Portuguese American Journal

Katherine Vaz: Our Lady of Literature – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)

Katherine Vaz is the author of two novels: Saudade and Mariana; and two collections of short fiction: Fado and Other Stories and Our Lady of the Artichokes. The literary critic Vamberto Freitas praised Saudade as the first Portuguese-American novel to receive “significant attention from the American literary world,” and Dr. K. David Jackson of Yale calls the book “a major contribution to Latino/Latina/Hispanic Literatures in the U.S. and U.S. minority literature.”  Luso-Americano declared Vaz to be “the only author in the United States tackling the theme of Portuguese emigration.

Vaz is a recipient of fellowships from the University of California at Davis, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the Briggs-Copeland Fellowship in Fiction at Harvard University, where she taught for five years. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and The Boston Globe in addition to numerous other magazines, and her second novel was translated into Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, and Greek. She was also the first Portuguese-American author to have her work recorded at the Library of Congress, for the Hispanic Division archives.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Katherine Vaz discusses her Portuguese heritage, food, writing, and her secret life in the voice-over world of children’s books.

How would you describe your relationship with your Portuguese heritage? 

My father, August Mark Vaz, was raised in the Azores and went on to write The Portuguese in California, a Portuguese cookbook with my mostly-Irish mother, and other works, and he was known for giving lectures on Luso and Portuguese culture, including a college-level course or two.

He passed away last year, in September, 2013, and his influence was such that he received a number of posthumous awards, including a citation from the State of California and recognition by the Consul General of Portugal in San Francisco. He was witty and artistic and such an outstanding history teacher (San Leandro High School) that I was touched by the outpouring of happy memories from those whose lives he influenced.

A long way of saying that my father was so deeply Azorean, and so proud of it, and it informed and colored much of my identity. More to the point, my mother was and is a voracious reader. Both parents were lovers of books and the arts: They gave me permission to be whatever I cared to be.

When I have visited Portugal or the Azores, I have been warmly welcomed and one newspaper article called me “our American cousin.” That felt wonderful. I’m a native Californian, and that’s part of my identity, too, though I’ve lived on the East Coast over a decade. So “cousin” seemed just right.

What’s your favorite Portuguese food?

I love the salted cod dishes when I’m in Portugal! The dried bacalhau is harder to find in the states and requires more patience in its cooking. I don’t eat meat but I like fish, so any of the fresh fish in Portugal is glorious. I’m a good cook and make a delicious Portuguese-style fishermen’s stew.

ArtichokesMy grandmother’s family had a bakery in Angra, in Terceira, and my grandfather made a rice pudding that’s part of my childhood memories. Also queijadas that were amazing.

The short stories in your collection Our Lady of the Artichokes had the sense of being biographical. Can you tell me which ones (if any) were based on your life?

The title story of Our Lady of the Artichokes is loosely based on my great-aunt losing her apartment in San Leandro and saying in an off-hand way, Huh, if I painted the Virgin on the wall outside, maybe people would think it’s a miracle site and not tear the place down…and I thought, well, that would be a funny story if I extrapolated from it really happening.

Can you describe your research for Mariana (a novel based upon the true story of Mariana Alcoforado, sent to a convent during Portugal’s revolt against Spain in the seventeenth century)? 

MarianaI spent a full year researching Mariana, spending a lot of time in Beja reading dozens of the books written about her; I befriended Leonel Borrela and his family. He’s an artist and a curator with a huge collection of Mariana documents, records, and books. (His depiction or “fantasia” of Mariana is the cover of the Portuguese edition.) I spent months just reading…that book was elusive at first, because I spent another full year writing the portrait of a contemporary American woman intertwined with Mariana’s story, and it was lifeless, just a mess. But I kept trying to fit it all together.

Then, one night I was swimming in an outdoor pool in Southern California, where I was living at the time—I can still see the bright moon—and I got an awful headache. At home, I kept saying to my then-husband, Michael, that “my head is splitting in two,” until I burst out with, “Oh, she’s trying to tell me she wants her own book!”

I threw out absolutely every word I’d written and started over, just the straight story of Mariana’s life, and magically enough, I finished the next Independence Day.

Who are your mentors?

My father was my chief mentor, in that he painted almost daily and taught me—and the other five of his children—to be immersed in creative pursuits. I had wonderful high school teachers, from Sister Mary Una to Michael Petrini, who encouraged me, and Barry Farrell in college, a writer for Life Magazine, who told me to commit to the life I wanted.

There seems to be a shortage of female voices in the world of publishing and specifically in Portuguese-American literature. 

There are plenty of female authors, but the problem is that we aren’t reviewed as readily, and there’s all too often a subtle but definite ranking of women in the arts as less important than their male counterparts. It’s troubling that men’s literature is still characterized as being about the world—war and politics—and women are supposedly in that chamber-group-like attendance upon the domestic. Yet men write about home and family, too, and no one marginalizes them simply for that.

What can we do about this inequality?

I’ve always thought my own pushing into mainstream, my own hard work at getting to know the craft of writing, could have the collateral effect of being an example to young writers, especially Luso/a ones, women in particular.

What matters is that the human heart belongs to us all, and to write meaningfully of that, of what love and death mean, speaks to both genders. Honestly, I think that’s the key to bridging the gap, along with insisting that so-called female interests matter, that a feminine perspective is as strong as a male one in all matters of life.

My friend Bharati Mukherjee once said that she does not write from the margins; since America is a mosaic, and she’s part of it (as is everyone) then it’s all center, no margins.

Katherine Vaz with Christopher Cerf in Lisbon, Portugal, 2014

Katherine Vaz with Christopher Cerf, in Lisbon, Portugal, 2014

Can you describe where you write?

I write on a desk in the house I share in New York City with Christopher Cerf [my partner]. It’s small but looks down at our garden. We have a little place on Gardiners Bay in Long Island where I camp out and write all day, happy as can be, with a view of the water.

I’m a morning person, and my agent told me about something called “The Pomodoro Technique,” (one can look this method up on the internet), and I have had fun success with the timed writings it prescribes. I have a little cow timer.

Do you have a writing process?

I don’t have any strange writing habits (I almost wish I did) but I have to exercise or do yoga or something to keep from being too sedentary. Haruki Murakami has a creative exercise of using his left (non-writing) hand to record the first five words that stream into his consciousness each morning and then he takes five minutes to write a full story with those words in the order in which they appeared. That’s the only writing exercise I bother to try, but it’s a good one; it connects us to our dreamscape and taps into our subconscious, and it can be revealing to see patterns and repetitions, a clue to what our deepest material might be.

I’ve learned to take writing in stride, not to wring my hands over it, to keep pushing. My dear friend Liz Strout once said that she likes “to write about things people lie to their psychiatrists about,” and that’s wonderful advice, that pushing into the gestures to mask what’s hidden, what’s really true, profoundly so. Robertson Davies advised writers to be “serious but not solemn,” and that’s useful.

What’s saved me a lot is not worrying about rejection .What’s called failure is usually accepting that the work hasn’t gelled yet—or isn’t meant to, is better discarded, or hasn’t gone far enough yet. I don’t beat myself up for early, sketchy drafts.

Can you share an excerpt from a current writing project? 

It’s a massive novel I’ve been working on for the most recent ten years, about immigrants from Madeira who settled in Illinois near the time of the Civil War called Below the Salt. Here’s an excerpt: a young boy, John Alves, is put into jail with his mother when she’s condemned for heresy in Madeira–one of the paragraphs I like best:*

Outside the banana trees swayed, he knew, like tall, jeweled women with violent hair who were mad to dance but only in one spot, and someone, somewhere, was splitting a guava or beating egg whites until they formed castles. Someone was opening a fish, lifting the spine by the tail to get to the meat still printed with the memory of its bones. In the hotels along the beaches, the British women’s utensils tapped china, tapped glasses of wine, so that the rich eating in cool, pink-tinged dining rooms, the pearls at their throats shooting off bite-sized panes scraped from a rainbow, the parrots screeching in parabolas outside the windows, were making a light music that floated over the island. Everyone basted in the humidity. The rock of Madeira had crumbled off Portugal and come to rest in the Atlantic like a bright thought above the Canaries and the brainpan of Africa. Overheated, the women spoke of leaping east across the water to Casablanca. A place billed as the world’s first nightclub had opened in Paris. A rebellion had refigured Greece. An Englishman named Fox Talbot got a chemical from an astronomer and was producing photographic portraits off glass negatives, and didn’t that herald people captured forever, thanks to a silver liquid from someone who loved the stars?

Note:  I’ve finished an entirely different book, though, one I resurrected from a manuscript I set aside a dozen years ago. We’re going to take it out into the world early in 2015, after my agent is back from maternity leave. It’s based on the letters my mother’s mother and her best friend wrote over the 20th century, starting in Detroit in its heyday. The characters just sprang alive, all of a sudden.

100anosWhat one book do you wish you could have written? 

I wish I could have written One Hundred Years of Solitude! It is my all-time favorite book, one that gave me permission to be myself.

The experience of reading it was like stepping inside a symphony—the words turned into music. It’s also the book that has most excited the students I’ve taught.

What writing advice do you have for young writers? 

My advice won’t be much different from the usual. Read and write. Write and read. Also, the biggest error I see is impatience in young writers. It can take years to learn craft, to master storytelling, to have characters reveal themselves. Don’t be afraid to throw things out, to peel the layers of the onion and study story telling.

I spent a year or more studying structure, because I knew I could be poetic but I wanted to build better scaffolding on which to hang the ornaments (or to see that ornamentation can be a falsehood, an avoidance, a dazzling bit of beauty to distract from the holes in the story). Catch where your protagonist is reactive rather than active. People who go about observing the world without participating in it can kill a story.

I have an odd bit of advice, too: Never, ever be jealous of any other writer. Not ever. I’ve never understood people being unhappy for their friends’ success. It’s best not to trust people like that. Don’t go out to rag along with people who like to size up where everyone is on the Big Game Board. That just shrivels the soul.

If you had a superpower, what would it be? 

For a superpower, I’d choose to be invisible, a fly on the wall listening to people.  I write a lot about being haunted by what people say behind our backs, which reveals the number of masks that are worn.

What secret talent do you have? 

This is a fun question: Christopher records animal voices for his digital alphabet books for children, and I have a weirdly husky, cracking voice that turned out to be perfect to do the donkey recording. Hee-HAW. Yes, I am on tape releasing my inner jackass.


(*) 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), and Only More So. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming Foundation “Money for Woman.” She also organizes the literary series Kale Soup for the Soul: Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie

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