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from the May 2020 issue

Islands Running across the Globe

Far from the sun of my home
running to Africa
running to Europe
running to America
running across the map
running across the globe

—Corsino Fortes, “Recode d’Umbertona” (Message to Umbertona)1 in Pão & Fonema (Bread & Phoneme), 1974

The Cabo Verde islands have been a historically important piece on the geopolitical chessboard, variously employed as a map reference point, a supply port, and a link between continents and coasts.

The Cabo Verdean view of the world, and by extension the world of literature, has inevitably been shaped by our being an island people, but the Cabo Verdean writers of today aspire to see their work travel the world and long for their country’s literature to occupy a central place in the global picture.

Cabo Verde, from Dot on the Map to Cultural Bridge

It has traditionally been said that Cabo Verde’s two main resources are its latitude and longitude, fixed points; in other words, its geographical location. This is why the islands have been used throughout history as a supply base for voyages of “discovery” or coastal trading, as a point of reference on maps, and as a bridge connecting two extremes of the Atlantic.

From 1462 onward, Portugal endeavored to populate the islands. The aim was to make them a base for naval voyages, including voyages of “discovery” to the south, and to support coastal trading.

In 1494, the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal signed the Tordesillas Treaty. Named after the Spanish town in which it was negotiated, the treaty divided all “discovered or to be discovered” lands outside Europe between the two crowns.

The treaty was prompted by Portuguese objections to Spanish ambitions in the wake of Christopher Columbus’s voyage of a year and a half earlier, when the New World was “discovered” and officially claimed by Queen Isabella I of Spain (1474–1504). The treaty's dividing line was a meridian 370 leagues west of Santo Antão, an island in the Cabo Verde archipelago.

A Bridge Connecting Two Extremes

Cabo Verde was more than just a strategically located point on the map; it also served as a bridge between two ethnic groups, one from Europe and one from Africa, and between two parts of the Atlantic Ocean, the north and the south.

Right from the start, Cabo Verdean concepts of identity and individuality were defined by this mixed reality: the African and the European, in all their diverse and contrasting characteristics.

Cabo Verde is therefore a sui generis case of a people formed by the blending of races and institutions, and the people were quick to grasp this and forge their own path and culture. Cabo Verde's folklore, popular music, creole language, and high regard for literature are all examples of this mixed origin and remain defining characteristics of its people today.

The creole nature of the Cabo Verdean people, a product of the land they were born in and the social and historical circumstances they grew up in, is what we will, in this introduction and the work featured here, seek to explore and understand.

Maritime Ports Linking Europe, Africa, and the Americas

The initial importance of Cabo Verde in geographical terms owed everything to its ports. The first of these was Porto de Ribeira Grande, established in Santiago and in use from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries; in subsequent centuries, the Porto de Sal-Rei would be built on the island of Boa Vista and the Porto de Furna on the island of Brava. Both of these ports lasted from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, when they were replaced by Porto Grande on the island of São Vicente.

While no longer so defined by its geography, and at a time when its double anchorage is much discussed—Cabo Verde is part of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and afforded special status within the periphery zone of the European Union (EU)—the archipelago largely plays the same role as it always has, as a global reference point and a bridge between continents, qualities that could perhaps be better valued and put to greater use.

The World in Cabo Verdean Literature

To consider world literature from a Cabo Verdean point of view, or to view it through the tiny prism of life on the islands, is to appreciate that Cabo Verde’s own literature cannot be contemplated without reference to other latitudes, and therefore other literatures.

One way to think about it is to treat Cabo Verde's literary output as a metaphor for the human body.

A Global Head

While rooted in Cabo Verde, the country’s first writings looked to Africa and Europe.

Sixteenth-century writers / Africa

We might reasonably begin with André Alvares d’Almada, a native of the island of Santiago and the “child of a brown woman.” A highly learned and knowledgeable man, in 1594 he was elected to represent the island and seek an audience with Dom Filipe I, to try and convince the king of the value of populating Sierra Leone. Alvares d’Almada wrote Tratado Breve dos Rios de Guiné do Cabo Verde [A Brief Treatise on the Rivers of Cabo Verdean Guinea] in 1594.

Also of interest is André Donelha. Little is known of Donelha’s life, but school records suggest he was born on the island of Santiago between 1550 and 1560. He wrote Descrição da Serra Leoa e dos rios da Guiné do Cabo Verde [A Description of Sierra Leone and the Rivers of Cabo Verdean Guinea] in 1625.

As the titles above suggest, much as in other colonial-era literatures around the globe, the earliest Cabo Verdean writers concerned themselves with describing the natural resources and navigation routes of interest to Portugal and other colonial powers. Only later would Cabo Verdean writers turn their attention to what we would today recognize as literary concerns.

The Nativist Generation of the Almanaques (1851–1932) / Europe

This is the period in which print media first emerged on the islands and the foundations of a Cabo Verdean literature were established. Prominent writers included Guilherme da Cunha Dantas, the very first Cabo Verdean writer, who, upon returning to Cabo Verde after ten years in Portugal, found it difficult to adapt to what he felt was a restrictive environment; Luiz Loff de Vasconcellos; Eugénio Tavares, whose mornas have been recorded by many musical artists; José Lopes da Silva; and Pedro Monteiro Cardoso, all born between 1800 and 1920.

In terms of formal aesthetics and subject matter, the period was dominated by Portuguese neoclassicism (1756–1825) and romanticism (1825–1865), especially the latter’s final stages, known as ultra-romanticism, which was adopted in Cabo Verde a little later than elsewhere and is a clear sign of the heavy influence wielded by the Santo Nicolau Seminary School, established in 1866, a major cultural and educational force characterized as “the light that shone most brightly on Cabo Verde.”

Writing in this period typically employed vernacular Portuguese on the one hand, following the example of Portuguese literature, and a pure form of creole, or crioulo, on the other, as nativists sought to champion creole values.

Feet on the Ground

The writers who followed looked to other latitudes for inspiration.

The Regionalist Generation of Claridade (1936–1960) and the Americas

The dominant aesthetics in this period were the same as those explored by Brazilian modernism (1922) and Portuguese modernism (1927–1940). In thematic terms, realism was the main influence, following the Brazilian trend (from 1930 to 1945/50, grosso modo) and neo-realism, in line with Portuguese tendencies (1940–1950).

Writing in this period involved a sort of breaking away from and reinventing of the language to produce a hybrid form of crioulo and oral Portuguese, a language consistent with this generation’s aesthetic and political concerns.

Writers in this period included António Aurélio Gonçalves, Jorge Vera-Cruz Barbosa, Baltasar Lopes da Silva (using the pseudonym Osvaldo Alcântara), and Henrique Teixeira de Sousa, all of whom were born between 1900 and 1920. Gonçalves, Barbosa, and Lopes da Silva constituted a founding nucleus for the Claridade movement, whose artistic ideals—centered not only on the reinvention of language but also on a break with poetic rhyme, meter, and even traditional genres—found expression in the movement’s eponymous literary journal. Lopes likened the movement to sinking one’s feet into the Cabo Verdean earth, thus transforming them into roots that would find nourishment in “the authentic humus of our islands."2

Clenched Fists

The writers that followed readjusted their focus.

The Nationalist Militancy Generation (1958–1975) / Africa

A new phase began in the late 1950s, one labeled nationalist, in which literature was used as a weapon in the struggle to build a new nation. The period was marked by the publication of the “Cultural Supplement” of the Cabo Verde – Boletim de Propaganda e Informação [Cabo Verde Propaganda and Information Bulletin] in 1958. The group of contributors to the Cultural Supplement, which published only a single volume, was composed of several writers living in Lisbon, where the majority of them had attended university. Living in the Casa dos Estudantes do Império (a residence for non-Portuguese students earning their degrees in the Portuguese capital), they would come into contact with many of the figures who would lead movements for independence across Portugal’s African colonies.

Here, writers embraced the diction of the Claridade generation and took it to its logical conclusion, employing a linguistic code that was influenced by and interspersed with crioulo words.

Writers in this period included Aguinaldo da Fonseca, whose poetry portrayed social injustice; Gabriel Lopes da Silva Mariano, a novelist and poet who won the 1976 Prémio de Literatura Africana and the 1996 Prémio Vale Flor; Ovídio de Sousa Martins, poet and one of the founders of the Cabo Verde – Boletim de Propaganda e Informação; and Onésimo Silveira, all born between 1920 and 1930.

With Open Arms and Outstretched Hands

The Global Generation (1975–), new themes and new visions of the world

The post-independence generation is more universalist and makes use of new forms of expression. Aesthetically, literature's universal classics are the principal reference.

Initially, diction reflected the revival and celebration of all things creole (not least language, the principal means of communication in all areas of Cabo Verdean life, literature included). Later, as nationalist manifestations cooled, writers became more open to global influences.

The globalist generation takes Portuguese to be a literary language in and of itself. They have no qualms about interiorizing it, playing with it, and pushing it to its limits, while also making literary use of the islands’ mother tongue. Indeed, there is a branch of writers, most of them from the island of Santiago, who choose to write almost exclusively in crioulo, which some prefer to call Cabo Verdean.

Writers from this period include Corsino Fortes, João Manuel Varela (using the heteronymns João Vário, Timóteo Tio Tiofe, and G. T. Didial), Oswaldo Osório, Arménio Vieira, Dina Salústio, Germano Almeida, Fátima Bettencourt, Jorge Carlos Fonseca, and Vera Duarte, all born between 1930 and 1960, and José Luís Hopffer Almada, Filinto Elísio Silva, Vadinho Velhinho, José Luiz Tavares, and Margarida Fontes, born after 1960.

Cabo Verde's Place in the World and in World Literature

“Here, from our modest vantage point, the city of Mindelo […] we took perfect note of the general situation”: So wrote Baltasar Lopes of global developments in the 1930s, a period the Claridade generation was well attuned to in producing a literature that was both modern and regional.

The principal Cabo Verdean writers of today—Arménio Vieira and Germano Almeida, Camões Prize winners in 2009 and 2018, respectively; Dina Salústio, an English PEN award winner in 2018; Fátima Bettencourt and Filinto Elísio—seek to place Cabo Verde at the center of things (geographically and in terms of world literature) in their work.

The importance placed on creating a space for Cabo Verde at the center of things can be evidenced in the writing that appears in this issue. In “Lisbon – 1971,” Arménio Vieira writes, “In point of fact, we were the poorest / of the Africans brought there [Lisbon],” while his poem “Caviar, Champagne, and Fantasy” talks of “dreaming of champagne and caviar / on Praia's Esplanada in Santiago de Cabo Verde / on the 29th of January, 1971”; in the first poem, the poet, torn from his own environment and taken to the capital of the empire, a place he finds shocking, becomes increasingly aware of his own identity and of not belonging to his new world, while in the second, the world belongs to him. Praia is the convergence of all worlds, of champagne and caviar.

If Vieira gestures toward the idea of Cabo Verde as the center of the world while also leveling with a sense of being outside it, his fellow Camões Prize winner Germano Almeida declares Cabo Verdeans “proud of the center of the earth where they live . . . their sights set on foreign parts, their hearts on the islands.” Almeida elegantly depicts the way in which Cabo Verdeans love their land, though their eyes forever seek the horizon. In his second essay in this issue, “A Form of African Identity,” Almeida avers that Cabo Verdeans consider themselves "possessors and bearers of a cultural identity that defined and distinguished us. We shared a Creole language and the open, relaxed customs, known as morabeza, that are unique to Cabo Verde; only we knew how to compose and sing morna music; and even our grogue [a sugarcane liquor] and cachupa [a traditional dish made from a corn and bean base] would never be confused with African palm wine or funge." It is this creole identity that is specific to Cabo Verdeans and distinguishes them from the rest of the world, complicating attempts at reckoning with notions of African identity.

This sense of cultural exceptionalism also permeates Dina Salústio’s novel Veromar, excerpted here as “See-the-Sea.” In the selection here, the town’s founders set about creating an identity for their city, which becomes the topic of headlines. The townspeople’s choice of a name represents their ambitions to make the city what it is not. And yet, we are told, See-the-Sea “become[s] known as [ . . .] a city of dreams,” the center of attention and the center of the world.

Elsewhere, stories by Fátima Bettencourt and Luís Romano and poems by Filinto Elísio insert Cabo Verde into a universal context (in more than one sense). In Bettencourt's “The Last Judgment,” translated here by Anna Kushner, a women looks on, “astounded, as the greatest massacre this planet had ever seen took place.” The biblical flood seen “from my window” happening on one of the islands seems more like an image from an inverted telescope. Luís Romano, whose vision of a universal Cabo Verdean literature included carving out space for work written in Cabo Verdean (Portuguese being the dominant literary language), contributes here with "Old Isidoro." Where Bettencourt and Romano's texts are concerned with things coming to an end, Filinto Elísio ponders the line between existence and nonexistence from a different angle in "On Beginnings." Pivoting from questions of existence to questions of influence, Elísio reclaims US jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver (Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silva), son of João Tavares Silva from Cabo Verde and his wife, Gertrude Edmonds, from Connecticut, in “Song for My Father,” in which he imagines the Silver song playing on the Apollo 12 moon mission, vindicating Cabo Verde’s claim to occupying a central place in the world.

Cabo Verde’s Future in the World of Letters

The concept of world literature may be a relatively recent construct, but Cabo Verde's literary elites have long been in dialogue with the Other, developing an intertextuality with literature from around the globe.

While previous generations sought to bring the world to the islands, today’s writers seek to capitalize on the initiative of new publishers, such as Rosa de Porcelana Editores and Pedro Cardoso Livraria, and take the islands to the world, especially the world of letters. This new sense of opportunity is based on the distribution of their work through Lisbon, the old metropole, spreading out from there to reach more readers, more students of literature and culture, and more university bookshelves, both in Portuguese and in translation to other languages. In this way Cabo Verde will, if not take its place at the center of the world, then at least get to run across the globe.



From Corsino Forte's Selected Poems, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien. 


© 2020 by Manuel Brito-Semedo. Translation © 2020 by Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.

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