Portuguese American Journal

Memoir: Philip Graham abroad in Lisbon – Interview

By Millicent Accardi, Contributor (*) 

I first discovered the work of Philip Graham in The Moon Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon, a travel memoir published in 2009 about the sabbatical year he spent living abroad in Lisbon with his family.

At the start of a recent blog post by Graham is this quote from Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, “To see is to have seen.” This phrase could be interpreted in many ways.  As Graham explains, it can mean “what we have already seen, that sight is a well-worn habit” or it could imply the opposite. It is a notion of special importance to travel writers and to writers in general: How to view the world and how to view our place in the world; what to focus on; what to let go of; how the past fogs our view of the present; and to question, what can writing and travel and writing about travel teach us?

A jack of all trades, Philip Graham has published work in nearly every literary genre. He is the author of two story collections, The Art of the Knock and Interior Design; a novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language; and he is the co-author (with his wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb) of two memoirs of Africa, Parallel Worlds (winner of the Victor Turner Prize), and the forthcoming Braided Worlds. His most recent book is The Moon, Come to Earth, which is an expanded version of his popular series of literary dispatches from Lisbon for McSweeney’s.

Graham’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, North American Review, Fiction, Los Angeles Review and elsewhere, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Poets & Writers Magazine, and the Washington Post. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, two Illinois Arts Council awards, and the William Peden Prize in Fiction. Graham teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the low residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and he served for years as the fiction editor and is now the current nonfiction editor.

Philip Graham reading from his book at the “Mãe d’Água” in Lisbon.

This summer, he was a faculty member at Disquiet, the International Literary Program (ILP) held in Lisbon, Portugal where he led students on a lively “Pessoa Walk” throughout the city discovering sites Pessoa frequented, including Chapelaria Azevedo Rua, on Rossio, one of Lisbon’s famous squares, where hat makers have been creating chapéus by request since 1886.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal Philip Graham speaks of his recent travelogue memoir about his expatriate experience in Lisbon, the challenges to acculturate and learn the language, his trials to parent in a cross-cultural environment and his fascination with Portugal and the Portuguese people.

Q: Your book The Moon, Come to Earth got me through the long flight from Los Angeles to Lisbon in the summer of 2011, and also prepared me for my first trip to Portugal. In a way it was the Portuguese version of A Year in Province, but more literary and less stuffy. Where did you come up with the idea to catalogue your family’s stay in a non-fiction book?

A: Thank you for sharing that story—I love the idea of being a literary companion on a long plane flight! I began writing the dispatches for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency [website] as a side project while on sabbatical for a year in Lisbon.  But the joy and frustrations of cultural encounter quickly took over my imagination, and with the exception of a second volume of an memoir of Africa I was co-writing with my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, those monthly dispatches became my main project for the year, a window through which I could try to make sense of my experiences living abroad. 

Q: For those who have not read the book, how did you happen to spend a year in Portugal?

A: For over a decade my appreciation of Portuguese culture had been growing, and encountering the music of Amália, and Madredeus, a Portuguese cookbook or two, and the writings of Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Katherine Vaz and Frank Gaspar led to two family vacations, one to Lisbon and the other to the Azorean island of São Miguel. So when a yearlong sabbatical came up for both my wife and me in 2006, we took the leap and settled on Lisbon as our destination.

Q: Originally the pieces in the book were published as “column dispatches” in McSweeney’s. So there was an immediacy with the posts that does not exist for readers of the book. If you went somewhere else for a year which venue would you use?  Online or a book? 

A:  Depends.  With both books of African memoir Alma and I have written together, we waited many years before tackling the complex topic of living in a radically different culture, and I feel that was the right decision.  While with The Moon, Come to Earth, I wrote much of the book as I lived it, and attempting to capture the immediacy, the sense of wonder of living abroad was important to me.  I think a writer intuitively works his or her way into any material, deciding whether to wait, or jump right in.

Q: Are you superstitious? Did you take home any Portuguese legends or superstitions?

A: Hmm, I have a complicated relationship with the word “superstition,” especially after my experiences living in Africa.  It’s a word that is often used to describe other people’s beliefs, but what the word really means, I think, is a sense of magic, those little rituals that people all over the world employ to make it through the day.  There’s one magical practice in particular that we brought back home—the belief that it’s bad luck to clink glasses at dinner if some glasses have alcohol and others not.  Hannah is especially vigilant on this subject when we host dinner parties.  But in general I have found the Portuguese to be a very spiritual people, and this is one aspect of the culture that attracts me.  The Portuguese also have a healthy strain of skepticism.  I love the balance of the two.

Q: In your writing is there something that are you trying to accomplish but haven’t yet?  Can you describe your workspace (do you have an office or a desk or prefer to write amid a café or a crowded party)?

Philip Graham

A:I’m always trying something new in my writing, trying on a new challenge—otherwise, why write? The books I enjoy reading most possess what I like to call “writing that travels”—writing that takes me someplace I’ve never been before inside myself.  That’s the standard I set for my own faltering self when I write.  I like to get lost and then try to find a way out.  As to where I work, well, I have an office at home where I do most of my writing, and that also serves as a library—lots of bookshelves!  But I can write anywhere, something I learned while living among the Beng people in West Africa.  The Beng have no word for privacy, so whenever they saw me alone with my notebook, they’d drop by for a friendly chat, feeling sorry for me.  It was frustrating at the time, but I realized when I returned home that I’d developed the ability to write at a moment’s notice, and this has been a great help to me throughout my writing life.

Q: You said your daughter became fluent in Portuguese in a short time since she went to public school. How did it happen? 

A:  Without fully understanding what we were asking of our daughter, we threw her into a bath of the Portuguese language, and she spent sixth grade in two Portuguese schools.  The first was an utter disaster for our child, but then we quickly located another school, not far from our neighborhood, and it proved to be everything the first school wasn’t.  Hannah made a number of friends, dived into the language, and by the end of the year was one of the best students in her class.  She has maintained her relationships with three friends in particular, and visits with them on every return to Lisbon.

Q: How do you handle potentially personal subjects when you use family as your subject?  In particular, I am interested in hearing how you dealt with your daughter’s anorexia, her trouble fitting into school. Did you get her permission? How does she feel about those passages in the book?

A:  I did not realize when writing my dispatches that a crisis was building in my family.  That first school had been a horror, but when we transferred Hannah to a much better school we allowed ourselves to think that all was well.  We didn’t realize how wrong we’d been until the end of our year in Lisbon.  As we took on the challenge of our child’s eating disorder when we returned home I abandoned the dispatches, never wanted to think of them again.  We worked together as a family and helped our daughter, who with her usual strength of character worked her way out of her illness.

Only months later did I consider continuing the story of our year in Lisbon, at my family’s urging.  I’d been writing about the pleasures of living abroad, but there was clearly another, darker aspect that needed to be addressed.  I was haunted by the thought that someone had read my dispatches online and thought that bringing children along on a year’s jaunt to Europe would be just hunky-dory.  So I continued the story, and when I reached the time of Hannah’s illness I of course asked for, and received, her permission.  In those last three dispatches I tried very hard to balance honesty with the necessity of my child’s privacy, and to this day I’m not certain how well I succeeded.

The best ending to the story is that Hannah is completely recovered and has been for years (Alma and I adopted the Maudsley Method, which has a remarkable 90% success rate).  Somehow that crisis in her life hasn’t lessened her love of Portugal.  She has often said that she believes her soul is in Lisbon.

Q: What did you learn about parenthood from your year in Lisbon? And did writing dispatches help or hinder your job as a parent?

A: I had thought that my dispatches attuned me to Hannah’s experience in Lisbon, gave me additional empathy for her time there, but the lesson of the book is that you can see what is right in front of you and still not fully understand.  That’s built into the structure of the book: I’m this happy-go-lucky family man, busily plotting various trips and outings to delight my wife and daughter (let’s go to a soccer match!, let’s explore a medieval wolf trap in the mountains!, let’s take in an international fireworks display!, let’s visit a church with a 760 year old miracle!), and then reality strikes.

Q: Who are your favorite Portuguese writers? Can you share a significant line or passage and explain its importance to you?

A: Fernando Pessoa, of course, is the great poet of inner travel.  José Saramago is one of the touchstone writers of the 20th century, and at least a half dozen of his novels are among my favorite books of all time.  Gonçalo M. Tavares is another marvelous writer, and thank goodness Dalkey Archive Press is releasing his quartet of novels; Texas Tech University Press is about to publish this September a compilation of Tavares’ The Neighborhood series of books, and I felt honored to be asked to write the introduction.

Miguel Torga’s Tales & More Tales of the Mountains is one of the best story collections I’ve read, remarkable portraits of rural life in the isolated Trâs-os-Montes region of northeastern Portugal, and I come back to it again and again–it’s the ur text of gritty Portuguese spirituality.  And António Lobo Antunes is another world-class writer; his most accessible book, The Fat Man and Infinity, is a favorite.

One passage I keep returning to is in Saramago’s novel The Double.  It’s a brief but brilliant aside about the “subgestures” of human communication:

People say, for example, that Tom, Dick or Harry, in a particular situation, made this, that or the other gesture, that’s what we say, quite simply, as if the this, that or the other, a gesture expressing doubt, solidarity or warning were all of a piece, doubt always prudent, support always unconditional, warning always disinterested, when the whole truth, if we’re really interested, if we’re not to content ourselves with only the banner headlines of communication, demands that we pay attention to the multiple scintillations of the subgestures that follow behind a gesture like the cosmic dust in the tail of a comet, because, to use a comparison that can be grasped by all ages and intelligences, these subgestures are like the small print in a contract, difficult to decipher, but nonetheless there.

I teach this passage over and over again, and also find that it increasingly informs my writing and my sense of self—of course emotions have complex pedigrees, subtle flavors that need to be deciphered in ourselves as well as others.

Q: Why do you think so few Portuguese writers’ work is translated into English? 

A:  Why isn’t Portuguese wine better known in this country?  Portuguese cheese?  Music?  The standards of excellence are so high, so I find it simply mysterious why just about anything Portuguese isn’t better known in the wider world.  Take the example of Gonçalo M. Tavares.  In 2006, when we first met, he was already considered a major writer, had won important awards, been translated in a ton of languages, and recognition of his work has only increased around the world since then.  Yet today he is still in the initial stages of being introduced in the United States.

Q: Do you think there is such as thing as Portuguese-American literature (as a separate canon). Like, for example, Cuban-American literature? If so, what are the “markers” of PA writing? What elements or themes would you point out if you were classifying or teaching a course in PA literature?

A: A certain blend of mysticism, lyricism, a sense of community, and saudade, of course.  This is literature that doesn’t feel American with watered-down Portuguese elements—instead the work seems to exist equally in an American and Portuguese reality.  I first discovered Portuguese-American literature in the late 90’s when a student asked me if I’d do a conference course with her on Portuguese-American literature, which at the time I’d never heard of.  A web search quickly brought me to Katherine Vaz and Frank Gaspar, and I fell in love with their work.

I love the idea of “monkey deaths” in Vaz’s Saudade, and the novel’s ever constricting sense of fate and bravery in the face of it.  And her lyrical short stories are marvels of subtle construction.  Gaspar’s Leaving Pico, particularly the last third of the novel, is so heart-clutchingly moving, unforgettable, really.  I’ve also been the graduate advisor for Amy Sayre-Robert’s MFA thesis (she just passed, congrats again, Amy!), which is her novel The Portuguese Box.  Amy’s book has that elusive feeling I mentioned above, that Portuguese culture has somehow colonized American culture, rather than the other way around.

Q: Do you speak Portuguese?

A:  Yes, I do.  I speak terrible Portuguese.  It’s my great frustration that I speak so poorly, though I can read decently enough, and every day I visit two or three Portuguese newspaper websites to keep up my skills.  But speaking in real time?  So hard for me! I’m always three beats behind whatever’s being said.  I’m thinking of joining one of those immersion language courses offered at Middlebury College, to finally make some serious progress.  And my wife and I are now in the process of searching for an apartment to buy in Lisbon, so I’m hoping that spending more time in Portugal will help too.

Q: Is there a particular Portuguese song that sticks in your head?  I know you are a fan of jazz. Is there a significant tune or music that has affected you? 

A: Oh, so hard to choose!  I must own over a hundred CDs of Portuguese music (and at least an equal number of CDs of Cape Verdean and Brazilian music.  I think that the music of the Lusophone world is the best on the planet, and it’s my constant daily companion.  I’m listening to Teresa Salgueiro’s, O Mistério, as I write this. Next up is Danças, by Maria João and Mário Laginha, an extraordinary collaboration of voice and piano.  If Portuguese music were food, I’d never starve.

While in Lisbon this summer I discovered that the Hot Club of Portugal was right around the corner from my hotel, and so my family and I attended a memorable concert by the great Portuguese jazz singer Paula Oliveira.  And I made the pilgrimage to Trem Azul, the jazz record store on Rua do Alecrim (and headquarters for the Clean Feed jazz label), where I stocked up on the latest releases by André Fernandes, Paula Sousa and Carlos Barretto.  There’s a bit of a Portuguese jazz renaissance going on now.

Q: As an editor for the literary journal Ninth Letter, are there any plans for a special Portuguese edition? Or section? 

A:  Ninth Letter was one of the first magazines to publish Gonçalo M. Tavares’ work, and our next issue will feature some new translations of the crônicas of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector.  We published a story by Katherine Vaz in our first issue, and have since published an excerpt from her current novel-in-progress.

There are no plans for a special Portuguese edition, but hey, that’s a good idea.  In 2006 I put together, for the literary journal Hunger Mountain, a special section on Portuguese fiction, A Book, Open Wide, in Our Hands, and it included work by Rui Zink, Hélia Correia, Gonçalo Tavares, Luísa Costa Gomes, Jacinto Lucas Pires, and the very interesting José Riço Direitinho (his fiction looks like poetry but reads like stories).  Rui’s story from that section, The Writing Bug, was shortlisted for a Pushcart Prize.  Maybe it’s time to update . . .

Q: You taught at Disquiet this summer, an international program that featured your Pessoa Walk. How was this experience? 

A: I loved the Disquiet conference, meeting both Portuguese and American writers I admire (and two translators of Portuguese literature, Anna Kushner, and the dean of them all, Richard Zenith).  And there were so many Portuguese-American writers!  This could be Disquiet’s main legacy—bringing these writers together and jump-starting and deepening a Portuguese-American literary community.  I’m so pleased that Disquiet has received funding for a third conference next summer.  I’d love to a part of this conference in the future, and I’m hoping that we can involve Ninth Letter, too.

As for the Pessoa Walk, I have to say it was one of the highlights of my literary career, to be allowed to wander through Lisbon with an audience, jabbering away about my love for Fernando Pessoa’s work.  I tried to avoid a simple, “Pessoa ate here, Pessoa did this or that there” patter. Pessoa claimed that he unrolled himself in sentences and paragraphs much the same way the streets of Lisbon wound themselves “every which way around the city,” and so I did my best to illuminate those invisible correspondences between the writer and his beloved Lisbon that shaped his work. Plus, we made a brief stop at an open bar that sells the cherry liqueur called ginjinha, and this immeasurably improved everyone’s experience of the Pessoa Walk.

I also gave a reading from The Moon, Come to Earth at Mãe d’Agua, a centuries-old reservoir that sports a floating stage in the center.  I don’t really have adequate words to express my pleasure at being given the opportunity to offer my work in such a beautiful space.

The Mãe d’Água (Mother of the Water) reservoir of the Amoreiras, the largest of the water reservoirs at the very end of the Águas Livres Aqueduct, was finished in 1834. This reservoir, with a capacity of 5,500 m³ of water, was designed by Carlos Mardel. It is now deactivated and became part of the Museu da Água (Water Museum). A wooden platform was built over the reservoir to create a space that is presently used for cultural events.

Q: How does being a teacher affect your writing?  Do you have a particular lesson you have taught in creative writing which went over very well in the classroom that you would like to share?

A: Teaching is an important part of my life, and over the years I’ve found that I’m speaking to myself as much as to my students in the classroom.  We’re all on the same journey together.  As in my writing, I like to mix it up a bit in my teaching, always trying something new.  Recently, a bit dismayed at how hard it is sometimes for my undergraduate students to find subjects to write about, I’ve begun requiring “possible adventures.”  I invite my students to leave the comfort zone of the university bubble and try something they might otherwise never consider: attending a roller derby game, or a civil war reenactment, a vintage button convention, an “owl prowl,” you name it.  After some fine-tuning over a few semesters, this has turned out to be quite popular among my students, and it has given them a sense of the importance of exploring a little in the world, if they want to explore in their writing.  I’ve written about this developing assignment here.  I’m thinking of doing a panel on this for the 2014 AWP conference, so if anyone gives this a try in their own teaching, they should by all means contact me.

Q: Do you have any upcoming literary events that you would like to mention?  

A: Braided Worlds, a second volume of a memoir of Africa that I’ve co-written with my wife, Alma Gottlieb, will be published this August.  This volume concerns our third extended stay among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire, when we brought along our then six-year old son Nathaniel.  Odd, that when I lived in Lisbon I was writing two travel books, each featuring one of my two children.

Excerpts from Braided Worlds will soon be appearing in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Número Cinq, and Leite’s Culinaria, and I’m very excited that in October I’ll be traveling to Hong Kong to give a reading from the book!

Now I’m back to my fiction, and I’m working on revising two manuscripts, a novel and a novella that I hope to finish in the next year or so.  And with my continuing relationship with Portuguese culture, who knows what other books might arise?

Philip Graham website and blog can be visited here


(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity (World Nouveau), Woman on a Shaky Bridge (Finishing Line Press chapbook), and Only More So (forthcoming from Salmon Press, Ireland). She has received literary fellowships from Canto Mundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, and California Arts Council. Last fall, she was a visiting poet at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie

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