Portuguese American Journal

‘Saudade’: Miriam Winthrop’s pursuit for lost meanings in the Azores – Interview

By Carolina Matos, Editor (*)

Miriam Winthrop is a molecular biologist by training and the author of Saudade, her debut novel inspired by the pursuit for her long lost Portuguese heritage. She started the book as a non-fictional writing project about her family history to be passed down to her descendants.

Her maternal grandmother, who was born on Pico in 1888, immigrated to America as a child in 1901. She grew up in Boston separated from her six sisters by a cruel turn of fate as described by Winthrop in her book.

As a writing project, Saudade evolved and grew around Winthrop’s genealogical explorations of her Azorean ancestry and her research into the Azores. What she found is in Saudade, a book that speaks of loss and hope. It speaks of the sacrifice immigrants endure and of their courage. Lives left behind, struggles to be faced and the resilience to persevere. The book also tells of their children, beset by their own loss of a sense of belonging and meaning of home, family and tradition.

The daughter of a diplomat father, Winthrop attended the United Nations School. After traveling the world with her family, she studied at Smith College where she received a B.A. in molecular biology. She continued her studies at Georgetown University where she taught a combination of courses, including molecular genetics, creative writing and forensic science. She has since developed a special interest in human genomics and in the intersection of ethics and genetic technology, on which she has written extensively. Born on the East Coast, Winthrop has settled in central California where she now lives.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Miriam Winthrop describes how, through the eyes of Ann’s fictional account, she found in Saudade her own lost meanings of family, love and belonging.

 As an American born with roots in the Azores, how would you describe your Portuguese heritage?

My maternal grandmother was born on Pico and immigrated to America as a young girl in 1901. She grew up in Boston and eventually settled in Gloucester, north of Boston. She died when I was twelve, and I felt little connection to a Portuguese heritage through her at that time. The feelings I have for that heritage came many years later and in other ways.

How did this “little connection” influence your upbringing and your writing?

My grandmother’s life, surrounded by family in a small city, came to embody the alternative to my own life as a child—a counterpoint to travelling worldwide, embracing many cultures, and attending the United Nations School. When, as an adult, I explored my Portuguese heritage, it seemed to exemplify much of what I had found in my grandmother’s world—the primacy of ties to family, to homeland, to culture. My writing explores the tension between a life of stability that comes with connections and a life of excitement that may come at the expense of those connections.

This is your debut novel and an astonishing one. What led you up to writing this book?

What evolved into Saudade was to have been merely an account of my grandmother’s family history, to be passed down to the next generations of my family. I knew I was setting foot on a slippery slope when I wrote context for a dry fact by including a story I had heard that was not absolutely verifiable. Especially for a scientist, that meant the work had become fiction—and that’s when I started having fun by letting my mind wander to those “what-ifs” of life.

You are a scientist by training. Why and when did you decide to become a writer?

 Becoming a writer was the natural outcome of loving stories. Hearing them from my mother, inventing them for my own child, telling them to a lecture hall filled with students, or crafting them as novels are all facets of being a writer. It was in science, however, where I first saw the power of storytelling, and where I practiced using its tools to write effectively. saudadeIt allowed me to share my passion by turning otherwise dry facts into something more engaging. One line in Saudade is: “Scientists have the best toys.” It is equally true that scientists have the best stories. The stories of science unfold slowly and with unexpected twists, and they are of such consequence to the human condition. My background in science also gives me an appreciation for the careful use of language. (I love words and grammar in a way that sometimes borders on the irrational!)

You titled your book Saudade, an emotionally charged word with deep symbolic meaning for the Portuguese imaginary.  How would you translate “saudade” and what does it mean to you and Ann, the main character in your book?

I had the sentiment long before I had a word for it. A life rich with possibilities is also lived with a persistent mourning for what one once had and for what one will never have. At every crossroad, we reach for new possibilities and let go of alternate possibilities. Ann is faced with this pain many times in her life, and her decision in a final line of Saudade comes from accepting that whichever choice she makes, it will affirm what she values most.

I struggled to find a title for my book until I saw a painting by Almeida Junior, the very painting now on the cover. I was so drawn to it. The subject looks like Ann, and she reads by a window. (You may remember that Ann finally solves the great mystery of her grandmother’s life when she reads letters by a window.) I explored the meaning of the name of the painting, Saudade, and it spoke to me profoundly. I knew I had the title of my book.

You have stated that this book is fictional. Yet it reads like a memoir.  Would you like to comment?

I have always been interested in the “what ifs” of life: “what if” I had been born at another time or in another place, “what if “my mother had been cold-hearted rather than loving; what if I had studied political science rather than physical science. “How much of who I am would be the same? In Saudade, Ann lives one of those alternate lives, and the story becomes her memoir.

I will also note that Saudade is not entirely fictional. What I uncovered in my genealogical research is reflected in the novel and, as is so often the case, fact proved to be stranger—and more compelling—than fiction.

Ann the heroine: Can you summarize who she is and what is most important about her?

Ann is distinguished by her determination and her resilience. She also has an instinctual awareness that human beings only thrive, perhaps only survive, as part of a group. Those qualities have also distinguished the people of the Azores. Survival in their harsh, isolated environment was only possible with determination, resilience, and reliance on one another. It was natural that Ann finds her place among them.

In her journey of self-discovery, Ann is searching for family, home, love and belonging. Why does it matter so much to her and you?

I have heard it said that people spend their lives trying to give themselves what they did not have as children. As a young girl, Ann lost the only people she saw as family, and she spent thirty years trying to regain that lost love in any way she could. Her efforts were misguided. In a sense, she tried to deal with her loss as a young child would, until the love she finds on Pico helps her to appreciate that loss is part of the tapestry of a rich life. That is what matters to me. There is such hope in knowing that love can help you weather the most terrible storms.

In your book you explore the strain of ‘growing up disconnected’ from one’s cultural heritage. How was it for you personally?

I won’t deny that that there was some small tug at the heart when I saw people bound by common traditions, such as music or food or dress. That was not the path I followed in life. My upbringing was in a global culture rather than an ethnic culture. Did I lose something? Yes. Did I gain something? Yes!

It did become important to me in my own family to keep a global sensibility and to honor traditions, whether those traditions are “natural-born” or adopted. Using food as an example, we always have plum pudding for Christmas dessert (with a 1951 sixpence embedded!), we always have hummus (an Arab dip) on Christmas Eve, and we always have linguiça for Christmas breakfast. And, despite having come to it later in life, I specifically honor my Portuguese heritage by telling (some might say bragging about) some of what I learned to friends and strangers alike.

Most of Saudade is built around the themes of loss and triumph over loss.  Without giving anything away, did Ann find what she was looking for?

You have pinpointed the essence of Saudade. Loss may be an integral part of a full life as a human being, but it is nonetheless difficult. There are those who avoid it (and lose even more in doing so.) There are those who cope with loss, and there are those who recover from loss. Ultimately, Ann triumphs over loss. In that sense, she does find what she needed. Is it exactly what she was looking for? Readers contact me to ask just that or to ask for a sequel that will answer the question. [No sequel is planned.] Although there are small clues throughout the book, I was intentionally not explicit, because in a sense it has become irrelevant.

Ann goes to Pico where she spends a long time soul searching. How did you come about to set the book in the place you did?

The geographic location stems purely from the fact that my grandmother was born on Pico, so that was the focus of my research into the geology, history, and culture of the Azores.

What was like to research for this book? 

Whether a fault or a virtue, it was very emotional for me. As Ann did, to a certain extent I felt the grief of the mother who lost her five children to diphtheria, and the joy of the spinster who finally married, and the anger of the immigrant who was swindled, and the dilemma of either passing on your own culture to your children or helping them to become part of another culture.

Did you actually go to the Azores to research for this book?

The short answer is No, but there is an interesting backstory. You have probably gathered from my other responses that I have a strong bias toward rational thought; you may have also gathered from reading Saudade that I am occasionally conflicted by this. Nowhere did I feel that more strongly than when I first went to the Azores. I had, in fact, already written Saudade in its entirety by that time. I had such a clear vision of what certain places would look like, how people would sound and carry themselves, the quality of the light and the air, the feel of the basalt rocks and the mountains lakes—and that was exactly what I found.  Was it because my research was more thorough than I realized? Did I simply think everything was exactly as I had imagined? Is there such a thing as cultural memory? Is there another explanation? Hence, the conflicted feelings.

What was the question that haunted you the most?

Whether it was because I knew that part of the story was indeed true or not, I am still disturbed that a child could “be disappeared” so easily, and be deprived of ties to family and culture so completely. And I still wonder from time to time if that evil act ultimately brought more good than harm.

Have you changed after going through this process?

I have always recognized that my good fortune is built on the sacrifices and the courage of those who came before me. Immersing myself in the world of the immigrant deepened that feeling. I also feel privileged to have lived the life of another person—admittedly one of my one creation—one in which courage and determination triumphed over adversity.

What was the time frame for this writing project? 
I wrote the story itself in four months. That being said, the very hard work of making sure the themes of Saudade were unveiled slowly, of struggling with every word choice, of organizing the flow between past and present—not to mention re-visiting all that again and again—took another year.

What is your writing process like?

Saudade grew from my ignorance, so the process started with exhaustive research. Although it is fiction, I was scrupulous about basing the book in fact. I studied indigenous species; I read accounts of travel in the nineteenth century; I looked for the diaries of immigrant children and early photos of Pico; I consulted a geologist just to make sure a single term was correct. I have a notebook filled with information that does not appear in the book: the layout of Ann’s small house on the hill, the birthdates of Rita’s children and grandchildren, the times of sunrises and sunsets during a Pico summer. And it still pains me that—for the sake of the narrative—I had to include things I knew to be untrue; for instance, I know there are no direct flights from Boston to Pico, but to have one was important to the storyline.

With the research part of my consciousness, I then withdrew into the fantasy of Ann’s world, often writing for several hours a day in the peace of my garden.

Do you have a new writing project in mind that you are working on?

The Azores are a rich and—for English-language readers—a relatively unexplored setting for fiction. I have been asked to write a new series set on the islands. [The first, At the Water’s Edge, is being released in 2015.] Lighter in tone than Saudade and set in contemporary times, they center on a newly-appointed government Minister and his family (with a recurring cast of characters from all walks of life.) They become involved with situations that might threaten the Minister’s plans to preserve the culture and the environment of the Azores. Each book will be set on a different island and will highlight that island’s unique history, geography, and customs. And I welcome contributions from readers who know those islands well! (One short, sweet passage in Saudade grew from a superstition an elderly woman from São Miguel told me about in passing.)

(*) Carolina Matos, is the founder and editor of the Portuguese American Journal online. She was the editor–in-chief of The Portuguese American Journal, in print, from 1985 to 1995. From 1995 to 2010, she was a consultant for Lisbon based Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD). She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts and a Master’s Degree in English and Education from Brown University and holds a Doctorate in Education from Lesley University. She has been an adjunct professor at Lesley University where she has taught undergraduate and graduate courses. In 2004, Carolina Matos was honored with the Comenda da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique, presented by Jorge Sampaio, President of Portugal.