“Saudade: More than longing. More than yearning.” So are the words of Katherine Vaz, one of the contributors to the recently released book, Luso-American Literature: Writing by Portuguese-Speaking Authors in North America (Rutgers Press). The comprehensive anthology of Portuguese, Brazilian and Cape Verdean literature is in itself an attempt to voice and explain the indefinable sentiment of “saudade” that is so particular to the Portuguese language.
The anthology focuses on the authors’ experience (both famous and obscure) living abroad in the United States. Though the writers come from various countries, they have a common longing for the Portuguese language. Robert Henry Moser and Antonio Luciano de Andrade Tosta, the editors of the book, write in their highly engaging introduction that language is above all what ties the Luso-American community together, however undefined and scattered it may be.
Several of the writers in the collection play with and question the very notion of language: is it language that shapes us? In Monteiro Lobato’s fictional memoir, “America,” we witness a discussion on language between an American, Mr. Slang, and a Brazilian, the narrator. The Brazilian is baffled by the American obsession with excess, expressed in the invention of the unit “million.” Mr. Slang mocks the unit of Brazilian money – “real” – for it is in fact “unreal, imponderable.” The Brazilian doesn’t care about measures, unlike the American who “must have unprecedented measures.” So the text continues along this line, where disagreements arise out of differences in diction. However, as the two try to defend their respective ways of life, they both conclude that in the end “it’s just tradition.” The language we use to think and explain ourselves has been inherited, and sometimes it simply loses any logic.
In being thrown into a new language, these writers are faced with defining themselves within a new culture. Some of the writers never identify with Americans, accepting their estrangement and sometimes jokingly pointing out cultural differences. Other writers don’t address their displacement but insinuate “saudade” as they fixate on highly sensory and culturally specific memories.
But does one necessarily acquire a new identity when one moves to a new country? And if so, is it a gain or a loss? Many writers insinuate that it is both, and that a change in one’s self comes with adaptation. The riveting poet, Jorge de Sena, describes in his poem, Notions About Linguistics, how the body adapts to a new nationality as the mouth and tongue is forced to learn new rhythms. The Portuguese poet Thomas J. Braga, though he writes in English, at times, he cannot completely let go of Portuguese. He holds on to certain words or phrases as his poems run through memories in sensory lists, as if he were desperately searching for the source from which he came from.
Some writers try to emerge into the American culture by changing their names (Carlo Pedro becomes Charles Peters) or by embracing the American dream. In the informative historical sections of Luso-American Literature, they explain that the Portuguese came to the States in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to expand their horizons and to search for economic opportunity. Later, Brazilians escaped the dictatorship and the Cape Verdeans came on whaling ships as they searched for a better lifestyle.
Luso-American Literature is a pleasure to read not only for its diverse and intelligent selection of literature but also for its educational component. The book wishes to inform, perhaps primarily an America audience, of the Luso-American community that has lived and created in America over two centuries.
Though the Cape Verdean literature section was not as strongly represented as the Brazilian and Portuguese, it ended the book on a powerful note with The Old Sailor by Kurt José Ayau. A Cape Verdean man tells the story of how he lives a double life – one in Cape Verde and one in America. The chance to have two families and two ways of living, now that is the dream. But the sea is his true home – the mother, the place that does not lie anywhere in particular. Sometimes it is liberating to be in a place that you do not belong to or do not need to belong to: a place that mediates between spaces of belonging.
Click here to see a discussion on the book on Manhattan Connection