Portuguese American Journal

Heritage: Sue Fagalde Lick takes readers on her journey – Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Sue Fagalde Lick, a writer and musician, is a descendant of immigrants from the Azores Islands who spent many years in the newspaper business in California’s Bay Area.

Her poetry has appeared in Rattle, The MacGuffin, New Letters, and other publications. Her chapbook Gravel Road Ahead was published in 2019 by Finishing Line Press.  Other works include The Iberian Americans, Azorean Dreams, Childless by Marriage, and Up Beaver Creek. When not writing, she leads an alternate life as a minister choir director. She lives with her dog Annie in South Beach on the Oregon Coast.

Her new chapbook, Widow at the Piano, for publication by The Poetry Box in March, takes her readers on a journey through the distracted mind of a music minister. 

In this interview with Millicent Borges Accardi, for the Portuguese American Journal, Sue Fagalde Lick speaks of being an Americanized writer of Portuguese heritage, her traveling to the old country, and the liberating experience of self-publishing.

 

Q: Why do you think there are fewer Portuguese-American women (than men) with published books?

A: First, I think that is changing, that women are catching up. But in general, the culture doesn’t encourage women to pursue writing careers. I have been a writer since I was old enough to form letters, but my parents assumed I would be a housewife like my mother. Writing was seen as a hobby, nothing more. Writing books takes a tremendous amount of time and concentration, which is hard for women with families to find. We have the clichéd image of a male writer holed up in his study writing day and night. Most women, having families, homes and jobs to tend to, can’t do that. But some of us write and publish our books anyway.

Q: You’ve self-published your books. Are there advantages to self-publishing?  Do you have advice for any would-be writers?

A: I have self-published several prose books. The biggest advantage of self-publishing is that you can publish your work without waiting for approval from anyone else. You have total control over the book, and you don’t have to wait the months or sometimes years it takes for traditional publishers to publish a book. The self-publisher also earns more money per book.

But self-published books don’t get as much respect, and the majority don’t sell many copies because they don’t have the marketing and distribution capabilities of a publishing house. It takes a massive amount of work to sell your own books. Also, while many self-published titles are fine books, too many of them are poorly edited and amateurish, and that gives them all a bad reputation.

I still prefer to be traditionally published because the publisher provides professional editing, design, production and distribution, and having a known publisher behind you gives your book more credibility.

Q: Do you think there is such a category as Portuguese-American literature?

A: Maybe. Four generations in, I’m so Americanized that even though I’m of Portuguese descent, what I write is not necessarily Portuguese-American literature. That said, writers like Frank Gaspar and Katherine Vaz, who grew up immersed in the Portuguese culture and write from that point of view, are certainly producing Portuguese-American literature. Recent anthologies of Portuguese-American works offer some new and some familiar voices among Portuguese-American writers. Certainly, you are contributing to cannon, as are my poet friends Lara Gularte, Nancy Vieira Couto, and Sam Pereira.

But how do we define Portuguese-American literature? Does it only include authors born in Portugal or raised in Portuguese-speaking homes? Does it need to directly address the Portuguese experience? I don’t know.

As a side note, I look back to my mother’s Portuguese ancestors and see that they had very little education. My great-grandmother, Anna Souza, who came from Faial in 1893, was illiterate and never learned to speak English, despite years in California. Unlike other ethnic groups, many of the working-class Portuguese-Americans left no written record.

Q: What books would you recommend to someone just starting to build a Portuguese American collection for a course or their own home library? Like, for example, the five or six “must have” books which define Portuguese-American literature.

A: My perspective is purely west coast USA, and I feel as if I don’t know half of what I should know about the Portuguese-American literature, but I would suggest: Katherine Vaz’s Saudade, Frank X. Gaspar’s Leaving Pico, Alfred Lewis’s Sixty Acres and a Barn, August Mark Vaz’s The Portuguese in California, and Charles Reis Felix’s Through a Portagee Gate. I would dip into the past for a little John Dos Passos. The anthology Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora in the United States and Canada should certainly be on the list.

Q: You’ve published prose and anthologies and now two poetry chapbooks. Which collection (do you feel) is your most successful and why?

A: My most successful book has been Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. It has gone through several revisions and keeps selling. The original publisher, Heyday Books, decided after two re-printings that it was not selling enough, so I took it over in 2007 with my own Blue Hydrangea Productions, and people keep buying it. I think the main cause is word of mouth among the Portuguese community. When it first came out, readers would buy copies for their mothers, sisters, daughters and cousins, and I suspect they’re still doing it. Out in the world at large, most people are not interested, but there’s always that Portuguese-American woman who sees it and is delighted to find something that mirrors her own heritage.

 

Q: What is your family background? 

“All we can do is keep writing…”

A: I’m slightly more than half Portuguese. My mother’s grandparents on both sides came from the Azores islands of Pico and Faial in the 1890s. The Avina side settled in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Manuel was a fisherman. After he died of appendicitis at sea, his widow remarried and relocated to San Jose, California. The Souza side came directly to California, settling in Santa Clara. Great-Grandpa Souza also died young, leaving his wife Anna and seven children who stayed in the area all their lives. One of those children, Anne Elizabeth Souza, married Albert Avina, gave birth to Elaine Avina, who married Ed Fagalde, and they produced me and my brother Michael.

My father has a touch of Portuguese in his background, too, a great-grandfather named Silvera. He was also Spanish, Basque, French, German, and Scottish. So I am a typical California hybrid. Although my mother grew up attending the festas and speaking Portuguese with her grandmother, when it came to our generation, raised in the 1950s and ‘60s, my parents were determined that we be all-American. Until I started researching my book, I knew very little about my heritage.

Q: Can you describe any research trips you made to the Azores for your book?  What islands did you visit?

A: My husband and I visited the Azores in 1990 to research Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. We went on a tour that took us to Terceira, Faial, Pico, and Sao Miguel, as well as the Lisbon area and Madeira. Trapped in airplanes and buses with about 20 others of Azorean descent, I pestered them with lots of questions while taking pictures and making notes everywhere we went. Some of the photos from that trip appear in my book. Throughout the trip, I was torn between my work as a journalist and my emotions as the only member of my family at that point who had gone back to the islands from which my great-grandparents came.

Q: What has been your impression/memories of The Azores? Portugal?

 A: Landing in Terceira, seeing those rock-lined green fields and white houses for the first time, the narrow streets, the imperios, the cows and donkeys, the foods, the crafts, the blue hydrangeas. It was all sort of familiar even though I had never been there before. I had tried to learn the language but was still limited in my ability to converse, and I was frustrated by the constraints of the tour. It was like a sampler that made me want more.

Q: Were you able to track down and see any of your family’s heritage in Portugal?  Perhaps a site where your grandparents lived (for example)?

 A: We tried to find information about my mother’s family at the records office in Faial. This was pre-computer. The names and dates of births, marriages, baptisms, etc. were kept in handwritten books. The clerks were very helpful, and we spent hours looking, but could not find the right Anna and Manuel Souza out of the many listed there. They emigrated too long ago, and we didn’t have enough information. On a trip to Massachusetts a few years later, we were able to find the house in Gloucester where my Grandpa Avina grew up, and that was exciting.

Q: You live in Oregon, are there Portuguese communities?

A: Oregon does not have many. There is a group in Medford at the southern end of the state, and I have heard of a few in Portland, but most of the state is short on Portuguese people. Where I live, just south of Newport, Oregon, I am aware of one family. We call each other cousins. I do miss the connections with other Portuguese. When I visit California, Hawaii or New England, I get very excited to see Portuguese names and find Portuguese food on the menus.

Q: Your latest chapbook, Widow at the Piano can you share with our readers what it is about?

A: The aging woman playing the piano at church may look saintly, but her mind is busy wondering things like what’s under the priest’s robes and why Jesus didn’t invite the women to join him.

Also, when someone faints in the Communion line, should she keep playing? All the while, she is playing, singing, and directing the choir, hoping that she’s on the same verse as everyone else. The Widow at the Piano takes readers on a journey through the distracted mind of the music minister who has recently lost her husband to Alzheimer’s disease and whose only nearby family is the church family at Sacred Heart Church in Newport, Oregon. These poems look at the challenges of leading small church choirs, traditional vs. modern church music, the role of women ministers in the male-dominated Catholic Church, faith vs. practical concerns, and life behind the scenes at Mass, with an honest blend of reverence and irreverence from a writer who has always felt not quite Catholic enough.

Q: What are recurrent themes in your writing that you feel is “uniquely” Portuguese-American?

A: I keep coming back to saudade. In my 2007 memoir Shoes Full of Sand, I talk about the feeling, linking what my ancestors must have felt after they left the Azores to how I was feeling as a transplant from my home in California to the Oregon coast. Like my immigrant ancestors from the Azores, I am torn between the new life and the old. We miss everything we left behind, but we recognize that where we are now is where we are meant to be. How I wish I could have discussed it with Great-Grandma Souza . . .

Q: You write about religion and music—what’s the connection for you? Like in this passage from your poem, “The Day I Blew Up the Piano,”

 

The Mass went on. I played guitar.

We brought another keyboard in.

G above Middle C didn’t work.

The bench was not quite high enough.

But we sang alleluia anyway.

It seemed to be okay with God.

 

A: Well, I think God gave me the gift of music to use, not only at church but elsewhere. There is a saying that “He who prays, sings twice.” Living far from my biological family, I have found my local family at church through my music, and they are intertwined.

Q: What do you think writers can do to enhance communication between North America and Portugal?

A: Americans are terribly ethnocentric. Most don’t even think about all the writing happening in other countries. And most know next to nothing about Portugal. When I say I’m “Azorean,” only a few know what I’m talking about. Unless we break out of the Portuguese community into mainstream publishing, I’m not how much we can change that. All we can do is keep writing as well as we can about our shared experience in ways that attract all kinds of readers, not just Portuguese Americans.

Q: What is the first Portuguese phrase or saying comes to mind when I ask if you know any Portuguese?

A: [laugh] Babão.

Q: You’re a pet-parent?  What type of dog do you have and what is his/her name?

A: My dog Annie is half Labrador retriever and half Staffordshire Bull Terrier. She’s a big yellow dog, 74 pounds of love and mischief, even at 12 years old.

***

The Day I Blew Up the Piano

Playing the psalm, I scented smoke.

Should I cut off the song and yell Fire!

You know what they say about false alarms,

so I played as the smell grew more intense.

Something was definitely burning.

It wasn’t a candle. I checked.

 

Then the lights on the keyboard went dark,

leaving me clacking on plastic

while the soloist warbled along.

I checked all the wires and buttons,

toggled the switch off and on.

No resurrection this time.

 

Our beautiful Clavinova mute,

the congregation gathered around,

men wiggling wires, pushing buttons as if

testosterone would make it work.

Then they made the sign of the cross

and hauled it out like a coffin with keys.

 

Dusty rug and electric cords,

lamp and microphone left behind

and me sitting on my bench bereaved.

Was it the songs we played

or the shock of my piano socks?

Did the holy water short it out?

 

The Mass went on. I played guitar.

We brought another keyboard in.

G above Middle C didn’t work.

The bench was not quite high enough.

But we sang alleluia anyway.

It seemed to be okay with God.

 

—————————–

Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So.  She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Barbara Deming, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and  SOPAS, Special Congressional Recognition for poetry in the Portuguese community of California.  Her new work appears in The Journal, Quiddity, Mantis and Laurel Review.  Find her on Instagram and Twitter @TopangaHippie

 

Sue Fagalde Lick: is a full-time writer/musician and dog mom. Lifelong Californians, she and her husband Fred escaped Silicon Valley for a new life on the Oregon Coast in 1996. He died of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2011, but she remains a devoted beach bum. She spent many years working on newspapers before shifting to full-time freelance writing. Her books include Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California, The Iberian Americans, Azorean Dreams, Freelancing for Newspaper, Shoes Full of Sand, Childless by Marriage, Unleashed in Oregon, Up Beaver Creek, and Gravel Road Ahead. http://www.suelick.com

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