Brian Sousa: Sempre p’ra Frente (Always Forward) - Interview
Posted on 07 September 2012.
By Millicent Accardi, Contributor (*)
Whether playing guitar with his band Ocean Transfer on a crowded Friday evening in New York City, teaching his 2:00 Introduction to Creative Writing course at Boston College, or up late writing a story about an exchange student in Lisbon, Portuguese-American writer Brian Sousa is moving forward.
With a quiet intensity, Sousa moves through space on his own terms. While many others sit around talking big about what they are going do some day, Sousa is busy taking care of business (or as Elvis called it TCB).
Early next year, Tagus Press,at UMASS/Dartmouth, will publish his first collection of stories, Almost Gone, marking a milestone in Sousa’s professional career and adding a new voice in fiction to the growing oeuvre of talented Portuguese-American writers, who are rapidly establishing a new branch of ethnic literature.
The short fiction in this upcoming collection, feature a close look Sousa says, “at a family of working-class Portuguese Americans from the inside out.” And that “In many ways, they could be any set of people facing the challenges that immigration adds to the already complicated world of human interaction — adolescence, love, relationships, loss, regret, betrayal — but in other ways, they are distinctly Portuguese.”
His work is also featured in a recent Rutgers University Press anthology Luso-American Literature: Writings by Portuguese-Speaking Authors in North America. In 2007, he was awarded a fellowship by the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, and he received an Honorable Mention, in the Titan Literary Press Award for Short Fiction.
Avoiding saudade (a term difficult to translate from Portuguese but which loosely means a longing for what was lost), Sousa writes about human problems, and he does it in such a way that links together multiple generations of families, thus not only establishing a present, but also establishing a genuine past.
Sousa declares that he would like his writing to be “meaningful and layered; but…entertaining too.” Themes of humor, loss, love, sex, violence – are all “fair game” because as he puts it, “these are the things that make up the human experience.”
Sousa grew up in the Ocean State, currently lives in Boston, teaches writing at Boston College and writes music reviews for Mule Variations. He has been published in a variety of literary journals such as Babilonia, Quiddity, Gávea-Brown, and Writer Magazine. His research interests include “the ways in which we are tied to our pasts ethnically and culturally and. . .the tension between good and evil.”
For this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Brian Sousa answers questions about being Portuguese, his writing, his music and his life.
Q: Can you describe your background and family? Are you first generation PA or were you born in Portugal?
A: My grandparents, on my father’s side, were born in Ribamondego, mainland Portugal, and my father was born in Providence, RI. After my father was born, the family went back to Portugal for a few years, and planned to stay there for good, but plans changed, and they returned to the States permanently. My grandparents lived in Cumberland, RI, and my father remembers growing up in what was essentially a Portuguese neighborhood; Valley Falls, where people helped each other adapt, and also maintained a strong sense of community. For example, a guy named Jack Amaral gave all new immigrants from his home town in Portugal (and nearby) food and groceries on credit until they found jobs.
Q: What about being Portuguese-American informs your writing?
A: For me, it is an indirect, almost evanescent thing. When I set out to write a collection of stories, the first character that appeared was Nuno, a Portuguese immigrant who would not have been out of place in Cumberland, Rhode Island; where my father grew up, and my grandfather still lives. I actually ended up with the story set in Southern RI. There was a palpable moment a few years ago — and this surfaced again at Disquiet — where I asked myself: why am I writing about this stuff? Where did it come from? Ultimately, it comes from what was an aspect of my childhood, I suppose, and an interest in the process of assimilation and adaptation that all immigrants go through. The idea of memory and tradition, and the loss of these things, really interests me as a writer and a person.
Q: Who are your favorite Portuguese writers? And what do you like about their work?
A: I love Frank Gaspar’s work. His poetry collection, Field Guide to the Heaven made me go back and try writing poetry again after giving it up for ten years, it’s just a magical book. He has a new book out that I just pre-ordered, I’m stoked! There were a number of writers that I was turned onto after Disquiet last year—José Luis Peixoto, for example—and of course there’s Antunes and Pessoa.
Q: Is there a word or song that speaks to you, in your life, or your writing?
A: My Grandfather used to say “sempre p’ra frente” to my father when he was growing up, and he, in turn, said it to me when he felt I needed to hear it. Roughly, it means “always forward.” I actually repeat that to myself now, as a reminder not to dwell on anything for too long.
Q: Can you foresee Portuguese literature taught in the US as a survey course, for example, like Afro-American Literature is taught now?
A: Absolutely. It’s such a rich field, and it’s both relatable and unique. The writing is charged. More people should read it.
Q: Do you have family in Portugal?
A: My grandfather has cousins there – some in Lisbon, some in the northern part of the country. Last time we had dinner together, in Lisbon, was during the 2008 European Cup tournament. My grandfather was arguing with his cousin about soccer, of course. It was great.
Q: What’s your Portuguese favorite food? Drink? Ever write about these things?
A: I’m still getting over the food in Lisbon last summer; it was insanely good. I loved Frank Gaspar’s story of how he sometimes writes with a cup of coffee on one side and a bourbon on the other. I’m a bourbon drinker, too, so I’ve tried it out. It’s a damn good technique.
Q: What was your first job and how (if it did?) did it fortell or shape your future career choices or work ethic?
A: Hmm…I’ve had a lot of odd jobs: parking lot attendant, busboy, barback, waiter, bartender, landscaper, cashier at a bookstore, snowboard instructor…I think my first job was as a busboy at an Italian restaurant. I was horrible at it–slow, distracted, confused, you name it–and if anything, it made me realize that I needed to find something else to do.
Q: You interview musicians, review music. How does this “inform” or affect your fiction?
A: For me, it’s all linked, for better or for worse. My teaching informs my writing; my songwriting informs my fiction and vice-versa; my poetry informs my songwriting… For better, I think this kind of openness is where new ideas come from; I hope that I’m consciously working on one thing while subconsciously working on another. For worse, I have notes to myself all over the place — post-its, scraps, in my phone, on my syllabus, on my arm…and they’re all disconnected. I’ll have a note about a song on an essay assignment, or poetry on an album review…I also tend to write all over my mail, which is strange. I love writing on full envelopes, which causes its own problems.
Q: As an interviewer, what is your first priority?
A: Only ever interviewed musicians, but I just want to try to make them think. That’s it. A lot of times, they’ve given a ton of interviews that day or week, and they’re just phoning it in, maybe even against their will. I want to challenge them.
Q: You play in a band. What sort of music is it?
A: I said I’d pay you a cool fifty bucks if you asked me this question, right? Thanks! Yeah, we’re called Ocean Transfer, been playing around Boston for a little while, and are starting to branch out now — just played PortugalHoy this Spring and are now playing our first festival. It’s kind of an Indie-Pop sound we have going, with acoustic influences and harmonies. I play guitar and sing, along with our other singer-songwriter, Josh Rollins. I write a good amount of the lyrics, but I rarely pen an entire song without the other guys helping me out. I probably get too literary. I don’t know. Josh says I’m too dark in my lyrics. Seems to be a recurring theme.
Q: Can you share a memorable line from a writer you admire?
A: I became obsessed with Ernest Hemingway in high school, and then did my time with Raymond Carver, Faulkner, some more of the classic American writers. But I’ll read anything, and I love contemporary stuff. I had a period of being very into Tom Robbins; I was surprised to love Steven King’s last book; I still re-read books by Bukowski and Kerouac. Based on the books I assign to read in my classes, I’m all over the place. I just read The Hunger Games — in part because I’d love to try to write a YA novel some day — and I loved it. Dellilo, TC Boyle, Rick Bass, Denis Johnson, Russel Banks, Tom Wolfe, Lise Haines, Cheryl Strayed; far too many to name.
Q: Do you consider yourself a romantic and an idealist? Or something else entirely?
A: Sometimes people read my work and say “Man, that’s dark…” But I’m definitely an idealist. Generally, I still have a lot of faith in people, and despite being shocked by the news sometimes, I tend to think that things will get better. I think I get that from my parents — they were always really positive, collectively, growing up. If I screwed up, I could learn from it and move on. I was taught early on that if I worked hard, I could keep my dreams big, and they’ve helped inspire me to do that. As for romantic…you’ll have to ask my girlfriend. I did buy her a plant the other day…
Q: Can you describe your interests, primary and secondary?
A: Hmm, I don’t know how to categorize these, but I’m interested in: all forms of writing, all forms of music (playing, listening, writing about it), sports—especially soccer and my Boston pro teams, sports that people don’t consider sports (snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing)—and travel, which is a huge interest, though I don’t get to do it as much as I’d like. I’m always amazed by how much I write while I’m traveling—how inspiring it is.
Q: There is violence against women at least in the story I read of yours in Lisbon, a scene which set off flares throughout the class and a scene which was also very powerful. How do you respond to those who ask why? I studied with Hubert Selby who said the scene in Last Exit in Brooklyn with Tra La la was a love story. . . .do you feel the same way about violent scenes in your work?
A: Not exactly the same, though I love that idea and sentiment. My take on it is that the best art is both about reality; the real world, and also about causing us to reconsider ourselves and the world around us. Artists can do this in all different ways, and one way is to write exciting, scary, controversial scenes that still mimic real life. The human experience can be violent and sad and also beautiful and uplifting. Life is not always what you want it to be, but it’ll always show you new things. Fiction should be the same way. I went to a reading by Junot Diaz, and he said something to the effect of — art should and can make us uncomfortable. He’s another favorite writer of mine.
Q: You teach. Can you discuss the balance between teaching and writing and how one affects the other?
A: I’ve been teaching college writing classes for 7 years now, altogether, and there are moments that I love it, and moments where I grow frustrated, like any job. I learn from my students on good days, and on bad days, I’ve got something funny to write about.
Q: Can you tell us about your new book?
A: Right now I’m calling it “The Story I Would Never Tell” but having just written that, I know that won’t be the title. What a strange title. It’s about a man who, during his boyhood in Lisbon, experiences something that he must keep secret. His future years in the US are colored by what happened, and just when he feels that he has the present under control, his world is rocked by the disappearance of his daughter. The search for her brings him face to face with his old regrets and silences, and he’s forced to make a choice between the past, the present, and the future…not to be too heavy about it, ha!
Q: Can you share an excerpt of something you are writing right now?
A: Sure. I’ve got some work in on this one:
All day I watch
the clock hands
her fingers black
jerking back the hours
of this life.
Later, your hands flutter like
pigeon wings after you
sifting under the covers
the muted light.
…but I’m not sure where it’s going. I think it’s a poem.
Q: Can you tell us about your work in Boston? What courses you teach? What research you are doing? Your scholarly interests?
A: I teach various writing classes at Boston College and usually another college or university at the same time. Right now I’m much more rooted in the creative than the academic, though, so I’d say my ‘research’ is usually in the form of sitting down to write each day, and travel, if I can do it.
Q: As a writer, what is your first priority?
A: Write truly.
Q: If there is one written passage you would like to be remembered by, what would it be?
A: I don’t know about being remembered by it, but I [like a line in a poem of mine from the journal Babilonia] because of what it speaks to: the silences we keep between each other. I’m interested in those pockets of sound, of where our minds go when we’re not speaking, of the way energy is conducted between two people.
so I leave my hand there
waiting for you to say something.
(*) 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