Curse of Roses: Diana Pinguicha unveils Isabel de Aragão - Interview
Posted on 10 January 2021.
With Millicent Accardi
A Curse of Roses, Diana Pinguicha’s debut YA (young adult) novel is a fascinating re-telling of the myth of Isabel de Aragão, a woman of great renown who turns all the food she touches into flowers. Based on a Portuguese legend, this historical fantasy is an epic tale of mystery, magic, and making the impossible choice between love and duty…With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies.
Born January 4th, 1271, in Zaragoza (a town which later becomes Estremoz), Isabel de Aragão is an early role model for author Diana Pinguicha, who, as a child growing up in Estremoz with its many statues, buildings and–even the high school dedicated to the legend of Isabel–was inspired to retell the ancient story about Isabel de Aragão, engaging woman known for her strength of character, generous nature and work with the poor.
By trade, author Pinguicha is a computer engineer who now calls Lisbon home. Her father’s side of the family hails from Alentejo (São Romão) and her mother is from Sintra (Anços). In everyday life, Pinguicha can usually be found writing, painting, devouring enormous quantities of books and video games, or walking with Norberta, her bearded dragon. Sushi and Jubas, are her cats who would never forgive her if they were not mentioned in this introduction, since they are also an important part of her life.
The story line is inspired in the mystical life of the Isabel de Aragão (1270–1336) queen consort of Portugal, venerated as a saint of the Catholic Church. Her marriage to D. Dinis, the 6th king of Portugal, was arranged in 1281 when Isabel was only 10 years old. It was believed that Isabel had magic powers.
“Even if some aspects aren’t historically accurate, the whole story is delightful and you can still take home a lot of the old Portuguese culture, symbols and mysticism. Additionally, Pinguicha does clarify all those details in a genuine author’s note at the end.” – Writemosphere|Blog (Book Review)
Q: Can you tell us about Isabel de Aragão?
A: Isabel de Aragão was born (January 4th 1271) in Zaragoza, and died (July 4th 1336) in Estremoz, my hometown. Her marriage to Dinis I, King of Portugal, was arranged when she was 10 and he was 20–but the marriage was only officiated when she turned 12 and consummated even later.
She was known to be extremely generous, very religious, and constantly worried about the less fortunate. She was always trying to give charity, which her husband was very much against. As the story goes, she defied his will by sneaking out the castle to hand out bread to the poor–until the day she was caught, and confronted by the Portuguese king, who demanded to know what she carried in her skirts. “Roses,” she said, even though it was bread. When asked to show proof, she let her skirts drop, and it was indeed roses that fell to the ground rather than bread. Seeing this miracle, Dinis understood that his wife’s charity was god’s will, and as such, he let her carry on giving food to those who needed it. She was also very politically savvy, and together with Denis, they made the country a much better place for mostly everyone involved.
Q: Why is Isabel significant?
A: I grew up listening to the Miracle of Roses, so when I was looking for a Portuguese myth to adapt, it seemed obvious. Not just that, the more I researched her life and reign, the more impressed I was with who she was, and what she did. Isabel was a very kind person whose greatest faults were piety, generosity, and stubbornness. She was immensely anti-conflict, steering the kingdom toward peace more than once, and together with Dinis I, they were one of the best rulers we had. I think my favorite thing of hers was when she parked her white mule between two armies, and just stood there until Dinis and her son stopped the senseless civil war they were about to begin due to the King’s favoring of his bastard son as his successor.
Q: What do you think teens or young adults are looking for from a YA book? What makes them want to read past the first line?
A: Different readers look for different things regardless of genre or category. With YA, I think it’s mainly about the character’s growth, and them figuring out where they belong in the world. As for reading past the first line… You just have to make sure every line after that one is good enough to keep interest.
Q: Have you found writing for a younger audience different than writing for adults?
A: I have, and haven’t. Categories have different expectations, and with younger children, it’s more about them realizing there’s a big world out there. With Adults, you have a lot more options to explore. You can take longer building a world, or introducing your characters, and there’s no age stipulation for your protagonist, whereas in children’s books, you want a main character that’s around the age of your target audience (there are exceptions, of course.) But ultimately, I think if you have a good story that fits each category, there’s no difference between writing for different age groups at all.
Q: Do you try to have a lesson or to have something in your work that teaches teens? Like an insight or lesson that they learn by reading your book?
A: I think every book should have a message, or a point. In my case, I wanted teens who read it to have an easier time accepting themselves for who they are, and that kindness isn’t something you are, but a choice you make.
Q: As you explain, you “changed up” the legend, re-casting the original story (for modern times). What made you decide to reinvent Yzabel and her magic powers?
A: I wanted to use Portuguese myths, which are so largely undiscovered outside of Portugal. And because I love Fantasy with all my heart, I knew I wanted her to have actual magic, and the miracle be a thing of her own creation rather than the invisible hand of god. I also wanted to tell a sapphic tale that would speak to people who grew up in the same situation I did: a queer person surrounded by Catholic homophobes and believing she was cursed. I’ve long since accepted that I’m queer, and that I’m not cursed—I’m just neurodivergent, and the problem was never me, but the environment I was in.
And I thought, “What better way than to write one of our most beloved figures as gay and having her accept that, along with something she believes to be a curse? That will be cathartic for me, and might be cathartic for someone else, too.” So Yzabel’s power, her stubbornness, how she sees the world, how she practices empathy—those are really metaphors for aspects so many of us experience every day.
Q: You are an engineer by trade, what events or influence in younger years brought you to writing?
A: Video games! I fell in love with The Legend of Zelda when I first played Ocarina of Time, to the point I played it with a dictionary to help me figure out what was happening, as my English wasn’t great back then. But I always enjoyed putting words to paper (or, in this case, the screen) and so I kept at it.
Q: What resources or experiences in your life serve as inspiration?
A: My own upbringing, and the challenges I’ve faced with growing up queer, and with undiagnosed autism and ADHD. All my years studying music are also a huge part of my writing and inspiration, and sometimes I’ll just sit with a good soundtrack and let the music take my thoughts to places. Drawing is another source of inspiration, and I often draw all my characters before I even start the book—it makes them feel more real, somewhat.
Q: What about folklore and fairy tales interest you?
A: It’s interesting to look at stories that stood the test of time, and what makes them keep their appeal to this day. And also, it’s fun to see how legends and folklore change from region to region!
Q: Do you have a good relationship with the writer within you? Does writing come easily? Or is it a struggle?
A: Comes and goes! Some days, I’m very productive, and know exactly what I want to sit down and write that day. Others, I’m a wanderer in my own head, trying to figure out how to make a certain concept or story work, and get really frustrated with myself for not being able to get it immediately. I have to constantly remind myself that it’s OK to take my time, and to be patient and kind to myself.
Q: Where do you live now?
A: I grew up in Estremoz, which is a medium-sized city in Alentejo. There’s a castle with a donjon (where the statue in Isabel’s honor is), and most of the city is small houses painted white to reflect the hot summer heat. Come winter, however, it is so cold and I have fond memories of sitting by the fire, relishing in the heat. I moved to Lisbon to get my degree in Computer Engineering at Instituto Superior Técnico, and have been here ever since. I do miss the country, though, and the quiet that came with it.
Q: Can you tell readers a little about your connection to the US? What cities have you visited? Favorites? Things you connect with here? Visited any Portuguese communities like New Bedford or Provincetown?
A: My connection to the US is mostly through the media and art I consume. We see so many things set in the US, we feel like we know part of it. I also have the added bonus of being an internet child, with a solid online group of friends from all over, and it just so happens that my very best friend in the whole world is from Alaska (but now lives in Minneapolis).
I haven’t seen much from the US yet, but so far, my favorite city was Atlanta, and I also loved rural Pennsylvania. I really, really want to go to New Orleans at some point, as well as the West Coast. Sadly, I haven’t visited any Portuguese communities, but as typical of Portuguese people, wherever I go in the US, I always find someone who’s either Portuguese, or of Portuguese descent!
Q: Would you like to have dual American citizenship?
A: I wish! Those lines at the airport for non-citizens are a nightmare! But no, just single Portuguese citizenship.
Q: How did you come to have an American publisher? Will the book also be published in Portugal? You are writing for an American audience– what is your connection?
A: I knew my books would have little chance of being picked up by a Portuguese publisher, so from the tender age of 23, I’ve been writing in English and submitting to American agents and publishers. So it was a lot of writing, querying, writing more. It took me a few tries (this is my seventh manuscript, to be precise) but I finally had someone willing to publish one of my books! As for my connection, again, it’s not much beyond me wanting to share some Portuguese history, and wanting that bigger audience, as well as a better chance of seeing a book with my name out there. Unfortunately, no one in Portugal has bought the translation rights for the book, so there are no plans for it to be released here at the moment.
Q: Did you begin writing YA fiction or have you evolved to that form?
A: I began writing fanfiction at the tender age of 14. It was terrible, and full of errors since I wasn’t fluent in English yet. But it served to practice, and to evolve. I told myself, at seventeen, that if I finished this epic work of fanfic, I’d start writing books—and three years later, when I finished that mammoth, that’s exactly what happened. And YA is what came more naturally to me, since my memories of being that age are still incredibly vivid, and writing about them was my way to explore my own identity and trauma from those years.
I’m branching out a bit more currently. I really want to write an Adult literary fiction about my dad’s hometown in honor of my grandmother Nini, who was magic herself. I also want to write toward a younger audience—one day, the Cat Dragons book will be a thing, this I swear!
Q: What do you wish for the future of Luso literature in the US? How can we build better bridges between North America and Portugal?
A: I wish for more works translated from Portuguese to English, and that publishing houses would invest more in international authors. There are so many great authors all over the globe that deserve international success and can’t get it because the US doesn’t tend to import literature—it mostly exports it.
Q: What frustrates or challenges you?
A: Being in my head! Really, it’s a challenge, and often frustrating. I’m either hyper-focused or with my head in the clouds, I fixate on the smallest flaws rather than look at the big picture, I can’t read others’ tones, or my own. And all this makes it hard to sit down, pick an idea to develop into a book, and stick to it until it’s done.
But having my head is also not all bad, I promise. Sometimes, I have good days where I am a machine.
Q: What elements or themes would you point out if you were teaching a course in Portuguese literature? What markers make a work uniquely “Portuguese”?
A: Our use of stylistic figures, our expressions, the way our characters act and react, the way we describe (or rather, what we don’t—Eça de Queirós aside, Portuguese authors don’t often describe a lot). And often, our works will have this undercurrent of melancholia—or, you know, saudade.
Q: Who are your favorite Luso writers? Can you share a line or passage and explain its significance to you?
A: Fernando Pessoa has been a favorite since I discovered his work. Maybe also because my Portuguese teachers also compared my way of writing to his, specifically, to the work he published under Álvaro Campos. So much of his work speaks directly to me that when I read it, I find myself holding the book to my chest and just sitting with his words. As for a passage…
I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist. I’m the space between what I’d like to be and what others made of me. Just let me be at ease and all by myself in my room.
That line resonates deeply with me. Often, I feel just like that: that when I’m just starting to know myself, I realize the real me doesn’t truly exist. What does exist is something between what I want to be, and what others want me to be, a compromise between identities so I can be palatable to those around me. That ideally, I’d just be left alone in my room, comfortable with my truth, rather than forcing myself to be someone I’m not.
Q: How has being Portuguese shaped your life?
A: It’s a weird thing to describe, but I think it made me a bit closed-off and morose, with this kind of longing for the simpler time of the past (saudade. It is everywhere with us). Like this feeling where you hold onto sadness and greet it like an old friend rather than an enemy, like it’s something to be treasured rather than discarded. It’s also made me really loud, and a lot of foreigners get confused when I greet them with kisses on the cheek. I’m also very self-deprecating, and it often does not come across and people think I’m being serious.
And sometimes, I joke around with my friends about how I feel so Portuguese; I want to don a black shawl, drape it over my shoulders, and go stand on a rock while my tears salt the sea.
Q: Is there a particular Portuguese song or phrase that sticks in your head?
A: There is a uniquely Portuguese expression I particularly like called desenrascar. It’s what you do when you’re in a tight spot and have to make do with that you have at hand. It describes so much of the Portuguese spirit, and how we get things done.
Q: In the Portuguese community, do you think male writers are taken more seriously than female writers?
A: Definitely. We still have to shed the grip the Iberian Machismo holds over this country. We have this group on Facebook where male authors are constantly putting down kidlit books and romance as being lesser-than. We hear them saying SFF written by women nowadays just isn’t as good because of political correctness, that we’re incapable or uninteresting. And I believe a lot of that derives from society still seeing the feminine as weak, and how what women like can’t possibly be as worthy as literary works by men. That’s elitism and sexism at play, all at once.
Being feminine is not a weakness, and liking Romance books isn’t bad, and reading YA books isn’t us succumbing to a dumbing down of literature. Just because you don’t personally enjoy something, it doesn’t mean it’s bad, and you don’t need to constantly be saying that.
I’ve been flat-out dismissed and my abilities question solely because I’m a girl who likes wearing pretty dresses. I’ve had people laugh me off when I said I wrote YA Fantasy in English so I could get published abroad. “That’s so cute, that you think your English will never be on a native speaker’s level,” was what was said. It hurt to hear those things, but I never really listened, and chose to persist instead.
Q: Who are your literary influences?
A: Juliet Marillier, Jacqueline Carey, George Orwell, Fernando Pessoa
Q: One last thing? If there is a passage or line in your work that you would like to be remembered by, what would it be?
A: Kindness isn’t something you are. It’s something you choose to be, every single moment of every single day.
- Title: A Curse of Roses
- Author: Diana Pinguicha
- Publisher: Entangled: Teen
- Published: December 1, 2020
- Language: English
- Genre: Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Hardcover: 352 pp
- Reading age: 14-18 years
- Grade level: 10-12
Available @ Amazon.com
Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, California Arts Council, Barbara Deming, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and SOPAS, Congressional Recognition in the California Portuguese community. Her new work appears in The Journal, Quiddity, and Another Chicago Magazine. You can find her @TopangaHippie (IG and Twitter).