Writing the Luso-American Experience: Paula Neves

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    paula neves

    “The Portuguese have always had a spirit of going somewhere else, for better or worse, and I love that.” This bittersweet notion is a small insight into the complex Luso-American identity of Paula Neves.

    A first generation writer/poet born in Newark to young immigrant parents from Bairrada, a region in Portugal famed for its leitão and wine, she insists that it is this spirit of navigation that allows her to recall her “enchanted” childhood in the Ironbound through a sensory stream-of-consciousness: ”the window fans on summer evenings exhaling the fragrances of carapau or porgies frying, the rhythm of my grandmother’s gossiping with other senhoras in the Parque dos Mosquitos, the clink of my grandfather’s malhas as they hit the target, my father carrying grapes down to his adega in our Newark basement.”

    These astounding images not only resound with other Luso-American writers, but accurately portray the life of many Portuguese immigrants and their American children in late-20th century Ironbound. Although Neves wasn’t encouraged to explore outside her cultural orbit, her migrant spirit led her to spend skipped-school days at a bookstore in the World Trade Center, where she discovered writers like Emily Dickinson who inspired Neves to “rock someone’s world with words the way she did mine”.

    Although quite immersed in Portuguese literature and cultural arts now, Neves was a latecomer to them. Even though she grew up surrounded by what she deems “Portugualidade”—Viriato, Camoes, Pedro and Inês, Dona Leonor, Pessoa, Fátima, Eusébio, Amália — these were “threaded into a folklore that was handed down to [her]”. These icons weren’t presented to her as “high culture” but general influences on ordinary Portuguese and Luso-Americans. “My grandparents and parents didn’t have time to listen to fado. They might have known who Camões, Pessoa, and Saramago were, but they didn’t read them. And of course there was also a sort of disparagement and suspicion of ‘artists’ and ‘intellectuals’ that I believe was the legacy of the poverty they grew up with and attitudes transmitted by the Salazar regime — and just by the hardships they experienced as immigrants building a life in a culture that in some ways is the total opposite of theirs.”

    Neves essentially credits her Luso-American identity — and her mother — as the reasons she writes. In a sort of metonym, she calls Portuguese her “mother tongue”, although she writes in English. Neves recalls a moment of her adolescence where her mother helped her find this mother tongue in an essay for Portuguese school. “The essay was about all the attributes of spring. My mother gave me the ending line: ‘Eu nasci na primavera!’ Well, turns out were we both born in spring. I realized then how much my mother had sacrificed in her life… and how she was speaking through me, and always would. I don’t think she realized, however, that she was the first to open the door to writing for me.”

    Nonetheless, it wasn’t until Neves went to college that she became exposed to Portuguese high culture. Neves double majored in English and Portuguese on a whim, and her interest and involvement in the Luso arts movement flourished through her participation in the Disquiet Literary Program in Lisbon and the Kale Soup for the Soul series. These programs/series deepened her appreciation for Pessoa, the Three Marias, Saramago, and more established contemporary Luso-American writers like Katherine Vaz and Frank Gaspar. Neves received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Newark, where she teaches English composition. She also teaches creative writing at other institutions. She has received scholarships from the Luso-American Development Foundation, the Disquiet Literary Program, and West Chester Poetry Conference.

    Neves’ first published piece was a poem about her grandmother growing a parreira around her Newark fire escape called “My Grandmother’s Fire Escape”. Although she still writes pieces on domestic topics, the subjects themselves have changed or deepened — “from tongue in cheek observations about an immigrant lady growing backyard grapes to, more recently, pieces about a disappearing immigrant working class experience, to meditations on my mother’s recent death from cancer.”

    With work featured/forthcoming in Pilgrimage Magazine, Gávea-Brown Journal, Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora: An Anthology, and Quiddity, this 2014 Canto Mundo fellow sees herself contributing to the literary canon in the sense of adding another voice to the Luso-American experience. “It is a voice, like others’, that is no longer shy about sharing that experience, and begins a conversation. The thing about the Portuguese is that they are quiet. They work at something for years and hope that they’ll be noticed and appreciated.”

    Neves believes that many Portuguese-American writers inherited this attitude of writing or making art, thinking they are the only ones. Here is where she insists the “American” part of the Luso-American literary movement comes in, as the work can only contribute if it’s strong and visible. “If you build it — the work, the community — they will come. If I write it, and it’s good, and others’ work is good, people will eventually find value in it.”

    For more on Neves’ writing, visit her blog at paulaneves.net.