Luso-Americanos e Açorianos: do outro lado do espelho, and elsewhere, and she is a nonfiction editor for Post Road Magazine. Her writing has received Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. After traveling to the Azores and the Alentejo for residencies, she became the Luso-American Liaison for the Dzanc Books/CNC DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal. She also started the online group for Presence/Presença, a new community for North American writers of the Portuguese diaspora founded at the first DISQUIET in 2011.


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