News from L(USA)landia: Onesimo's Azorean Stories

Article excerpt

Only this:

Closed sky, hovering heron. Open sea.

A distant boat's hungering prow

eyeing forever those bountiful Californias.

--Pedro da Silveira, "Island" (89)(1)

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To the geographer, the Azorean archipelago, in the North Atlantic, consists of nine islands, stretching from Sao Miguel to Corvo, its western-most point, and including Santa Maria, Terceira, Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Flores, and Graciosa. But the Azorean has postulated a "tenth island," one which, the great Portuguese writer Vitorino Nemesio, defined as "the utopian isle of Felicity."(2) Onesimo Teotonio Almeida (henceforth referred to simply as Onesimo, the single-name personality he is to his friends and readers) gives the Azorean's utopia a habitation. Adapting his fellow writer's hint that the tenth island (sometimes identified as the lost Atlantis) was to be found somewhere in the Azores, he moves its location westward in emulation of those Azoreans whose search for "the utopian isle of Felicity" took them to California and Hawaii, and assigns it a spatial geography of scattered enclaves and sometimes widely dispersed settlements. He also names it--L(USA)landia, which embeds their new country's initials within the word "Lusa" evoking Os Lusiadas, Camoes's epic poem on the history of the Portuguese people whom the Romans called the Lusus.

It is a small part of the continuing history of the diaspora of the Portuguese, specifically that of the "tenth-island Azorean" who, in America, discovers not the utopia held in the mind's eye but the more worldly, mundane, and distopic L(USA)landia, that Onesimo tells in the twenty narratives that make up his 1983 collection (Sapa)teia Americana (The American Snare).(3) "(Sapa)teia Americana (The American Snare) can be seen as the song of that day-in-day-out encounter with the not-so-utopian reality that faces the Azorean immigrant in America," writes the author.(4) Examining Azorean life on this realized tenth island, Onesimo's book builds on the poetic legacy of Nemesio and all those other Azorean writers who have helped create the notion of such an elusive utopia still unknown to the cartographer. Absent from the maps as well is the L(USA)landia Onesimo recognized and gave a face to in the stories he tells in The American Snare.(5) Individually, these stories represent single, sometimes singular, moments of the Azorean's American geist. In the aggregate, they represent the substance of the "island" (comprised of many land-locked "islands") of L(USA)landia. The Azorean who left his home island--Sao Miguel, Terceira, Faial or Pico, say--an emigrant is taken into the United States as an immigrant. Utopian dreams give way to distopic realities in a world the transplanted Azorean must become a part of even as he can never entirely mentally or spiritually leave the island of his birth. Ambivalence has become his state of mind.

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The closing line of the concluding story in The American Snare reads: "Ah! Do you know Adriano? Do you? He's..." The same questions might be asked about Adriano's creator. Who is the Onesimo whose stories bring news of those transplanted islanders whose experiences help to flesh out a network of Azorean inhabited isle-like points and spots spread out on the map to the far reaches of continental North America and beyond? He is a university teacher, practicing philosopher, intellectual and cultural historian, ethnographer, social critic, journalist, playwright, fiction writer, television personality. He is all of these, but it is only as the author of The American Snare, a remarkable collection of stories, that he figures in the following paragraphs; and even then the teller is subordinated to the cumulative narrative his stories tell us. Writing uncommonly well from the complex yet not uncommon vantage point of the self-exiled immigrant (by virtue of birth and upbringing as well as by conscious choice renewed daily) who breathes freely in the most capacious of human worlds by virtue of profession, temperament, and just plain largeness of outlook, he is blessed with a writer's ability to be both an insider and an outsider. …