Poetry with Professora Elizabeth: Mar Português

With the end of Portuguese school in sight and a class full of students with a decent grasp on how to work with regular verbs in the present tense, I decided to take a break from this spring’s conjugation gauntlet and instead expose them to Portuguese as it’s seen in the wild. No more textbooks; it’s time for real Portuguese words written by real Portuguese people for real Portuguese people.

Today’s the last day of Portuguese school for the year. Check out my class’s first foray in Portuguese poetry, A Cozinha da Avô. In honor of Fernando Pessoa’s birthday, today I’m sharing our class’s journey to understanding “Mar Português.”

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Fernando Pessoa statue in the Jardim das Poetas. Oeiras, Portugal. Fernando Pessoa stencil in the Bairro Alto. Lisbon, Portugal.

My editorial calendar is a garbage fire because I have some seriously insurmountable post-nationals writer’s block. I want to write one thing but I should be writing something else.

Good thing I have my literary boyfriend Fernando Pessoa around to set me straight.

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I’ll be back to playing by the rules of the game next week.

Fridays with Fernando: Mar Português

Fernando Pessoa statue in the Jardim das Poetas. Oeiras, Portugal. Fernando Pessoa stencil in the Bairro Alto. Lisbon, Portugal.

My blog’s tagline is “Things I know and love include: Portugal, quidditch, books & brews, and my life in San Jose.” But even though Portugal is first in that sentence, I write about quidditch way more.

As much as I’ve invested a lot of myself into the sport, that’s not all who I am or all I want to be known for. That’s is why I’ve been trying to diversify my writing lately. While I may not have written as much Portuguese content, my culture is a big part of who I am. If you’re reading this, I’m probably your token Portuguese friend. You know, the person who comes to mind when you come across anything Portuguese related.

If you’ve heard me talk about anything Portuguese for any length of time, I’ll eventually start gushing about my literary boyfriend: Fernando Pessoa. I’ve written about his work from time to time but I wanted to make a regular feature out of it. So, Fridays with Fernando was born.

I’ll save a tl;dr post about his life and work for another week. For today, I want to give you a taste of why this man’s words are always on my lips.

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Happy World Poetry Day, everyone! Here’s one of my favorites: As Ilhas Afortunadas by Fernando Pessoa.

And here’s a quick translation (with some creative liberties on my part) for my non-Lusophone readers out there:

What voice comes in the sound of the waves,
That is not the voice of the sea?
It is the voice of someone speaking to us,
But if we listen to it, it goes quiet
Because it was overheard.

And only if, half asleep
We listen without knowing how to hear,
She whispers hope to us
At which, like a child,
We smiling at in our sleep.

They are the fortunate islands,
The lands without a place,
Where the Lost King lives, waiting.
But if we wake up,
The voice goes silent, and there is only the sea.

52 in 52: Nineteen Eighty-Four

First, Some Excuses

Yep, I’m definitely behind on this. One of these days I’m either going to stop overcommitting myself (unlikely), learn to set more realistic goals (somewhat less unlikely), or just accept that I may not meet every goal I set (most likely).

This actually started out as an experiment I started back in January when I still had an hour and a half commute to and from my internship. I was messing around on my phone instead of reading like I had planned to do, so I told myself, “Maybe reading on your phone will work!” I have iBooks and Kindle on my iPhone and iPad, the two biggest culprits behind my lack of reading time, so it seemed like a good idea.

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52 in 52: Wolf Hall

I’m a big fan of historical fiction set in the Tudor period. Phillipa Gregory and Jean Plaidy? I devoured their series set during the period like the delicious empty literary calories they are. I don’t just limit myself to books, either. The Tudors? I came for Jonathan Rhys Meyers (historically inaccurate in appearance but damn if he didn’t nail Henry VIII’s personality), stayed for Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn before she reigned as Margery Tyrell, and then made it through the rest of the series because I am a completionist.

I’m not just Tudor humblebragging here. I’m presenting my credentials. Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is an amazing read—if you’re already deeply invested in this era. Otherwise, prepare to feel completely bewildered. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The thing that makes Henry VIII’s court ripe for eternal fictional reinterpretation is that, more than most historical periods, it’s all about perspective. He went through a string of wives who met varying fates because his conscience urged him to, because he wanted a son to secure the succession after the bloodiness of the Wars of the Roses, or because he was a dirty old man who just wanted a hot young wife—depending on who you ask.

That’s what made The Other Boleyn Girl such a hit. There had been plenty of literary output favoring Team Katherine of Aragon or Team Anne Boleyn, but no one had written from the less-known Boleyn’s perspective.

Wolf Hall might be the home of Jane Seymour and her family (who barely appear enough to warrant top billing), but it’s written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the man who made Henry’s first annulment (Henry never actually got a divorce—he just got really good at pretending certain marriages never existed) happen. I’ve never seen the story from his perspective. He was always the brutal enforcer who got Henry’s dirty work done, no matter who was telling the story.

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Not exactly the most warm and fuzzy looking fellow, right?

Like I mentioned before, this book can leave you lost if you’re not well acquainted with the cast of characters at Henry’s court. That’s because it just drops you into the action as Thomas, a commoner trying to make his way in a world of well-born schemers, becomes a player at Henry’s court. It follows his rise to power, first at Cardinal Wolsey’s side, then eventually as his own man, before ending with the execution of Thomas More.

However, it’s not written in the first person. You’re not seeing, “I, Thomas, think that…” Instead, Mantel throws around a lot of “he did this” and “he did that.” It’s as if you’re watching the events of the story from a perch on Cromwell’s shoulder. (It doesn’t help that most of the power players are men, making that constant “He” a slippery thing. Occasionally you get deeper glimpses into what Cromwell is thinking, but they’re always mediated through a third-person narration that never lets you feel completely comfortable with Cromwell.

That being said, by the time I finished the book, I went from having a mild distaste for Henry’s butcher to being completely in his corner. His story of an ambitious commoner who comes to court and amasses power for himself while making shit happen should have spoken to me ages ago, but because I always saw his narrative through the eyes of some highborn character or another, it was portrayed as a threatening thing. Bring Up the Bodies is the next book in the series, and I can’t wait to see what Cromwell does next… even if I know that he’ll meet a bloody end eventually. There’s also a PBS miniseries you can watch, instead.

No, you don’t get to complain to me about spoilers when I bring up historical events.


Previously in this series:

52 in 52: Go Set a Watchman

52 in 52: Go Set a Watchman

In an attempt to better myself and to give myself a regular feature to make blogging at least 2x a week easier, I’ll be doing the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge this year. Will it go better than my first attempt at NaNoWriMo? Here’s to hoping.

I started the year with a problematic inhabitant of my to be read pile: Harper Lee’s Go Set a WatchmanBilled as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it came out in 2015 under a firestorm of controversy. I wasn’t as upset by the portrayal of Atticus as a bigot (more on that in a bit) as I was by the shady circumstances that led the book to be published in the first place. I avoided this book not because I didn’t want to watch Atticus come crashing down from his pedestal, but because I didn’t want my money to go to the shameless swindlers who engaged in elder abuse for fun and profit.

(Full disclosure: if you decide to buy TKaM or GSaW from either of the links above, I get a small cut. A blogger’s gotta eat, after all.)

Last summer, however, I found a used copy at Recycle Bookstore. Curiosity finally won out. At least my money would go to a business I’m proud to support, right? It languished on the top of my TBR pile of Pisa for months before I picked it up this week.

Thanks to my long morning and afternoon commutes, I was able to finish it in the space of a day. I couldn’t put it down. Only once did I consider quitting: page 13, because Atticus is slowly being crippled by arthritis and Jem is dead from a heart condition we later learn was the cause of his mother’s death. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. Or Maycomb. Even if we actually are. Whatever.

After that, no matter how horrifying, disappointing, and heartbreaking the events of the novel were, I couldn’t stop. That’s a testament to the compelling nature of Lee’s writing, especially when you consider that this isn’t a sequel at all, but an abandoned first draft.

Okay, there’s no avoiding it any longer: Yes, Atticus is racist in this book. There are other things I found it hard to come grips with in this book—like Jean Louise’s hapless suitor, Henry Clinton—but that’s primarily what I’ll be focusing on here.

I may get a lot of grief for saying this, but GSaW’s Atticus is an… understandable kind of racist. He doesn’t hate black people, but he’s disturbingly patronizing towards them and doesn’t want to mix with them socially. He doesn’t think they’re ready for the full benefits of citizenship and takes a manslaughter case involving Calpurnia’s grandson so that some uppity NAACP lawyer doesn’t take the case and make a big fuss over it. It was incredibly uncomfortable to see his in one of my literary heroes, but in a man of that time and place, it’s an understandable attitude. Not right, but it makes sense in a man of those times. This Atticus is a far more realistic character than the improved version in To Kill a Mockingbird.

TKaM’s Atticus is a paragon on a pedestal and the moral center of the book. But in GSaW, after Jean Louise sees her beloved father at a white citizen’s council (hiding in the colored balcony she last set foot in during Tom Robinson’s trial), her whole world comes crashing down because it was built upon one question.

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In GSaW, he’s never meant to be worshiped. In fact, Atticus and Uncle Jack worry about Jean Louise’s adoration of her father and know that no good can come of it. Since we’ve all read TKaM and hold Atticus to those same standards of decency, Jean Louise’s disappointment and disillusionment is ours, too.

As much as the book hurt to read, I didn’t hate it until the end. After confronting her father’s racist beliefs and swearing that she never wants to see him again, Jean Louise rushes home to pack and make good on her promise before Uncle Jack comes by and smacks some sense into her. Literally. Uncle Jack backhands Jean Louise hard enough to make her bleed from the mouth, gets her some whiskey, and then mansplains his brother’s bigotry away.

The book ends with Jean Louise and Atticus reaffirming their love for one another, which is stronger than ever now that she accepts her father as a flawed man instead of a benevolent demi-god. There might be something to be said for accepting your loved ones in spite of their flaws, but the paternalistic way that it happened left a bad taste in my mouth.

But here’s the thing: because this is an abandoned draft, you can pretend that Atticus the genteel bigot never happened. You can pretend the whole book never happened. Harper Lee certainly did. Tom Robinson’s trial gets brought up in GSaW, but it’s mentioned that Atticus won. In TKaM, Atticus knew he was going to lose that trial and defended Tom to the best of his abilities anyway. Lee took that victory away from Atticus, but in doing so she created the beloved character we knew for years.

Don’t let Go Set a Watchman ruin To Kill a Mockingbird for you. It’s an interesting look at what could have been, if not for a clever editor who told Harper Lee to focus on Scout’s childhood. If we’re going to consider Harper Lee’s first draft canon just because HarperCollins got greedy, then every single shitty first draft that any writer’s ever written is fair game. We should all know better than that.