Hugo Santos: A sense of self rooted in the immigrant experience - Interview
Posted on 26 August 2019.
By Millicent Accardi
Meet Hugo dos Santos, a Luso-American writer, editor, and translator based on the Iron-bound area of Newark, New Jersey. A co-founder of the Brick City Collective and associate editor at DMQ Review, Hugo is the author of Then, there (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), a collection of Newark stories, and the translator of A Child in Ruins (Writ Large Press, 2016), the collected poems of the Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto titled A Criança em Ruínas, which translation was a staff pick at Paris Review Daily.
Hugo has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Disquiet International Literary Program, and he received a Write Well Award. Forthcoming or recent work appears in a number of publications, including Barrelhouse, Electric Literature, Hobart, Puerto del Sol, The Common, and The Fanzine. He is employed by an educational non-profit in New Jersey.
In this interview with Millicent Borges Accardi, for the Portuguese American Journal, Hugo dos Santos discusses his sense of self and his writing process deep-rooted in his Portuguese heritage, the immigrant experience and community life.
His website is: http://www.hugodossantos.com/about
Q: If you had to describe yourself and your work in ten seconds– On Shark Tank they call this the Elevator Pitch, what would you say?
A: Hugo dos Santos: I am a Luso-American author, translator, and editor. I believe that fiction can teach empathy, that poetry can heal, and that our communities have much to gain from inclusivity and openness.
Q: If I had asked you a similar question at age 12, like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What would you have said?
A: To build robots for NASA.
Q: From robot designer to writer. That’s quite a transformation! You have a new book, Then, there, as well as a translation of José Luís Peixoto’s, A Child in Ruins. Can you tell us about your writing workspace?
A: Libraries and coffee shops work well for me. I find a corner and dissolve into whatever world I’m trying to create.
I keep a few post-its in my workspace [at home] with quotes that have some kind of meaning to me. One of them is: “You should be aware that failure is a distinct possibility” by James Baldwin. The quote has a freeing aspect to it — failure is not the end of a thing. It’s OK to keep trying, and it’s also OK to keep failing. That’s the thing about quotes — they reveal so much about who we are.
Some of my greatest successes came after many repeated attempts that ended in failure. Sometimes failing can mean that you’re after something meaningful and difficult — it’s important not to be afraid of coming up short and to keep moving forward. Progress is everything.
Q: Can you talk about where your family is from and when they arrived in the US?
A: My parents met in Lisbon (where I was born) — mom is from Évora, dad was from Serra da Estrela — and started their family there. I moved to the US when I was ten years old. I came with my sister to join my parents, who were already in the US.
Q: Do you go to Ferry Street for Portuguese events?
A: My ties to the community come most directly through my family — my wife is the daughter of Portuguese immigrants. Aside from that, I remain engaged in the local Portuguese community in Newark because I’m able to attend events at many of our shared spaces. Social media has helped me connect with Portuguese communities across the country, and that has helped me stay connected to the PA community as a whole.
Q: What events or activities or influence in younger years brought you to writing?
A: My family loved to share jokes and retell stories. As a result, as a teenager I was drawn to both poetry and comedy for their efficiency. It wasn’t until college, once I became a reader, that I came to think of myself as a writer. My journey to writing has been a combination of the love of words and stories that I gained from my family, and the acquired love of the written word that I discovered along the way. I wasn’t a reader when I was young, so my exposure was to a different kind of literacy.
Q: Do you write in Portuguese?
A: I read and write Portuguese. In 2016 I published A Child in Ruins, a translation of the collected poems of José Luis Peixoto. I am currently working on a new translation project.
Q: How do you feel about Newark’s gentrification?
A: I’d like it better if it didn’t displace so many people who have made Newark their home for so long. There have to be better ways of investing in our communities — the current model is a disaster.
Q: How do you know when a thought becomes a trigger for a story?
A: When I can see the characters clearly. That’s really the crux for me. Once I know that, I’m good. I can begin what will eventually be a first draft. I don’t always know how the story will end, but I follow the characters and let them show me where they’re headed.
Q: Do you have a good relationship with the writer within you? Do you have to bolster their ego to convince them to work? Or does writing come easily?
A: I’ve gotten better at accepting the highs and lows of publication and the rejection process. (See the Baldwin quote above.) The actual writing comes easily, though the time in which to pursue it is always eluding me. I’d be a much more productive writer if I had more time. I always feel like I need more time with anything I’m working on.
Q: Is your voice the same voice as you write with?
A: No, not at all. One of my first steps in developing a new story is finding the voice through which to narrate it. Particularly in Then, there, the stories all have different and distinctive voices.
Q: Did you begin writing with fiction or have you evolved to that form? Like did you first write short stories, as an example or poetry?
A: I discovered my love for fiction in grad school. As I became more dedicated to writing, particularly to the art of revision, fiction became very attractive to me. At this point I produce more fiction than poetry, though I believe that it’s a cyclical process for me. I move with ease from poetry to fiction and back again. The freedom brings me great comfort. It also allows me to avoid the disappointment of dry periods in my production.
Q: What’s a writing accomplishment that told you WOW I MADE IT!
A: My residency at MacDowell was the first time I believed I could do something meaningful with my writing.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit about Portuguese Culture. Do you think there is such a 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 lit?
A: Absolutely– see the new collection Behind the Stars, More Stars, out by Tagus Press. And I think we can (and should) continue to carve out space for PA literatue even as we partner and engage with other groups who are similarly working to carve our/their own spaces.
Q: Among writers in the Luso community there is much talk that we need “The Great Portuguese-American Novel.” Like all we need is one Great Gatsby or The Godfather to reach the general public—what do you think of this? Have you read the great Portuguese-American novel?
A: I think the great PA novel would be fantastic for our community, but I don’t think it’s a crucial next step. I think the most important thing for our community is to continue to foster and support other writers, to mentor and encourage younger writers. Books come in and out of fashion, but a strong community can more readily stand the test of time.
Q: What was it like to do a book launch at the Portuguese Consulate in Newark?
A: Warm and welcoming. Everyone there was interested in the book, and I was completely blown away by the support. It’s important for me that Then, there is seen as a book that speaks not just to the PA experience but to the experience of all immigrants in Newark — the Consulate understood that and encouraged me to have the launch there just the same. I felt good about the choice because of how perfectly their vision aligns with my vision for inclusive and open communities.
Q: What do you wish for the future of PA literature in the US?
A: Books come in and out of fashion, but a strong community can stand the test of time. I hope we continue to work together, to hold doors open for one another, informed by the understanding that though the PA experience is singular it is not alone — it can learn from, and also offer value to, other communities. That’s a noble goal and one we should aspire to. I would like to see our community continue to foster and support other writers, to mentor and encourage younger writers.
Q: What do you think writers can do to enhance communication between North America and Portugal?
A: We should be translating living writers with more urgency, and translators in Portugal should translate into Portuguese writers working in the diaspora. I think translation is a perfect, if not the only, way to open up that dialogue.
Q: Why do you think so few Portuguese writers’ work is translated into English?
A: I don’t know that I have a firm sense of why, but I do know that there is an entire generation of PA readers who can help by translating work, by supporting translation work, and by continuing to read those writers in both Portuguese and English.
Q: In your new book Then, there (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), a fiction collection of what you have called “Newark stories,” one magnificent story is about a grandfather, a former fighter/wrestler in Lisbon who tries to treat old injuries with steamed water in a bowl. Can you discuss the healing power of routine, devotion and redemption?
A: In “Avô,” I wanted to capture the idea of distance as part of the immigrant experience. I had the idea of the final line, and then worked my way to it by following the character of the grandfather. Some of the material in that story pulls from a place that is very real — I think it ultimately works as a piece of fiction because for the bulk of the story it immerses the reader in the world of the memory only to pull out near the very end in a way that mirrors the immigrant experience. In that sense I didn’t consider the idea of redemption as much as I thought of healing.
The line, “Her devotion not enough to heal him” is meant to illustrate all the ways in which love (as shown through routine and devotion) is sometimes not enough. What follows that line is the emptiness that is part of leaving behind family for a shot at a better life — the immigrant is robbed even of the opportunity to attempt to use love (in this story, again, routine and devotion) to heal.
Q: In the same book, “Diary” tells the story of Roxie. Why did you choose to tell her story through a series of intimate diary entries?
A: When I was teaching in Newark I worked with many students whose desires to tell their stories were hampered by their struggles with written language as it had been taught to them. When I started thinking of how to tell Roxie’s story, it seemed to me like she was the only one who could do it.
Q: Also, in “Diary,” so many secrets left unsaid: who is Luisa? The dress? Why was Roxie’s story left unfinished?
A: It’s a dense story, but the pieces are all there. As I wrote “Diary,” I thought of Huck Finn as an example — the difficulty of relating information through a character who doesn’t exactly understand what is happening. Roxie is unreliable, in that regard, though she is absolutely sincere.
Q: Your work often deals with people who are damaged, either emotionally or physically. Do you think fiction is often driven by pain and adversity?
A: Ain’t we all, though? In all seriousness, thank you for bringing this to my attention. I never thought of my work that way. In fiction, I typically try to find one true idea to convey, around which I build the fiction, and the one true idea is often embodied by my characters. So I don’t normally seek out characters of this type. Now that you’ve mentioned it I can definitely see the pain experienced by Nize and the narrator in “Outside in,” but I also see the joy interspersed in a story like “Robin moved in”: “Now she’s bedridden and doesn’t know her own name, and I drag my stubborn feet when I walk, but we had a good life in between then and now.”
Q: In “Wisdom,” the setting is a field and two men (young and older) are talking, the crop is low to the ground and there are endless rows — the last phrase, “of course,” brings to mind authors like John Steinbeck. Do you feel in fiction that destiny is often implied?
A: “Wisdom” is intended to function like an allegory about immigrant life. It’s different from the other stories in the collection because it doesn’t take place in Newark, though it speaks to life in Newark. For me, it was important to capture the sincerity of immigrants who pursue a better way to make a living even as they retain ambitions of returning home one day. It’s a narrative I’m very familiar with, and most immigrants never get to enjoy that homecoming.
I guess this is all to say that in my experience, if destiny is implied, the inference is lost in translation.
Q: “Passage” deals with a little girl who is coming to America from Portugal, to meet her sponsor (a fake father). What does a country’s immigration policies often tell us about a country?
A: I don’t need to get into why it’s important to push back against xenophobia and notions of nationalism, but I do think that the work writers and poets can do to help in that fight is not limited to our writing. I firmly believe that if we are to be superior to the forces we’re fighting against we have to practice our beliefs — that means opening up to other communities of writers, helping to highlight them, and working together for a larger community of writers that is open and engaged.
Q: “Passage” reminds me of where a senator (maybe 30 years ago) was asked by a young mother to escort her daughter across four flights from Sierra Leone to America (because of the outbreak of a civil war). Was this story derived from a real life event?
A: There is no real life basis for “Passage,” though there are so many similar stories in our communities. The PA community hasn’t properly told these stories yet. With the kind of immigration that PA communities lived through, we should all be allies to marginalized immigrant communities everywhere.
Q: “. . .no language has perfected a word for emptiness,” such beautiful language in “The Dead” is more like a prose poem than a short story. How do you, as a writer, deviate between a poem and fiction?
A: Thank you for that. I certainly think of “The dead” as a story told in poetry. “The dead” questions the idea of time having starting and ending points, “let’s not think of beginnings through the lens of sequence,” and as a result it is itself in breach of the traditional idea of how a short story should function. It also works on opposites as the narrator dismisses the notion that death can have some kind of meaning. And along the way, it delivers the kind of insight that is awakened through great trauma: “Is it out of hope or despair that we name our hospitals after saints?”
It’s not a conscious decision that guides me to choose between poem or story — by the time I know what I’m doing, the decision has been made for me.
Q: Your stories are almost like parables, in that there is a lesson or a message to be learned by reading it. Did you set out to leave a message behind? or did it happen organically?
A: I confess that this was not an intended goal. It was important for me to create a mosaic of voices in order to properly convey the complexity of life in the city. I wonder if the stories in this collection would still function as you describe if you encountered them individually instead of as presented in this collection.
Q: In “Borders,” The Ms. Is that reminiscent of The Marias? As in a generic name for Portuguese women, The Three Marias, the Marias who go to church? The Marias who do not vacuum?
A: I wanted the Ms to function as a canvas on which the reader can project their notions of an immigrant family. The canvas is not entirely blank, there is something in the way of shapes presented, but I wanted the mystery around the Ms — who they are, what they do, where they’re from and why they’re so reclusive — to both counterbalance the narrator’s family and also help us more clearly see the danger of building borders between us and those who are very much like us.
Q: Moving forward to the present time, can you share an excerpt of what you are working on right now?
A: Sure. From “280 W”:
I was eight the first time I saw a sun shower. I suspect I had seen one before then but the experience had never registered with me. Not profoundly, anyway, like it did that day. I was eight years old, staring out the windows of my third grade classroom, and the world seemed strangely and suddenly at odds with itself.
Q: Last question: With your writing, what are you trying to accomplish but haven’t yet?
A: To finish The Great Newark Novel. 🙂
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, Special Congressional Recognition for poetry in the Portuguese community of California. New work appears in The Journal, Quiddity, Mantis and Laurel Review. Find her on Twitter @TopangaHippie
Millicent Borges Accardi is a pro bono contributor for the Portuguese American Journal. If your value her work please donate to paypal.me/Millicent500