Philip Graham – author of a travel memoir on Lisbon

by alrou on April 3, 2011

An exclusive interview for bestinPortugal with Philip Graham, an American Novelist, short story writer, professor and editor, who lived in Lisbon with his family during one year and wrote “The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon”, a travel memoir that talks not only about Lisbon, but about parenthood as well.

Let us start with a brief bio about yourself
I am an ordinary fellow who has somehow managed to write several books of fiction and nonfiction: story collections (The Art of the Knock and Interior Design), a novel (How to Read an Unwritten Language), a memoir of Africa (Parallel Worlds), co-written with my anthropologist wife, Alma Gottlieb, and a travel memoir, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon.

When I’m not teaching creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign or the Vermont College of Fine Arts, then I’m probably traveling somewhere, anywhere, hoping for the sparks of foreign life to set off something within me.  And the best travel, and the most complex, is with one’s family.

You write fiction, as well as creative non-fiction. Do you find it easier to create and write about fictional characters or to write about your personal experiences?
Each genre has its own challenges!  In fiction, one of course can imagine what goes on in a character’s mind, but is this really so different from what we do every day in our non-fictional lives?   We’re always wondering what makes the people around us tick, we’re always wondering what peculiar paths wander through their minds.  We make leaps of faith in even our most everyday relationships, and this is great training for the fictioneer’s invention of the characters that inhabit our stories and novels. 

On the other hand, while one has free rein to invade the privacy of fictional characters, and even of oneself in memoir, there’s a careful line that must be negotiated when writing of others in nonfiction, especially when it comes to family members.  There are always moments, whether in my two memoirs of Africa, or my Lisbon dispatches book, when dangerous territory loomed ahead.

What motivated you and your family to move to Lisbon for one year? Was it a personal or a professional option?
Living in Lisbon has always been a dream of mine.  I love all things Portuguese, and we’d visited the country twice previously for vacations.  When a sabbatical year came along for my wife and me, we thought an adventure abroad would hit the spot.  A full year to simply write, in Europe!  Also, my wife was searching about for a new field site.  Her anthropological research among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire had been on hold for nearly a decade because of political turmoil and then a civil war; so, since we both love African as well as Portuguese culture, Cape Verde seemed like a great place to make a new start, because of those two strands of its own culture.  Alma started research among Cape Verdeans living in Lisbon, and then for two weeks we traveled to Cape Verde itself.  Actually, we celebrated Hannah’s twelfth birthday while visiting the island of São Vicente.

What were your greatest challenges in the beginning?
The simplest things.  Where was the butcher located?  On August vacation, it turned out.  How to give directions to the cab driver so we could return home?  Where to buy textbooks for Hannah’s sixth grade classes at a Portuguese school?  For Alma, our stay became a great adventure called The Avoidance of Pork.  You’d find it everywhere—specks of it in an innocent bowl of rice, a teeny chunk floating in a “vegetable’ soup,” even as a flavoring ingredient in a junk food snack like Bugles!  Poor dear, from Day One, so many small defeats lay ahead of her . . . 

What did you miss the most from the U.S. when you arrived here?
Miss the U.S.?  Not so much for me, I was in heaven in Lisbon, ready to jump into every little cultural quirk, every lusophone nook and cranny.  If anything, I found it hard to escape the American cultural influence in Portugal.  I even attended (at the urging of a friend, who served as one of the judges) the taping of an episode of “A Bela e o Mestre,” a Portuguese version of an American reality show, which I write about in The Moon, Come to Earth.  That was one wild night.

What characteristics did you find the most pleasant in the Portuguese people?
We didn’t know quite what to expect, but we found the Portuguese people to be incredibly welcoming, very curious, polite, but also willing to stand their ground when called for.  Alma thought they were a little too “dreamy,” but that’s one of the thing I loved about them, living largely in my own head as well.  We three made a great number of dear friends that we still keep in touch with.

What are the shortcomings or peculiarities of the people here that you would like to bury down deep in the Tagus River?
Ha!  I wouldn’t want any Portuguese to “swim with the peixes,” even in the lovely Tejo river (sorry, I don’t do “Tagus”!).  But perhaps the acceleration pedal of their cars could do with a long, cold bath.  Then perhaps walking across any street in Lisbon wouldn’t be such a heart-stopping adventure.

Oh, I also wouldn’t mind if the Portuguese shed some of their national inferiority complex.  They are of a country of great artistic accomplishments, with a remarkable history of discovery—they created the first globe-spanning empire, and their cultural influence is still felt in a large part of the southern hemisphere.  And in a 20th century of one disaster after another, the Portuguese are the owners of one of that century’s proudest moments: the nearly bloodless shedding of the Salazar dictatorship in the April 25th Revolution in 1974, and the establishment of a continuing, vibrant democracy.

In what aspects did this Lisbon experience enrich you and your family’s life?
We are a family accustomed to traveling, and sometimes settling in.  We’ve traveled together to Mexico, England, France, Belgium, Cape Verde. In 1993, when our son Nathaniel was six, we lived in a small village in Côte d’Ivoire (our third stay, but his first).  But living for a year with our daughter Hannah many years later, 2006-2007, was more of an extended experience.  Discovering wonderful Portuguese writers I hadn’t previously heard of was a bonus for me, as well as becoming friends with some of them.  Plus, I became a great fan of soccer.  Alma loved her new research among Cape Verdeans.  Hannah was a sixth-grader in two Portuguese schools (the first was an utter disaster), and she became fluent in the language.  She now has a cosmopolitan sensibility that will serve her well in the future.  But at the time, her isolation from home and her friends eventually took a great toll on her, which became one of the themes of my book.

What advice would you give to a friend who wanted to move to Portugal?
First, you are in for a treat, Portugal is a beautiful country, and the Portuguese are friendly, welcoming people.  The music, the food, and the general level of culture are all wonderful.  But learning the language is a stretch.  I love the Portuguese language, for its musicality and precision, but it’s a tough road to follow.  One more reason I am so proud of my daughter, her embracing the culture and language as perhaps only an eleven-year-old can.

The pace there is slower, and thank God for that.  A day is not meant to be chewed up raw and spit out, but instead to be simmered and savored.

What compelled you to write your newly released book The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon?
At first, it wasn’t meant to be a book at all.  Just before leaving for the year, on a whim I asked one of the editors at the literary magazine McSweeney’s if they might be interested in my writing some travel dispatches for them during my Lisbon stay.  They said okay, and once I began writing I was hooked.  I loved the opportunity to expound on the odd adventures that come your way while traveling—coming within a few yards of a collapsing building in Coimbra, meeting the Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago, finding ourselves in the middle of a budding soccer riot, visiting a medieval wolf trap in the northern mountains of the Minho, or discovering a Jewish cemetery on the Cape Verdean island of Santiago. And then there was the night when I counted all the cobblestones of the streets of Lisbon . . .

Anyway, people began writing to me, complimenting the various essays as they appeared, and asking when the book version would come out.  So the seed was planted.  And now a Portuguese translation will soon appear as well, from Editorial Presença.

What was the reason for this title? Is there any correlation with the Great Discoveries in the XV and XVI centuries where the discovery of new worlds by Portuguese navigators was done through the position of the stars and the moon?
Yes, that was a magnificent accomplishment, wasn’t it?–discovering so much with one hand tied behind their back, so to speak.  The Portuguese simply don’t get enough shout-outs from the rest of the world.  While there is a good deal of attention to Portuguese history in my book, the title doesn’t refer to that.  Early in our stay, one night my daughter and I bounded about the city, on the trail of a series of artworks that used light as a main feature, all part of an arts festival titled LuzBoa.  One of the art works was a huge canvas sculpture of the moon, lit from within.  Hannah was entranced by this creation, couldn’t take enough pictures of it, and in a way I think she felt a real kinship for this displaced moon, displayed in a Chiado plaza, as she herself felt displaced, still finding her way at her new school, this foreign country. 

It must be quite daunting to come to a foreign culture and try to understand it and to assimilate it without understanding the language. How did you manage to absorb information expressed in a foreign language in order to process it and to develop your essays?
I’d studied Portuguese on and off for a couple of years beforehand, but that did me no good when it came to speaking!  But I made a habit of reading a newspaper every day, accompanied by a pocket dictionary, which I nearly thumbed to death by year’s end.

Watching Portuguese television helped, too, and oddly enough, watching American TV shows with Portuguese subtitles was enormously helpful in giving all those language acquisition synapses a workout.

But the essays simply seemed to pour out of me.  I think the English language in my brain felt threatened by my Portuguese language labors, and so tried to occupy me as much as possible.

What are your next projects?
Alma and I have just finished a second volume of our African memoir, this one called Braided Worlds.  It will appear in 2012.  In the immediate future, this summer I’ll be finishing (I dearly hope) a novel that is just on the cusp, titled Invisible Country.  All the main characters are ghosts. After that, a novella, based in part on my experiences volunteering near Ground Zero in New York.  In a way, more ghosts.

Any final thoughts that you would like to add?
First, thank you for this interview, and the terrific questions.  Our year in Portugal had its highest highs, but also its deepest downs, and in many ways we all learned more than we’d expected of saudade, how profound that largely untranslatable emotion can be.  Living now far from Portugal, from Lisbon, we each of us long for a return, in our own ways.  Yes, the city is inside us, but it would be good to once again walk its actual and not merely its remembered streets.

To know more about Philip Graham, visit his website  and his Wikipedia entry.

His latest book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon is available on Amazon.

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