By Kathi Stafford
♦ Phil Jourdan is a musician, translator, and fiction writer originally from Portugal. He now lives in the UK, where he is completing work on a doctorate at Warwick University. His new book, Praise of Motherhood, is a heartbreaking look at the loss of his mother Sophia to an unexpected brain aneurysm. The book is reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye, in terms of its profane language, teenage angst, and youthful rebellion. However, Jourdan follows a different track than Salinger by offering a very vivid portrait of an amazing and compassionate Portuguese mother.
This memoir includes the difficult journey the author took after the death of his mother, the parent who had primarily raised him and to whom he was the closest. Jourdan also spends considerable time reflecting on his childhood and his adolescence, including his hospitalization for psychological issues during his teen years. These challenges parallel Holden Caulfield’s struggles, in terms of angst, struggles for identity, and loneliness. Another book that comes to mind is The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, where the typical hurdles of maturing are further exacerbated by mental challenges.
Jourdan’s book focuses on his struggle through his grief. He began writing this memoir the day his mother passed away, after he was called back to Portugal by his family following his mother’s sudden collapse. His mother’s Ukrainian boyfriend and family members are also devastated by this loss, but it is primarily Jourdan who was the closest to his mother, and therefore he picks up the challenge of bringing her grace and beauty back to life in these pages.
There is also a mystery about his mother which clearly makes Jourdan wonder what else he might not have known about her. Yet, it is clear that his love for her is unruffled by what might have happened during this time period of potential espionage.
The book explores the themes of maternal love, the trials of adolescence, and the emotional struggles that shaped the author’s teen years. Through it all, this book stands as a tribute to the mother whose grace is reflected in this book in a timeless way.
In the end, the reader is struck by the importance of appreciating those family members who give us love and guidance, no matter whether it is in a small town in Portugal or a bustling city in England.
In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Jourdan speaks of his music, his book, the grief over the loss of his mother and how he learned to deal with unexpected death, complicated family relationships, and challenging teenage years.
Q. I note that you are musician, as well as a writer. Please tell me about your music and how that informs your writing.
A. My music project has a moronic name: Paris and the Hiltons. I started it in 2007 and back then it was a very light-hearted thing. But I got into it. With my friend Sam, I worked on an album based on a Faulkner novel, and that led to more serious experimentation, and now the Paris and the Hiltons name doesn’t quite fit. But I’ve developed a small following and I figured it would be silly to start all over again. Regardless, I see music as the other side of my creative output, but not necessarily as equal to it. If anything, it’s my escape from writing. Music feels much more immediately interesting. You can strum something for a little while and if you’re inspired, that’s enough to get you going. So, I use music as a way out of the difficulty of writing. I don’t take it as seriously, but when I do it — when I sit down to record music — that lack of seriousness makes it incredibly enjoyable.
Q. I think anyone who reads your book, “Praise of Motherhood,” will be struck by your vibrant memories of your mother, Sofia, and her abiding love for you and your sister. Did writing the book and honoring her with your memories give you some healing?
A. Some healing, perhaps, but not as much as I’d hoped. Actually, the real benefit was intellectual, not emotional. It was important to be able to articulate the pain. The suffering didn’t stop, but at least I could make some kind of sense. I had to organize my understanding of what had happened, and that was certainly good enough. I imagine it’s not always possible to do that. I should point, too, that my mother’s name in the book is spelled differently from the way it was actually written — her real name was Sofia. I changed it for various reasons — foremost among them, for the distance it gave me, the sense of detachment from my mother.
Q. You also talk about her loneliness, in a sense, and her focus on you and your sister as a reason for living. In hindsight, do you feel that this was a burden, at some level, for you as you grew up?
A. Only peripherally. She was a very good, kind mother, and I welcomed her presence for the most part, even at its most intrusive. She didn’t get angry, but that doesn’t mean she was passive aggressive either. She managed to be neither blunt and crass nor sneaky and manipulative. That’s what made it difficult about the whole thing, too. You could never tell if she was suffering enormously or just a bit, because although she acknowledges her pain, she almost never admitted to its profundity. It was tricky to deal with, and so I think I ignored it until I was a teenager. Only then did I start to speak to her about whom she was — that’s when I learned to listen to her. I’m glad it happened when it did. She was a complicated person who gave off an air of beautiful simplicity, so it’s good to know I managed to crack that shell a bit.
Q. I was fascinated with your experience going to your mother’s class, where you saw the dead insect stuck in gum and reacted very emotionally. Your mother then worried about “losing you to oversensitivity”. Were you aware of her concerns for you at the time of the incident?
A. I was aware that she worried, but I never gave it the kind of thought I wish I had given it — if I’d understood on a deep level how much she worried, and why, then I might have shaped up earlier. Of course she didn’t want to see her baby crying; I knew that much. But I didn’t see how her fears were more deeply rooted than that. It wasn’t about me being sad at that moment only: she was afraid of me being a sad person, she didn’t want her child to react like that to the sight of a dead bug because it was just a bad sign in general. And she was right to worry, because — let’s face it, people are not given to little outbursts like that because of dead insects. There’s nothing beautiful about that kind of reaction, either. It was a destructive and silly and ultimately pointless thing, that kind of oversensitivity.
Q. Your image of the beautiful stranger at the edge of your mother’s funeral was so haunting—perhaps the most compelling image in the story. Did this image give you more peace about her passing, or was it troubling?
A. It was peaceful and troubling. I still don’t know who she was. I’m standing all tense and distracted at my mother’s funeral and I see a beautiful woman there with the others, someone I’ve never seen before. It’s a beauty that goes beyond sexuality and personality: it’s pure and even revolting how beautiful this stranger is. Am I going crazy? And should I even be noticing such things as my mother is buried? You can see why it’s peaceful: seeing such beauty at a moment like that can keep you going. But you can see the troubling part, too. In the end, I never discovered who the woman was. Maybe I was hallucinating. That’s troubling, too.
Q. When you talked about your hospitalization, I thought of Fernando Pessoa’s statement that “There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.” Have you found a port of greater peace since the time you wrote the book?
A. I’ve grown up a bit. Getting the book to a more-or-less finished state was the hardest part, because I had to choose what to leave in and what to take out, and so on. I have some regrets already, but that’s the nature of saying: “It’s done, God damn it, leave me alone.” And I believe being able to say that it was done was a real moment of peace. It basically amounted to saying: “Okay, it’s time to let go now.” Which is so terrifying and wonderful that the fear is negated by the hope. So much of this is about letting go that I feel the book itself never belonged to me. I realize that sounds facile, but the feeling’s there — that I never quite managed to make the book my own, that it was always about the moment when I’d have to relinquish it and watch it wade back into the ocean. I don’t enjoy that feeling. On the other hand, I enjoy not enjoying it. It tells me I’m at least aware of the nature of this writing thing.
Q. You talk about a particular poem by Victor Hugo, which I believe is “Tomorrow at Daybreak” (“And when I arrive, I will place upon your grave/A wreath of green holly and heather in bloom”). It tells about the sad loss of Hugo’s beloved daughter. Why do you think that was the poem your mother always remembered so well?
A. That is indeed the poem. And I’m going to go for the easy, simple answer, because I think it’s the true one: she could relate. She didn’t “lose” a child to death, but she had an extremely strong bond with us, and I think her love for that poem only increased with the years. She could have “lost” me at any point during the various crises I went through, and perhaps that poem gave her solace. I suspect, in the end, that she appreciated the poem because it showed her how to mourn in serenity.
Q. I was also thinking of Frank X. Gaspar’s poem, “I Am Not a Keeper of Sheep”, when he talks about how he wished someone had warned him “never/to let Pessoa into my kitchen, never to let him go on and on/ about his sadness, that sadness that never leaves him . . .”. Are there authors that deepened your adolescent depression, that in hindsight you wished you’d been warned against?
A. I can’t remember what I used to read back then with any clarity. The truth about those days is not quite as neat as it may appear from the memoir, and part of the problem is in how little I actually recall — I was doing far more writing than reading, but I remember almost nothing of either activity. But that line about never letting Pessoa in — that’s something I cannot easily relate to. I find solace in writers who have managed to make the world understand sadness without sentimentality. When you watch a Hollywood drama with subtitles on and the sound off, a lot of the effect is lost, because the music is there to manipulate you into feeling something — and I find that when an author relies on the equivalent gimmicks (when he’s really tugging at your heartstrings in every way he can) in his writing, it nauseates me. That’s why good writing about sadness — melancholy, the “fluctuations of the spirit” — makes me feel so good. I wouldn’t “get it” as much if my entire understanding of sadness was based on sentimental clichés.
Q. Vlad is such a sympathetic person in the story. His appreciation of your mother—“alive and kind and wonderful”—is very tender. However, a couple of your mother’s former boyfriends turned out to be truly horrible people. Yet you managed to avoid resenting your mother letting them into your family. Was that a challenge?
A. More like a necessity. I make very little mention of them, in fact because I don’t think that they were, finally, particularly dangerous. They didn’t crush my mother’s soul. She protected herself. The man I’ve called “Vlad” (I’ve changed some names) is in fact one of the friendliest and best-natured human beings that has ever existed. I’m speaking in earnest. I have no doubt made up for some romantic disappointments, in my mother’s mind.
Q. Did you feel free to talk about your mother’s life as a possible spy? I wondered if you felt conflicted since you mention her prohibition at several points.
A. I felt incredibly confused, in that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in writing about it. I had so little information about that side of her life that I literally made everything up, as it becomes obvious when you read the section on that “Brown Bear Popov” character. It’s very weird; still, to think of my mother as some kind of spy. I have nothing intelligent to say about it — it’s just weird and a total mystery.
Q. Your mother’s remarkable nature comes through in so many aspects of the book. I was especially struck by the frog that followed her around the lake, and the dogs who adored her as well. How do you see her nature impacting your work? She seemed very supportive of your writing in the book.
A. Anyone who didn’t find something to love in my mother was probably sociopathic. I don’t mean that ironically. My mother was extremely human and kind and patient — her qualities were many. People felt safe around her. Sometimes they condescended to her, because they assumed her kindness was all there was to her. And unfortunately she put up with it a little too often. Regardless, she’s become an emblem for me, a reminder of how you can be weak and strong at the very same time in an action; tiny and stellar in your view of the world; you can be destroyed by an insignificant aneurysm at any second and yet carry on living through the power of an accidental legacy. She didn’t want to be turned into a book. She wanted to live and see me (and my sister, and all of us) grow into happy people. So her son wanted to be a writer — and she supported that. She would have supported me if I’d wanted to be an architect or an athlete. It didn’t matter to her as long as I got the hell over my “bad” phase. And in the end, she won, because her death forced me to sit down with myself and think: Okay. Time to grow up.
Ultimately it was all about deciding to take charge of my life, at least to the extent that life allowed it. It was choosing to remain alive that kept me sane, and the decision came about because I remembered what my mother stood for: life and courage. The night she died was terrible that way. It was one big to-and-fro argument with myself: “Perhaps I won’t deal with this, perhaps I will call my father and tell him to take care of my sister and then murder myself, join my mother, or burn forever, but this in-between, this terrible bed, I can’t take it, and I want to die. Yet if I kill myself I will bring on even more pain, for my father and my sister my grandfather and my grandmother and my aunts and my uncles and my friends. I can’t do that. I’m not afraid of seeming like a coward, because after I die that won’t matter, but I am terrified of leaving my family to rot in my mother’s absence, and mine. So I won’t do it. I’ll stick it out. Oh, but…” The only thing that silenced me into sleep that night was a moment of forgetting. I just kind of forgot about everything, and went into total simplicity-mode. Which is how my mother operated, too. She lives on in these little episodes.
Q. The cocoon feeling you describe in the book is so overwhelming and vivid—reminiscent of Kafka, but also of “Nausea” by Sartre. To me, it relates to the Freud and Lacan discussion in terms of a hidden nature versus cold analysis of the self. What philosophers have influenced your view of self?
A. Certainly Freud, Lacan, and company, because I find their work exceptionally useful and interesting, infuriating, at times boring, more often exhilarating. I suspect it’s weird to some people to hear someone that a text by Freud can be exhilarating, but that’s precisely the word. Lacan, in particular, has a central importance in my PhD work, but I didn’t turn to him for “knowledge” — I began my study of psychoanalysis because I knew it was gloriously fulfilling to “get” an important thinker’s system. I like systems, and psychoanalysis is, in many ways, structured like that. The same goes, of course, for Hegel, whose influence on me is growing at the moment as I rediscover the “logic” at work in his Phenomenology. I won’t pretend to find it easy, because nobody has ever found Hegel easy, but it’s rewarding. It forges, in a very intellectually palpable way, a new way of thinking. And since I have a great interest in the mind, the psyche, Hegel’s work is useful. Finally, I will say this about Sartre— while I appreciate Nausea and his war journals, I don’t think I’m particularly interested in him. My heart lies with Camus. I know it’s not fair to bring Camus up automatically when we’re talking about Sartre, but I just feel Camus knew far better than Sartre was it was to be a human being.
Q. Where have you traveled within Portugal?
A. I know Évora well, because my family spends a lot of time there, but my best memories of Portugal involve going north. The little town of Tomar is my favorite place in Portugal. I could try to explain why, but I think it would sound phony. It was an immediate and irrational attachment… I like Porto and Lisbon, but the Algarve, where I used to go in the summer with my mother as a kid, holds the best memories.
Q. In what ways does Portugal, as a homeland, influence your choice of topics and your writing style?
A. In almost no way except through its literature. My three Portuguese “authors of choice” are José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes and José Luis Peixoto, whose first book (“Morreste-me”) I translated for the Warwick Review. Portuguese writing — that is, the best Portuguese writing — has been completely transformative for me. These authors break rules and get away with it easily.
Q. There is a Portuguese word about being separated from home—Saudade—that I’ve heard frequently. What does that term mean, from your perspective?
A. A famously untranslatable Portuguese word: nostalgia, missing someone, being sad because something’s not there, but more than that, too. I suppose I’d say it refers to the missingness of something, and the void that the “something” leaves in you. It’s a good word. I’d give it a 10/10 for making the Portuguese language more “itself” — it’s important to have inscrutably difficult words in your mother tongue.
Q. Are your current PhD studies in literature, or another field? Where are you earning your degree?
A. My PhD is in Literature and Religion. I’m doing it at the University of Warwick in the UK. I did my BA in English and Creative Writing there, as well, and my MA in Philosophy and Literature. I’m staying loyal to Warwick as long as I can, I guess. They’ve been good with me and I’ve grown very fond of some of the professors there.
Q. What writers have made a difference in your writing?
A.2 Faulkner, Pynchon, Roth, Alasdair Gray, William Burroughs, Dostoevsky, and, of course, HP Lovecraft, whose overblown hysterical nonsense was my first real literary obsession and continues to “work” for me. And lately I can see my style being influenced by William Gaddis, in a very primitive way, like a baby holding up a telephone and slurring “Hello?”
Q. Are there three or four memoirs that are especially meaningful to you?
A. Not really – which surprises me – now that I think about it. I like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. But I have read very few memoirs. I usually avoid them, in fact. Philip Roth wrote a few autobiographical works I’ve enjoyed, like The Facts. The only memoir I can see myself actually looking forward to is one that will probably never exist: Thomas Pynchon’s memoir. Because: yeah… when will that happen?
Q. What are the last three books you have read, and what is your reaction to those books?
A. I have read almost no fiction lately. The three books that I’ve been going through are The Age of Nixon by Carl Freedman, which I will be reviewing for an online publication and which I think is great; Extinction by Thomas Bernhard, which I find outrageously excellent; and How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers, which is about what you’d expect from Eggers: funny, clever, and always mildly disappointing.
Q. What are your current or upcoming writing projects?
A. A new novel. It’s a tricky thing to explain — I think I’ll keep it under wraps for now. I can tell you it’s going to be intensely psychological, but it’s not a thriller, it’s barely even a novel at this point. It’s about an unhappily married couple. That’s all I can say right now.
Phil Jourdan, 25, is a graduate student in English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. A Portuguese translator, his translation work, fiction and criticism have appeared in various publications, including the Warwick Review, Indigo Rising Magazine, and Dissident Voice. He is the co-founder of the successful literary magazine and creative writing workshop, LitReactor, and a book reviewer for the Chuck Palahniuk website and also keeps the blog Slothrop. In 2007 he was also the founder of the electronic rock band, Paris and the Hiltons, and has released several electronic rock albums under the same name. In November 2011, he released Souls out of Erebus, a digital album with lyrics by Ezra Pound. His latest release is an electronic rock album based on the work of William Faulkner. His book “Praise of Motherhood” will be released by Zero Books on May 25.
Kathi Stafford is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a member of the Westside Women’s Writer group. She has previously acted as poetry editor and senior editor for Southern California Review. Her poetry, interviews, and book reviews have appeared in literary journals such as Chiron Review, Nerve Cowboy, Connecticut River Review, SCR, and Hiram Poetry Review. Her poetry has been anthologized in Chopin and Cherries, as well as Sea of Change: Poems for Hitchcock.