By Millicent Borges Accardi
Currently based in Seattle, Caitlin DaFonte Flynn is an award-winning journalist and writer interested in Portuguese culture. She has published articles and essays in publications such as Teen Vogue, InStyle, HuffPost, VICE, CrimeReads, Glamour, Allure, Refinery29, HelloGiggles, and POPSUGAR. Her work covers an astonishing breadth of topics, ranging from travel, health, and politics to eco-friendly fashion and true crime!
Earning a B.A. in English Literature and Film Studies from Smith College, Caitlin has enjoyed multiple opportunities to live, study, and work abroad in both London and Portugal. She is also a professionally trained ballet dancer, and writes reviews of local and national performing arts companies. Currently, she is working on her first book.
Articles such as “What to Do if You’re in Social Isolation With an Abuser,” “DACA Is at Risk and So Is the Mental Health of the Thousands Whose Parents May Be Deported,” “A Seattle Program is Making Mental Health Counseling More Affordable,” “Inside Jane Goodall’s Tireless Fight to Save the Environment,” and “Kristin Chenoweth Reveals How She Copes With Migraines At Work” appear online and in print.
In this interview with Millicent Borges Accardi, for the Portuguese American Journal, Caitlin DaFonte Flynn speaks of her Portuguese heritage, her interest for Portugal and the Portuguese culture, and of her career as a freelance journalist.
Q: Your grandparents were originally from Portugal?
A: My grandfather worked on his family’s farm in the village of Fernão Joanes until he was 19 or 20 and then he came to the United States in the 1950s, and my vovó’s side of the family is from Óbidos.
My grandmother was much younger in the U.S., and she attended school here for a few years, but she had to leave by middle school to take a job in a factory. Both my grandparents worked in factories in western Massachusetts until their retirements. They have a really strong work ethic that they instilled in my mom, which she, in turn, instilled in my brother and me.
I’m grateful to them because they worked so hard in a tough, underpaid industry. All the opportunities and privileges that I’ve had throughout my entire life are because they worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a lot so that their daughter and her children could have better lives. Their names are António and Luiza.
Q: How did you first become interested in Portuguese culture?
A: I’ve always been extremely close with my mom and my maternal grandparents. As a kid, I spent a lot of weekends with my avós, so I was exposed to the culture pretty organically — my vovó cooked Portuguese food, big family gatherings and celebrations were held at The Portuguese Club of Holyoke, my vovô loved to reminisce about his childhood in Portugal.
The first time I went to Portugal with my family, I just felt an immediate pull and sense of belonging. I didn’t want to leave. After that trip, I started to seek out more information about the Portuguese culture.
One of the reasons I chose Smith College is because it’s one of the very few liberal arts schools that has a Portuguese-Brazilian Studies department. Although I ultimately double majored in English and Film Studies, pretty much all my electives were in Portuguese. Smith is also located about 15 minutes away from my avós’ home so I continued to see them frequently; we went to lunch every Friday. They were thrilled that I was delving more into my heritage and improving my language skills so we could converse in Portuguese. We had a lot of fun with that.
Q: You mentioned, when we emailed, that you had “an early news shift tomorrow.” Can you fill us in on what that entails?
A: I can talk a little about my news writing! From October 2016, through June 2017, I was a Lifestyle News Writer at HelloGiggles. From Monday through Friday I wrote 3 to 6 stories per day on health, food & drink, technology, and any quirky stories that were just entertaining and fun. One that comes to mind is a person in the Upper East Side (my old neighborhood) sued their neighbor for playing Christmas music really loudly 24 hours a day.
I think she had singing reindeer surrounding her townhouse. In the fall of 2016, this job also included some political stories but nothing heavily reported; we would look at questions people were Googling, like any confusion about voter registration or finding your polling place, and do a quick write-up explainer post.
Q: How did you come to cover breaking news?
A: In March 2017, I joined Refinery29 as an overnight news writer, so I would log on at about 2pm PST until 10ish. We had a team of four writers, and I took on most of the political and breaking U.S. and world news stories. I remember my editor and I were signed on pretty late in July when the Senate was voting on the Obamacare repeal and McCain gave his famous thumbs down. When the Me Too movement went viral in fall, I pretty much covered all those stories because I have prior experience writing and public speaking about sexual assault.
For example, I broke the story of Jeffrey Tambor’s third accuser; she contacted me on Twitter after she read an article I published about allegations of sexual misconduct on the set of Transparent and agreed to go on the record and share her own account.
When I covered Big Little Lies, most of my pieces were focused on the themes of domestic violence, sexual violence, and PTSD. I interviewed experts for certain pieces, and I wrote a few personal essays about scenes that really resonated with me as a survivor.
Q: You have covered politics, travel, health, women’s issues, true crime. . .
A: Even when I was happy at a full-time job, I’d find myself wondering what it would be like to be working in the entertainment industry, at a nonprofit, in the travel field. I love freelancing because it gives me exposure to so many fields, and it’s pretty much impossible to get bored with such a diverse array of topics.
I think at one point, in the period of one week, I interviewed Jane Goodall, wrote an article about eco-friendly fashion brands based in the Pacific Northwest, and another about why it’s so hard for women with chronic illness to be taken seriously by doctors.
Q: Such a wide variety!
A: On the surface, this definitely looks like a hodge-podge of unrelated topics, but I’ve found there’s a lot of intersection.
For example, people tend to associate climate change and environmentalism with politics, but it affects every aspect of our lives and many fashion and beauty editors are looking for sustainable, eco-friendly brands and products to promote. Many of my entertainment articles have focused on movies and TV shows that depict mental illness and sexual violence, so they present opportunities to interview experts about what the depictions get right and wrong.
Q: What celebrities have you spoke with about more serious topics?
A: I interviewed Chelsea Handler, about her efforts to get young adults more involved in politics, and Kristin Chenoweth about how she copes with migraines at work. So I got to tell them both I’m a huge fan of their work and I had a bit of a fangirl moment with both of them, but really those conversations were focused on politics and health.
Q: What lessons did you learn from news writing?
A: I’m really glad I had the experience . . . because it taught me how to turn around solid writing in short periods of time. This especially became important during Me Too coverage because, for every story, we were required to contact the person’s publicist for a response to the allegation even, if they’d already released a comment to a different outlet. I personally prefer writing long-form pieces and deep dives with multiple sources, which can take weeks to months to finish, but I think it’s really important to have a diverse skill set because the industry is so volatile and unpredictable.
I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me many times, like when one of my highest paying clients went under with no notice, so I maintain all my contacts and keep in touch with former editors because I know sometimes I’ll have to abruptly pivot.
Q: You’re also interested in true crime. Have you read Clarice Lispector?
A: Yes! I was first introduced to her work my first year of college when I took a Portuguese Language Literature class. Out of all the authors we read, she was definitely my favorite. We all read Hour of the Star, but I chose to write my end of the semester paper about Lispector so I ended up reading a number of her books as part of my research. I’ve been re-reading her work recently because I’m working on true crime articles and a true crime book and she’s definitely an author who inspires me.
Q: Do you have a favorite line or passage by a Portuguese writer?
A: My favorite quotes change a lot depending on what’s going on in my life, but there’s one that I find myself constantly going back to. It’s from José Saramago’s The Cave. The English translation is, “The worst pain isn’t the pain you feel at the time, it’s the pain you feel later on when there’s nothing you can do about it. They say that time heals all wounds, but we never live long enough to test that theory.”
Q: We’re also both fans of Fernando Pessoa–
A: My favorite Fernando Pessoa poem is “Para além da curva da estrada.” I love the sentiment of living in the moment and finding and embracing the beauty of wherever you are, even if it’s not what you expected.
I have a Pessoa quote framed in my apartment: “Todo é ousado para quem a nada se atreve.” It reminds me to take risks and never lose my sense of curiosity and adventure.
A: I spent several weeks in Portugal in 2019, part of the time traveling with a friend from college and part of the time traveling solo. When I got back, I wrote a personal essay about how this particular trip was especially meaningful to me because my avós are now in their early 90s, and it’s a source of comfort to know I’ll always have that tie to them, being able to visit where they grew up and the places they love most in the country.
Q: During the Covid pandemic, have you kept a Quarantine journal? How has the lockdown affected you?
A: I haven’t kept a quarantine journal, per se, but I definitely started freehand writing more. At the beginning of lockdown — back in the good old days when we thought it would last about eight weeks — I got a few journals with writing prompts and I’ve been using those a lot.
The lockdown had a huge effect on my professional and personal life. I was flown home early from a work trip on March 15, and I’d had a pretty packed travel writing itinerary for 2020 that focused on South America; so I was really psyched for that. With all those trips and articles cancelled, I had to hustle to find new freelance writing gigs.
On a personal level, I have an autoimmune illness so I had to be really careful. I live alone and it was pretty isolating, but I did have a quarantine pod which was a lifesaver. I’d never gone over a year without seeing my family so that was the hardest part. I went through a really tough time mentally, a lot of anxiety and depression, because of the circumstances — the uncertainty with my career, the loneliness, and just extreme sadness knowing how many people in the country and world had experienced such profound loss.
I did a lot of reading and painting, bought an insane number of candles in an effort to turn my apartment into a day spa, and took Zoom ballet classes. Those were my best coping mechanisms.
A: Pastel de nata. Every time I leave Portugal, I’m literally eating them until the second I have to go through airport security. I’ve only found one place in America that makes them well: Joey Bats Cafe in the Lower East Side. I also love caldo verde soup — my vovó used to make it all the time when I was growing up so it’s one of my comfort foods. And I love a good francesinha when I’m not too full from eating so many pastéis de nata.
Q: After it is safe to travel again, are you heading back to Portugal?
A: Definitely. I had actually been planning to move to Cascais in the fall of 2020, but obviously Covid put a wrench in those plans. My mom and I usually try to do one mother-daughter trip a year, so we’re already planning to take a trip to Portugal once it’s safe. I do still plan to move to Cascais, but I think I’ll wait a year or two because I want to make up for lost time with family and friends in America, now that we’re close to being fully vaccinated.
Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of two full-length poetry collections, most recently, Only More So (Salmon Poetry 2016). She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Barbara Deming, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD. Her over 50 reviews and interviews have appeared in publications such as Another Chicago Magazine, Portuguese American Journal, and AWP Writers’ Chronicle. Find her @TopangaHippie (Twitter and IG).