Portuguese American Journal

Darrell Kastin: His allure of the Azores and his work in progress– Interview

By Carolina Matos, Editor (*)

♦  Darrell Kastin was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1957, of Azorean and Russian-Jewish descent. His maternal ancestors came from the islands to settle in the United States at the end of World War II.

Kastin was captivated by the Azores at a family reunion on the islands in1972. Since then, he has spent considerable time visiting the various islands and has used their lore and history, their culture and mythology, to write his novels and short stories.

His debut novel, The Undiscovered Island, published in 2009, is set on the islands of Faial and Pico in the time period around 1985-87. The tale follows the adventure of American born Julia Castro, who travels to the islands, where she finds herself entangled in legend and superstition, romance, magic and mystery.

Kastin was the winner of the 2010 IPPY Independent Publisher’s Award for Multicultural Fiction Adult. His fiction has appeared in The Seattle Review, The Crescent Review, The Blue Mesa Review, and Gávea-Brown. A short story collection titled, The Conjurer & Other Azorean Tales, is scheduled, to appear in December, 2012, published by Tagus Press.

A poet, a composer and musician, a lover and collector of rare books and an ex-bookstore owner, a book scout, and seller of rare books, Kastin currently divides his time between Southern Oregon and Sacramento.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Darrell Kastin speaks of his allure of the Azores, his love of music and his work in progress.

Author Darrell Kastin

Q: Your maternal ancestors came from the Azores. Who were they? Why did they come?

A: My mother’s grandparents were Josefina Amarante do Canto e Castro and Francisco do Canto e Castro. They left Horta, Faial, after a newspaper they ran failed. Before that they lived in São Roque, Pico.

Q: How was your experience growing up in a family with roots in the Azores?

A: Although I did not live in a Portuguese community, my mother was born on Faial. From her and from other family members, I first heard about the islands. My grandmother lived with us, or nearby, until she returned to the Azores, to Pico, in 1968. My grandfather paid us a visit from Brazil, where he had gone to live. My aunts lived nearby as well, and we would have get-togethers, either at their house or ours. There was often talk about the islands. The adults would speak Portuguese, especially when the topic was something they didn’t want us to hear. Sometimes they played Fado music. I was intrigued by the islands (my first written school report was on the eruption at Capelinhos). My grandmother told me stories about the family and the islands. It seemed a magical, mysterious place. Yet, there was very little of the Portuguese or Azorean experience, until I first visited the Azores at the age of fifteen.

Q: Did you learn Portuguese growing up?

A: No, I didn’t learn Portuguese. I wish I had. I studied it sporadically once I was an adult.

Q: When and why did you decide to explore your Azorean side?

A: When I went to the family reunion on the Azores in 1972, with all my aunts, uncles and cousins converging on the islands, it was like stepping into another world, another time. We went to Santa Maria first, then to São Miguel, where we stayed for about a week or so. Then we took a ship, the Ponta Delgada, which stopped off at all the islands until it dropped us off on Pico. My grandmother found places for us all to stay. Some of us managed to climb Pico in time to see the dawn from the peak of the mountain, from where we could see Faial, São Jorge, Graciosa and Terceira off in the distance.  We would take the small boat from Pico to Faial for the day, to visit friends of the family and see the sights.

Q: When and why did you decide to use the Azores as a setting for your stories?

A: I returned to the islands in 1987, intending to stay a year. I only stayed three-and-a-half months, but I managed to soak up a lot of the island life, spending half the time in Horta, Faial, and the other half in São Roque, Pico, and stopping for a couple of days at Terceira at the end. It was during this stay that I started writing my first Azorean stories. Eduardo’s Promise was the first. I also wrote a lot of sketches and notes. I listened and observed as much as I could. I gleaned a lot from a couple of friends who lived on Faial but had family on Pico. I met their family, went to a matança do porco, and asked a lot of questions. I also met a couple of anthropologists who had been living on Faial for many months; they shared their experiences of living with a family, and being part of the community, yet outsiders at the same time, which was how I felt as well. Being of a family that was from the islands, and yet not of the islands. I spoke a lot with my grandmother, of course, and other family members as well.

Q: When, where and how did you create The Undiscovered Island?

A: I returned home to California and wrote many more stories set on the islands, and soon began formulating an outline for my novel, The Undiscovered Island. I spent most of the initial writing time doing research. I read everything I could find on the Azores, Portuguese history, and the genealogy of my family.  I went to the J. A. Freitas Library in San Leandro, California. I felt I needed to go to Portugal to continue my research but wanted to learn more of the language. This finally led me to go to a summer course, in 1995, at UMASS Dartmouth, where I met Frank Sousa, who later decided to publish the novel.  I returned to the area after summer to take more courses. I stayed for 6 months in New Bedford, where I also did intense research at Casa da Saudade Library in New Bedford, which has a great collection. At the same time I met Elisabeth, a bilingual Librarian Assistant at Casa, who soon after became my wife. The two of us went to Portugal for six weeks, for more research.  I went to the Azores again for six weeks, in 2003. During the 2003 trip, aside from Santa Maria, Terceira, and São Miguel, we went to two islands I had never seen before – Corvo and Flores. I had always wanted to see Corvo because my grandmother’s grandfather, Domingos, had left the island at seventeen aboard a whaling ship and had never gone back.  From so much research at one point the novel was over 700 pages long. I had to cut it back and that was difficult work that took time.

Q: When did you first feel a personal connection with the Azores?

A: Seeing Santa Maria, then São Miguel, and on to the other islands until we reached Pico, where we stayed in 1972. That awoke my sense of being from this other world. Until that point the Azores was only the name of a far-off place. I’d seen photos and postcards. I’d heard tales about the islands and the family, but being there really struck a chord and changed things forever. I saw the beauty, I saw the poverty; I felt the isolation, the remoteness of the islands. Heard the cagarras, and saw the whales being hunted, hauled up to the factories where they were flensed. I tasted the cheeses, especially queijo do Pico and queijo de São Jorge, the maracujá, the fresh breads, the linguiça, the beet sugar, and more. Years later the islands drew me back and didn’t let go.

Q: What do you appreciate most about the islands? What has captivated you the most?

A: The islands are beautiful, and they interest me for that reason, alone. The fact that they are not exploited, that they have managed to retain so much of their natural beauty. I find the history of the islands and the history of Portugal fascinating. So many things we do not know, so many questions––answers lost in the mists of time. Still, the questions haunt me: what happened to Miguel and Gaspar Corte-Real, and others who disappeared? What did Infante Henrique know of the islands before he sent his men out there? I’ve also met a number of interesting characters each time I’ve visited the islands, including fishermen, old-time whalers, business owners, the elderly––who always interest me––and educated and uneducated men and women. I wish there were more authentic folk tales, and since there aren’t many, I made my own––that’s how I see my stories. I’ll continue to write stories set on the islands and intend to return as soon as I can.

Q: Are your stories autobiographical?

A: Not really. I used some of my own family history in my first novel. All the historical information is as accurate as I could make it, but the immediate family of the main character, Julia and her brother, mother and father, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, they are characters in a work of fiction and are not real individuals. They don’t represent real people. Some of the stories have biographical elements in that some events and/or characters are loosely based on what I’ve heard, seen, or otherwise witnessed on the islands.

Q: You have visited the Azores for long periods of time. Did you ever considered settling there?

A: Yes, many times. We once made an offer on a place on Santa Maria, but the deal never went through. It remains tied up in a legal mess. We spent some time there, and dreamt of having a place of our own. We found a huge property that was for sale and fell in love with it. It has an old historic home that’s a ruin and we thought somebody should rebuild and maintain it. Make part of it a cultural site or a casa-museu, or a park where people could come and enjoy the beauty of the place. The building could be used for events, like concerts and poetry readings, etc.  Unfortunately, as I have said, it is stuck in some sort of bureaucratic mess. I don’t know when or even if it will ever be untangled.

Q: Why Santa Maria?

A: We were interested in Santa Maria because my wife, Elisabeth Figueiredo Kastin, was born there, and has family there. Most people don’t realize what a beautiful island Santa Maria is. They see the airport and think that is all there is of the island. But the beach, Praia Formosa, is great, and there are beautiful bays like São Lourenço and Maia. There’s the vivid red soil of Barreiro da Faneca––a Mars-like terrain or Arizona desert scene. Pico Alto, the mountain, is densely wooded, and gorgeous. Also, Elisabeth and I like the fact that Santa Maria has people who are interested in preserving the environment, its architecture as in the casa típica mariense and the historic center of Vila do Porto.

Q: How do you reconcile being a US citizen deeply connected to your ancestral Azorean roots?

A: Like the character in my novel, I feel I belong to a region between the Azores and the US. I certainly am not an Azorean, yet, I have a deep affinity with the islands. I am a US citizen, and yet I think my sensibilities are different from the majority of Americans. So, I reconcile by claiming that I’m a citizen of this other realm which lies between the two.

Q: Will you describe for us your work in progress?

A: Right now, I’m working on getting another short story collection published, titled, The Woman Who Stole the Moon & Other Stories. I’m also trying to publish a suspense novel. These are not related in any way to the Azores or Portugal.  But I have recently started writing a new novel, set on the Azores, titled, A Tale of the Azorean Nights. In some way it can be called a sequel to The Undiscovered Island, yet at the same time it is very, very different from the novel. This book is a series of stories that are linked together, told at night, as in the Tales of the Arabian Nights, only there is no Scheherazade. I’m also looking to have The Undiscovered Island reprinted, since it has sold out. I would also love for it to be translated in Portuguese and published in Portugal.

Q: Your music. Why music? How did you start? What does it mean to you?

A: I started off as a musician, when I was a teenager, so my music is simply a return to an old love. I hadn’t been involved with music for years, and started suddenly, with no warning. It was quite a surprise to me. I first began writing all sorts of songs, and soon had pieces of music that felt different and for which I had no lyrics. One day I simply wondered if I could set Portuguese poems to some of this music. I began with Fernando Pessoa, As Ilhas Afortunadas. It fit perfectly to the music I had composed. My wife suggested Mar Português next, and I found it fit another piece of music. So it went, on and on, song after song. We then began using the poetry of Florbela Espanca. I love composing the music. I think the music fits the poetry somehow. There is a feeling, a passion in the poetry, both of Espanca and Pessoa, I experience, and I think and hope it comes through the music as well. I’ve also composed music for poems by Camões, Antero de Quental and W. B. Yeats.

Q:  How challenging was for you to produce your music in Portuguese?

A: It was very challenging but Pedro Barroso is a friend and he offered to produce the CD, which was why we went to Lisbon to record the songs. I knew that only Portuguese musicians could adequately capture the essence of the songs, the proper feeling of the music.  It was difficult to coordinate schedules, have enough time to practice with the musicians before recording, etc. But the songs themselves were ready and the vocalist, my daughter Shawna, had perfected her interpretation before we left the US.

Q: You have written poetry. What does it mean to you?

A: That’s a difficult question. I only write poetry on rare occasions. Poetry is important because you can access another level of truth, perhaps hidden.  It’s strange, but one day I started writing poetry in Portuguese and it appeared like lightening, as if someone was dictating words. This began in Santa Barbara, in 1994, where I had taken a summer course in Portuguese, before going to New Bedford, and happened when I took the Portuguese courses at UMASS Dartmouth. The poetry came, and it came in Portuguese. I showed some of the poems to Elisabeth, who is a poet herself, and she thought they had potential, but just needed work on the technical side of the language.  We started collaborating on these poems and we had one poem published in the Portuguese journal Oficina de Poesia, No 11, Dezembro, in 2008.  We hope to publish more in the future.

Q: Who is your audience?

A: I don’t know if I’m the right person to answer the question. My audience is certainly anyone interested in the Azores and/or Portugal, and anyone who is interested in literary fiction, people who like stories. I believe the stories possess a universality that transcends the islands or Portugal. I personally read from all the world’s literatures and in many different genres.

Q: What about the Portuguese-American literary scene?

A: Well, there are quite a number of writers out there in the Portuguese-American literary scene, but for the most part it’s all very recent. Only now are we really beginning to find out about each other’s work. Most of us were writing on our own, isolated, like islands, so to speak. Considering the response to The Undiscovered Island, quite a number of people are interested in work related to the Azores and Portugal. So, I’d say that its future is promising. I think we need to thank Onésimo Almeida and Gávea-Brown, Frank Sousa and the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture at Umass Dartmouth, and Vamberto Freitas at Universidade dos Açores for the work they’ve been doing promoting it.

Q: Some of your favorite authors include Edgar Allan Poe, Dostoevski, Mark Twain, John Fowles, Harper Lee, Angel Miguel Asturias, John Fante, Peter S. Beagle, J. R. R. Tolkien, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Collier, Saki, and Miguel de Cervantes among others. Do you have any Portuguese favorite authors, including contemporary Azorean writers?

A: My favorite Portuguese authors would have to include: Eça de Queiroz, José Saramago, Lobo Antunes, Gil Vicente, Camões, Antero de Quental, Pessoa, Florbela Espanca. If I was to include Brazilian writers, I would have to mention: such as Machado de Assis, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Jorge Amado and João Ubaldo Ribeiro. I wish that more Azorean writers were being translated into English. I’m currently reading the English translation of Vitorino Nemésio’s Mau Tempo no Canal––Stormy Isles. Since I never fully learned Portuguese, it’s easier to attempt to read poetry as opposed to fiction. Thus I am currently reading Daniel Gonçalves’ latest book of poems, A Tua Luz Costurou-Me Uma Bainha No Coração. I would also like to read João de Melo, as well as Adelaide Freitas’s novel Um Sorriso Por Dentro da Noite when it is finally translated into English. The problem with answering a question like this is that when I sit down and start thinking of authors I like it is hard to stop: Torga, Sena, Álvaro do Carvalhal, Domingos Monteiro, (again, the last two should have more of their work translated), on and on. There are many more I could list.

Q: Do you have a favorite Portuguese American writer?

A: Except for Home is an Island, and a book by John dos Passos, which I read about 25 years ago, I really haven’t read many Portuguese-American writers. As I said in an earlier question regarding the Portuguese-American literary scene, it’s only now that I’m hearing about many of these writers. I have a number of books on my shelves, but so far haven’t gotten to them. I didn’t want other Portuguese-American writers to have any influence on my novel as I was writing it. I have Leaving Pico, and intend to read it, and I have a collection of stories by Katherine Vaz, which I also intend to read. The only other Portuguese-American author I’ve read so far is Julian Silva, Distant Music, and I enjoyed that book a lot. I’ve just started getting works by Portuguese-American authors, writers like Carlo Matos and Millicent Accardi, and others, so I’ve been somewhat remiss in catching up on my reading, as regards Portuguese-American writers. I’m working on so many different books and stories, and have so much research material to read that I don’t have much time left.

Q: What do you suggest should be done to better promote the Portuguese-American literature?

A: I’m outside academia, so I don’t really know. I do think the work should be read outside of academia. There are good writers writing good work, but it’s easy for the industry to label it as ethnic, which is the same as ignoring it, minimalizing it, which is a shame. It would be nice, however, if more people were proud of their heritage, and instead of burying their past, read about it and spoke about it, and passed on that legacy to their children and grandchildren. I’ve spoken to too many children of Azorean immigrants who know nothing at all of the Azores or Portugal. So many don’t even know which island their parents or grandparents came from. That, I think, is sad. The people of the Azores were an amazing lot, clinging to life on such a far-flung, desolate place: great explorers, whalers, brave fishermen, craftspeople, etc…

Q: Are you planning to write about the Portuguese immigrant experience in the US?

A: I have no immediate plans to write about the immigrant experience in the US. But I may yet get to it. A couple of the stories in my collection The Conjurer and Other Azorean Tales touch on this topic.

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(*) Carolina Matos, the founder and editor of the Portuguese Portuguese American Journal online, was the Editor–in-Chief for The Portuguese American Journal, in print, from 1985 to 1995. From 1995 to 2010, she was a consultant for Lisbon based Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD). She has graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts and a Master’s Degree in English and Education from Brown University and holds a Doctorate in Education from Lesley University. She is currently an adjunct professor at Lesley University where she has taught undergraduate and graduate courses. In 2004, Carolina Matos was honored with the Comenda da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique presented by Jorge Sampaio, President of Portugal.