Portuguese American Journal

Book: Behind the Stars, More Stars – Interview with Editors

By Elaine Avila
 
The book Behind the Stars, More Stars: TheTagus/Disquiet Collection of New Luso-American Writing is an essential new collection of contemporary American writers of Lusophone-country descent edited by Christopher Larkosh, Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Oona Patrick of the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. Tagus Press describes their new publication as presenting “experimental and boundary-breaking prose especially from women, people of color, and LGBTQ writers,” and imagining “a more diverse and inclusive Luso-American and Portuguese-American literary scene, which has traditionally been dominated by male voices.” The writers were all participants of the “Writing the Luso Experience” workshops at the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, which is going into its ninth year.  Behind the Stars, More Stars includes Disquiet faculty Katherine Vaz and Frank X. Gaspar, alongside writers from the workshops such as Traci Brimhall, Jarita Davis, Hugo Dos Santos, and previously unpublished women writers.
 
Elaine Avila, Disquiet Faculty/Fulbright Scholar to Portugal (2019), interviews – for the Portuguese American Journal – editors Oona Patrick and Christopher Larkosh, to celebrate the publication of this formally experimental, exuberantly funny, exaltedly detailed, delightfully contradictory, gut wrenching and poignant anthology.

 

1. Interview with Christopher Larkosh

 

Q: One of the many reasons I love this anthology is that it exemplifies your vision for the Portuguese in the Americas Series at Tagus Press. Can you tell PAJ readers about the new directions you are taking?

A: Thanks for saying so, Elaine. When I began my two-year stint at Director of Tagus Press in 2015 I was in Lisbon at Disquiet with then-Managing Editor Mário Pereira. In our discussions with Oona and program participants, our interactions only underscored what we had had in mind for some time: to place more emphasis on those narratives that hadn’t yet been told or explored in as much depth as others. Our most recent publications, most notably the 2016 collection of poetry titled Return Flights, by the Cape Verdean-American writer and Disquiet alumna Jarita Davis, is a reflection of this shared desire to open up the discussion of who we are as a community to a wider range of perspectives.

These perspectives, however, are not limited merely to those shaped by race and racialization, ethnicity, gender identity and sexuality. Equally important are those understandings of identity that depart from more critical interpretations of the experience of life under the Salazar dictatorship and its intrinsic components of colonial rule, emigration and political exile. The Portuguese-American diaspora, as well as other “Lusodiasporic” communities as I call them, are irreversibly shaped by these historical processes, so I guess I simply wanted what we publish and offer for a more inclusive discussion In the community to reflect that. Hopefully with this heightened historical consciousness as an intrinsic part of our cultural identity, we might even be able to challenge and counter more effectively those authoritarian rumblings we might notice in our everyday culture and political life on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Q: You mention that perhaps the great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s “literary and existential sensibility has been the most inseparable” from your own. Please tell us more.

A: Thank you for picking up on this and asking me about it. When I began this journey into transnational Lusophone studies, the first work I ever read in Portuguese was the novel A maçã no escuro by Clarice Lispector. It was the summer of 1984; I can remember sitting on a bench on the edge of Oak Bluffs Harbor with this book in my hand as the ferryboats sailed in and out on their way to and from Woods Hole, Falmouth and Hyannis. At the time the migration of Brazilians to Martha’s Vineyard had not yet begun in earnest, but in a few short years the Island would once again have a year-round population of Portuguese speakers, albeit from a different place that most of my childhood classmates and neighbors; i. e., the Azorean island of Faial. It is this openness to a broader understanding of identification with the Portuguese language that I wish to share with my students of Portuguese, and I always find myself overjoyed when one of my Portuguese-American students finds a new favorite author among the wide range of Brazilian authors I assign in both undergraduate and graduate seminars.

As for me, what I appreciate most in Clarice’s work in particular is her connection with a broad expanse of space and time while still aware of the challenges of describing even the most limited of physical spaces or a single moment in one’s own subjective emotional experience, a challenge both impossible and necessary at the same time. I am about to teach her novel A Paixão Segundo G.H. again to my advanced students next week; the ways it continues to spur discussions among all my students about the limits of one’s literary world, not to mention the fleeting nature of existential certainty, is one that I always look forward to, even 28 years after the first time I taught it as a graduate student at Berkeley back in the spring of 1991.

Q: How has your relationship to the Portuguese-American community in America influenced this anthology?

A: My relationship to the Portuguese-American community in my home region is a multifaceted one, as well as one that naturally continues to shift and change over time. When I was a child, it meant my relationship with the people in my hometown, my classmates at school, or that with my afterschool piano teacher Mrs. Coutinho who lived next door to what was then the public library in my hometown. It meant the Portuguese Feast held at the Holy Ghost Society grounds down the street from my house, or my mother’s friends and colleagues at Tisbury School, the recipes for Portuguese soup and sweet bread they shared with her, the same ones that I continue to share with others to this day. When we tell these stories of those we knew and cared about, we recognize how much there is to share.

Of course there was also the occasional television show on WTEV Channel 6 that chronicled the lives and experiences of the much larger Portuguese diaspora communities on the mainland, but aside from the occasional appearance of a Portuguese-American television actress like Karen Valentine on the show Room 222, or the hits of the New Bedford-based Cape Verdean musical group Tavares as they became part of mainstream popular culture, we still lived a relatively insular cultural existence when it came to the role of Portuguese-American culture in everyday life. I grew up in this community, and always considered myself a part of it as so many others did, regardless of ethnicity. In college and graduate school, my interests may have broadened to the Portuguese language alongside other world languages and literatures, as well as literary and cultural theory, but it was my continuing interest in Portuguese-American literature and culture that would eventually be what brought me back to southeastern Massachusetts after being hired to teach at UMass Dartmouth in 2007.

Nowadays, that I find myself once again settling in here, I might also mention grateful I am to have found a new home in East Providence, Rhode Island, in a solidly Azorean-American neighbourhood, something that, while a point of departure for many in our academic field, is not always part of their everyday lived experience. I feel lucky to live in a completely bilingual environment both at home and at work, whether with my neighbors, at local businesses, or with my advanced students, who also teach and play important roles in their local communities. This fully bilingual environment of culture, education and community is one that I hope all Portuguese-Americans will be able to enjoy as we continue current projects of cultural agency such as those at Tagus Press and the Disquiet program.

Q: Why did your trip to the Azores, when you and Tagus Press received a grant from FLAD to take your PhD students to the Azores, become vital to Behind the Stars, More Stars? You mention you went to São Miguel (including the University of the Azores), Faial and Pico….

A: Spending time with graduate and undergraduate students is always an important part of my work, but it would be difficult if not impossible to ignore the symbolic importance of the Azores as a cultural point of origin for my Portuguese-American students and colleagues, and maybe even for myself to some extent. I was especially moved by my visit to the site of the Capelinhos volcanic eruption, a geological event that ended up having much significant political and cultural consequences for us here in southeastern New England, especially after the passing of the Pastore-Kennedy Act, also known as the Azorean Refugee Act of 1958, which allowed countless thousands of Azoreans and Portuguese to immigrate to the region, changing its cultural landscape for years to come, including the one I was born into and grew up in.

Having dinner in Horta at the house of the cousin of one of my students was another unforgettable experience, one that underscored the importance of food and hospitality to this transatlantic culinary culture we share. Equally important, however, were the readings from Portuguese-American literature that students completed before the start of the trip, which allowed them to interpret the landscape and culture from a distinct but no less valid diasporic perspective and which gave a more nuanced frame of reference to our cultural discussions.

After this shared experience of reconnecting to a broad set of cultural commonplaces, signs and symbols, it was all the more gratifying to visit our counterparts at the University of the Azores, where I gave a lecture on Portuguese-American literature assisted by my doctoral student Maggie Felisberto before Prof. Vamberto Freitas and a room full of Azorean students interested in Portuguese-American culture. The administrators we met were pleasantly surprised that our students were unlike most from the US, as ours were already fluent in Portuguese, with no need for our hosts to speak English. Ultimately, promoting this kind of effective cultural diplomacy, whether by way of greater functional bilingualism or increased cultural literacy, as this transnational cultural dialogue continues to evolve, is a commitment that I now know these students are committed to carrying forward, be it as educators, researchers, translators, and yes, published authors.

Q: Do you find Azorean literature has a different sensibility than the mainland? How does this play out in Portuguese American literature?

A: Sometimes it does, but traces of what some might consider insular mindset can be found in continental authors, just as certain commonplaces from one corner of the Lusophone world resurface elsewhere. So while some might make a case for Azorean literature being separate and distinct from continental Portuguese literature, much as many cultural critics may highlight the differences between, say, Portuguese-American and Luso-Canadian cultural production, I am more interested in how these different points of departure criss-cross, interact and dialogue with one another, exploring the commonalities that allow us to imagine ourselves in ever-greater community with one another.

Q: You expand our understanding of the diaspora by publishing Goan and Cabo Verdean, female and LGBTQ+ writers, with this anthology and your work at the press. How did this become part of your work?

A: Like so many of my colleagues at UMass Dartmouth, we have always placed a high value on creating an educational experience that is sensitive to the needs and academic interests of a wide range of students, both inside and outside of the local Portuguese-American community. My own PhD students have written on women in Azorean literature and domestic violence towards women in Portuguese literature and culture. My MA students have done excellent work on local Portuguese-American culture, but also on Cape Verdean diasporic culture as well. I am fortunate to have the unique opportunity to work in a department and program that prizes and encourages recognition of the specific cultural milieu that makes our teaching and research possible.

My research over the last twenty-odd years has always been concerned with questions of transcultural understandings of gender and sexuality, both in the Portuguese-speaking world, particularly Brazil, but also in a wide range of other global cultural and linguistic contexts, from Quebec to Argentina and from Central Europe to India and the Far East. I want to encourage this kind of transcultural discussion and research on gender and sexual diversity, both in local Portuguese-American culture and in a broader transnational and Lusodiasporic framework.

Around the time I began work in Portuguese at UMass Dartmouth, a new set of research opportunities had already begun opening up for me that took all over the world, to places where Portuguese culture came into contact with others. At the same time that I returned to places like Portugal, Brazil and Macau, I had the chance to add new experiences in Mozambique (2006), Cape Verde (2008), Goa (2009), Melaka (2010) and finally the Azores for the first time on a quick stopover in 2011, right before beginning FLAD-funded research on Goa in Lisbon and attending the Disquiet program. So all of these experiences, while they may seem separate and perhaps even irreconcilably different to others, still seem intertwined, and in fact, inextricable from one another to me, and I can only hope that this collection of new writing will encourage others in the community to draw these same connections, both in their intellectual life, their travels and intercultural contacts and in their everyday lived experience of cultural and ethnic identity as something beautifully complex and always subject to some measure of reconfiguration.

Q: This anthology represents the relationship you have forged between Tagus Press and Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. What excites you the most?

A: What excites me most in any literary project I have been part of is encouraging new voices to emerge and develop over time. What excites me the most long-term is awaiting new work by both well-established and newer authors: Frank X. Gaspar’s latest book, due to be out with Tagus sometime this year, for example, as well as other featured authors who are currently debuting full-length literary works. I also remain passionate about contributing to and sharing some of the latest academic research on this community as reflected in its literature and culture, especially that scholarship edited and published at UMass Dartmouth in the latest issue of our academic journal due out this spring. As Lead Editor of this issue, this is without a doubt another exciting development for me (PLCS Nº 32, Luso-American Literatures and Cultures Today). For the time being, however, especially as this volume of new Luso-American writing goes to press, one sure to be a new point of contact and discussion with participants and alumni of the Disquiet program, I feel I already have more than enough to be excited about.

 

2. Interview with Oona Patrick

 

Q: You’ve written essential surveys of Portuguese literature, incisively about Lisbon, exquisitely about Provincetown from the Portuguese point of view. Behind the Stars, More Stars is yet another touchstone of this caliber. Why did you decide to edit this anthology at this point in your career?

A: As Doris Lessing said, “Do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” Taking this on in 2015 when Chris Larkosh (co-editor) approached me with the idea was like the leap into beginning the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon in 2010— I couldn’t pass it up. Having the support of Tagus Press behind the collection, especially from executive editor Mario Pereira, made it all worthwhile.

At Disquiet, I love to introduce writers to each other, and this collection is about making introductions. It’s a small sample from only the first five years of the program. We wanted to create a snapshot of a particular time, not an all-encompassing anthology (hence the deliberate use of “collection” in the subtitle). There are so many more writers I would have liked to include. I hope emerging writers, especially, will see that there’s a place for them in this crowd, even if they aren’t able to attend Disquiet.

Q: There are many voices in this collection we have not heard from before.

A: I don’t think I’ll ever forget one moment during a joint event at FLAD held by Disquiet and the University of Lisbon’s “Neither Here Nor There” conference in 2013. A group of Luso alums and participants, who’d been noticing how the conference program referenced what felt like an overwhelming number of older male writers, huddled in an aisle to talk. We collaborated on a question about this for the panel of prominent Luso-American and Luso-Canadian writers scheduled to speak next. We decided to ask them to address the “disparity between the make-up of the majority of the emerging Luso-American writers coming through the Disquiet program and the preponderance of white, hetero, male writers currently being published, reviewed, and studied in the Luso-American literary world,” and to press them on whether they at least thought more women will be published in the future.

As a shy person who has to prepare for about a week to do a three-minute introduction, asking that question on behalf of our group was one of the scariest moments of my life. I barely got through it, though honestly it was nothing compared to a Provincetown Town Meeting. The question received flippant or incomplete answers, and no one could seem to find any satisfying answer for why publishing had been so skewed.

What happened next is what shocked me: late the next morning, I heard that my question had dominated discussion across nearly every workshop at our program. The problems of the Luso-American world had unexpectedly been taken up by a sample of the larger literary community. I’d never seen that happen before, and I wondered if this had been what we needed to do, to risk sharing these problems. Maybe this is what a place at the table for Luso-Americans in the literary world would actually look like in the future. I like to think that this book becoming a reality has made good on this uncomfortable and disquieting moment. To my mind, Behind the Stars is also for everybody who was there that year, to whom I just want to say obrigada. As I say in the acknowledgments to the book, the vision of our alumni organizers and activists was a huge part of the inspiration for the collection, which is again only a small step toward a truly representative Luso-American literary scene.

Q: Do you mind sharing a bit about the Luso Workshop for PAJ Readers who may not be familiar with it?

A: The Writing the Luso Experience Workshop came about because Jeff Parker, co-founder and Director of Disquiet, requested funding from the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD) specifically for fellowships for Luso-American writers to form a workshop of their own at the first Disquiet in 2011. These FLAD fellowships, along with partial scholarships for runners-up, have helped make it possible for many of our 80 Luso-descendant alumni (which includes those with ties to any Lusophone country), to take part in Disquiet. So far the workshop has been taught by two of the leading Portuguese American writers: Frank X. Gaspar and Katherine Vaz. This year, which will be its ninth, it will be taught by Chris Arnold, the Brazilian American author of The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First-Century Amazon, with a visit from Cape Verdean American poet and Tagus author Jarita Davis. Both are Disquiet alums.

The Luso workshop was among the first of its kind for North American writers with Lusophone-country heritage. It’s also been special because it’s not part of an exclusively Luso-American academic conference or event—there’s cross-pollination with writers, editors, translators, and publishers from all backgrounds.

The majority of the non-Luso participants at Disquiet are new to Portugal, and may not have had previous interest in Lusophone literature, but we find that Lisbon works its magic fast and has changed that for good for many of our 700 alumni.

Q: How has inspiring an emergent voice affected your own writing?

A: Meeting all those other Luso-descendant writers at Disquiet broadened my perspective on Luso-American communities like the one I grew up in. It gave me a big-picture view of what I was writing about in my memoir of my hometown, a community that has undergone painful changes recently—changes that threatened to pit one minority group against another in conflict over the many meanings of a tiny place.

I’ve also been inspired by a lot of activist spirits like yourself who’ve pushed me to do more with my writing than I would have dared without this backing, especially when it comes to writing about class and various kinds of discrimination. I still sit in on the workshop at Disquiet whenever I can; it reconnects me to a kind of collective Luso-American voice, and to voices beyond that definition. I know of no other space like it and I have learned an incredible amount from everyone who’s come through it.

Q: What changes have you seen since Disquiet began?

A: More people are pursuing writing and not giving up, and this is crucial. The Luso workshop has gifted many of us the colleagues we need to help us persevere in the long haul—countering that pernicious myth that writers work only in isolation. Frank X. Gaspar encouraged us to try to publish outside the niche we thought we were confined to, which made us more ambitious, and Katherine Vaz has shown us the importance of giving back via teaching and mentorship. By reaching across borders in the Lusophone world, we’ve had extraordinary opportunities to compare experiences, to sense the vastness of our history. We may continue writing about our own small corners of this world, but not without some understanding of the reach of the Portuguese empire, and how horrific it could be.

I vividly remember Anthony de Sa remarking at a talk that he hadn’t felt the support of his local Portuguese community at all when he started out, and that’s something we have seen change. The heartfelt community response to readings our alumni have put together across North America makes me believe that there was already a hunger for our work. We’ve had audiences of family and friends who’d never been to a literary reading before, or who’d never heard someone read a story with them or their community represented in it. These moments have made everything worth it.

Q: You mention how your own writing experiments with genre, form, and upends taboos, and how this has influenced your sensibility as an editor.

A: Such experiments have often had a strong association with underrepresented voices forging new tools to talk about their lives and approach suppressed topics.
I love looking at the shape of prose on the page, and this makes me seek out stories told via the juxtaposition of fragments and incorporation of found forms. I can also enjoy a good bout of alternative punctuation as found in Saramago; all of this, I think, has origins in my love of poetry.

My childhood in Provincetown, with its layers of communities interacting, influenced me deeply. Our own community could be stifling, but we lived among so much joy and freedom and activism that sensibilities mingled. Also, I didn’t grow up Catholic, because of rebellions and drama in 1910s Provincetown, and I felt separate because of that for a long time. All this is to give fair warning: readers should know before they pick up this book that it is not intended for children or those with a delicate sensibility. I joke that we’re going to get banned in New Bedford.

Q: Disquiet has begun a new residency in the Azores. Do you find that Azorean literature is distinct?

A: The Azores are at the heart of my experience of Portugal, both because that’s where my family roots are, and because I believe what Vamberto Freitas (an essential Azorean literary critic and scholar) pointed out to me: that you could see the Azores everywhere in Provincetown. I’d grown up in a kind of antique mirror of island life in a mostly Portuguese American town that was quite isolated for most of the year. When I first saw the Azores, I felt like I finally understood Provincetown.

Azorean literature does seem to have distinct concerns, which have special appeal to Americans (immigration, rebellion, independence, insularity, discrimination). The islands are tied to some of our greatest literature, Melville’s work, among others. They’re also the site of America’s oldest continuously-operating consulate, because Portugal was among the very first countries in the world to recognize the U.S. after the American Revolution. Americans traveling to Portugal for the first time always ask me if they should go to Lisbon or Porto—I tell them to stop in the Azores.

There’s something poignant to me about a place that periodically comes on the world stage, usually because of its strategic location, and then drops from view, so much so that until recently many Americans didn’t know the archipelago’s name. Voices persisting in an overlooked geography are so interesting to me. There’s also the astounding natural beauty—though I know from Cape Cod that behind every extreme or mythologized landscape there’s some tough living, too: start with João de Melo’s novels if you want to learn more.

Q: Do you have advice for people advocating for their own literary communities? For those of us breaking silence?

A: It begins with building numbers and growing the internal connections, so that there’s a group amplifying one another from many directions, not one person. At least from my experience of Luso-American communities, this requires a shift from a very natural focus on small, exclusive groups of close friends and family, or so-called strong ties, to opening oneself to also having “loose ties” in larger, more inclusive communities, including social media networks. It also takes keeping in mind that other people’s successes do not detract from your own—they can help an entire community: others have paved the way for all of us.

As for the courage to break silence, there’s nothing like a look back at the past, at the Three Marias, for example, or at the sound-proofed typewriter you told me about in Lisbon’s Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom.

I picture the rooms where we hold Disquiet workshops in Lisbon’s historic Centro Nacional de Cultura, where the number 28 streetcar rumbles and screeches on the street below every fifteen minutes or so, making it difficult to hear people speak. As most Disquieters learn in their first few days, the artists and writers who met in those same rooms before the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1974 famously took advantage of these moments when the secret police couldn’t eavesdrop to switch from innocuous artistic discussions to whispered plans for revolution.

When the tram passed during the Luso workshop we’d pause and joke about conspiring too, in our own ways. Poetry, prose, critique—Let’s change this world! Burn it all down! Pass it on!—poetry, prose, critique. There’s an alternate story just out of earshot that’s someday going to become louder.

For me, that rhythm is like writing essays: you listen for the whispered story you’re telling yourself in secret, inlaid in odd details and inexplicable metaphors and rooms you keep revisiting.

That clandestine Lisbon rhythm is something we carry home in our bones, a growing resonance.

————————-

About the Editors

Christopher Larkosh is Associate Professor of Portuguese at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He was Director of Tagus Press from 2015 to 2017, and Co-Editor of the academic journal Portuguese Literary & Cultural Studies. Aside from being co-editor of Behind the Stars, More Stars, he is also the lead editor of the upcoming issue (32) on Luso-American Literatures and Cultures Today.

Oona Patrick is a writer of Azorean Portuguese descent from Provincetown, MA. She has been part of the Disquiet International Literary Program since its inception in 2011. She earned a BA from Brown and an MFA from Bennington, and her writing has appeared in the US, Canada, and Portugal. 

Book details:

Title: Behind the Stars, More Stars

Series: Portuguese in the Americas Series

Editors: Christopher Larkosh & Oona Patrick

Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press (March 5, 2019)

Language: English

Paperback: 264 pages

Available: Amazon.com and Tagus Press 

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