By Fire, By Water: A Courageous Novel

How many were burnt at the stake, broken on the rack? We don’t know. How many were forced to leave behind the lives they knew, and with not much more than the clothes on their backs, seek refuge in foreign lands? We don’t know. How many were psychologically tortured and brainwashed until they confessed? We don’t know. How many publicly turned their backs on their faith just to live? We don’t know. In spite of the lack of documentation, the memory of the Spanish Inquisition remains alive in the descendants of the accused.

1492 was an important year for Spain. The expulsion of the Jews, the fall of the last Muslim kingdom, Granada, and the sailing of the Niña, Pinta and the Santa María, all occurred in 1492. 1893_Nina_Pinta_Santa_Maria_replicas

The title of Mitchell James Kaplan’s novel, By Fire, By Water, embodies and symbolizes these events. The element of fire is an obvious reference to the burnings of heretics, and water represents Columbus’ travels by sea. However, Kaplan, posits another layer of meaning with this title. It references a prayer that is said during Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur, and appears on page 271 of the novel.

“Who shall live and who shall die
Who at the measure of days and who before
Who by fire and who by water
Who by the sword and who by wild beasts
Who shall have rest and who shall go wandering
Who shall be brought low and who shall be raised high.

I spoke with Kaplan on Sept. 16, 2014 in a book club discussion via Skype about the title and its meanings. The prayer signifies the abandonment of the self–the knowledge that we are small or insignificant. Something else, destiny, and/or God, controls. We don’t know what is to come or if we will cease to exist. During the Holy Days, Jewish people are able to pray, repent and do charity in response to avert death. (, article by Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer) Death, unfortunately, was the fate of countless Jews and others who were captured and tried by the Inquisitors. There is hope though, for the characters who are able to escape and start a new life. They just have to have faith that they will be guided to safety.

In the United States, we tend to focus on Columbus’ journeys, his “discovery of America”, when we think of 1492. In a way this is understandable since WE, are the result of his exploring. The Americas, the “New World” came about because of the explorers’ zeal for riches and adventure. We tend to ignore or forget the atrocities, the genocide, that took place during the Inquisition. After all, it is disturbing and heartbreaking for most of us, 500 years later, to even contemplate it.

Kaplan is not afraid to tackle this very polemic and horrific subject in his historical novel. By Fire, By Water is dense with imagery, historical fact and personages, and transports the reader to another time and place, that of 15th century Zaragoza and Granada. He relates the story of Luis de Santángel, a confused noble, descendant of conversos(Jews who converted to Christianity, usually to avoid prosecution by the Inquisition)who was the right hand to King Fernando. He was also instrumental in bankrolling Columbus’ trips. That is historical fact. However, Chanceller Santángel, in the novel, will do nearly anything, even commit murder, to surpress his Jewish ancestry. (This is Kaplan’s invention). Was he a murderer? An entitled noble? A degenerate? A misguided, desperate man who lost his mind and all sense of right and wrong for fear of being discovered? Although killing people is wrong, the reader must decide on his/her own, what to make of Santángel and his crime, since he is never formerly accused or prosecuted for that crime.


What is undebatable is that the Inquisition was a movement that destroyed not only the physical bodies of many people, but their lives, their psyches, and the very fabric of Spain’s society. Jewish and Muslim populations, which had contributed scientifically and economically to the Iberian kingdoms, were exiled, killed, or silenced, changing the course of Spanish history FOREVER. The Edict of Expulsion of 1492, was not retracted until 1966! Ironicablly, both the Spanish and Portuguese governments are now offering citizenship and incentives to those that can prove their ancestors were victims of the Inquisition, or who left in fear of being interrogated or called up. Over 500 years later, their descendants are being invited to come “home”….


Ferry Street em Newark tem alma! Poesia de João Martins

Nestes dias de globalização é um desafio, as vezes, achar uma rua com alma. Agora, mesmo nas grandes cidades como Nova Iorque, pode-se caminhar e ver as mesmas lojas que se encontram nos shoppings e nos subúrbios dos Estados Unidos. A peculiaridade das ruas têm mudado–CVS, Walgreens, e Duane Reade dominam, com restaurantes de comida rápida como Subway, Qdoba e esse famoso café Starbucks.

Porém, uma rua, uma avenida ou até uma cidade pode inspirar amor, criatividade, e saudades, se tem “alma.” Segundo o escritor João Martins, “Ferry Street” de Newark, New Jersey, tem alma! É o centro da cultura portuguesa naquela cidade, e onde ela vive. É um pequeno pedaço de Portugal que provoca a lembrança, a inovação artística, a comunicação, o amor e a saudade–tem alma.

No 11 de novembro, Senhor Martins recitou de sua obra. Falou de diversas ideias–e sobre o amor para Ferry Sreet–na Universidade de Villanova, perto de Filadelfia. Martins é sócio do Sport Clube Português, um centro cultural em Newark, e tem colaborado num projeto: Rua da Palavra Ferry Street. Martins e outros artistas luso-descendentes criam uma obra que inclui a pintura, o fado, a música e o texto. Que fantástico! Ligados por suas experiências em Newark como imigrantes que falam português, acho que se forma um novo movimento literário ou artístico. Os poetas e escritores de Ferry Street têm costume de se reunir no Sport Clube para recitar suas obras e em outras ocasiões os fadistas cantam.

Alguns dos poemas de Martins, nas emoções que evocam, me lembram da obra de João do Rio, escritor carioca. Ele falou da alma da cidade do Rio de Janeiro. Com certeza, Ferry Street tem alma–sobretudo alma portuguesa, mas se abre para receber outras pessoas, culturas e línguas.

Para ler mais sobre Ferry Street Rua da Palavra:

The Soul of Newark’s Ferry Street: João Martins’ poetry

In these days of globalization, it’s a challenge to find a street with some soul, with some substance. Now even the big cities like New York, have the same old shops. Pharmacies like Walgreens, CVS and Duane Reade are on every other block. These places, along with Subway, Qdoba Mexican and the famous Starbucks are just as prominent in American cities as they are in the shopping and strip malls and the suburbs.

However,  a street, an avenue and even a city can inspire love, creativity, e nostalgia, if it has a “soul.” According to João Martins “Ferry Street” of Newark, New Jersey, has a soul!  A Portuguese one at that.It’s the center of Portuguese culture in the city. It’s a little slice of Portugal that stimulates memory, artistic innovation, communication, love and saudade–it has a soul.

On November 11, Mr. Martins recited from his body of work. He spoke of many ideas–and about his love of Ferry Street–at Villanova University, near Philadelphia. Martins is a member of the  Sport Clube Português, a cultural center in Newark, and is collaborating on the following project: Rua da Palavra Ferry Street. Martins and other artists of lusophone descent are creating a work that combines, fado, music, text and painting. Amazing! Linked because of their immigrant experience and the fact that they speak Portuguese, I believe that this is a new artistic and/or literary movement. The poets and writers of  Ferry Street periodically get together at the Sport Clube to recite and read from their works, to captive audiences. On other occasions, the fado singers come out to entertain the Ironbound public!

Some of Martins’ poems, remind me of João do Rio‘s work, a writer from turn of the century Brazil. João do Rio wrote of the soul of the city of Rio de Janeiro, which at the time was being torn apart due to further urbanization. For sure, Ferry Street has a soul–overall a Portuguese soul, but it opens up and embraces other people, cultures and languages.

To find out more about Ferry Street Rua da Palavra:


Around the World with Elena Como: An Interview


Interview conducted via e-mail on September 19, 2013.

As owner of Atlantico Books, your main responsibility is to buy and sell books in Portuguese. What inspired you to create your own books, such as the Ao Redor do Mundo series?

Elena: I would say we “import and distribute” (as opposed to buy and sell), but it’s the same basic idea. I wanted to find a creative way to collaborate with my “tribe” of Brazilian & Portuguese studies people. I also knew that there was a need for more “readers” for Portuguese students, with articles that are up-to-date and that expose students to the many different cultures and peoples of the Portuguese-Speaking Diaspora. It’s also been a real pleasure and my honor to help some of our younger collaborators to get their work into print for the first time.

What are some of the challenges you faced in the first volume of Ao Redor, that you were able to solve in the second volume?

Elena: For the first volume, I had more trouble sorting out “themes” for the diverse articles. In the volume two, I’m pleased that we were able to fit all of our articles into one of the three headings: Figuras Emblematicas, Comunidades e suas Culturas, & Nossa Língua Portuguesa.

Also, for the 2nd volume, I was very pleased to find a geographer, Michael Battaglia, who agreed to provide us with some helpful maps of the Lusophone World, and of the parts of the world where you find Lusophone Creole Languages (for Paula Soares’ article).

Another improvement is the addition of “perguntas antes de ler” or study-guides ahead of each chapter, to assist students in preparing for the new topic or new theme. This innovation was inspired by Luis Gonçalves and Celeste Mann, who each provided study questions before and after their chapters.

What themes are covered in the articles? What types of articles would you like to see in future volumes?

Elena: The articles are diverse! One that was very informative was Ana Paula Corazza’s article about the sustainable community harvest of the coco-licuri, in Brazil. I also enjoyed learning about Galicia  and its relationship with Portugal, and the Galego language, from Claudia Coelho’s article. There are several articles at the end of the book that talk about the Portuguese language and how it is spoken around the world. These were written by linguists and are the hardest reading in the book, but I feel it’s important to offer some more challenging articles for more advanced readers.

Celeste: In Volume 2 of Ao Redor do Mundo, in particular, there are a few articles about music, highlighting Cesária Evora (Cape Verde), Chiquinha Gonzaga (Brazil), Caetano Veloso (Brazil) and Amália Rodrigues (Portugal). In the first volume there’s an interview about Angolan music and the musician, Mário Rui Silva.

Would you briefly explain the process of collaboration on the volumes and how this has evolved? Are there things that you would do differently in the future?

Elena: When I started with “Missa do Galo e Outros Contos” it was mostly phone calls and emails. But for Ao Redor do Mundo I made use of Facebook, and Facebook (private) groups to reach out and collaborate with the contributors. Facebook was helpful in providing us with contacts, talented writers, illustrators, and willing and able editors.

For a future collaboration, I’d love to find a professional Brazilian and professional Portuguese editor to really clean up any typos, A.O. errors, and grammatical errors. It has been tricky editing a series with such diverse writing.

All of the articles are unique and interesting in their own ways, and popularity/accessibility would depend on the reader. Which ones  are  favorites of your clients?

Elena: Volume 2 is very new, so it’s hard to say! But in volume 1, many people have commented on the chapter “Meio Bugre” by Eva Bueno, and also on Eva’s “Gaijin, Gaijin.” For Brazilian literature enthusiasts, Selma Vital’s chapter about Machado de Assis and 18th Century Brazilian (male) novelists “Homens de Letras, Mulheres de Papel” was a hit. Another great article in volume 1 is Portugal e a Comunidade Digital, by Anita Melo, who gives a brief history of writing in Portugal, and an examination of blogs by Portuguese bloggers.

How has working on these volumes changed you in terms of your role as business owner and/or artist?  

Elena: These projects have allowed me to explore the role of Project Manager, and also to strengthen ties with teachers, friends, clients, and students of Portuguese. It’s been heartening to find so many people who want to contribute their talents to Ao Redor do Mundo.

How do you see these books contributing to cultural studies or the arts  in the world?

Elena: For students who want to learn more about the cultures that speak Portuguese, it’s often difficult to choose a topic or person to research, because although there’s much information on the internet, it is hard for a beginner to know where to start. For the ambitious Portuguese student who wants to know more about the Portuguese-speaking diaspora, I hope these books are helpful. Also, for former Portuguese students who want to get back into reading Portuguese, these books are easy to pick up and put back down, even for busy professionals, because most of the articles are quite short.

 How can people sample or purchase these volumes and other materials from Atlantico Books?

The first few chapters of volume 2 are visible as a “preview” on the Kindle E-Book page, here:

For a preview of volume 1, you can go here:

To purchase these or any of our other titles in Portuguese, go to

Thank you Elena! It’s been a pleasure to hear about the making of Ao Redor do Mundo Vol. 1 & 2.