Unwriting American History: Frank X. Gaspar's Leaving Pico

    By David Brookshaw

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)


Leaving Pico is Gaspar's novel of childhood, picking up certain of the themes and characters evoked in his first collection of poems, The Holyoke (1988). It is set over a summer in Provincetown, some time in the 1950s, among the Portuguese community in which the author grew up. The novel focuses on the experiences of Josie, a young boy, and in particular, the relationship with his grandfather, John Joseph, who represents a last link with the vanishing world of the Azorean fishing community. It is through the tales that John Joseph tells him that Josie becomes aware of the importance of tradition, and learns to contribute to the stories himself, eventually becoming the guardian of that tradition and, in the process, gaining a greater awareness of the world. The novel is built up upon a series of contrasts. The first is the animosity and mistrust between the two representative blocks of the Portuguese community: the 'Picos', who are Azorean immigrants or their descendants, a sub-class of Portuguese who are associated with the fishing industry, and the 'Lisbons', who have arrived in the region more recently from mainland Portugal. Tension between the two is synthesised by the relationship between Josie's Great Aunt Theophila and denizen of the Azorean community, and their snooty neighbour, Madaleine Sylvia, who looks down on the Azoreans, regarding them as unruly. Rivalry between 'Lisbons' and 'Picos' dominates the operation of the local community organisation, and even extends to the annual blessing of the fishing fleet. It is therefore hardly surprising that hostility between these two groups makes the romance between Josie's mother, a first-generation American of 'Pico' background and Carmine, the young 'Lisbon' who arrives in town from Montijo via New Bedford, hard for the family to accept and eventually results in the couple leaving town. Yet the animosity between 'Picos' and 'Lisbons' echoes more ancient rivalries evoked in John Joseph's tale of their ancestor, Joaquim Carvalho, the Azorean who had supposedly reached Cape Cod before Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic, and of course long before the first English colonists made landfall. Carvalho's epic journey of discovery had been cast into historical oblivion for the sake of geopolitical expediency on the part of Lisbon in the interests of its relationship with Spain and the Papacy in the wake of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). The second binary acting as an influence on Josie is that of the Church versus nonconformism, on the one hand, represented by the parish priest, Father Santos, and his Great Aunt Theophila, and on the other by his grandfather, John Joseph and the art of storytelling. It is not that Theophila's world is one devoid of stories. Indeed, her superstitious, rural Catholicism, is characterised by inventiveness, which means that her alliance with the priest is essentially one of social convenience, designed to preserve traditional authority within a household exposed to 'foreign' pressures . But essentially, the influence of religious teaching upon Josie is oppressive and authoritarian, its plot predetermined, admitting of no possible re-interpretation or democratic involvement on the part of those subjected to it. This is clearly illustrated in Father Santos's testing of Josie on the martyrdom of the saints, which he is supposed to learn unquestioningly by heart. By contrast, John Joseph's tale of the family ancestor invites Josie's intervention. It is based on nothing more than hearsay, a few ancient maps, and intertextual elements from boyhood adventure stories such as Treasure Island. It is open to the creative imagination, which is why Josie joins in its narration and suggests his own plot lines. Above all, it is not intended to reaffirm a commonly imposed certainty, but rather to resolve an enigma: who was Joaquim Carvalho, how did he get to America, and what happened to him when he got there? Between them, John Joseph and his grandson gradually work out a hypothesis. The third set of contrasts is suggested in the struggle and rivalry between conservative and liberal forces that sway this tiny community. It is expressed, of course, in the mutual incompatibility and latent hostility existing between Great Aunt Theophila and John Joseph, but it is also present elsewhere, most patently in the relationship between the resident community and the summer visitors, whose behaviour is slowly having an effect on the town. There are the female holiday visitors with whom John Joseph gets involved and are responsible for his leaving home, and the suggested gay couple, Lew and Roger, who lodge with Josie’s family and are strangely tolerated by this intensely traditional society. Significantly, one of these is a historian, who aids and abets John Joseph and Josie in their attempts to re-interpret history, thus suggesting a meeting of minds between the bohemian world of New York and the social pariahs of Provincetown. But perhaps the most blatant example of the community being eroded in its traditional Catholic values from within, lies in the relationship between Josie's single mother and the 'Lisbon', Carmine. Josie's mother has already transgressed the rigid norms set by Theophila, by having a child out of wedlock, but her pariah status is reaffirmed when she takes up with Carmine and then runs away with him to Florida, enthralled by his more modern dreams of making a living rather than in the traditional occupation of fishing. While the affair runs its course and she eventually returns to Provincetown without him, there is a sense at the end of the novel, that society has evolved and that Aunt Theophila's authority is no longer what it was. Indeed, she ultimately fades into the background, authority and the power of decision passed on to the next generation – that of Josie's mother. The gradual transformation of 1950s Provincetown from a declining fishing town into a tourist haven, and the competing values of tradition and modernity, are underpinned by the flux in Josie's relationship with his mother, grandfather, and his mother's suitor, Carmine, who represents a force for change and is therefore considered by some a threat to the integrity of the community, appealing as he does to the rebellious streak in Josie's mother, as a first generation American. Josie's mother and Carmine aspire to change: she wants to work at the Bluefish Inn, tangible symbol of Provincetown's new tourist economy, while Carmine has ambitions to open a seafood restaurant. Josie himself is torn between the new, potentially attractive world of modern urban America, and his attachment to his grandfather and love of the sea – in other words, between the past, with all its uncertainties and the future, with all its promises of material progress and assimilation into mainstream American life. The tension within Josie is illustrated most poignantly in the scene where a speedboat, driven by well-heeled summer visitors cuts across the bow of John Joseph's dory. Their display of brashness and arrogance is a sign of his difference, and for a moment Josie resents his grandfather as the sudden appearance of a symbol of modernity makes him ashamed of his own family's lack of status: Suddenly I was filled with hatred. It wasn't for them. It was for my grandfather and the pathetic little dory he sailed in. (81) Yet ultimately, it is Josie who looks after the dory when John Joseph disappears while out at sea and presumed drowned. In the end, he realizes that a narrative of the past, even with no hard truth to it, is important. After all, in the story, Joaquim Carvalho's was a stolen identity, and when he arrived in America, he died. But Josie's re-insertion into an ancestral myth through his grandfather's grooming of him to take over as guardian of the family's past, gives him his sense of identity and pride in being an Azorean American. In this sense, as a second generation American, he has regained what his parents had lost, which was their identification with a poetic truth: I thought about how John Joseph had fastened his whole life to the sinuous truths of his stories, and how he believed such truths would save us. And as I gazed around the yard, I knew that someday that's how I would look on all this, on Sheika and my Great Aunt Theophila and Johnny Squash and all the rest of us gathered here. And then it was not so much of a reach to see that this might be just the sort of peculiar and omen-filled night in which a certain captain bearing our last name could have left his safe harbor on Pico, the green jewel of the Azores, and sailed obscurely, but with great ambition, to this strange New World. (211)

John Joseph and Josie's story is the single most symbolic element in the novel. Clearly, the grandfather's obsession with the myth of origin and his identification with the ancestor who supposedly discovered Cape Cod for the Portuguese, is something that predates the summer over which the novel takes place. But what happens at this time is that Josie becomes involved in the story, and ultimately its outcome, as his grandfather tries to take the boy's mind off the turbulent relationships at home (in particular the spat between his mother and Great Aunt Theophila), while also grooming him to take over the role as guardian of the myth, by identifying Josie with his real or invented ancestor. The act of storytelling is therefore designed to occupy Josie's mind by taking him on a journey, which is improvised as they go along. Indeed, when they discuss the story, they do so as if they were negotiating a path through physical space ("... we'll lose our way with this. This won't get us to the rest of the story. If I can't show what happened to him, then we lose him" - 159). More than anything, John Joseph's role in the novel is to win his grandson over in the struggle between what Jackson alludes to as "the social and the extrasocial". According to this anthropologist, "any social system tends towards stasis, entropy, and death, unless its field of bound energy (...) is periodically reinvigorated by the 'wild energies' and fecund powers that are associated with extrasocial space and deep subjectivity" (Jackson, 2002: 29). Storytelling, according to Jackson, is an expression of this wild energy, and stories themselves are like journeys in their capacity to ally physical with emotional movement (30), away from the blind acceptance of authority towards independence (31). The journey which Josie is taken on is a journey of self-knowledge, which is why his grandfather has to make it as relevant as he possibly can to his grandson's experience, by meshing a hypothetical past with a more known present. Thus, the Carvalho of John Joseph's story, like Josie, is an orphan. The Flemish landowner on the island of Pico who takes him in is called Van Horten, the same name as the proprietor of the Bluefish Inn. The suggestion that Carvalho was in fact the son of Van Horten and a servant woman, hints at the possibility that Josie, whose father is unknown, might well be the son of the owner of the inn, which in turn might also explain why Josie's mother wants to work there. Like Josie, the ancestor is swayed between the influence of the Church and his attraction to the sea and his eventual encounter with the various mariners under whom he gains experience of navigation.

John Joseph's tale also contains what might otherwise be termed a postmodern re-reading of history, in which the accepted, monolithic truth of establishment history is countered by another type of fiction representing other alternative truths that have either never been acknowledged or have been discarded. Western European historiography, for example, accords Christopher Columbus with the unassailable truth of having 'discovered' America in 1492. The same historical convention emphasises the role of Vasco da Gama in completing the first direct maritime voyage between Western Europe and India in 1498. Historians have, however, speculated on the possibility that the Portuguese, operating out of the Azores, which had been discovered and settled ever since the 1420s, visited North America before 1492[ii]. What Gaspar does, therefore, is to foreground that tradition. In this sense, Gaspar (or his storytellers), can be seen as "unwriting the nation", to use Rosemary Marangoly George's term., by making the Azorean Portuguese the true 'discoverers' of New England, several years before Columbus made landfall in Cuba (thinking that he had reached the outer islands of Asia), before Cabot reached Newfoundland, and long before the Pilgrim Fathers began English colonisation in the New World [iii]. But the adventures of Joaquim Carvalho also deconstruct Portuguese history. Both Vasco da Gama and Columbus play cameo roles in the story woven by John Joseph and Josie, the former portrayed as a petty tyrant and exploiter of his crew and officers, very different from the noble figure of courage and discretion paid homage to in Portugal's national epic. But perhaps most importantly, the rivalry between 'Picos' and 'Lisbons' dates from that very period, for it becomes apparent that the potential Azorean explorations of the North American continent and the secrets they hold, are betrayed to Columbus and the Spanish by the Church and the Portuguese Crown in the interests of Rome's religious sanction of the Iberian discoveries and Iberian geo-politics: Portugal agrees to give Spain a free hand in the west in return for Spain's acceptance of Portuguese discoveries down the African coast and round the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. The lesson of history is one which John Joseph imparts to his grandson: Joaquim Carvalho was betrayed by precisely that force, the Church, which is adversely ruling Josie, his own mother, and even Great Aunt Theophila. Fittingly, it is Josie himself who works out the climax of his ancestor's tale, for by that time John Joseph has been lost: Carvalho is tracked across the Atlantic by those who are in the pay of Lisbon, led by the priest who, in a final skirmish, kills him to ensure that neither he nor anyone else will return to Europe with news of a Portuguese discovery in a hemisphere that has been ceded to Spain.

It is entirely appropriate that Josie should complete the ancestral tale, for it seems to prove the growing awareness that he appears to have achieved. Leaving Pico is, after all, his bildungsroman. Under his grandfather's guidance, he has learnt about the past and the notion of roots, but he has also gained an insight into the origins of ancient rivalries and resentments that, in a different set of circumstances, have re-emerged in the modern Portuguese community in Gaspar's corner of New England. But if he has learnt about roots, he has also become aware of change, and above all, of those structures, such as the Church that, in the name of preserving core values, stand in the way of change and freedom of choice. Like many novels of apprenticeship, then, Leaving Pico connects with the past but looks to the future.


[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).

[ii] Debate has centered on whether João Vaz Corte-Real and Álvaro Martins Homem explored the coastline north of Florida in 1474. There has also been speculation that Fernão Dulmo may have reached New England in 1486. All these navigators were based in Terceira (Peres, 1983: 169-1777, 258-261).

[iii] Warrin cites a similar case of a re-writing of history through literature, namely an epic poem by Guilherme Glória (1863-1943), celebrating the 'discovery' of California by the sixteenth-century Portuguese mariner, João Rodrigues Cabrilho. Cabrilho is an epic poem, in which the reality of the modern Portuguese immigrant community in California is evoked (Warrin, 1983: 228).




David Brookshaw was born in London. He is Professor of Luso-Brazilian Studies at Bristol University, UK, with a specialist interest in postcolonial literatures in Portuguese, comparative literature, literature and migration, and literary translation. He is the author, among others, of Race and Color in Brazilian Literature (1986), Paradise Betrayed: Brazilian Literature of the Indian (1989), Perceptions of China in Modern Portuguese Literature (2002), and co-author of The Postcolonial Literature of Lusophone Africa (1995). He has translated a number of books by Mia Couto, including most recently, Sleepwalking Land (2006), and River of Time(2008). He has also compiled an anthology of stories by the Portuguese writer, José Rodrigues Miguéis, who lived for many years in New York City (The Polyhedric Mirror: Tales of American Life), as well as translating stories of immigrant life in North America by the Portuguese/Azorean/New England writer, Onésimo Almeida (Tales from the Tenth Island), both of which were published in 2006.


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