Anthony de Sa triggers nostalgia for familiar territory.
It’s nearly impossible to imagine Toronto’s west end, especially along Dundas and the Brockton and Bloordale areas, without its Portuguese bakeries, markets and houseware shops. In the mid-1950s, migrants fleeing the regime of António de Salazar began settling in Toronto, and Brazilian and Angolese have since added to Canada’s largest concentration of Portuguese-speaking migrants.
Yet how familiar are we with Portuguese literature? I knew very little until attending the Disquiet Literary program this July in Lisbon, where along with other Puritan staff I spent two weeks immersed in workshops, readings and lectures. One of the final events, the Luso-American writers reading, was co-hosted by the Neither Here Nor There Conference, Universidade Nova and Universidade de Lisboa. Hosted by Onésimo Almeida, and chaired by Disquiet founder Jeff Parker, it featured Katherine Vaz, Frank Gaspar, and the only Canadian writer invited to read at either Disquiet or Neither Here Nor There, Anthony de Sa.
After a few weeks abroad, it was strangely comforting to hear Anthony de Sa and the flat vowels of his Toronto accent. The author of Barnacle Love read an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Kicking the Sky. The novel is set near Bathurst and Dundas, in Toronto’s Little Portugal, and revolves around the abduction and death of 11-year-old Emanuel Jaques in 1977, an event that shocked the Portuguese community. Thousands protested by City Hall, expressing a sense of betrayal and demanding a clean-up of Yonge street. During that time, de Sa remembers seeing his front door locked for the first time.
The events are told through 12-year-old Antonio’s perspective, allowing us to see how a child might view a child’s murder. de Sa conveys a young boy’s sense of immunity: “we didn’t think it could happen to us.” In his reading, we were given a clear picture of Antonio’s life: sheltered and yet susceptible to stigmatization, hardship and loss.
The older generations of the time longed for home, but when they did return, they found Portugal too sorrowful. By contrast, Antonio’s hip Kensington Market-hanging, gym-going Uncle, named Aunt Edeet, mesmerizes him. Aunt Edeet doesn’t speak to his nephew like a child, and explains that what will now unravel in Toronto is a “blame game,” with community members, police heads and politicians looking for someone to hold accountable for the boy’s death. It’s also Aunt Edeet who expresses what none of his parents do: “it could have been you instead of Emanuel.”
Kicking the Sky is a porthole into a singular community, one that’s an inextricable part of Toronto’s character. Many of de Sa’s generation were brought up with the Catholic admonitions of their grandmothers, and as a result did not lose their ties to the mother tongue, as many Luso-Americans did. With such a large population of Portuguese-speaking business owners, it was possible for many of the older people to not learn English at all. Yet that isolation was also a detriment, with one result being that it is rare for a Portuguese writer to enter mainstream North American publishing.
At the same reading, the Luso-American Katherine Vaz read from an ongoing work of historical fiction, Below the Salt, about a young man affected by the U.S. Civil War. Her lyrical prose was dense with detail and grounded in colour. Vaz has stressed the importance of evoking the “feel of the place on your skin,” and spent half a year in Jacksonville to research, amongst other things, the dead cicadas falling out of the trees.
Katherine Vaz, author of Below the Salt.
Critics point to her debut novel, Saudade, published in 1994, as the first Luso-American novel to receive substantial attention from the American literary world. A native of California, she has since published another novel and two short story collections, and the emigrant experiences she portrays are rendered with ritual and mysticism. Yet this new work takes a step away from the more magical, or miraculous, realism of her previous work.
The influence of Philip Levine and Robert Hass, along with the great Fernando Pessoa, was evident in Frank X. Gaspar’s poems. Having grown up in the Portuguese west end of Provincetown, Massachusettes, Gaspar’s work showed both the influence of the late sixties American poets as well as the Portuguese romantics. Gaspar read from what he called his “black notebook” poems, and his long lines built up wry yet tender scenes of grace and failure.
The authors’ contrasting experience of growing up in the Portuguese diaspora revealed a richness of approaches and genres that have been crowding at the edges of North American cities for decades. It’s time we paid a visit.