Portuguese American Journal

The journey: Scott Edward Anderson at home away from home – Interview

With Carolina Matos

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Scott Edward Anderson is a Portuguese American poet with roots on São Miguel island, in the Azores, from where his great-grandparents emigrated to the United States in the early 20th century.

Although he grew up alienated from his Portuguese heritage, he yearned to connect with his ancestral roots. As a result, he embarked on a persistent sentimental quest which took him back to his ancestral island. The journey inspired him to write a series of autobiographical poetic accounts.

He visited the islands for the first time in 2018, when he participated in the Disquiet International Azores Residency on São Miguel Island. Since then, he became the author of Falling Up: A Memoir of Second Chances (2019), which recently received the 1st Literary Award of Letras Lavadas in conjunction with PEN Açores, and the Nautilus Award-winning Dwelling: an ecopoem (2018). He is also the author of Fallow Field: Poems (2013) and his poetry has also received the Nebraska Review Award.

Currently Anderson is working on a research-driven memoir about his Azorean Portuguese heritage titled The Others in Me: A Journey to Discover Ancestry, Identity, and Lost Heritage.

His most recent book, Azorean Suite/Suite Açoriana, is one long, epic bilingual poem which celebrates his quest for his reclaimed identity and pays tribute to many Azorean poets, emigrants, and those whose diasporic and ancestral ties bind them to the islands in passionate and tangible ways.

The poem is being released this week in book format, for the first time in its entirety, by Letras Lavadas, in the Azores, in its original English and in Portuguese translation by the author and Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto, with José Francisco Costa. 

On Friday, 6 November at 5PM EST, Letras Lavadas will host a Facebook Live book launch event featuring the author, along with Onésimo Almeida, Vamberto Freitas, and Katherine Vaz. To participate, please tune in using the link: https://fb.me/e/1ImG8x6pz

Scott Edward Anderson now lives in Brooklyn, New York, and hopes to divide his time between New York and the Azores. To learn more about him, go to www.scottedwardanderson.com and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @greenskeptic

 

Q. Where were you born and where are your Portuguese roots?

A. I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in the old Lying-in Hospital. Two of my maternal great-grandparents emigrated from the Azores Islands aboard separate emigrant ships in 1906. My roots are deep on the Azores, specifically on São Miguel Island, where I’ve traced my family tree back to some of the early settlers on the island, several who appear in Gaspar Frutuoso’s Saudades da Terra. A couple of branches of my family tree reach back to the Alentejo in south central and Viseu in north central Portugal, and there are Sephardic Jews, conversos, who also appear in that tree.

Q. Did you have any childhood memories of being of Portuguese heritage? Any connections with the Portuguese traditions and culture growing up?

A. Not really. I knew about it vaguely, of course, as a kind of shadow in the back of the room. We had some of the food: linguiça, massa sovada, and the like, but we never participated in the festas or did anything in the community. My grandfather, like many first-generation sons and daughters of immigrants in the first half of the 20th century, wanted to be American. He didn’t want to have anything to do with the past, only spoke Portuguese with his parents and never with his children, had an anglicized name, and married into an old British colonial family that had settled in Sandwich, Massachusetts, in 1637. He became a successful businessman, as well as two-term president of the Metacomet Country Club—of which he was one of, if not the first, Portuguese American members—and ran the Rhode Island Golf Association for 33 years.

Q. What happened in your life that inspired you to look into your Portuguese background?

A. When I was growing up, my Portuguese heritage was such a mystery—and my grandfather was kind of an enigma—that it always intrigued me. But my father, who was of Scotch-Irish background, constantly picked on me for “looking like a Portagee,” because I was dark-complexioned and favored my grandfather’s side of the family. He would make “Portagee” jokes, which were like Polish jokes, only told with a supposed Portuguese accent.

This dual assault on my heritage—denial by my grandfather and denigration by my father—caused me to be ashamed about this part of my background, even though people would always ask me if I was Italian or Latino. “Dark Scots,” I always answered. It took me a long time to get over this sense of shame. Really, it wasn’t until I was in my 20s, when I stumbled across a copy of Camões’s epic poem of the age of Discovery, The Lusiads, in a bookshop in Manhattan, and started reading it, did I begin to think this aspect of my heritage was actually rich and important, something of which I should be proud rather than ashamed. That book put me on a journey of discovery that has taken decades to realize.  

Q. When did you decide to explore your Azorean family legacy? 

A. It really began in 1993. I went to my grandfather to ask if he would share the family history with me—and I had a secret weapon: I had started to learn Portuguese, albeit Brazilian Portuguese, and I spoke to him in his “secret” language. He was a little taken aback, but also touched in a way that I thought he would comply with my request. This was a few months before he died; I didn’t know at the time that he was extremely sick! While he agreed to share the stories, he unfortunately died before he could do so. He took his stories—our family history—with him to the grave. It was a real loss. I tried doing research on my own, this was the mid-90s remember and the Internet tools weren’t available yet. I had precious few resources and no original source material. Later, it turned out that I even had the family name wrong: because my grandfather’s surname was Perry, I always assumed his Portuguese surname was Pereira. Not the case! In fact, the name was “Casquilho” or, more specifically, Rodrigues Casquilho. Pereira, it turned out, was his father’s mother’s maiden name—it was just easier to use here in the States!

So, over the years, I tried to piece things together, but I ran into so many brick walls and dead ends, and my own family and work life got in the way of pursuing it with any rigor, that I finally gave up. It wasn’t until my own father died, along with my grandfather’s sister Alice, who was the last repository of any of the family history, that I began to turn to my search again. By this time, 2016, there were new tools available, such as Ancestry.com, Newspapers, etc. on the Web, and other resources, including an Azorean Genealogy Group on Google, and the database of documents on the Azores, that I was finally able to piece together my family’s history on both sides of the Atlantic.

Q. What did you find there that impacted your sense of self?

A. The deeper I dug, the deeper I found my roots on the Azores to be, and, as I began to research the Azores and its people, the more I recognized certain aspects of my self—my true self—were embedded in the Azorean character. I began to realize why I felt so isolated and like an outsider all my life: I had these “others” in me that I had lost touch with, a hole that needed filling in my heart and soul. Still, I resisted it, not sure I had a right to claim it. After all, I was third generation, just one-quarter Azorean Portuguese. My grandfather had rejected his Azorean heritage and his parents had renounced their Portuguese citizenship. What right did I have to this rich heritage, as only a “mutt”?

That feeling began to change when I first visited the Azores in 2018, as part of the Azores Residency developed by Disquiet International, which aims to bring together Portuguese and Lusophone writers from around the world. When I got to the islands, I felt my roots begin to overtake me and the undertow of the surrounding sea to start to pull me under, as if my ancestors were beckoning me to return to my “rightful” place among them.

Q. Do you still have relatives in the Azores?

A. And, yes, I discovered I have cousins on the island—cousins I never knew about growing up. Part of the Casquilhos (and probably others I don’t know yet!) who stayed behind and continued the family’s connection to the islands, on São Miguel in particular. When I met my cousin Victor and his family, I was stunned by how “familiar” it felt—minha família açoriana.

Q. Now that you have reclaimed your lost Azorean heritage, what resonates with you most from your newfound identity?

A. To be honest, it concerned me at first that this sense of my own “Azoreanness” would overtake me. I had built up an identity throughout my life—realize I was in my 50s when I first went to the islands, that I was quite comfortable with and that had served me well throughout my life: basically, Anglo-American, Scottish, if I was anything (although, truth be told, my father turned out to be more Irish than Scottish, despite his assertions to the contrary!)—and even my name supported this identity.

But, as I said, despite this, I felt like an outsider for most of my life—and still suffered some trauma from the derogatory slurs and abusiveness of my father—and I never understood why until I began to uncover the stories of the way the Portuguese, and in particular the Azorean immigrants were treated in this country at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. (They weren’t alone; the Italians and Irish had also suffered similar treatment at first.) I began to understand my connection to that history and why my grandfather chose the path he did. He once said he felt being Portuguese would be a liability for him in life, so rejecting it was essential to his success. While my own success in life was tied to a similar Anglo-Americanness, I also always felt something was missing, something within me that was lost. I felt, to use the Portuguese word for it, saudades, for my lost heritage.

Q. How does this new self-awareness affect what you write?

A. When I first arrived on São Miguel, I felt an odd sense of coming “home,” like I belonged there, which was very scary at first. How could I possibly belong to this place my family had left over a hundred years before? But the more I let down my guard and allowed this feeling to grow naturally as it did, the deeper I felt it. And the writing community there and in the diaspora—everyone from Azorean literary giants like Vamberto Freitas and Onésimo Almeida to Azorean diasporic writers like Katherine Vaz and Oona Patrick—has been so incredibly welcoming and embracing that it is hard to resist the pull, the tidal surge, that keeps bringing me home to those rocky shores.

As a writer, I now feel part of a remarkable community and one to which I feel a responsibility to give back, to promote, to engage with in a meaningful, wholehearted way. For the past few years, I’ve been writing a memoir of the journey of discovery and “uncovery” of my lost heritage, which I hope will be published in the next few years. I hope it will help others—Azorean Americans or what have you—to begin their own journeys of discovery. Recently, I wrote a book-length poem—a kind of love poem to the Azores and a tribute to Azorean poets and writers—that has just been published by Letras Lavadas on São Miguel, Azorean Suite/Suite Açoreana, in a bilingual edition which I translated into Portuguese with the Angolan Azorean Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto. And I’ve just taken on the first English translation of the great Azorean poet Vitorino Nemésio’s Corsário das Ilhas, for Tagus Press. I’d say, this new Azorean self-awareness has pretty much taken-over my writing!

Q. In your journey to establishing yourself as a writer, when did you find the writer in you and what motivates you to writing?

A. I started writing at an early age—9 years old, actually—inspired and motivated by my “Aunt” Gladys Taylor, who helped raise me. I was her protégée of sorts. You’ll remember that book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten? Well, I often say that everything I know, I learned from Gladys Taylor. I wrote about her in a poem, “The Postlude, or How I Became a Poet,” which appears in my first book, Fallow Field. I really should write a book about her cultivation and education of me, perhaps I will. She took me under her wing and taught me about poetry, art, music, and nature—it was a fabulous education, really, for the first six or seven years or so of my life.

But I really got serious about writing in my teens, when I had two English teachers who encouraged me, Jack Langerak and Richard Taddeo; they nurtured my interest in writing and reading, turned me on to writers and books in a kind of personally curated series of interventions that predated Amazon’s recommendation algorithms by several decades. I’ve always been a voracious reader—an omnivorous reader—with an intense curiosity and wide range of interests. Their encouragement was critical to keeping me curious—they never discouraged, only encouraged.

I write to try to understand what I’m thinking and feeling. Questions surface from my curiosity and it’s my nature to try to explore, delve into, and sometimes obsess over things until I get to the bottom of it. Of course, those “answers” reveal new questions and keep me going onto new things. It’s really a combination of an intense curiosity, and a need to understand what it is I’m thinking, to paraphrase one of my other teachers, Gary Snyder.

Q. Your writing draws from a broad range of styles and sources. What inspires and influences you the most?

A. Again, I think it’s this intense curiosity about things and learning new things and a slightly—okay, maybe not so slightly—obsessive nature. If something captures my attention, I can focus on it for hours, uninterrupted and completely focused. There are times when I’m writing or researching something and suddenly, when I look at the clock, I see that four or five hours have gone by and I won’t have realized it. And some subjects obsess me for decades!

As for what inspires me: the natural world and being in nature has always inspired me, from way back in those days with Gladys Taylor, poking around in what was then farm- and parkland in East Providence, or up in Vermont, where we vacationed at the house she shared with her companion (also named Gladys), Ga Morrill. So, that’s primary, nature. I need to be out in nature as much as possible. Yet, I am also inspired by human connection and interaction, especially with other curious people, and of course, my family and friends. My wife and I have a blended family of six kids, and they inspire me all the time, to be a better husband, father, and stepfather and to share my writing with them, to share my worldview and my curiosity, hoping to inspire them or spark their own curiosity.

Q. In your book Dwelling you converse with nature, ecology and sustainability, the thought that belonging and dwelling on Earth is intrinsic to your very existence and will outlive yourself. Would you like to comment?

A. As I mentioned, being out in nature inspires me most, but also understanding how nature works and our place in it as a species. I worked for many years in conservation, primarily with the Nature Conservancy, but also in several consulting roles, and that work took me all over the world discovering places, landscapes and seascapes that were new to me, and put me in close contact with scientists who were developing deep knowledge about how species interacted, their habitats, and the importance of biodiversity. I grew up during the time of emerging environmental awareness, in the late sixties and early seventies, and I remember the first Earth Day and the important environmental protection measures put in place in the mid-70s.

So, I guess that, and my early exposure to how the natural world worked gleaned from Gladys’s program of “nature study,” has kept me a concerned—and sometimes alarmed—citizen of the human species. The environmental degradation we’ve faced—and the single greatest issue our species will face this century, climate change, caused me to ask questions about how we live on the Earth and how we fit in nature, and my way of exploring that—of learning what I thought about it—is through writing.

Q. About your literary affinities, is there a particular writer that affects you and that you admire?

A. Oh, there are many, I suppose, but the writers I return to most are probably Michael Ondaatje, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gary Snyder. That’s a great foursome, if I’m honest. Yet, I remain a curious and omnivorous reader, so I am always looking for new writing and finding new work to admire from writers ranging from my contemporaries, like poets Ross Gay, Camille Dungy, and Erin Belieu, to those of the next generation, like poets Camonghne Felix, Aria Aber, and Natalie Eilbert.

And, of course, of late, as I’ve been plugging into the Azorean literary community, I’ve been reading widely across the islands’s literature and history, which is exposing me to an entirely new vein of remarkable writers I’ve only just begun to mine.

Q. Your most recent book Azorean Suite is one long epic poem where your voice speaks of a journey to find lost and never found memories and saudades that never were. How did you navigate that map of emotions while connecting all the dots?

A. This book grew out of a larger project—a memoir of the journey to uncover my ancestral roots on the Azores and continental Portugal I’m calling The Others in Me, from a phrase by Fernando Pessoa. I was hitting a wall in my writing of that book and needed to loosen up a bit more. So, I turned to poetry. The poem just flowed—and I wrote “in the moment” whenever I felt moved to do so and about whatever was at hand or on my mind. Much of that was my emotional struggle between what was lost and what I was finding out about myself as much as about the Azores and my roots there. Mind you, this is the culmination of a decades long search and extensive research that finally helped me make sense of those roots and their connection to my identity—who I was, where I came from, and who I am becoming as a result of this new knowledge.

Q. In the meantime, you have reached out to the Portuguese community of writers in the United States, in the Azores, and in the mainland Portugal? What did you learn?

A. This has been a remarkable aspect of this journey—the community of writers that have welcomed me as a lost son or brother. In 2018, I attended Disquiet International’s Azores Residency. The director, Brendan Bowles, organized a lunch for me and Michael Spring, the only other Azorean American poet in residence that summer, to meet with Vamberto Freitas, who is probably the foremost literary critic from the Azores and a strong proponent of an expansive view of Azorean literature. He later read from our work in a talk at the library in Ponta Delgada and has become not only a champion of our work, but a dear friend and mentor. The novelist João Pedro Porto, whom I also met during that residency, has become a good friend as well and we try to get together whenever I’m back.

On this side of the Atlantic, Onésimo Teotónio Almeida, has also been a champion—indeed, he’s really been like a godfather to me and to this poem, publishing the opening section in Gávea-Brown Journal, helping me find a co-translator, and encouraging me in my various writing and translation projects. And Katherine Vaz, the novelist and short-story writer, has also been helpful to me and is a dear friend; we actually met back in the 90s, when I was trying to learn about my roots in the wake of the death of my grandfather, and we reconnected over the past few years.

Q. Now that you gained an insight into that community of creators, what do you believe can be done to better foster exchanges between these disconnected groups in both sides of the Atlantic?

A. I’m hopeful that I can help build further bridges on both sides of the Atlantic and help raise awareness about the work of writers, musicians, and artists from the Azores. I’m rather zealous about the talent there and am becoming a bit of a cheerleader. A big issue with the literature is there’s precious little translation of poetry and fiction from the Azores, other than a few out-of-print anthologies. Although Tagus Press is beginning to bring out more Azorean classics that should be available to a broader readership. Another Azorean writer friend is Diniz Borges, who is a tireless champion bringing attention to writers from the Azores and the diaspora through various projects, including the Portuguese Beyond Borders Institute at Fresno State in California. Oona Patrick’s recent anthology is another example of trying to bring more diverse Lusophone writing to a North American audience. (She’s also a fine Azorean American writer in her own right…)

Q. What projects are you working in at the moment?

A. I’ve recently finished a draft of The Others in Me: A Journey to Discover Ancestry, Identity, and Lost Heritage, which tells the story of tracing my roots on the islands back to the original settlement days and through the emigration of my great-grandparents. I also discovered a deep Sephardic strain in my family tree that confirmed some of the things I felt and long suspected about my ancestral background—so much loss and saudades: being forced to abandon their religious identity and practices; leaving the continent for remote, uninhabited islands in the middle of the Atlantic; emigrating from that island some 450 years later, leaving behind family and never to return; and giving up their citizenship and identity to assimilate into a new country. I think about the trauma that must have imprinted on my DNA!

And I’m translating the great Azorean poet Vitorino Nemésio’s 1956 travelogue, Corsário das Ilhas, [Corsair of the Islands], for Tagus Press as part their Bellis Azorica series. I’ve also translated some of Nemésio’s poems and am planning to start on some of Pedro da Silveira’s poetry as well.

Q. Besides writing, do you have a day job?

A. I worked for many years in conservation, social entrepreneurship, and clean energy, most recently developing and launching a smart metering managed service for Ernst & Young’s global power and utilities group for emerging markets around the globe.

I left EY in the summer of 2017 and continued to do some consulting for conservation groups and cleantech companies. I wrote about this transition in my short memoir, Falling Up, which came out last year.

Over the past year or so, I transitioned to writing full-time as my projects expanded and as a home-based commercial and television location management business took off (this was obviously before Covid-19).

Your readers will have seen our Brooklyn house in commercials for Quicken Loans and others, as well as in several skits on Saturday Night Live!

 


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Carolina Matos is the founder and editor of the Portuguese Portuguese American Journal online. From 1985 to 1995, she was the editor–in-chief for The Portuguese American Journal  in print;  from 1995 to 2010, she was a consultant for Lisbon based Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD).  She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts and a Master’s Degree in English and Education from Brown University and holds a Doctorate in Education from Lesley University. She was an adjunct professor at Lesley University where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses. In 2004, Carolina Matos was honored with the Comenda da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique presented by Jorge Sampaio, President of Portugal.