An Interview with
Frank X. Gaspar

Hailed in the New York Times Book Review as a “simple and satisfying first novel” and as “an expert portrait of the Portuguese immigrant experience,” Leaving Pico by poet Frank X. Gaspar is set in the Portuguese fishing community of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Here he talks about writing, the Portuguese American literary tradition (or lack of it), and the changes that have visited P-town since he himself grew up there.

Gaspar Photo You have published three volumes of poetry, but this is your first novel. What made you decide to turn to fiction? How has the experience been different from your work as a poet?

Actually, I wrote short stories before I wrote anything. I published perhaps a dozen or so stories in the late seventies and early eighties—mostly in small magazines and a few large quarterlies. But I turned to poetry because there were certain things that I had to work out that were simply not appearing in the stories. These issues would be my identity, my relationship to the old Portuguese community and so forth. My first volume of poetry is immersed in the coming of age in a vanishing Portuguese enclave. In fact that is where certain characters in the novel began to appear—quite unbidden—including the narrator of Pico, Josie Carvalho, who seems to not be me at all.

Leaving Pico can be viewed as part of a tradition, call it the coming-of-age-in-ethnic-America novel, that includes such works as Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. To what extent do you think this is either a helpful or limiting way of reading the book? Is it a tradition you had in mind at all when you were writing it?

I think it is somewhat limiting, since the coming of age is really the overstory, and the novel, at least to me, seems entirely subtext. It is a novel about the value of art, specifically the art of fiction. Now, storytelling is at the heart of the Portuguese-American experience, and poor people, in my own experience, live in story because it is more habitable than the tough world. Everyone in the novel lives according to a fiction, even Sheika Nunes and Joe Dias. The Aunt’s visions, John Joseph’s stories, everything is something that is TOLD. I think we could even say that the history books are fictions, tales of a sort. And John Joseph sees them on a par with his personal history (which I hope readers see in the inset story) and with even Treasure Island and Captain Blood and The Lusiads, all of which he conflates in his tale of the ancestor. If Josie comes of age it is when he completes the story and becomes a storyteller himself. Only then does he enter the clan.

But another force was driving me too. Provincetown is an art colony. But the art colony—let us focus on the writers—who wrote about the town did so always, and necessarily, from the perspective of the outsider. This is especially true when writing about the Portuguese. I have always taken it as a personal charge to write about the Portuguese community there—my community—from the INSIDE—from its heart. Further, there is not really a tradition of Portuguese-American writing. Katherine Vaz is credited with the first novel to ever come out of the immigrant experience from a Portuguese American. (I’m speaking about her wonderful Saudade, which came out, I believe, in 1994) Mine is the second. This is untenable. We should have shelves as long as the Irish-Americans, or the Mexican-Americans. But we don’t. So Pico is my arrow in the wall. There is much to say.

The New York Times likewise praised the book as “an expert portrait of the Portuguese immigrant experience, from its resistance to full integration.” How has your book been received by the Portuguese community outside of the Cape?

I am humbled to say it has been wonderfully received. I receive email and mail from all over the country and from Lisbon and the Azores. The book has been reviewed on the web and in much of the major Portuguese-American print media. It just received a large notice in the Suplemento Acoreano de Cultura, an important cultural review that is published in the Azores. Portuguese and Portuguese-American critics are reviewing it with enthusiasm. I must say that not all Portuguese-Americans agree that my portrait is one of the entire immigrant experience, however. I took some heat, largely from California Luso-Americans about the Steinbeckian treatment of the Carvalho family. The Carvalhos seemed as disreputable as the denizens of Tortilla Flat or the Joads to the more middle-class Portuguese who farmed and ran businesses. The rough fishermen were a bit much for them. I guess the lesson is that every Luso-American is not a fisherman, and that Provincetown is certainly its own world.

To whatever extent it is a generalized portrait of the “Portuguese experience,” Leaving Pico is also a story of a very specific time and place—a time and place in which you yourself grew up. To what extent is the story based on your own experiences and your memories of childhood?

Well, I must defend my imagination. The book is not a memoir, nor is it sociology or history. I made it up. Having said that, it IS a story of a specific time and place and it is based on how I grew up. Fictional though it is, the book, I believe, captures the deep heart of that vanished world.

The Catholic Church is a powerful, if sometimes eccentrically construed, force for many of your characters. To what extent was this characteristic of the Portuguese of the Cape? To what extent do you think this is a point of similarity between the Portuguese and other immigrant groups?

There is so much to be said about this, that I’m tempted to take a pass on this question. Let me say that the Catholicism in the book is quite accurately the Catholicism that I experienced among my family and the families of my friends. Portugal is unique in that it was Catholic before it was ever a country. There was a tribal Catholicism that carried over many feasts and beliefs into the established Portugal of the late middle ages. So a unique kind of Catholicism is at the heart of the Portuguese consciousness. I see similarities living here in Southern California among so many recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, but it would take the scholar that I am not to untangle all the contrasts and likenesses.

In the book, you describe divisions within the community between the “Picos” and the “Lisbons.” First of all, what did these terms signify? To what extent did these divisions actually exist when you were growing up? Was this a phenomenon that was unique to Portuguese of the Cape, or did these tensions arise elsewhere as well?

The term “Lisbon” was what I heard when the old folks would speak disparagingly of the second wave of immigration. The Portuguese immigration is interesting because the usual classism is reversed: here the SECOND wave of immigrants looked down upon the first. In Provincetown that meant that the original immigrants, mostly Azorean, were the whalers, the grand-bankers, the ship-jumpers and risk-takers who established a beach head. They were rough, loud, uneducated, superstitious, utterly wonderful! The second wave, “The Lisbons” mostly mainlanders and better-off islanders, came with educations, some money, and of course the hard work of breaking in had already been done by the tough guys. But the class divide was real and palpable. I made up the term “Pico” as a simplification for “all the islands’ first immigration people.” Since John Joseph’s family and friends were supposedly from that Island, it was a natural choice. I think this makes things easier for the reader. The important thing was the divide, which in Provincetown existed quite literally. It was the railroad track that ran down to the end of the Main wharf, separating the east and west ends of town. In much of the correspondence that has occurred as a result of my writing the novel, I have received great testimony that such divides existed more or less throughout the Portuguese Diaspora.

Your own grandfather was a well-known figure on the Cape. Can you tell us a bit about him and some of the stories that attached themselves to him? To what extent is the character of John Joseph similar to your grandfather?

Most of my grandfather’s exploits were over by the time I was old enough to really know him. He was, by all accounts a great story-teller and hell-raiser, and hung around with the old bohemians of the art colony. He was evidently very bright and masterful with the English Language, which he learned as a streetcar conductor in New Bedford. John Joseph is based on what I think my grandfather would have been like had he lived in the world of the novel. I used his general physical characteristics and what mannerisms I can remember. I never fished or sailed with him or had storytelling sessions with him. He was a shadowy, larger-than-life figure for me. I loved him dearly. I left home at seventeen, but whenever I return to Provincetown, where my heart is and where at least some part of me will be scattered, I visit his grave and drink wine and talk with him. But I never had the relationship with my grandfather that Josie Carvalho has with his.

In the novel, John Joseph spins a fantastic tale of a Portuguese explorer who beats Columbus to the New World, but some people think such a thing may actually have happened. Can you tell us a bit about this theory? Is there a specific explorer who has been put forward as a candidate?

Well, it’s a theory that won’t go away. I first heard it in a wonderful fisherman’s bar in Provincetown (that is now some sort of yuppie restaurant). When writing the book, it just came out of my fingers and onto the page. Then I had to do some research. There’s one man at the London University who believed that “any day” the Lisbon archives would reveal a pre-Columbian voyage. That statement was made in the late thirties. But everything in the book that points to the Ancestor—the intrigue, the Pope—everything—is absolutely documented. However, it takes a John Joseph (and a little Captain Blood) to make a case out of that!

In what ways has Provincetown changed since you were growing up there? In what ways is it the same? How has it changed specifically for the Portuguese community there?

Well, Provincetown has changed quite a bit. I was talking with a very old fisherman last summer—shortly before he died, I’m sad to say. He was remembering when there eighty-some boats in the Portuguese fishing fleet. Now there are just under fifteen. All the old bars are gone, save, of course, the Old Colony. The Cold Storages are gone. Condos have spread like psoriasis. The town has become gentrified and yuppified as far as I can tell. The ills of any city have descended upon it. On the other hand, it is just as beautiful, just as diverse, just as tolerant as I remember it. A reviewer of my novel couldn’t understand, for instance, how Great Aunt Theophila could be so hard and judgmental about Rosa and John Joseph and yet quite agreeably let two gay men (Lew and Roger) live in the rented room upstairs in the Carvalho house. The answer is, despite squabbles and sometimes mistrust, that Provincetown has always been a place for everyone: Bohemians, artists, non-conformists, gays, straights, rich and poor. I believe the essential cosmopolitan nature (see Pessoa for the definition here, if that seems absurd) of the Portuguese is the heart of such a rich and inclusive community. It must weather this current yuppification, though. That’s its most serious threat. If the town retains its character it will be because of the Townies. Otherwise, it will drift into a Disneyland-like generic watering place. But I’m optimistic.

Can you say a bit about your own writing practice? How do you divide your time between poetry and fiction? Do you have plans to write another novel?

I write every day—or as close to that ideal as I can. When I’m writing poems, I write only poems. When I write fiction, I write only fiction. I can work on poems with about 10 to 15 hours of writing time a week—which is not very much. Novel writing takes more like 15 to 25 hours a week. It’s quite different than poetry for me. It takes a greater emotional toll. I am very eager to write another novel. Right now time is a big issue for me. I teach at an open enrollment urban two-year college, with large classes and a huge course load (15 standard units per semester). The students are generally underprepared and take a lot of energy. In the face of this, and other responsibilities, I’m working to structure some time to accommodate another novel. At the moment I’m working on a new book of poems.

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