Letras & Letras


Women's literary contribution in the portuguese region of the Azores

In the recent past the Azores have experienced a literary and cultural boom. The Página GIacial, a now extinct literary supplement that was prominently included during the 60's and 70's in a daily newspaper in Angra do Heroismo (island of Terceira) was to give voice to a whole generation. of writers. This richness of the life of the mind in one of Europe's most isolated regions was initiated during the past century by such writers and poets as Antero de Quental, Roberto de Mesquita and Vitorino Nemésio. It is among the present generation that we propose to analyse what we believe to be the most prevailing traits of Azorean literature: the particular notion of time and space, which epitomizes a characteristic pattern of the Azorean experience given the peripheral Atlantic location of these Portuguese islands: This whole notion of existence vis-à-vis the rest of the world has been profoundly interiorized by language and style of Azorean women writers, and has been the acute sensation of their insularity. This has resulted in a new significant rhetorical mode of looking at island reality, and thus opening new avenues of thought and vision of these authors place in the world.

The Azores are perhaps one of the least known peripheral regions of Europe. Discovered around 1432, they were one of the first European settlements outside the continent. And the westernmost frontier of Portugal. Five hundred years of political and cultural isolation (even though the Azores were a major stopping point for navigation beginning with the Portuguese discoveries) were only recently broken by the Portuguese political revolution of 1974. Since then, although the islands continue in their somewhat "splendid isolation", they have now struggled for autonomous political institutions within the Portuguese Republic. This has been accompanied by a lively resurgence of cultural movements and debates on the history and identity (1) of the whole community including the hundreds of thousands of Azoreans and their descendents in the U.S. and Canada.

The archipelago has nine islands with a population of approximately two hundred and forty thousand, distributed unevenly among the islands. San Miguel, for example, the current center of both government and higher education institutions has a population of one hundred and thirty thousand, followed by Terceira with sixty thousand, and the smallest one. Corvo, located in the westernmost part of the archipelago has only three hundred inhabitants. However, as far as cultural life is concerned, most Azorean writing has always come, despite the uneven distribution of the population, from most of the islands. An extreme example of literature and isolation was the case of Roberto de Mesquita in the island of Flores (about seven thousand people) during the early part of this century. Without ever having left the island he would become one of the foremost symbolist poets of our national literature. Before him, at the end of the last century, Antero de Quental had become a prominent philosophical poet for whom island reality was a constant historical and cultural undercurrent. Gaspar Frutuoso, preceeding them all during the development of the early settlements of the islands. would leave us a major historical-literary narrative entitled Saudades da Terra (Longing for the Matherland), very much quoted then and today by historians and men of letters (2).

The best known literary name associated with the expression "Azorean literature" as a component of Portuguese literature is Vitorino Nemésio, a writer who came to national prominence in the 1940's with the now classic novel, Mau Tempo no Canal (3), translatec1 into French as Gros Temps dans l' Archipel. This is a fictional portrait of a microcosmic island world in which all Lhe economic, political, social and cultural forces of the earlier twentieth century play themselves out. Significantly, its protagonist is a woman, Margarida, who serves at the same time as a link between two social and economic forces – an aristocratic society against the rise of a new bourgeois or middle class – and a symbol of the human impulse for liberation. in her failure to both overcome her situation in that society and carry on her challenge to the oppressive forces, she nevertheless became one of the fictional paradigms for the unfolding patterns of future experience by real life women writers of the islands. Her new consciousness ambiguously represents a victory for the new society and the forces of life. Although she never achieved emancipation. her struggle itself would remain as a narrative of new ideoligical possibilities.

Nemésio, who died in the late 70's, would be recognized by the present literary generation as a major voice calling for a writing that would break the "splendid isolation" of the islands, thereby projecting them into the larger national culture, thus drawing a new map, so to speak. of a new literary geography.

In his short but seminal essay of 1932, written while he was A student at the university of Coimbra, he stated:

«As men, we are historically part of the people from which we came, and we are rooted to the habitat consisting of the lava mountains that spew forth, from their very depths, the substance which penetrates us. Geography for us is as powerful as history, and It is not accidental that a large portion of our writings are memories of volcanoes and the other catastrophes. Like the mermaids, we are of a double nature: we are of flesh and we are of rock. Our bones sink into the sea (4)».

If in 1932 Nemésio was calling for a greater awareness and militancy of our culture production within the context of the Portuguese nation, in 1985 Fernando Aires well summarizes most of the positions of his contemporaries in his published diary Era Uma Vez o Tempo [Once Upon a Time) by giving once again continuance to the idea that the Azores, in both geographical and cultural terms, were and are a very unique cultural space between Europe and the New World, a Portuguese frontier which implies a special relationship with the rest of the nation and the world:

«In this oceanic contingency of tension between contradictory and mutable forces, the islander becomes a spiritual synthesis of both the old and the new worlds. Alpha and omega in permanent ambiguity. His heaven and his ocean represent the continued mutability of darkness and heroism, of shadows and light. This is the survival of the ancient Portuguese world growing and diversifying itself by the force of winds that come from far away lands where other languages are spoken and where there are other ways of living. This is a united and dispersed community with broken fragments of a whole spreading themselves out in an ocean without frontiers. It is here that the human tragedy of being with the others while being profoundly alone is most dramatically felt and perceived (5).

Briefly, "Azorean literature" is just an expression signifying Portuguese literature coming out of the Azorean islands. Increasingly, Azorean writers are being read and recognized in the mainland. Martins Garcia, fiction writer, poet and essayist, together with João de Melo who in 1988 would be awarded the national prize of literature for his novel, Gente Feliz com Lágrimas (6) [Happy People with Tears), and Natália Correia, mostly known for her poetry, are at present the three best known examples. But other names are penetrating into literaly circles in our capital: Álamo Oliveira, Emanuel Félix, Vasco Pereira da Costa, Emanuel Jorge Botelho, Daniel de Sá, Cristovão de Aguiar, and, significantly, for our case here, Fátima Borges, who was recently mentioned in a major Portuguese weekly as one of the best women fiction writers of the 80's m Portugal.

Prof. George Monteiro of Brown University, a well known American academic critic who is interested in Portuguese literature due lo his ancestral roots, has written of the literature of the Azores as:

«a vibrant, meaningful, pleasingly sophisticated literature of recent make (and still in the making) emanating from a small. insular "corner" of a rather small European country (...). This contemporary Azorean literature, although definable sui generis is a full partner, in the realm of Portuguese literature, with any and all of the writing produced in continental Portugal (...). This contemporary Azorean literature, along with the other Portuguese literature it both separates itself from and, paradoxically, identifies itself with, is fullfledged partner with the vital global literatures of our time (7).»

Thus, in a dual gesture of Portuguese cultural dynamics, the Azorean writers have fought for recognition as a part of a larger national community. All indications point to a widening of literary and cultural horizons within our country as the writing of these islands becomes part of the national and now necessarily and increasingly flexible literary canon.

From Nemésio's ideological paradigm, Margarida Clark Dulmo – the fictional protagonist of Mau Tempo no Canal, to the present women writers we have a kind of symbiosis between a fictional character and real women writers, an attempt at emancipation from the enclosures of a traditional Latin European society. Most of our women today are still in a literary phase of "denunciation" rather than "affirmation". Within Azorean society, this feminine and feminist struggle is guided by radical impulses that come from their recently acquired consciousness of the outside world and its cultural mutations. Social isolation has been such a preponderant factor in our world view that only slowly have women writers dared to confront their situation. In most women writers of today, we find female characters simultaneously dispairing and fighting to break their social, economic, cultural and existential shakles. Fátima Borges, in her book of short stories, A Cor Ciclame e os Desertos (The Color of Cyclamen and the Deserts), has given us a portrait of a woman in turbulent isolation going from deep and total consciousness to a state of mental breakdown. Women's wishes here continue to be unfulfilled due, once more, to a besieged geographical space and to notions of island circular time as well as the knowledge that the global village really does not do away with oceans of separateness. Let us add that Fátima Borges is being used here as a writer that (in this and her only book to date) has managed to express most Azorean women's literary struggles in defining a new and liberated space and possibilities of a less circular or "concentrated" time. She writes in one of her short stories:

«I confuse everything: what i have been told with what I myself have experienced, but above all I confuse what I keep imagining has happened In order to fulfil the time that is left to me. I know that something is missing, but of which I have never been or will ever be exactly conscious. But this here is perhaps my place. Despite of it all, I continue to wait (...).

I depart in a quest for a place where I may feel at home and for a time which may belong to me, because only distance may be accounted for all this. Here [in Azores) is an adverb of time contrary to what so radically the makers of grammars affirm (8).

It seems as if in the idea of circular space and time only the inner state of the characters matters above all else. Once again, Fátima Borges brings forth these thematic impulses in the short story already mentioned : "time and space are one and the same controlled by the notion of distance" 9 – an image framework for the state of being which is at one and the same time specifically located but aware of a larger world beyond the oceans and the horizons. This awareness of the mutability of space, so to speak, has also much to do with another trope pervasively worked in Azorean prose and poetry: emigration. One is constantly waiting for something to happen and for new worlds to reveal themselves.

This existentialist condition, as far as women writers are concerned, has resulted in a literary style primarily characterized by acute inner feelings and consciousness, ail expressed in the brevity of their language and concentrated metaphoric writing. It is primarily, to sum it up, a confessional style of pleading and revolt, as we gather from one of Avelina da Silveira's poems, "The identity of a Bird":

In my hands
I carry a bird on fire
insecure of its human company
the bird flies away
in a heavy beating of wings
and far beyond the sunset
he searches (10)

In the most: significant writings of Azorean women the attempt at breaking the cycles of oppression has not yet resulted in any triumphant ending, for characters tend to remain questing for some new, ultimately satisfying way of life.

Such is the tone in which A Madona (The Madonna) of Natália Correia ends up its narrative:

And that is the reason why I am leaving to search for the pieces of my dear son and lover scattered about the whole face of the world. Until the heavens fall. (11)

In a historical process where art necessarily has to challenge such a closed suprastruture, the personal and the public persona are many a time indistinguishable. That is to say, although present Azorean women writers are within a Portuguese modern literary tradition, that in the early 70's produced with great fanfare The Three Marias: New Portuguese Letters (12), they are still finding their way to a new literary voice. Surprisingly, most of the fiction from our feminist writers such as Madalena Férin, Madalena Caixeiro, Natália Correia, Margarida Jácome Correia, Judite Jorge and Ângela Almeida is populated with characters that are halfway in their fight when they begin to disintegrate into a human mass of indecision and, many a time, as we have pointed out in the case of Fátima Borges, ending up in a mental condition of breakdown.

This is a recurrent narrative pattern that may well be more than a mere result of chance or a simple commonplace. Patterns of images which derive from this condition can also be exemplified by the following titles: O Número dos Vivos [The Number of the Survivors) by Madalena Férin; Os Novelos (Balls of Yarn) and Limites [Boundaries) by Madalena Caixeiro; A Madona (The Madonna) by Natália Correia; Os Amores da Cadela Pura [The Loves of the Pure-Bred Bitch) by Margarida Jácome Correia; the ironic title of Permanências [Permanencies) by Judite Jorge; and O Baile das Luas [Moon Dances) by Ângela Almeida, Azorean poetry also carries some suggestive titles such as: Mas o Silêncio Fica nos Lábios (But Silence Remains Within my Lips) and Num Risco de Pássaros [In a Scratch of Birds) by Avelina da Silveira; Rota Sibilina [Whistling Track) and Longe é... Aqui (Far Away Means Being Here) by Lúcia Costa Melo; Ainda não o Silêncio (Still not the Silence) by Judite Jorge.

The discourse these women writers use reveals at the same time pourer and limitations. The concern with the near and far away worlds is reflexive, there is an extraordinary meditation on the self, and an accentuated reve1aiion of memory, anxiety, regret, joy of life, as well as foresight. Just two examples:

«She slowly took off her clothes. One by one she let the pieces fall to the floor. It was one way of getting rid of superfluousness, of being left with herself face to face, with her own image (...).

I bowed my head, I was feeling condemned to endure a destiny which I hadn't hoped for, a body which i didn't want, a world which I feared.» (13)

Suddenly, the feeling of being in touch with myself again becomes an immense terror that will not let us rest or live as if a dark glove could cover up light and time. We unhook the telephone. We deny life. We are no longer afraid of the night, and we wish for it as if it were the morning light. (14)

Let us add Chat if one can trace an ideological thread in these women narratives, one must begin with the turn of the century iconoclast author Alice Moderno (15) (an Azorean Gertrude Stein or George Sand) who maintained correspondence with Tolstoy. Residing in the city of Ponta Delgada, San Miguel, one of the most closed social and cultural cities in the Azores, at the time, she agitated the local society on all fronts through her journalistic writings and in her multiple poses of a liberated woman. Much later, in the early 70's, also in the island of San Miguel, there came one of the most revolutionary and liberated narrative from Margarida Jácome Correia (16), the already mentioned The Loves of the Pure-Bred Bitch, which narrates her extramarital affairs and her generalized affront to her own aristocratic social class. Only a knowledge of such a closed society, as the one in Ponta Delgada, can appreciate the immediate and long term ideological effect of a narrative of this kind, even at such a late date. On the other hand, Natália Correia, who died in 1993, spent most of her life in the Portuguese mainland and was totally dedicated to a life in letters and politics. Known nationally for her poetry and essays, she is increasingly being looked at from an A,orean perspective as both a writer and a citizen. A literary production that at first seemed to ignore her regional roots is thus being claimed by the cultural movements of the islands. Together with the other writers mentioned here, she will no doubt become an ideological and artistic reference, a writer who combined a liberated stand with high literary standards.

In conclusion, women writers in the region of Azores are slowly becoming part of a literary tradition that begins with the discovery of the islands in the fifteenth century, but has until recently been dominated almost exclusively by men. In their attempts to find their own voice. they have had to redefine notions of island space and the nature of time within such a geographical reality. The fight against oppressive social and political structures. on the other hand, has led to writings in which women, through their poetry or fictional characters, attempt to challenge the main trappings of their society without yet having attained the freedom or the desired inner well being.


(1) This revival began with the "Semana de Estudos dos Açores – seminars that broached the whole question of regiinal history and identity within the context of the Portuguese nation. Vide vols. I, II and III. Each one correspondes to the three weeks of study which tank place in the cities of Ponta Delgada [San Miguel) in 1961. Angra do Heroísmo (Terceira) in 1963 and Horta (Faial) in 1964.

The following anthologies of Azorean poetry and fiction contain prefaces that also deal with the question of art and cultural identity: Pedro da Silveira, Antologia de Poesia Açoriana do Século XVII a 1975. (Lisboa. Livraria Sá da Costa, 1977); Ruy Galvão de Carvalho, Poetas dos Açores, Angra do Heroísmo. Direcção dos Assuntos Culturais, 1988; João de Melo, Antologia Panorâmica do Conto Açoriano. Séculos XIX e XX, (Lisboa, Vega, 1978).

Still on the same subject matter, vide: Vamberto Freitas, O Imaginário dos Escritores Açorianos, Lisboa, Salamandra, 1992; Onésimo T. Almeida, A Questão da Literatura Açoriana, (Angra do Heroísmo, Secretaria Regional da Educação e Cultura. 1983); Ibid., Açores. Açorianos. Açorianidade, Ponta Delgada, Signo, 1989; Martins Garcia, Para uma literatura Açoriana, (Ponta Delgada, Universidade dos Açores, 1987); Adelaide Batista, João de Melo e a Literaturn Açoriana. (Ponta Delgada. D. Quixote, 1993); Heraldo Gregório da Silva, Açorianidade nn Prosa de Vttorino Nemésio. Realidade, Poesia e Mito. (Lisboa, Imprensa Nacional, 1985).

(2) Gaspar Frutuoso graduated from the University of Salamandra in Arts and Theology. Back in the Azores, he wrote the six volumes of Saudades da Terra – all of them on the discoveries of the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores, to the exception of the fifth volume which contains one of the best accomplished pastoral novels of the time.

(3) This novel was first published in Lisbon, in 1944.

(4) This essay was originally published in Insulana, nº 7-8, Ponta Delgada (Julho-Agosto, l932), apud, Onésimo T. Almeida, A Questão da Literatura Açoriana (op. cit.), p. 34. Aside from being a writer, poet and essayist, Nemésio was also a journalist., historian, academic critic and biographer. He was awarded the Monta1gne Prize for literature. This translations as well as the following ones are of our responsibility.

(5) Fernando Aires, Era Uma Vez o Tempo, (Instituto Cultural de Ponta Delgada, 1988), vol. I, pp. 91-92.

(6) This novel was first published in 1988 by D. Quixote, in Lisbon. and has had successive editions since then. The recognized American academic critic, George Monteiro, writes (in World Literature Today, 12-13, Autumn. 1993), that Gente Feliz com Lágrimas is a "quick and lively portion of Bildungsroman and exile-emigrant apologia that, in the opinion of many readers, is one of the true glories of modern Portuguese fiction. This book, a writer's personal and family narrative, radiates that rare kind of necessity which reveals its truth not literary but as, verily, life lived. Its authenticity rings true, and for much the same reasons as do, say, D. H. Lawrence's autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers and Ernest Hemingway's masterful stories of In Our Time".

(7) George Monteiro in World Literature Today, 6-7, Spring, 1993.

(8) Maria de Fátima Borges, A Cor Ciclame e os Desertos, (Lisboa, Edições Cotovia, 1989), pp. 56 and 60.

(9) Ibid., Id., p. 61.

(10) Avelina da Silveira, Num Risco de Pássaros, (Angra do Heroísmo, Secretaria Regional da Educação e Cultura, 1986), p. 48. This book of poetry was awarded the literary prize "Prémio Revelação", in the Azores.

(11) Natália Correia, A Madona, 3th ed., (Lisboa, D. Quixote), 1986, p. 182.

(12) Maria Isabel Barreno; Maria Teresa Horta; Marta Velho da Costa, Novas Cartas Portuguesas, (Lisboa, Estúdios Cor, 1972). These letters and poems were translated into English by Donald E. Erickson, and published in 1975 by Doubleday & Company, New York.

(13) Madalena Férin, O Número dos Vivos, (Angra do Heroísmo, Instituto Açoriano de Cultura, (s.d.)), pp. 9 and 24.

(14) Ângela Ameida, O Baile das Luas, [Angra do Herorísmo, Secretaria Regional de Educação e Cultura, 1993), p. 23.

(15) A self-made woman, Alice Moderno was to become a teacher, a journalist, a writer and a director of a local newspaper. Born in Paris in 1868 from Portuguese and French parents, she arrived in the Azores when still a young child. At the age of eighteen, she started to published her poetry against her father's wish. and became the first girl to attend the local lyceum. By then she was recognized for her knowledge of Greek mythology, the Bible, Portuguese history, and. most of all, Russian history. She became later well known for her deeds regarding the protection of animals.

(16) Of this author we know very little. Although her book is hardly ever mentioned 1n academic or other writings, we feel that it is a strong narrative statement in both aesthetic and ideological terms, and therefore cannot be ignored.

Adelaide Batista and Vamberto Freitas, «Women's literary contribution in the portuguese region of the Azores», em Engendering Identities, Porto, Edições Universidade Fernando Pessoa, 1996. Direcção de Susan Pérez Castillo

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