Portuguese American Journal

Anthony Barcellos: Balancing life, math and fiction – Interview

Interview by Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)

With roots in the Azores (all four grandparents and his father came from the island of Terceira), Portuguese-American author Anthony Barcellos grew up speaking Portuguese on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Porterville, part of California’s agricultural area in Central Valley.

The author and co-author of articles (widely published in science and math journals) and nonfiction books, including A Stroll through Calculus: A Guide for the Merely Curious (2015), writer Barcellos in this book demystifies calculus by teaching that the foundational premise is about measuring things and how fast they change.

Only fairly recently, Barcellos discovered a love of fiction writing when he set pen to paper to write Land of Milk and Money, a multi-generational novel about immigrants from the Azores who run a dairy farm on the West Coast.

Currently, Barcellos resides in Davis, California where he enjoys the music of Mahler and Wagner and has a much-neglected piano in his dining room that he wishes he played more often. Sometimes he feels as if he has all but disappeared under stacks of books, an overflow from thirty bookcases.

His varied and lively career has included a stint in state government, serving as legislative assistant to Senator Albert S Rodda, and as part of the State Finance Commission under Jesse M. Unruh, State Treasurer. In 1987, Barcellos joined the faculty of American River College in Sacramento, where he still teaches mathematics today.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Barcellos speaks of his Portuguese-American upbringing in California and how that experience inspired his writing.

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I probably would have told you that I wanted to be some kind of scientist. Kennedy was president then and the space program was in full swing. I followed it diligently. Although I started writing stories while still in elementary school, I have no recollection of considering it as more than a hobby.

Who was your biggest influence in childhood?

I am indebted to so many people that it’s impossible to do them justice, but I’ll offer a few highlights. It begins with my family, since they indulged my immersion in literature when I might have been of more immediate use in the fields of the family farm.

My short story (“The Book Collector”) in the anthology Untamed Dreams from Portuguese Heritage Publications pays tribute to the examples of my father and grandfather. Clyde Wilcoxon, my fantastic calculus teacher at Porterville College, is as responsible as anyone for inspiring me to become an instructor in his image. (I established a scholarship in his memory at PC.) Sherman Stein at UC Davis gave me my first opportunities to write instructional materials professionally and eventually made me his coauthor on Calculus and Analytic Geometry.

Other professors at Davis, Henry Alder and Tom Sallee in particular, urged me to apply for the science writing fellowship that opened many exciting new options for me. Finally, Albert S. Rodda was the epitome of the gentleman scholar. I have the enviable distinction of having worked for Senator Rodda in multiple capacities: a legislative assistant in the State Capitol, an aide in the State Treasurer’s Office and a faculty member of the Los Rios Community College District when he was on the board of trustees.

Author Anthony Barcellos with his novel.

Author Anthony Barcellos with his novel.

Your career has been varied! Can you describe how you jumped between politics, math and literature?

My focus was always on education, but I was fortunate enough to have some extremely interesting and rewarding detours in my journey toward a teaching career.

One of the most important opportunities arose when Professor Henry Alder, for whom I had worked as a teaching assistant in the math department, encouraged me to apply for a Mass Media Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The AAAS experience in journalism was certainly a major selling point in my subsequent application for a Senate Fellowship in Sacramento, which added legislative work to my newspaper background. That started an eight-year sojourn in government work that enabled me to use my writing abilities and math training in the State Senate and State Treasurer’s Office.

However, I never lost sight of my interest in math teaching and a part-time evening job eventually resulted in a full-time position, I cheerfully tendered my resignation from state civil service and embarked on my professional teaching career.

Of course, by the time I became a full-time math teacher, I had lots of experience writing for publication in newspapers, magazines, government reports, and textbooks. That makes it less surprising that I eventually produced a novel.

In what way is math similar to writing?

Math teachers like to say that mathematics is a language with its own specialized vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. A written-out mathematical result needs to have a natural, logical, step by step flow. That’s also what you’d expect in an essay.

By contrast, however, in many ways math is more rigid. The pay-off is that its conclusions are more specific. A well-written argument may be persuasive, but there’s always room for a counter-argument. If a mathematical argument, however, comes to a definite conclusion, then there’s no disputing it.

As I sometimes tell my students, if a correct computation produces 5 as a result, then the answer is really 5. There’s no point in saying, “Oh, but I’d really like 4 better as an answer.” That lack of ambiguity is one of the beauties of mathematics.

     

What made you want to write Land of Milk and Money?

More than anything else, I wanted to capture my family’s story. My grandparents made heroic sacrifices to come to the U.S. in search of a better life, so the novel stands in part as a tribute to their success.

The fight over their estate was dramatic enough to warrant capturing it in the form of a story, a tale worth sharing. Many people with farming backgrounds have told me that Land of Milk and Money evoked strong memories of their own families’ similar difficulties. Finally, I wanted to see if I could do it. As much as I love my teaching job, I’m not content to dig myself into a deep rut by simply doing the same thing over and over again. Writing a novel was my way of trying something new.

Your book is a brutally honest view of a family, in harmony and in disharmony. How difficult was it to skate a fine line between truth and fiction?

Land of Milk and Money is full of both truth and fiction. The general outline of the plot closely follows the family’s real-life controversy and lawsuit over my grandmother’s will, but there were many reasons I chose to fictionalize the story rather than try to write it as a memoir. For one thing, I am not an omniscient observer. I was not privy to people’s personal motivations, and I was reluctant to simply speculate and impute motives to actual people. Imagine how boring it would have been to read an account generously sprinkled with “it might be” or “he could have thought,” et cætera. Therefore I changed all the names to protect both the innocent and the guilty and thus freed myself to create inner dialogues and motivations for the key players in the drama. The results are no longer guesswork or speculation. It’s fiction.

How does your family feel about the book? Your sister, Mary Chancellor, explains on your web page, “I’m afraid you’re going to get into a lot of trouble.”

I’m sure there’s some discomfort, although fiction provides a convenient shield of deniability. Most family members appear to be rather pleased with the celebration of the accomplishments of brave Portuguese immigrants like my grandparents.

No one, of course, wants to be identified with greedy scheming over inheritance, irresponsible behavior, or comic incompetence. But if anyone feels put on the spot, one of my cousins had the perfect response, delivered with a shrug: “Don’t they get that it’s a story?”

What techniques did you use to blend together family history with family fiction?

My goal was to tell a coherent, interesting, and believable story. I used fiction to fill in the many gaps in our family saga. It also gave me the freedom to skip over real-life events that would have seemed impossible or too contrived in a novel. It’s funny how reality sometimes strains credulity. When I was interviewed on Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, the interviewer chatted with me off-air about her favorite episodes in the book. She was surprised to learn I had created the silo incident out of whole cloth. She thought that had really happened.

Was there a scene that was particularly difficult to write? Because of delicate subject matter?

It was presumptuous of me to write the episode on the patriarch’s death. When I think about my real-life grandfather’s diminished capacity at the end of his life, I could barely imagine how bitter an experience it must have been for a formerly vigorous, active man to be imprisoned in his paralyzed body.

Nevertheless, I tried to draw on his example as I drafted an internal dialogue for the character of Chico Francisco as he struggled toward his end. Ultimately, I cannot tell if I succeeded. I can say only that I get choked up if I try to read it. For obvious reasons, I never selected it for a “Kale Soup for the Soul” reading.

What was the hardest part of writing Land of Milk and Money?

I dedicated the novel to the memory of my madrinha, who was the model for the character of Fatima Francisco Salazar. My entire family would probably agree that she would have prevented most of the problems that beset us when it came time to deal with the estate of her mother (my grandmother). It was a great tragedy that she died relatively young and we were denied her even temperament and her strong presence when we needed it most. I found it difficult to shape Fatima in her image and attempt to do her justice. I worshiped her in life. Her portrait hangs in my library, which is certainly the most appropriate location for it.

With your many years in politics, what are some things we can do as Portuguese-Americans to connect and, in some cases, re-connect with those in Portugal.

Portuguese-Americans have been doing quite a good job as participants in state politics, serving as inspiring models for young people with our cultural background. I’m thinking of statesmen such as Joe Gonsalves and John Vasconcellos.

I can heartily recommend California’s Portuguese Politicians by Alvin Ray Graves for a compelling account of our history in state governance. But you don’t need to be an elected official or a legislative employee to preserve the heritage and culture of our ancestors.

Anyone can be active in local Luso-American organizations and sister-city activities. For example, the city of Tulare has a strong connection to its sister city in the Azores, Angra do Heroísmo on the island of Terceira. The result is a vibrant cultural exchange and frequent contact with visitors traveling between the two cities.

Can you describe where you write?

I have two writing modes. The obvious one involves sitting at a computer keyboard in the spare room. But I also write in my head. This happens constantly, whether on the commute between home and school or strolling the paths of my neighborhood. I don’t have the kind of trick memory that enables me to hold a complete paragraph in my head and transcribe it word for word when I get to the keyboard, but particular phrases and words that I like survive the transfer from gray matter to computer document. A walkabout is always a good way to work out a plot puzzle or an expression snag.

What books would you include on a syllabus for a Portuguese-American literature class?

Reinaldo Silva’s Portuguese American Literature provides a compact overview of the subject (although I regret to say it was published too early to include a mention of my novel); Our Lady of the Artichokes and Other Portuguese-American Stories by Katherine Vaz; she has perfect pitch when it comes to recounting the experience of Portuguese kids growing up in an American environment; and Home Is an Island by Alfred Lewis captures the immigrant experience through the eyes of a young adult who grew to maturity in the Azores before experiencing the culture shock of a life transplanted to the United States.

Of course, Charles Reis Felix, Julian Silva, and Darrell Kastin. I see that my focus appears to be memoirs and fiction. If I added some poetry, I’d definitely need to include a writer whose initials are M.A. Wouldn’t you agree?

Who are your favorite Portuguese and/or Portuguese-American writers?

I greatly enjoy the prose of Katherine Vaz, Charles Reis Felix, Julian Silva, and Alfred Lewis, among others. They are mainstays of Portuguese-American literature. My Portuguese isn’t good enough to permit me to read José Saramago in the original, but I’ve appreciated some of his work in translation. I was bowled over by The Relic, a translation of A Relíquia by Eça de Queiroz; he wrote it 130 years ago, yet I would have believed it if someone had told me it was of recent vintage.

Lewis ends a chapter in Home Is an Island with his 10-year-old Azorean protagonist being congratulated by a representative from the Ministry of Education on the mainland. I identify with it a little. José has passed a crucial examination with flying colors, but he is then confronted with an impossible question. A question that has – as yet – no answer. What does he want to do with his future?

 

“I don’t know,” José answered. And truly, he did not know. How could he decide his own life, when everyone was trying to decide it for him?

How could he know what he wanted?

Priest, cowboy, teacher, poet – how could he tell what he wanted to be?

Sometimes everyone seems to know what you should do. Except for you.

 

 

I heard you are working on a sequel, is there something you want to add to Land of Milk and Money?

Count Me Out is currently in its third draft. It contains many of the same characters as Land of Milk and Money, but is less a sequel to my first novel than a companion book. The subtitle is “The Education of a Teacher.”

You speak Portuguese; when do you have occasion to use it?

For many years Portuguese was my daily language. My parents used it at home and it was what I learned first. Portuguese remained the dominant household language until I was well into elementary school. Even then, and through high school, daily visits to my paternal grandparents next door kept the language alive. I had weekly phone conversations with my grandmother until her death, when I was in my thirties.

Now I have much less occasion to use Portuguese, although I retain its rudiments. I suppose you could say that my Portuguese was fluent but limited, since I never had formal instruction in the grammar or vocabulary.

I asked this of the poet Sam Pereira, too: what was your first job?

The first time I was ever on a regular payroll was as a teaching assistant in college, working a half-time job to defray expenses and learn the ropes as a teacher. It was definitely pertinent to my career goals. Of course, growing up on a family dairy farm meant that I learned to drive tractors at an early age and had chores like feeding the cattle or running equipment in the fields. Since dairy farming never engaged my interest, I was fortunate in having a brother who was eager to step forward whenever there was work to be done. That freed up a lot of time that I used mostly for reading. Hence I ended up in academia and my brother now runs the Barcellos dairy farm. It worked out pretty well for both of us.

Can you share an excerpt of what you are working on right now?

After Dr. Richard Larschan and I got Land of Milk and Money into shape for publication, I had a lot of discarded material on my hands. We had deleted most of what Richard called “an alternative assimilation narrative” concerning the character Paul Francisco, who functioned in the novel as my alter-ego. We bumped him aside in favor of the main plot, the legal contest over the matriarch’s will, and I’m certain that was the right decision. However, I have taken those discarded episodes and incorporated them into a new manuscript titled Count Me Out, which is a story about turning a misfit into a useful member of society.

The following brief excerpt has Paul high in the family’s backyard tree, taking in the land in which he lives:

 

From his vantage point, Paul could look out through the shelter of the compound leaves of the Ailanthus and see across the dairy yard to the barn, the workshop nestled beside it, and his grandparents’ home. Visiting Vovó and Vovô was the surest way to bask in unconditional affection, but Paul was pensive and inclined to brood. Sometimes he wondered whether he did too much of it, but this time he broke into a small smile as he “thought about thinking,” as he had phrased it in his own mind.

With one hand on the tree trunk, he stood up for a better look across the Francisco dairy. Paul could no longer see any trace of the pickup bearing his father and brother. They had vanished amidst the checkerboard pattern of green and brown rectangles of the cultivated lands that stretched to the western horizon. Some of the fields bore the stippled corduroy pattern that indicated row crops. Others were unbroken green carpets of hay. It was still early enough in the day that the distant Coast Range Mountains were sunlit into visibility despite the persistent valley haze of dust.

 

 

I was honored to feature you at two or three of the Kale Soup for the Soul public readings.

“Kale Soup for the Soul” gave me a new and inspiring peer group. There’s a sense in which a new writer can feel like an interloper, especially in a case like mine, coming to literature from a background in textbooks and computers and math instruction.

It’s deeply gratifying to be invited to participate in “Kale Soup for the Soul.” Being accepted as a literary colleague is an unanticipated thrill. There’s also the special quality of getting to join in the celebration of one’s heritage. We even got invited to read at the Portuguese consulate in San Francisco. What a treat it was!

What was or is your happiest moment writing?

It’s a special moment when you write the final words and sit back from a completed manuscript—even if you know it’s only a first draft. There’s a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment. In the case of Land of Milk and Money, it was particularly pleasing because the ending seemed to be particularly apt. My friend Barbara Nielsen Dowell, who was retired from decades of teaching English and journalism, read the manuscript and proclaimed, “The ending was as good an ending as I’ve ever read.” That made for a pretty happy moment.

Are you superstitious?

I’ve done the best I could to shed any vestiges of superstition. Rationality is my pronounced preference. However, I had a habit in my youth—obsessive behavior, really—that involved my grandparents. I insisted on taking my leave of them with “Até logo.” Only this farewell was permitted. I never said “Adeus” or used any other formula than “Até logo.” I’m sure you can immediately figure out why I preferred to say “Until later.”

Eventually, of course, there was no “later,” but it wasn’t for my lack of trying. I’m certain that my grandmother noticed this peculiar habit of mine.

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(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), Practical Love Poems and Only More So (available now). She has received fellowships from CantoMundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD) and California Arts Council. Recently, she taught poetry at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk; University of Texas, Austin; The Gathering at Keystone College; Nimrod Conference in Tulsa, and the Mass.Poetry Festival. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie

Earlier Posts by Millicent Accardi