Portuguese American Journal

Rogério Puga: His work on Macau and his wide literary interests – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

♦ Not only is Rogério Miguel Puga known for his seminal book, Chronology of Portuguese Literature: 1128-2000, (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK, 2011), the first comprehensive index of Portuguese literature presenting a list of the literature of the oldest European country, but he is also known to me as the person who told me about one of the most beautiful places in all of Lisbon.

Last summer, his lecture on the epic poem, The Lusiads,  by Camões, was a perfect groundwork for my time in Portugal as well as an unexpected surprise. Based upon Puga’s recommendation, I walked from the New University of Lisbon to the Gulbenkian Museum, and around the first corner of the main gallery. What did I see?  A painting entitled “The Island of Love,” which not only references Venus, but, also The Lusiads, where Camões introduces the Island of Love as an allegory. During my time in Lisbon, I returned twice more to this lovely treasure of a museum, with its magical gardens, bamboo shoots, brilliant multicoloured umbrellas and unique art.

Puga holds a PhD in Anglo-Portuguese Studies from the New University of Lisbon and his academic appointments include work at the Institute of Education and Sciences, at the University of Macau, and at the Lisbon based Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies (CETAPS). His multi-faceted career combines writing with teaching and research. Currently, he serves as an editor for the European Journal of Macau Studies (Portugal), and Romance Studies (United Kingdom).

Covering a wide variety of subjects and interests, Puga’s publications also include The Portuguese Historical Novel; A World of Euphemism: Representations of Macau in the Work of Austin Coates; City of Broken Promises as Historical Novel and Female Bildungsroman; The English Presence and Anglo-Portuguese Relations in Macau (1635-1794).

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Rogério Miguel Puga speaks of his extensive research work and his admiration for Luiz de Camões (1524-1580), Portugal’s national poet whose life is celebrated every year on the 10th of June.

Professor Rogério Miguel Puga

Q: I met you in Lisbon last summer where you gave a talk at New University of Lisbon about Camões. Can you share your interest in Camões ? What fascinates you?

A: Yes, we met during the “Disquiet Lisbon Literary Festival.” Camões is one of the world’s greatest poets. He fused old and new ideas and topics and incorporated the exotic news into his epic and lyrical poems. The encounter with the “Other,” the command of the Portuguese language, and the idea(l) of serving the country with the mighty ‘pen’ (feather) along with the mighty sword. His representations of human and godly desires, strengths and weaknesses, are timeless and universal.

Q: Could you quote a line or two that attracts you in particular to Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads).

A: The expression “E se mais mundo houvera lá chegara “(VII, xiv) [And if more world existed we would have gone there] summarizes the message of The Lusiads, the courageous task of the Portuguese who ventured through unknown seas and “brought” news about new lands and peoples back to the old continent.

Q:  You have majored in Portuguese and English studies, and did your Master’s degree and PhD at the New University of Lisbon, in Anglo-Portuguese Studies. Could you describe your research interests?  

A:  I do research both in Literature and in History. I have always liked the fusion and the similarities of History and Literature. Maybe that is why one of my biggest research interests is the historical novel.

Q: How did such original work evolve?

A:  It has evolved from the study of the relations between Literature and History and the cultural and literary relations between Portugal and the Anglophone countries (UK, USA). I also have done research on the British and American presences in Macau, the first Western gateway into China, where the Portuguese established themselves around 1557 and stayed until 1999. European and American traders were involved in the Old China Trade and their female relatives resided in Macau. So there are plenty of 19th century American diaries (especially by women) who are interesting sources of historical information for the study of Macau’s everyday life at the time.

Q: The Chronology of Portuguese Literature: 1128-2000. What was your purpose in compiling this comprehensive index? What did you hope to accomplish?

A: I realized that there wasn’t a chronology of Portuguese Literature published in any language, so I sent an e-mail to a British academic publisher asking if they would consider receiving a formal proposal on such a reference work. They answered immediately, accepting the project which took me six years to complete. I had completely given up publishing it. But my students at the University of Macau convinced me to publish it as it would be a valuable reference work for them due to the many dates indicated for the publication of Portuguese literary works on the internet. Besides, Portugal is Europe’s oldest country and it did not have a published chronology of its literature.

Q: After compiling this vast index of Portuguese literature, what do you think are the major themes, styles, topics of Portuguese literature?

A: The same themes as in other literature with specificities, like the national landscape, language, ethos and habits, “saudade“, the sea, the exotic beauties unveiled by the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries (the Discoveries), to name a few.

Q: Who are your favourite Portuguese writers? 

A: There are so many, just to name a few: José Saramago, Lobo Antunes, Teolinda Gersão, João Paulo Oliveira e Costa, and António José Peixoto.

Q: Who are your favourite current Portuguese-American writers? 

A: Anthony de Sá, (Canadian, I know), Millicent Accardi, Katherine Vaz, Frank Gaspar and Nancy V. Couto, among others.

Q: Are there any other writers in particular who you favour and return to again and again, and why?

A: Camões, Eça de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa, Saramago, of course. Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Conrad, Kerouac, Yourcenar, Duras, Virginia Woolf… they are so many and they are all favourites. Great writers have that effect on me. They all become favourites. So, it’s hard to name them all, really.

Q: Are there any Luso-American writers (originating from Macau) whose work you follow?

A: I study diaries from nineteenth-century female American ladies who resided in Macau, because they accompanied their husbands who were traders. But that is all. That’s pretty much it. I do not know of any Luso-American writers from Macau.

Q: Could you tell us more about your work and research in Macau?

A: Because of my research on Anglo-Portuguese Studies, I decided to study the British and North-American presences in Macau, to fill that void in the historiographical writing on the enclave. I started by analyzing the English East India Company records, and then moved on to diaries written by North-American ladies who resided in this Luso-Chinese city in the first half of the nineteenth-century. The Anglophone community was economically powerful and greatly enriched the cultural life of the city. The Protestant Cemetery of Macu is still one of the most interesting historical sites of that territory. Studying Anglo-Portuguese relation in the Portuguese empire is fascinating. I have also been studying the representation of the Macau in British and American literatures as an historical place, depicted in a realistic manner, with its Mediterranean atmosphere and exotic population(s and iits Portuguese churches and fortresses and Chinese temples. As someone has said, Macau is a cultural Janus, looking East and West simultaneously. Presently, it has just surpassed Las Vegas as the world’s “gambling place.”

Q: How does your teaching inform your research? How both complement each other and take away from each other?

A: Teaching at the New University of Lisbon allows me to identify the interests of students, while research allows me to study those topics and to contribute to the advancing of knowledge in my research areas. While teaching and lecturing we share our findings with the academic community and the general the public, and that is what we research.

Q: Do you have a particular lesson you have taught which went over very well in the classroom that you would like to share?

A:  When I recently taught a lesson on East-West relations at the University of Macau, I talked about the introduction of fire arms and the tempura by the Portuguese in Japan. Regarding China, I talked about the Chinese Pidgin English, a trade language developed after the British arrived in Canton in 1700, which adopted Portuguese words that had been used in Macau-Canton since the 1500’s. Expressions such as “No can do” and “Long time no see” came from the Macau-Canto circuit, as well as the word “savvy,” which was originally a Portuguese word from the verb “saber” [to know]. The Portuguese in Macau would ask their Chinese servants something and the answer would be “Eu no sabee”, and the expression later “migrated” into the Chinese Pidgin English as “Me no savyy!” . It entered the English language in Macau and Canton. I was also invited by the Hong Kong-Macau Fulbright Program to lecture to American researchers and scholarship-holders in China, and I shared these “curiosities,” which American students and researchers enjoyed. So, I was invited the following year again, before I moved back to Portugal.

Q: In your work and teaching, do you often find ties between poetry and art? Ekphrastic poems based on paintings, such as in the work of Nuno Júdice and his poem about Susanna and the Elders?

A: Funny that you ask me that. I presented a paper on the diary of Lady Lowther (née Ane Blight, in Philadelphia, but married to a British diplomat), written in Portugal in 1936 and published in the UK in 1939 as a travel narrative. The diarist compares the landscapes of Sintra and Buçaco (Portugal) to the idealized landscapes painted by Claude Lorrain, Poussin and even W. Turner. So she used the ekphrasis to describe and convey the ecological Portuguese landscape in an artistic way, giving place to the inter-arts dialogue.

Q: Why do you think so few Portuguese writers are translated into English?

A: I believe it has (not only but a lot) to do with lack of financial means.

Q: As a researcher, what is your first priority?

A: Innovate. Do relevant research for the general population as well as for the academic world and contribute for the internationalization of my research and the institution I work for.

Q: What academic or creative projects are you working on now?

A: I have just started writing an historical novel. I guess, writing historical fiction is a kind of escape from all the scientific writing and from the restraints of the scientific methodology. It’s like a personal “revenge”. I  don’t have to be accurate, I can say whatever I want, what I think might have happened, and mix reality (my findings as a researcher) and fiction (creations of my imagination). At the Centre for English, Translation and Anglo-Portuguese Studies (New University of Lisbon), where I do my research, I am also creating a thematic database about the representation of Portugal by twentieth century British travel writers. I am also studying Anglophone Macau, editing the European Journal of Macau Studies, editing (as the Portuguese subject editor) and the Journal of Romance Studies (UK), along with teaching and publishing the findings of my research.

Q: Could you provide us with a few details about your historical work in progress?

A: The title of my third book published in Portuguese, which will be published next year in English by the Royal Asiatic Society (London) and the Hong Kong University Press , is Gateway into China: British Presence and Anglo-Portuguese Relations in Macau (1635-1793).

Q: What are you reading presently?

A: I am rereading José Saramago’s As Pequenas Memórias, for pleasure; Teolinda Gersão’s A Cidade de Ulisses, for work; and British travel writings on 20th century Portugal, along with three or four academic essays.

Q: What types of books does the general population read more in Portugal?

A: Like anywhere else in the world, I would say mainly short stories and novels. The historical novel is a popular genre.

Q:  I applied for a fellowship in Japan, to study the folklore of the original Portuguese travellers who journeyed and stayed in Japan. There are so many things the Portuguese brought to Japan, including playing cards and making tempura. Were there any stories about the Portuguese in Japan that you learned about or studied when you were in Japan?

 A: I read two works by Wenceslau de Morais (a writer from Lisbon) on Japan while visiting there, which was a great way to textualize the natural, historical and human landscapes I was observing.

Q: John Garner’s Mickleson’s Ghosts comes to mind in particular when crossing or mixing genres like philosophy/history with the novel.  Were you inspired by any historical novels in particular?

A: I was, Austin Coates’ historical novel on 18th-century Macau, City of Broken Promises, the first novel in English that has Macau as its main place of action.

Q: Where were you born and raised? How do you think your upbringing shaped or formed your interests in researching history?

A: I was born and raised in the Santarém region, in the Ribatejo province in Portugal, and I believe that my early fascination for ancient Egypt and “lost cultures” led me to read on historical matters, which would later lead me to research on the Portuguese Discoveries. I remember asking my friend’s grandmothers about legends and “ancient histories” involving Moors, enchanted young ladies and buried arks filled with gold coins.

"The Island of Love" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1700. Oil on canvas, 71x90 cm. Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.

Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity (World Nouveau), Woman on a Shaky Bridge (Finishing Line Press chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon Press, Ireland). She has received literary fellowships from Canto Mundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, and California Arts Council. Last fall, she was a visiting poet at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie.

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