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Lusophone literature in Asia

History of former Portuguese colonies is marked by an affinity with Brazilian writers

Sandra Jávera

What are the parallels between literature produced in São Paulo in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the work of writers and poets in the distant state of Goa, in India? By publishing texts by Portuguese-speaking authors in magazines, periodicals, and feuilletons (part of a newspaper or magazine devoted to fiction, criticism, or light literature), the literary history of both locations has a direct relationship with the development of their respective presses. Goa and Brazil are not the only regions of the world in which Portuguese colonization has left a legacy. Macau, Timor-Leste, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe are the other nations where the European country’s presence has also left its mark on literature. Additionally, Equatorial Guinea and the territories of Daman and Diu, in India, also speak the language. According to the Museum of Portuguese Language, Portuguese, in its different variations, is today the mother tongue of around 260 million people. Although the fiction and poetry produced in these places has drawn upon different historical contexts and cultural repertoires, recent studies have shown the aspects they have in common, including controversial relations with Portugal. Another point of intersection involves linguistic affinities with Brazilian authors, especially Jorge Amado (1912–2001), from Bahia, whose books today, for example, are part of the high school curriculum in Timor-Leste.

A project involving some 50 researchers from around the world, funded by FAPESP for the last five years, has been attempting to rescue the literary production of Goa, the Indian state colonized by Portugal between 1510 and 1961. Chosen by Portugal as one of its main ports in the East, Goa received its first Jesuit missions in the sixteenth century. “During this period, the Portuguese State of India (PSI) created an archive to store different types of documentation, including administrative reports, magazines, and newspapers. Brazil does not have such a broad and centralized collection,” compares Helder Garmes, a professor from the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) and coordinator of the study. According to him, the project has focused on the Goan collection, recovering aspects of the region’s cultural and literary history unknown among Brazilian and foreign researchers.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, Goan and Portuguese specialists worked with this collection to analyze Goa’s literary production in Portuguese. However, they were focused on the sixteenth century and recording old documents that could disappear,” says Garmes. Besides these studies, he mentions works by the Portuguese novelist and translator Manuel de Seabra (1932–2017) and Vimala Devi, the literary pseudonym of Goan writer and poet Teresa da Piedade de Baptista Almeida. Both published the book of literary history A literatura indo-portuguesa (Indo-Portuguese literature; 1971), as well as satirical stories by Goan author José da Silva Coelho (1889–1944), among other works.

Garmes recalls that after the end of colonialism, Portuguese gave way to English and Konkani, which became the official language in Goa. “Portuguese was preserved by some families, especially Catholic ones, but little by little it stopped being the lingua franca,” he adds. According to him, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the majority of people who spoke Portuguese in Goa belonged to the dominant Chardo and Brahmin elite Catholic castes, which occupy the top of the Goan hierarchy. Garmes explains that the Goan Brahmins and Chardos that worked in the colonial administration were Hindus who had converted to Catholicism, giving rise to the lineage of Roman Catholic Brahmins and Chardos. “There is a contradiction in this process, because the Catholics did not accept the existence of castes. The new lineage was a way the groups found of preserving the Indian habits and maintaining their position of power in colonial Portuguese society,” states the researcher, addressing one of the particularities of Goa.

Ozias Filho | KapulanaAna Paula Tavares, Angolan historian and poet. Below, the Portuguese José Luandino Vieira, who has lived in Angola since the age of three. Both have books published in BrazilOzias Filho | Kapulana

After the pioneering studies developed in the period of transition from Portuguese colonialism to the annexation to India, there is no knowledge of other extensive research done on the Goan collection from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. According to the professor, this happens because it is undervalued both by the Goans, who associate it with colonization, and by the Portuguese, who consider the literary production published in these magazines and feuilletons to be of low quality. “In the collections, we find texts of different quality, but the set allows us to understand how the literature in Portuguese acclimatized and developed in that region of the world,” he highlights.

“The fact that the project was led by Brazilian researchers aided its development. Marked by controversial relations with Portugal due to the colonial legacy, Goan society identified to a certain level with Brazil, also a former colony of the European nation,” says Paul Michael Melo e Castro, a British researcher from the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. In 2017, in Goa, Garmes and Castro edited and published the previously unpublished novel Preia-mar (High tide) by Epitácio Pais (1924–2009). “During the project, we identified the manuscripts from the book and managed to get authorization from the family to publish it,” recalls Castro, who was part of the research team coordinated by Garmes. Interested in literature from after 1961, he has translated contemporary Goan authors such as Vimala Devi and Augusto do Rosário Rodrigues into English. “Lots of these works are found in precarious conditions of preservation, so the first step has been to scan them, to ensure they are not lost,” he observes. For Castro, one of the complexities of researching Goan literature is that, unlike the old Portuguese colonies in Africa, the language declined rapidly with the end of Portuguese rule. While Konkani became the official language, English became the lingua franca. “As a result, texts written in Portuguese nowadays circulate more among Goan readers if they are translated into English,” he says.

There are records of press activity in Goa dating back to the sixteenth century. In Brazil, the activity remained prohibited until 1808, the year in which the Portuguese royal family established itself in the country. Even in this period, it remained under censorship until 1821. On the other hand, observes Garmes, the Goan press became inactive in the eighteenth century for poorly understood reasons, and resurged the following century. “In the nineteenth century, the development of the Goan press shows parallels with that of São Paulo. One of them being that a large part of the literary production of writers and poets was published in feuilletons and magazines,” he explains, stressing that in that century there was no Portuguese colony that could be compared to Brazil, in literary terms. In places such as Mozambique and Angola, for example, the development of the press came later, at the end of the nineteenth century. “The material that we found in the Goan collection opens possibilities for comparative studies with the Brazilian panorama,” he argues, highlighting the pioneering nature of the approach. According to Garmes, an extensive literary production from Goa published in the press between 1821 and 1980 remains unknown in academia. “In each of the five years that the project lasted, we dedicated at least one month to copying these texts, having obtained authorization to register the complete collection of the Diário de Goa (1953–1966), among others,” he says. The majority of these recovered texts and documents are now accessible for academic studies, but the team does not yet have authorization from the heirs to publish them without restrictions. The website Pensando Goa: Uma peculiar biblioteca em língua portuguesa (Thinking Goa: A singular library in Portuguese), which presents part of the results of the project, contains some of these documents.

“One of the aspects revealed by the work on the Goan collection are the conflicts between the Brahmin and Chardo castes in the dispute for intellectual primacy in the Portuguese language press,” says Garmes. In 1859, the Brahmins created the newspaper Ultramar (Overseas). In 1861 it was the turn of the Chardos to launch Índia Portuguesa (Portuguese India). “Both were news periodicals that also published literature. The majority of Goan writers and poets from this period published in newspapers and not in books, which were very expensive,” he says. When they analyzed the literary material from these publications, Garmes’s team identified that, in the first years, the texts highlighted the Portuguese and Catholic bias of Goan society, but from the end of the nineteenth century they began valuing Hindu tradition, initially from an exotic and Orientalist view. “We call this period Goan Indianism, drawing a parallel with the Indianist movement in Brazil, which developed in the mid-nineteenth century through the work of authors such as José de Alencar (1829–1877),” compares Garmes.

Editora Através | Wikimedia CommonsThe writer Luiz Cardoso, from Timor-Leste, winner of the Oceanos Prize in 2021 and Goan poets and writers, Adeodato Barreto (1905–1937), to the left, and Vimala Devi, the literary pseudonym of Teresa de AlmeidaEditora Através | Wikimedia Commons

In a postdoctoral project funded by FAPESP and completed in 2019, Duarte Drumond Braga, from the Center for Comparative Studies of the University of Lisbon, investigated literature from Goa, Macau, and Timor-Leste. He identified that the similarities and differences between Asiatic and European cultures, as well as the controversial relations with the colonial legacy, are some of the themes that pervade the works. A Portuguese colony until 1975, Timor-Leste was invaded by Indonesia in the same year, which led to armed conflicts and violent situations that ended in the decimation of libraries and universities, recalls Braga. “As a result, the process of rebuilding the identity and national memory is another relevant theme for the country’s literary imagination,” he adds, citing the production of the Timorese novelist Luis Cardoso, winner of the Oceanos Prize in 2021.

“The writer has lived in Portugal for over 30 years and his work is better known in Europe than in Timor itself. Studies about Timorese literature in Portuguese are just starting to be made recently and remain scarce,” says Ana Margarida Ramos, from the University of Aveiro, in Portugal. Between 2009 and 2013, Ramos took part in a cooperation project with the government of Timor to reformulate the educational proposal of high schools, with the idea of including new Lusophone voices in addition to Portuguese authors, changing the curriculum developed during the Indonesian occupation, which did not include the study of literature. “After 2012, high school students could read and study Brazilian, Angolan, and Mozambican writers and poets, besides those from Timor itself,” she says. According to her, Jorge Amado is a Brazilian author who was appreciated by the Timorese. “The book The Swallow and the Tom Cat: A Love Story, published in Brazil in 1976, is a reference for the country’s teachers and was included in the high school programs, even after the reformulation,” says the researcher, also a scholar of the works of Timorese authors such as the poets Fernando Sylvan (1917–1993) and Xanana Gusmão, who was president of the country from 2002 to 2007. “The literary imagination of these authors is marked, among other topics, by the fight against Portuguese colonialism and the Indonesian occupation, with appeals to self-determination and the need to build their own identity,” she explains. “Elements linked to the Timorese landscape, animals, and culture are deployed as symbols of this identity.”

According to the researcher, besides these authors of written production, there are others that rescue stories of oral tradition and also play an important role in shaping the national identity of the Timorese people. Prohibited for over 20 years during the Indonesian occupation, Portuguese is today one of Timor’s two official languages, along with Tetum. “After independence in 1999, the language had to be reintroduced in the context of a country destroyed by war. Timor faces development difficulties, and the process of reinserting Portuguese has been slow and marked by political hesitations,” she reports, clarifying that although the majority of Timorese people understand the language, it is not used in daily life.

In Macau, an autonomous territory of China that was colonized by Portugal between 1557 and 1999, Portuguese is the official language, together with Cantonese, but spoken by a minority of the population. “When two Macanese people meet, they shift between two languages without realizing it, which reflects in the literary production,” reports Maria Célia Lima-Hernandes, from FFLCH-USP, citing the works of Henrique de Senna Fernandes (1923–2010), who wrote about the cultural hybridity of Macau in works that mix Portuguese, Chinese, and English. “Other standout Portuguese-language authors from Macau are Luiz Gonzaga Gomes (1907–1976) and Deolinda do Carmo Salvado da Conceição (1914–1957). Unfortunately, like much of the literature in Portuguese produced in Asia, they have not yet been published in Brazil,” she laments.

Portuguese-speaking Africa circulating in Brazil
Research identifies 190 books by African authors who write in Portuguese published in the country between 1940 and 2017

Otávio de SouzaThe novelist Paulina Chiziane was the first black woman to win the Camões Prize, in 2021, aged 66Otávio de Souza

African literature written in Portuguese began circulating in Brazil in the 1950s and gained impetus in this century, when the number of publications went from 12, at the end of the 1990s, to 72 in 2009, according to the doctoral research of sociologist Marcello Stella, to be defended in the Sociology Department at USP and which received funding from FAPESP. With independence from Portugal achieved in the 1970s, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe are the African countries that have Portuguese as one of their official languages and produce literature in the language.

According to Marcello Stella, the first work by an African writer in Portuguese published in Brazil was Terra Morta (Dying Land; Casa do Estudante do Brasil, 1949), by Mozambican writer Fernando Monteiro de Castro Soromenho (1910–1968). The publication of African writers in Portuguese intensified in the 1970s, with the creation of the African Authors collection by the publisher Ática, conceived by sociologist Fernando Augusto Albuquerque Mourão (1934–2017) who founded the Center for African Studies at USP. After the collection was discontinued in the 1990s, some publishers continued to sparsely publish authors such as Mia Couto, Pepetela, Germano Almeida, and José Eduardo Agualusa.

“The publication of these writers and poets remained at low and stable levels until the beginning of the 2000s, when the numbers started to increase. Two hundred twenty-seven works in Portuguese by African authors were published between 1940 and 2018. Of these, 189, or 83%, were published in the first two decades of the twenty-first century,” says Marcello Stella. Mia Couto, José Eduardo Agualusa, and Pepetela were the most published authors in the country until 2017. Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde are the countries with African authors which circulate most in Brazil, according to the sociologist.

Tania Celestino de Macedo, from FFLCH-USP, observes that, as in Timor-Leste, Jorge Amado is one of the Brazilian authors with the greatest penetration in African countries. “By working with a language that deviates from Portuguese from Portugal, African writers express a linguistic convergence with Brazilians,” she analyzes, citing the example of the poet from Cape Verde, Cursino Fortes (1933–2015), who alternates Creole with Portuguese, the same as José Luandino Vieira from Angola. “Viera even says that his readings of Jorge Amado and Guimarães Rosa (1908–1967) authorized him to make these mixtures,” she points out.

Macedo observes that students often hope to find elements in these texts related to Afro-Brazilian culture, including mães-de-santo (priestesses of the Afro-Brazilian religions) and discussions about racism. “After bloody wars, black people are today in power in countries such as Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau, and the literature from these places raises different issues than those which mark Afro-Brazilian literary production,” she compares. Still in relation to these differences, Macedo mentions the feminism present in works by the Angolan historian and poet Ana Paula Tavares and the Mozambican novelist Paulina Chiziane, winner of the Camões Prize in 2021. “In their books, they mobilize imaginations of local cultures and particular views about the female universe. Having children and doing housework, for example, are fundamental aspects of the woman’s role in society, a different perspective from that of European feminism,” she concludes.

Thinking Goa – a peculiar Portuguese-language library (nº 14/15657-8); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Helder Garmes (USP); Investment R$1,055,733.42.
2. Portuguese-language literature: Writers in a transnational literary space (nº 18/25486-7); Grant Mechanism Doctoral Fellowship; Supervisor Luiz Carlos Jackson (USP); Grant Beneficiary Marcello Giovanni Pocai Stella; Investment R$203,405.82.
3. Literature in transit: Movement between Goa, Macau, and Portugal in Portuguese-language literary works (1951–1975) (nº 14/00829-8); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral Fellowship; Supervisor Helder Garmes (USP); Grant Beneficiary Duarte Nuno Drumond Braga; Investment R$646,966.89.