Anthony De Sa’s raw fiction tells of bitter love and triumph - Interview
Posted on 29 August 2012.
By Millicent Accardi, Contributor (*)
Like the steadfast sea in his fiction, the novelist Anthony De Sa is peaceful, sincere, calm, ever-changing, deep and mysterious. Growing up in the rough and tumble Portuguese neighborhoods of Toronto, De Sa heard family stories of the old country and tales of the Azores first hand. De Sa’s short fiction has appeared in many North American literary magazines. His book, Barnacle Love, is his first full-length novel. The book has received international critical acclaim, and was a finalist for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Toronto Book Award. In Portugal, it received the Prémios Talento in 2009/2010. De Sa’s second novel, Carnival of Desire, will be released in the spring of 2013. The true story portrays a year in the life of a young innocent shoeshine boy named Emanuel Jaques who was raped and murdered in Toronto in 1977.
A graduate of the University of Toronto, De Sa did post-graduate work at Queen’s University and also attended The Humber School for Writers and Ryerson University. Currently he works as a teacher-librarian and lives in Toronto with his wife and three boys.
For this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Anthony De Sa answers questions about his writing, his heritage, frustrations and triumphs.
Q: Your book, Barnacle Love, is tremendous. For me it is an unflinching view of a family, a father, a son, and two mothers. It is also an exploration of identity, self worth and discovery. Plus, not giving anything away, the novel describes an amazing love scene between the fisherman Manual and Pepsi, the daughter of a fisherman, who has a wooden leg. How difficult was it to create such intense scene?
A: It wasn’t easy to create the psychological and sexual intensity between Manuel and Pepsi. Certainly, creating two “wounded” characters, and having them gravitate to each other, made the tension of passion, love, friendship much more acute. It was sheer pleasure to create the world they lived in, and then determine that their world could never survive other than in their isolation.
Q: Another thing I liked about the book was its honest 360 degree look at a father and a son, no faults were glossed over or made “pretty.” Instead the successes and faults were intermingled to create believable and intimate characters, especially Manuel an aging father who tries, fails and continues on with his dream. So often with immigrant families it is the first generation who sacrifices their own education for the next generation. Is this something you experienced growing up in Canada?
A: As a child I was bombarded with this precursor, you don’t know the sacrifices we made—all these things we did for you. I heard it from my parents, uncles, aunts and family members. I can assure you my friends did as well. We all lived in the Portuguese enclave of Toronto and when we didn’t hear it we felt it. It permeated our lives, both in words and in deeds.
My parents worked very hard and they did so “for us”; “so that you and your sister will have a better life.” And they did— the sheer fact of it cannot be refuted. But it is my contention that my parents lost something in their fervor of providing us with everything. First, they forgot what it was to “live”a life in the country they had come to—going out to a movie or sharing dinner, small pleasures deemed frivolous and unnecessary. It essentially isolated them from a mainstream culture. Second, and most important, was what I called “the tradeoff.” In exchange for them giving up their dreams, we had agreed to assume the dream: be better than them; be properly educated so that we could have good careers, not jobs, but careers that would validate their sacrifice, their hard work, all they suffered.
One of the thematic questions I pose in Barnacle Love is what if I choose not to take on their dream? What about my dream—what it is that I want for me?
Q: How do you handle potentially personal subjects when you use family as your subject. In particular, I am interested in hearing how you wove together your own family stories with research you did. How did your family feel about this book? Were there any scenes that were difficult to read? Or that your family decided not to talk about?
A: A writer writes what he/she knows. If there is truth in what they write, then I believe it resonates with the reader and creates a universal understanding of the themes at hand.
Many of my stories are retold from stories I heard as a child. Most of them have been changed significantly so that the characters and settings and situations no longer image the ones they were modeled after.
Q: For those who have not read Barnacle Love what is the significance of the title?
A: There is a scene in the novel whereby a mother is trying to impart the idea that barnacles stick to their own kind. She does not like the young woman her son has chosen to marry and insists nothing good can come of the union. Mix that premise with the tradition of preparing the wedding bed, a cruel mother and the innocence of a girl, and I think you have the makings of a wonderful metaphor.
Q: What frustrates you the most with your writing?
A: Time. Working full-time as an English teacher, raising three young boys, maintaining a home . . . I struggle to find the quiet and the time to write.
Q: Are you superstitious? Did your parents pass along Portuguese legends, folklore or superstitions? Like I don’t think this qualifies, but my mom soaked my feet in Creolin (an industrial disinfectant) because older generations thought it sucked the poison out.
A: I’m not superstitious, but I remember my mother telling me that a pregnant woman shouldn’t wear jewelry around her neck or kill livestock while pregnant. I loved those stories because there was fable and mystery wrapped into them. But for my mother and my grandmother these ideas were real—they happened and they could provide countless examples/stories that would illustrate why reverence and prayer were necessary
Q: Is there an Azorean saying that was drilled into you as a child?
A: Abra os seus olhos (Open your eyes) and As paredes têm ouvidos (The walls have ears)
My grandmother couldn’t go a day without warning me using these phrases! I still love hearing them.
Q: Can you describe your work space (if you have an office or a desk or prefer to write amid a café or a crowded party)?
A: I have an office. Small but quiet. I write in my office, free from the distractions of the world. I work on a Mac computer and have an ergonomic chair to support my back. I’m surrounded by notes/doodles/books/pictures and cutouts that I have taped all over my walls and bookshelves. When I use something in my writing I tear it off and throw it away. But I’m inspired by the people and places I meet or see. I collect these ideas on paper or in my head, then bring them to life on the page in my office. I should say that when I edit, I usually do so in a café or a library. That process seems to be more communal to me.
Q: Do you think there is such a thing as Portuguese-American or Portuguese-Canadian literature (as a separate canon?). Like, for example, Cuban-American literature? If so, what are the “markers” of Portuguese North American writing?
A: I tend to shy away from these questions. I don’t see myself as a hyphenated i.e., Portuguese-Canadian. But community groups appropriate the title and I’ve stopped correcting them. I think I understand their need to do so—to connect with me in some way. I respect that, now. But it does not shape me.
I’m sure there are “markers” but I’m afraid I’m not as well read in such an ethnocentric genre to comment. I’m inspired by, for example, Faulkner much more than by my contemporary Portuguese writers.
Q: Is there a quote from Faulkner that rings in your ears? Or a particular strong passage that has set a line for you as far as literary quality?
A: One of the greatest joys of teaching high school students is to share a book that has always been special to me. Faulkner’s, As I Lay Dying, is that book.
It is the story of the Bundren family. As they prepare for the death of its matriarch, Addie, a family sets out on an odyssey across the Mississippi to honor their mother’s final wish to rest in Jefferson. Everyone in the family wants something. It’s the only reason they quietly agree to carry out their mother’s dying wish. My students begin to see how the thinly veiled altruism fades and the harrowing account of the Bundren’s journey begins to make sense to them.
I always find myself moved by the very definition of family and the Bundren’s struggle to find a place in their world. Often, it is family that gets us through the most difficult times in our lives. My students see this and are comforted and reassured.
Q: The writing/revision process. Do you have an editor? If so and if not, how do you revise?
A: I have a Canadian editor with Doubleday Canada (Martha Kanya-Forstner) and I have an American editor with Algonquin (Andra Miller). I respond to their editorial suggestions and let their fresh eyes see me to the end. It is quite a trusting relationship. And believe me the sheer amounts of drafts and revisions for a novel is quite extensive.
Q: If I asked you at age 12, what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would you have said?
Q: Who was your biggest influence in childhood (for example, a teacher or a neighbor or friend)?
A: Grandmother – who essentially raised me until the age of 6. Both my parents worked very hard and were seldom home. She taught me how to speak and pray in Portuguese. She was a constant in my life.
Q: What drew you to literature?
A: I could create my own world. I could stock that world with people and situations of my choosing. It was an incredible way to manipulate this make-believe world I created. It was also a terrific way of exiting my own world, which at times seemed fractious and out of control.
Q: Do you speak Portuguese?
A: Yes. My Azorean accent is strong, clear and proud. Mix in a dash of Anglicized words and I’m good to go. Some think it’s “charming” but I’ve learned to embrace the words and phrases my grandmother taught me. It has become part of who I am.
Q: The critic and writer George Monteiro at Brown University states, “It is time for an anthology of Portuguese-American poetry. If it cannot be called The Oxford Book of Portuguese-American Verse; we propose to call it, with little or no levity, The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Verse.” What impact do you think this anthology will have? It’s forthcoming in 2013.
A: George Monteiro is a lovely man. When he sets his mind to do something, as he always does, there is an impact. He is at the forefront of bringing Portuguese-American fiction and poetry to centre stage. Along with Onésimo Almeida at Brown University, the voice within Luso- American literature has blossomed.
Q: Can you share an excerpt of what you are working on right now?
A: Here is the summary from my website. I’m still working on the title. But it will be released in Canada and the USA in August/September of 2013.
My next novel is set in 1977, the year a twelve-year-old shoeshine boy, Emanuel Jaques, was brutally raped and murdered in Toronto. The crime changed forever Toronto the Good and its Portuguese community, which was desperately searching for a clear sign from God during this trying time.
On the day of the Shoeshine Boy’s funeral, Antonio Rebelo, the twelve-year-old narrator of this story, discovers the image of Jesus in a clam. The event takes a strange turn when a visitor claims he has been miraculously healed by Antonio’s touch. Antonio’s parents are torn between protecting their child from the circus that is unfolding, and opening their home to the wave of hope-filled dying and diseased. The unwitting Antonio is swept into a world of bizarre faith and religious zeal. In the neighborhood’s dark garages and intricate labyrinth of backyard alleys, Antonio and his friends meet and develop a curious relationship with James, a twenty-year-old modern-day Fagan. A bohemian living in a rented garage, James is a fledgling master over an amoral world of young hustlers where theft, drugs, and sex are seen as “just work, you know? It’s just about money.” James’ relationship with the world is defined exclusively by shameless exploitation. He is combative, scheming, and a liar, but Antonio feels as if he is “chosen” — guarded and protected from the secret desires within his own community’s dark underbelly.
Over the course of a year, through the unraveling courtroom drama and media stories related to the Shoeshine Boy murder, as well as the unforgettable characters and events that affect Antonio, he becomes aware of all the dashed hopes of immigrants who came to Toronto seeking an affluent life, of the power of faith and the role of church, and of the terrifying confluence of power and desire that these elements fostered in his community.
It is a novel of revelation and discovery, of a young man’s glimpse into a dark and cruel world. He sees his community find its political voice through an unforgettable murder, as well as strength and power through their faith. Antonio learns about bravery and cowardice, life and death, and the heart’s capacity for love and for unremitting hatred. With the revelation of James’ secret connection to Antonio, the boy grasps the meaning of family and of the power to shape one’s destiny. By the novel’s end, he faces a world that offers endless possibilities that he must either refuse or embrace.
Q: In the Americas, there is much talk about labels: Luso, European, Portuguese Canadian, Hispanic, Portuguese-North American, Anglo-Portuguese, Azorean-American, etc., and problems with classification. If pressed, how would you label yourself?
A: This incessant need to label is quite infuriating, I must admit. I hazard to guess that writers simply see themselves as writers. That being said, I find myself using the markers because they connect the world of art to the world of academia. I prefer to leave the task of to the academics.
Q: Why do you think the work of so few Portuguese writers is translated into English?
A: Where is the market? Does a younger Portuguese demographic gravitate to these stories? I remember getting a rejection notice from a big American publisher who simply stated such facts.
The other issue is how well is Portuguese translated? I was recently asked to read a book by a young Portuguese writer who was celebrated in Portugal; who had won literary prizes; who is touted as the future of fiction in Portugal. I read his book that had been translated, by a significant publishing house no less, and yet I couldn’t get past page 30. The beauty and lyrical quality did not translate into English
Q: What was or is your happiest moment writing?
A: When my middle child, Oliver, saw my book for the first time in a bookstore window. It was my first time seeing my book in a store. It was a moment I wouldn’t trade for the life of me.
Q: As writer, what is your first priority?
A: Truth. Unflinching honesty. Escape
Q: Why do you think the immigrant experience can be bitter sweet? A dream and yet also often a disappointment?
A: One lives in an in-between world. One no longer belongs to the place they left and never completely fits into the world they adopt. It is a life of the isolate.
Q: You received the Prémios Talento (Talent Award) in 2009/2010. What made that award meaningful for you?
A: I was honoured to receive the award. I was nervous but I had the opportunity to speak publically in Portuguese and express my thanks to family in Portugal as well.
Note: De Sa also comments on his blog about the award, “It was a wonderful evening and the city of Lisbon – the pearl – became an even more special place for me. I wanted to thank you all for your tremendous support and for the Portuguese community as a whole, which has been so incredibly supportive of me and of Barnacle Love.”
Q: What’s your favorite part of a book when you are in the middle of writing it?
A: The most gratifying part of writing is when I get absorbed and lost in the minds of my characters, in the settings I’ve created. When that happens, when I need to be almost torn away from writing by my wife because it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and I have to be up at 5 to go to work . . .it’s a magical thing.
(*) 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