Portuguese American Journal

Compassion Fatigue: The weird world of Humberto da Silva – Interview

By Milicent Borges Accardi

“Given the overriding dystopian themes, a dirty martini shaken up from cheap vodka and garnished with a fistful of pimentoed supermarket olives will probably do the trick.” Toronto-born, Portuguese-Canadian writer Humberto da Silva is famous for his creative literary posts in social media, pairing short reviews with cocktails (to compliment the books he reviews), so, when I heard that his own first book had debuted, I was eager to ask the author what drink or mocktail he would select to accompany his short story collection called,  Compassion Fatigue: …and Other Stories of the Indecent Past, Weird Present, and Feared Future.

This new collection of speculative fiction consists of tales about our present day strange circumstances post-COVID-19 and imagines a dystopian-like future world.  Silva explains that the title story, “Compassion Fatigue” is about the “disorientation experienced by a group of Gen Xers as their hopes transmute into dread,” as they navigate adulthood.  Other stories in the book echo the “despair . . .. about social pathologies of the recent past caused by unbridled technological advancement and corrosion of the political and economic social consensus.”

Originally from Silva Escura, in the town of Sever do Vouga, a district of Aveiro in northern continental Portugal, Silva’s family is “hill people from the mountains and valleys of the interior” in the business of sharecropping. As an adult, his father worked at the Bracal mining complex, but, after surviving a mining disaster, he emigrated to Canada in the 1950s (after a 2 year stay in Venezuela). He had been separated from his wife for five years, and soon after their reunion, the writer Silva was born!

As a toddler, Silva spent a year in Portugal with his family (1962-63) and two years in public school 1970-1973 (completing the requisite “quarta classe”). Since then, he has returned to Portugal almost every year and started spending whole summers there in 2016 (after his father passed away). During the 1980 and 1990s, he worked for the airlines (flight attendant, loadmaster, air marshal) and spent time in the Azores (Sao Miguel and Terceira), which left him with “many friends there and a whole new appreciation of what really constitutes Portuguese culture.”

Silva currently lives in Toronto with his wife Lina, and black cat Montie, and they also maintain a residence in Arcos de Valdevez, Minho (where his wife was born), a beautiful mountain town, on the banks of the Rio Vez, famous for being the center of Celtic music in Portugal.

Compassion Fatigue: …and Other Stories of the Indecent Past, Weird Present, and Feared Future (2023) is Silva ‘s first full-length fiction book, and the title story, “Compassion Fatigue” was included in 1992’s Best Canadian Short Stories (Oberon Press), with individual pieces appearing in publications like Our Times, THIS Magazine, OnSpec, and Rampike. Silva’s second collection is scheduled to be released in 2025, with a working title of Filomena in the New World (stories about the Portuguese diaspora in Toronto from the 1960s to the present).

In this interview, for the Portuguese American Journal, Humberto da Silva emphasizes how his Portuguese heritage has influenced his narratives. He discusses his innovative creative writing process in the realm of ‘speculative fiction,’ reflecting on his prophetic vision of a dark age dominated by the “electronic information netherworld.” 


Q: Congratulations on the recent publication of your book, Compassion Fatigue: …and Other Stories of the Indecent Past, Weird Present, and Feared Future. How did the idea come about?

A: Compassion Fatigue is a collection of short stories I started writing in the early 1990s when the world started to shift irretrievably into an electronic information netherworld. The title story was included in Best Canadian Stories just after the first Gulf War, which was the beginning of the future.

After the end of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, there was a brief period of optimistic expectation that we would finally have the resources to move toward a more hopeful future. This was sometimes called “the Peace Dividend”. But these hopes were rapidly dashed by the realities of the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, which coincidentally was the first war broadcast in real time, 24 hours a day, on CNN.

Q: Is this your first book?

A: Yes. When I was younger, all I wanted to be was a writer. I published numerous short stories through the years, but writing was not economically viable as a career. In the 1990s there were about five writers in Canada who actually made a living without a day job.

I experimented vlogging and experimenting with citizen journalism on YouTube and other social media, but now I’m going back to my first love.

After two great careers, one in aviation and one in organized labour, I can focus exclusively on writing. This book is hopefully the opening chapter of my third career.

Q: The stories in Compassion Fatigue are at times, disorienting, and occasionally horrifying. As a writer, how do you establish horror or disorientation?

A: In my writing, I endeavor to stylistically induce literarily the condition that futurist Alvin Toffler first defined, in 1970 as “Future Shock.” I replicate this disorientation state in the title story of the book (and another story titled, “Aesthetia Nervosa” after a fictional malady) by inserting disconcerting random factoids and headlines into the narratives. This is a stylistic device reminiscent of William Burroughs or Hubert Selby, two of my great influences, as well as the film experiments of Bunuel or Reggio. The story “Boiled Frog,” which provided the cover image for the book, takes a different approach; it’s a traditional if didactic farce about reanimating a cryogenically frozen head for a Big Pharma publicity stunt.

In order to establish horror, I do nothing more than deconstruct the realities we’re inured to due to anomie. News reports and images used to come to you as a ubiquitous television newsfeed, but now they assault you every waking moment via algorithms controlling your smartphone feed. These algorithms drive engagement by creating a perpetual state of outrage, which bypasses empathy. This causes us to miss the horror that is taking place around us all the time. If you can bring a reader to the realization that they are complicit in their own dehumanization, it’s like waking them up from a nightmare.

Q: The nature of time in your stories (recent past, weird present, and fearful future) is skewed. What creates this unbalance?  How do you hope readers will react?

A: I think humanity now exists in a perpetually unbalanced state. This disorientation is evidenced by the proliferation of new pathologies in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental health conditions.

People are losing all sense of history and causation. We are currently exposed to so much junk outrage and disinformation that you need to be constantly reminded of what just happened in actuality. The stories in Compassion Fatigue seek to provide an imaginative context for the pervasive psychological disorders of the zeitgeist.

I am hoping that the stories in Compassion Fatigue act as a naturopathic inoculation for new psychological pathologies assailing us.

Q: The writer (also of short stories) TC Boyle is famous for saying that he takes a normal situation and then makes it worse.  Do you follow that advice?

A: Hell yeah! I believe that we currently exist in a continuous abnormal condition that we constantly try to rationalize as things get exponentially worse. All I have to do as a writer is depict it, metaphorically or literally–and make it somewhat entertaining!

Q: What’s your favorite Sci-fi novel or story?

A: Wow. You put me on the spot with that one. Best I can do is my top 10:

  • Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
  • Burning Chrome (short stories) – William Gibson
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  • Nova Express – William S. Burroughs
  • WE – Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • High Rise – J.G. Ballard
  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler
  • Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  • Frankenstein – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

A bit old school, I know, but the formative reads are still the most fondly remembered.

Right now I am thoroughly enjoying Nathan Tavares’ Welcome to Forever, which I learned about from your interview with him in Portuguese American Journal. It’s a fantastic read!

Q: That makes me so happy!  Speaking of the genre, how would you define Sci-fi? For you, what elements does it usually contain?

A: Sci-fi traditionally extrapolated the future of humanity based on imagined technological advancements. This was the case when Mary Shelley pretty much invented the genre, or when Jules Verne and H.G. Wells popularized it.

But, today some of the most interesting futuristic fiction does not rely on science to propel it. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood extrapolated a chilling future for women simply by weaving a tapestry of historical occurrences happening in near future America. The recent Supreme Court reversal of ‘Roe v. Wade’ shows how prophetic she was. But there is little in The Handmaid’s Tale about scientific advancement. It’s actually about ideological regression.

I prefer the term ‘speculative fiction’ to ‘sci-fi’ because the literary exploration of our future doesn’t necessarily rely on the lens of scientific progress.

Q: Compassion Fatigue has been called prophetic, what does your fiction predict for the future?

A: A massive acceleration of forces we cannot control propelled by greed, technology, and ideology smacking face first into the ecological limits of the planet and the boundaries of the human conscience.

Q: The book’s tagline is: “Humans are adaptable, love is enduring, but it will get weird.”  What is weird about love? Humans?

A: The capacity to love, and more generally, empathy are the attracting forces that have made us successful as a species. I would argue these are as important as language, imagination, consciousness, or opposable thumbs. However, as the fruits of human intelligence propel us into the unknown, we will develop syndromes we cannot even comprehend yet. Our capacity for rationalizing fratricidal wars and genocide, just to offer two examples, is currently on display. To any humanist, this is totally weird, if not an outright exhibition of the human capacity to render evil banal.

Q: Compassion Fatigue includes an Azorean island and a Canary island. How did you decide on the settings for your stories?

A: My second goal in life, after reading as many great books as possible, was to travel as extensively as possible. After graduating from university with a highly pragmatic degree in English Literature, I got a job as an airline steward so as to travel, and to have time to write. One of the benefits of that job was that I spent about a year of my life on layover in São Miguel and Terceira. The beauty (and the hardship) of the Azores is their isolation, almost dead center in the Atlantic.

The volcanic origins also make for some of the most beautiful landscapes and flora I’ve seen anywhere. This caused me to wonder if the same volcanoes might have disgorged some trace mineral that a future AI might seek to strip mine. This idea entered into a notebook on a black sand beach outside Ponta Delgada in 1988, came to fruition as the story “Factory Planet” in 2022. The genesis of “Oceanside Suite” occurred during a 2019 trip to Fuerteventura (the closest Canary Island to Africa, with landscapes reminiscent of the Sahara Desert). I imagined a Western tourist “mindfully” doing yoga there being confronted by an African refugee landing on the private beach in front of his suite.

Recently the Canary Island of El Hierro has had numerous refugee landings. It’s far further west than Fuerteventura, but the prevailing winds blow toward that island.

Q: If someone asked you in an elevator, what would you say Compassion Fatigue is about?

A: You gotta read this book, Compassion Fatigue — eh! It’s like a funny crazy mash-up of recent and future history starting from Bush the First’s Gulf War to the Second Coming of Christ the day after tomorrow. It lingers with prurient detail on all the madness we’re going through right now too! You gotta read it ‘cause it will help you understand viscerally that the world is f@<&*d and your mental volatility in the context of this is entirely natural!

Hey, I thought you were going to the 14th floor, whydja just press the button for floor 5?

Q: What did writing this book teach you?

A: I started writing seriously again during the COVID-19 pandemic. Writing the new stories in Compassion Fatigue reintroduced me to my first, and most difficult love; writing itself. I learned that of all my creative endeavors, writing was the loneliest, but the most satisfying.

Q: Do you have a writing routine?

A: I subscribe to the Graham Greene method: 500 new words a day. Then reward yourself with a walk or more tea.

Then do the drudge work later.  Rewrites, marketing, or answering emails shouldn’t get your best creative energy. Keep your feet warm with fuzzy slippers.

Q: Is there a paragraph or passage you can share with PAJ readers?

A: Here’s a teaser from “Factory Planet,” which is set on the island of Corvo:

  We’d had it good for a few decades after the Singularity assumed almost every government function on the planet. It seemed like a good idea. Global coordination through machine learning algorithms solved numerous problems. Suddenly the distribution of commodities was seamless and fair. Or so we were told. Things were actually getting worse, and we had no idea we were living in a massive deep fake. For a long time, things had gotten dicier for other living things on the planet, but we didn’t notice until we too became an endangered species. Now it wasn’t about us anymore. In fact, it wasn’t even about biology anymore. It was about intelligence, and the brain possessing it no longer had to be biological or contained in a human skull.

  Three months earlier they’d chewed up Terceira. Then São Miguel, Santa Maria, and Horta. Even Pico was now just brown boiling slurry. Refugees from every island confirmed the things were nuclear powered, radioactive, and completely unshielded. The few who’d gotten close and survived spoke of red flashing lights at the front where massive metal roller gears ground everything and conveyed it into the bowels of the machine. They also said loudspeakers looped audio safety warnings in myriad languages to stay back. Portuguese came up about every half an hour.

  “We can just sail away, Papà!” Nelson said. “We’ll buy one of the boats in the harbour. There are so many now.”

Q: In one story, a father comforts his young son, hoping against hope their last little island of the Azorean archipelago won’t be strip mined by the Singularity. Did your visits to the Azores inspire this tale? What landscape did you include?

A: I spent at least a year of my life in the Azores, on four or seven day layovers in the 1980s and 1990s. The Atlantic isolation of the islands makes it a perfect place to set a doomsday story, like Australia in “On the Beach.”

Q: In another story, “A soldier is debriefed after witnessing unimaginable violence ending in an encounter with a mythical being.” Do you have a military background?

A: I have never served in any military, but during my work in the aviation industry I flew soldiers into and out of war zones. I traveled to the Falklands right after the war there and flew regularly over the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war while ships were burning in the Persian Gulf.

For two decades I worked with military-trained pilots, and have friends and family that served in the Portuguese military during the colonial wars in Africa. When I was in school in Portugal in the early 1970s the wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau were a subject of both hushed speculation under fascist censorship, and state propaganda. My uncle and his entire family were killed at the outbreak of hostilities in Angola in 1961. I mined many of the stories I heard for military details.

Q: What do you like about writing?

A: Having written.

Q: What do you dislike?

A: Extracting stories word by word when my subconscious is resistant to telling a certain tale.

Q: The last question: Have you seen UFOs or experienced any supernatural things?

A: When I was six, on a jet going to Portugal, I saw in the clouds over the Atlantic many little villages, flowing crystal streams, and cloud people (dressed like Portuguese villagers) going about their celestial daily lives. In the clouds. I saw this.

I turned to my father and told him about what I saw. He mumbled “uh-huh” (in Portuguese: “Hmm Hmm”), probably just humoring my childish imagination. However, at the time I took it as a validation of what I was seeing out that airplane window. To this day that vision is as clear to me as any other wonder I have seen in my travels. It was real.

Q: Was there something you wanted me to ask that I didn’t?

A: What’s my favorite Portuguese pastry? Flaky ‘Jesuitas’, of course!


Book Details

Title: Compassion Fatigue: …and Other Stories

Author: Humberto da Silva


Publication Date: August 29, 2023

Language‏: ‎English

Paperback: 180pp

Available @ Amazon.com


Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, including Through Grainy Landscape and Quarantine Highway (Honorable Mention at the Latino Book Awards 2023). Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant), and Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal). She works as a writing mentor, teaches poetry workshops and curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series.

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