a c o n v e r s a t i o n w i t h p a u l o d a c o s t a
by Tamara Kaye Sellman
I HAVE been having a kind of conversation with paulo da costa for at least four years now. He’d sent us a short story, “Hell’s Mouth Bay,” in response to Margin‘s first ever call for submissions. Naturally, we were slow in responding as we worked out our editorial processes, so when we finally decided we wanted to take his story, he had to write back with the unfortunate news that it had already been taken elsewhere and, consequently, it was no longer available, even in reprint. Needless to say, we were disappointed.
But he and I have kept in touch. I’d send out a note every once in again to check on the status of his story’s copyright, and he’d respond with an e-mail from some faraway place to share what was to become a kind of itinerary for the eventual emergence of his prize-winning book of stories, The Scent of a Lie.
Released in 2002 by Ekstasis Editions in Canada, The Scent of a Lie has done quite well for a first book and collection, having made it to the shortlist for the Canada-Caribbean Region of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2003 and winning the 2002 City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize last May.
After reading The Scent of a Lie (please see our mini review), I was compelled to ask Paulo some questions about the genesis of his stories, as well as his thoughts about magical realism. While we were never able to capture the story, “Hell’s Mouth Bay,” in reprint for Margin, the story is included in da Costa’s collection under a new title, “The Scent of a Lie,” along with another story we’re pleased to present in companion to this interview, “Birthing Stones.
Tamara Kaye Sellman: Paulo, what is your definition of literary magical realism?
Paulo da Costa: I don’t have a definition.
TKS: So how do you explain the kinds of stories you write to other people who ask about them?
PDC: I tend to say that my work is lyrical and sensual with elements of magic. I am also specific about the stories and the characters, for instance telling people there is a girl in the book who can smell lies, etc… if they are still looking puzzled I then resort to saying that my work has been compared to García Márquez, Bowles, Allende, Fuentes, etc… and at that point those names usually bring a sign of recognition.
TKS: Would you characterize yourself a magical realist?
PDC: At times I am. I think this particular book has shades, tones, hues of magical realism, but I believe both this book and my work in general move in, out and through territories of magic and the extraordinary, and also move beyond the particular definitions of magical realism. I think my catholic upbringing is one of the foundations to some of magical aspects in my writing. And of course Portuguese Catholicism is very imbued with paganism. And paganism has a pure and open mindset for magic as it is so much closer and attuned to the miracles of nature and life itself. A catholic grows up accustomed to a myriad of miracles, fantastic stories and feats in our mythology. All accepted without question. A sense that the divine powers create without limitations and constraints. That the possible is always within the impossible. From immaculate conceptions to multiplying fish. As a writer I step into the garments and perhaps even the mindset of a God, I create worlds, people and landscapes with a certain degree of will. The only limitations are the limitations of the imagination and the limitations within the heart of the creator. In relating to the universe that surrounds me the magic in my writing comes as naturally as the magic of breathing, tasting olives and corn bread, watching a hummingbird fly.
I never thought of myself as writing magic realism until other people connected me to that tradition. I hadn’t even read any of magic realism’s greatest until I was informed by friends that my stories reminded them of Isabel Allende and García Márquez. Then I went to read a couple of their books and was blown away by their work. There were masters already living and occupying that literary landscape. It was the writing I wanted to be able to write. It was also a little demoralizing for me as an unpublished writer and in the sense that I had to face the reality that there were outstanding writers writing in a similar vein and doing a fabulous job. But I wasn’t deterred.
TKS: How does it feel now to have your worked compared to that of García Márquez?
PDC: To be compared to García Márquez is of course an incredible honor. At the same time such comparison carries a significant weight which I experience as constricting.
I think like most writers, if not all writers, I am a writer who would like to develop a distinct voice and be seen and heard as such a distinct voice. I deeply honor the preceding literary lineages, deeply respect the ground laid before me and from which I sprang. I would not be writing what I write if it were not for the vast work of literature that has preceded me. I am also aware that whatever I do will automatically be placed in this larger context. I am a continuation and hopefully a new flower that will add more color to that literary field.
It is perhaps true that every new promising writer is compared to a greater voice of his or her time. And that is a great honor in itself. And sign that great hopes are being placed on the writer’s voice. A hope of renewal perhaps. I might be more relaxed about it if I knew who García Márquez had been compared to when he was first published. Who was he compared to?
I also like to distance myself from such comparison because I do not wish to be limited by the weight of such comparison and the inherent constraints and expectations that such comparison might imply. I hope people look at the comparison as a point of reference.
TKS: Magical realism is, as you know, a fusion of the ordinary with the extra-ordinary found within every human institution (politics, religion, culture, family, education, community, etc.) Does it bother you when the extra-ordinary is singled out as “magical” in the US? Do you think there are problems with the term “magical realism?”
PDC: Yes, I think it could be a troublesome definition and labeling. Particularly as it isolates a particular element or characteristic in a text and proposes to define and identify the entire work on the basis of that single element. It highlights the magical aspect and turns it into an exotic characteristic, perhaps lending it more than its due space within the page, the image, the work. Indeed the magic and the extraordinary might stand out for a North American or Anglo-Saxon reader and hence the relevance given to the magic.
Perhaps if North America lived in a way that the extraordinary, the magic belonged in everyday living that question and labeling would not be necessary.
I fear that such labeling might box and constrain the fluidity of the magic and of the extraordinary in any narrative. I also fear that the magic ingredient alone will define or catalog the entire work. Naturally there is also an immediate positive result in a quick identification, a quick signpost on a literary road to distinguish all the flavors and turns on that road.
Perhaps it is most troublesome for me because it implies that the magic is the center of gravity, the foundation of the writing, the spine that holds the story. Then it obfuscates the fact that the magic is simply a door, a lens to bring greater focus to the themes at hand. If the work is focused on the magic as its moving force and narrative center then perhaps one could define it as magic realism or whatever. But the works I am familiar with do not use the magic and the extraordinary as the trick that draws the attention but as a vehicle for a deeper understanding and exploration of the themes approached.
TKS: It’s hard to find books of magical realism in bookstores without first searching fantasy, science fiction, new age, Latino and literature shelves first, an exhausting task. Do you imagine there will ever be a bookshelf at any bookstore ever devoted solely to magical realism? Where is The Scent of a Lie shelved?
PDC: In Canada, my book is shelved under literary works. It is very rare to have a Canadian writer touching the magic realist vein, and therefore the term is not as visible and common as in the USA.
In terms of writing Canada has more of a realist and social realist culture. Although many more readers than what I had anticipated are fans of the magic and the extraordinary in writing, and are telling me so. Canadian publishers in general do not seem to be tuned into that need in their readers yet. I hope that changes.
The hunger for the fantastical and magic is presence as one can see in the Harry Potter revolution which has excited young and adults readers alike, drawing them into a vivid and fantastical world.
In terms of a future bookshelf devoted to Magic Realism I am not sure it would be helpful to create such specialized distinction. Perhaps one day, magic and the extraordinary will be part of many more works, it will be interwoven in any genre and therefore that distinction will not be necessary.
TKS: Name some works of obscure or under-marketed magical realism that you think readers would really appreciate.
PDC: All books by Mia Couto, an incredible Mozambican writer. Also explore many African writers writing in non-English languages, and be surprised.
TKS: What advice would you give to young writers outside the United States who wish to emerge as magical realists?
PDC: Take risks. Let your imagination fly and stay with the idea until its ultimate conclusion. Stay with that leap of imagination, until it flies or crashes but stay committed to the process, to the idea and until the end. Trust that it will take you where you will need to go, to places you cannot anticipate when you first embarked on that journey. Be open to being shown new worlds, be curious, keep asking yourself, the story and the characters questions, be willing to learn as you write your way into the unknown. Let go of a great degree of control at first. Let the words, the idea, show you what it wants to show you or what it wants to say.
TKS: What is the one thing you’d like to tell American readers about magical realism that they might not already realize?
PDC: It lives everywhere on the planet and it is not circumscribed to Latin America.
TKS: How is The Scent of a Lie doing in terms of sales?
PDC: The book has sold out or is very close to having sold out the first print run. It was published by a small Canadian Press and I have not yet received confirmation it will go into second printing. Some uncertainty about a subsequent printing has been voiced by the publisher.
TKS: Any explanation as to why?
PDC: No clear explanation yet because according to the publisher there are still a few copies in the system. I have a few guesses to what some of the reasons behind that hesitancy might be.
The Canadian market is a very small literary market and although the book has done well it is still a very limited market for this book. The book has also thrived very much on its own and without any individual ads and strong marketing support, despite having received two literary prizes. Just to give you a sense of the publisher’s neglect towards the book just imagine it is nearly a year after the book was first published and it still is not listed on the publisher’s own web site.
In Canada small publishers receive a grant incentive to publish Canadian authors. It is a block grant for the books published by the house and regardless of how many or how few copies the book will sell. There is little incentive for many publishers to support and invest in an existing book and its subsequent editions since they rely on that yearly grant for new books. It would take them additional time, effort and financial investment to push and support an existing book. It is easier for the publisher to turn their attention to the new book that will bring them a government grant.
TKS: At what point did you see your short stories moving into this interconnected, collected form?
PDC: When I decided to assemble this first book of stories from the 40 or so stories I had written, I realized many of those stories had a shared center: the geography of a northern Portuguese grape-growing valley. Since some of the characters were already lightly hopping from story to story, once the focus was on gathering a coherent manuscript of short stories, it became easy to strengthen the already present connections.
TKS: Give me the history of the story, “Scent of a Lie.” We saw it first as “Hell’s Mouth Bay” a few years back.
PDC: “Hell’s Mouth Bay” became “The Scent of a Lie” when I was searching for a title to the story collection. I was searching for a title story that might be a representative thread of the entire collection. “Hell’s Mouth Bay” was and is a title I like for that story per se but in my estimation it was not the best title to represent the entire collection. One day, The Scent of a Lie appeared out of the blue and it immediately felt right.
TKS: Didn’t “Hell’s Mouth Bay” win a string of accolades a few years back?
PDC: In 2000 the story won the Canongate Prize for New Writing and it was published in the anthology Original Sins, launched at the Edinburgh Literary Festival.
TKS: How long did it take before your manuscript made it into Richard Olafson’s hands?
PDC: The stories in the book were written in a year or so. They came out very naturally. Once assembled in book form, The Scent of a Lie was rejected for several years and by many, many Canadian publishers. I was losing hope in seeing it published, although I believed in the book. Once Richard accepted the book it took less than a year before it was in print.
TKS: Writers often experience crises in self-doubt when their work isn’t picked up by a publisher after a long waiting period. What motivated you to keep going?
PDC: I need to write as I need to breathe. Writing is a deep passion and a spiritual practice in my life. No external obstacles have ever stopped me from pursuing my passions, they simply clarify and intensify the importance of such passions in my life and the necessity of surrendering myself to them. I knew I would be writing regardless of a publisher’s response to my work. It is a physical and spiritual need.
I also had an innate sense that sooner or later the acceptance of my work would occur since I believed in my writing. The challenge was to manage the intermittent waves of frustration and disappointment experienced with each rejection, while waiting and anticipating the unpredictable moment of acceptance.
I was also fortunate to have experienced writer friends who believed in my work and who in those tough moments remind me of the quality of my work and that it was going to be a mere question of time before I was published. I took this wait as a time to practice patience, discipline and endurance which I think are fundamental skills for any writer to develop if he or she wants to succeed in the long journey of developing a career as a writer.
TKS: You say you believed in the book. Still, were there obstacles beyond your control that may have played a part in keeping it from publication, or was it really just a matter of waiting it out?
PDC: I think there are a few present trends in writing that increase the difficulty of getting published, particularly for a writer in a similar context to my own.
With the explosion in creative writing programs in North America and, on one hand, the twinning of publishing houses to those creative writing programs and, on the other hand, having those faculty members serve as press editors, will in my opinion create enormous challenges to writers outside those tight circles and communities.
A writer who is not engaged in a creative writing program will have less visibility and connections than a writer who is in such a program and intensely connected to those communities. Hence the chances for being published become terribly diminished. Getting published is greatly influenced by social networks and connections.
A professor will likely have a natural bias towards a student they have nurtured for a number of years, have influenced and perhaps have even helped shape her or his voice. The professor will likely have a genuine attachment to the student’s work and that will likely be translated into a yes to the publishing of their book when they sit with their press editor hat on. The quality of the attention to the reading of a student’s work will be significantly different than the reading of an unknown, faceless manuscript. Assuming the unknown, faceless manuscripts are even read at all. Plus the professor is already familiar with the work sitting in front of them.
It is a predictable emotional response and, unless one consciously examines those patterns and recognizes that such response excludes other writers operating outside those specific circles, I believe we are going to see a publishing trend where it will almost be a necessary pre-requisite to attend a creative writing program so as to have a shot at being read and considered for publishing. That will be an incredible loss of exposure to the voices working outside that system and it will likely give rise to a boom in self-publishing and other creative ways for a writer to be heard. Not to speak about the loss of diversity in the range of literary voices, those voices that are working outside the established points of reference of what good writing looks like in a creative writing department.
I have never studied creative writing and attended any institution therefore I was detached from those circles and as a consequence less visible. I believe that certainly contributed to my book taking a lot longer to be accepted.
TKS: Do you think magical realism as a genre or story type is more difficult to place with publishers?
PDC: In Canada it is absolutely true. It is situated on the periphery of the literary palates of our editors and publishers. And yet slowly it is making inroads in the industry. Particularly as non-North American and non-Indo-European cultures start to have more impact and influence in the world and also begin to greatly affect and influence the dominant cultures. The magic and the extraordinary are natural to the non-industrial cultures. We might even see a new cross-pollination where the magic and the extraordinary might weave even more intensely with the urban technological and industrial experiences and bring us something new and exciting in writing.
TKS: What language is your own prose written in, initially? Your work has been translated into other languages as well. Which languages, and how do your books fare abroad?
PDC: I now write mostly in English although my mother tongue is Portuguese. I write in Portuguese when I am visiting Portugal. The Scent of a Lie was written in English. I am now finishing its translation to my mother tongue. I like the process of bringing it back to its original linguistic geography. It is an interesting linguistic contortion and in this process I feel I have the freedom to let the language and the characters change the translation somewhat, take it in slightly different directions and follow the Portuguese.
Besides Portuguese, a few of my stories have been translated to Spanish, Italian and Serbian, although to date foreign publishers have yet to show interest in publishing the entire book in translation.
TKS: Do any of the stories in The Scent of a Lie resemble or borrow from tales your own family of storytellers shared?
PDC: A writer is a compiler of information. Single words, sentences, pictures, images, sounds, smells, twist ties and scraps of paper. Fragments here fragments there, combined with cultural and family lore, memories of real events, imaginary leaps. Some of these fragments or ingredients are conscious, others are wholly unconscious. Some of those unconscious ingredients will undoubtedly be dissected and pointed out to the writer once the book is out in the world. Perhaps other elements will remain forever unconscious to the writer.
All those ingredients mix in the writer’s mind to create a story and stories that are unique. Here and there the stories might remind or contain the echoes of a real event, cultural lore, but are unlikely to be an imitation or a duplicate of the departing image. A cloud might resemble a horse but it is not a horse. I am often informed by readers that they like the lore, the mythology, the belief system of the fishermen in the short story “The Scent of a Lie.” They read it as a true reflection of the cultural belief system of Portuguese fishermen. They say it sounds authentic and logic. Well, it was all imagined. And to my knowledge there were/are no fishermen in Portugal or in other parts of the world who believed the pearls in oysters are the eyes of the drowned fishermen. And if indeed there is such lore it then means I have unconsciously tapped into some collective human stream of consciousness, which is always possible. Artists do tap into a world that is often mysterious. I know many of us often feel we are mere conduits for voices that want to speak through us and to the world.
I was very fortunate to have grown in a culture and a family that cherished stories. Telling and hearing stories was a way to create meaning, to bond us, to share experiences, to entertain and to have fun. It is still a very important part of the texture of the town where I grew up. Yet quickly diminishing in face of the power of television. The television’s immense reach and power of persuasion brings a daily barrage of faraway stories, often displacing the local stories as the social glue for local communities. Communities that now seem to be more concerned with issues taking place on the other side of the planet than in their own backyard. Although there is an important aspect to having your gaze and concerns cast that far and wide. But that also occurred before these media surfaced, and it occurred with the itinerant storytellers bringing stories from afar.
Stories can bring people together and strengthen their ties or they can tear them apart. It is a very powerful medicine if not handled with care. Mean-spirited gossip is for me one of the examples of the negative impact of storytelling and the terrible effect it might have on individuals, groups and whole communities. Stories gain a life of their own, they are consciously and unconsciously distorted by each person who passes the story. The results are most often unpredictable.
Telling stories is still part of the texture of any community, for better and for worse. Now the question is, who controls the new powerful broadcasting media that can instantly reach millions and millions around the world with their particular versions of the world and its events, their particular interpretations? Is there enough diversity of interpretations to the stories we hear? From newscasts to novels. They are all stories.
TKS: No doubt you must be concerned about the latest trends toward FCC deregulation here in the US. Do you think that these political-corporate alignments will have a deleterious effect on the diversity of North American literary culture, if left unchecked?
PDC: Absolutely. Any concentration of power in the hands of the few is a concern for democracy and for the preservation of diversity and dialogue anywhere, in any field and under any circumstance.
In the particular case of media concentration in the hands of a few corporations it is a great concern for disenfranchised groups and voices, or any other voices of dissent without economical or social access to those reinforcing circles of power.
In the case of FCC deregulation in the US it is a very important issue for everyone in the world since the American media conglomerates and their tentacles of power reach the entire globe and greatly shape how we receive information, its interpretation, according to the particular prism and interests of US corporations. And ultimately they influence and shape the values of people everywhere.
I am happy to see that US citizens responded promptly and strongly in opposition to such deregulation. People have instinctively recognized the dangers of concentrating such power in fewer hands. And that the politicians have responded this time and so far in this issue in support of people’s wishes.
TKS: You were born in Angola, raised in Portugal and now live in Canada. I’m assuming you’ve done a bit of traveling as well. Such exposures to various cultures must have had a profound effect on your life as a writer. Can you cite any specific examples?
PDC: Travelling and living in different continents exposed me to different cultures, witnessing the different ways cultures experienced and framed their particular worlds. It has allowed me to think outside the prescribed and conditioning box of the culture I was born into. Hopefully it stripped out any residues of cultural arrogance in me and that are inherent to the dominant cultures. And to different extents inherent to most cultures really. It taught me humbleness and an open mind, to receive and understand other ways of perceiving and experiencing the world. It stretched my sense of what was possible, the infinite possibilities of perceiving and experiencing the reality around me. Distinct cultures and languages are the different ecosystems of mind and spirit. They are a reflection of the inventive impulse of the human mind and spirit to shape its experience through creative interpretation. It expands the physical and emotional universes we inhabit. In the same way that the diverse geographical ecosystems are a reflection of the unbound imagination of nature and its unending creative impulse to cross-pollinate, mutate and evolve.
So in that sense traveling was a great exercise in having my mind stretched outside of its own comfort box, the mind willing to travel outside its known, safe boundaries. Once I realized I enjoyed that leap and stretching, enjoyed being surprised, seeing the world from unexpected angles, I then cultivated that mindset for myself without necessarily having to take a step outside the door to prompt it. One’s mind is the most awesome of all universes if we choose to open it. Its vastness has no boundaries. It is unending. You don’t need a passport.
TKS: What are your biggest obstacles to writing? To publishing?
PDC: My biggest obstacle to writing is living with financial uncertainty. As I dedicate my life to the pursuit of an art form that is not as well supported as it could be by North American policy makers and the reading public in general, I feel somewhat vulnerable to the economic and financial tides around me. Cultural workers are generally working on the economic and social fringe of society and have to be extremely creative to continue pursuing their passions while simultaneously eking out a living. We tend to do double and triple shifts. Income is at best erratic in this pursuit. It would be nice to know that like a good engineer, teacher, plumber, electrician, politician, that if you were a good writer you would not be wondering how to pay rent, that you would not have to worry about your dentist bills etc… Note that I am not even thinking of retirement or owning a house, a car…
TKS: What do you think about labels, like Luso-American, for instance, or Latino? Is such categorization helpful for writers?
PDC: In general I do not find labels useful because they are reductionist and through usage and repetition tend to crystallize the oversimplification. They become rigid frameworks that, at first, might help define and locate a person, a work, yet in the long run confine and smother the complexity that is inherent in any individual reality.
Labels are the signposts that may provide a stranger with a general direction and yet the signpost does not provide a true picture of the place, the person, the reality I will encounter. Then the expectations, assumptions, conventions and judgments surrounding the label jump in to complete the picture. One may also tend to meet such experience in a way that it will fit the anticipated expectation. That is not an open mind. Not much will be learned from such meeting. And often times a meeting may never occur because through the visible label a person might assume they already know what they will be meeting.
Although I am a Luso-Canadian writer, I am also much much more than that.
TKS: What are you reading right now that you would recommend?
PDC: I am reading Mia Couto in Portuguese. I also have some of his books in English but unfortunately I feel the essence of his work is lost in translation since his strength lies in the inventiveness of his language which would be a tremendous task for the English translator to succeed at. In my view, the present translations do not capture the uniqueness of Mia Couto’s voice.
TKS: What did you read as a child?
PDC: The Travels of Marco Polo marked me the most at age nine. The books of Enid Blyton, in her Famous Five series, her mystery series, were the delicious treats of my childhood.
TKS: Which writers have had the most influence on your own writing?
PDC: After the adventure and a little science fiction reading of childhood, I hardly read any fiction anymore. Most of my reading was in philosophy, psychology and sociology. A huge array of philosophers and in particular the existentialists Jaspers and Sartre. Jung was predominant in my psychology readings. Mercea Eliade, Claude Levi-Strauss in sociology. In my thirties I started reading a little fiction again and some of my favorite writers are Milan Kundera, Mia Couto and Michael Ondaatje. It looks like I may have an obsession with Ms eh?
But for the most part I tend to read poetry. e.e. cummings, Eugénio de Andrade, Patrick Lane, Neruda and many, many others.
TKS: What inspires you to write?
PDC: The possibilities of the imagination. The possibility of creating worlds that are inspiring and stretch the experience of being human and understanding the world we live in.