Stranger In A Strange Land

(It might be helpful to read the entry previous to this and the one immediately before that, to understand what I’m talking about.)

I’m continuing to discuss why I don’t write things set in Portugal — or at least not long works and not with any true degree of involvement in it.  This post covers points  2, 3 &4 — all of which try to explain some degree of alienation from my native land.  For those readers inclined to be offended or upset by it, I want to make clear I’m not making broad inferences, here.  This is my life, it is how I perceived/perceive things and it is my relationship with the place where I was born and raised.  Some of it I have no explanation for.  Other parts I can make broad guesses at what caused them.  Most of al, though, this is my life and this is my relationship with two countries.  I’m telling you right now you have no right to be offended by anything I feel or felt.  If you do, take it up with yourself and your relationship with your own country.

Let’s start by establishing that I’ve always been a stranger in a strange land and, to some extent, I’ll always be one.  However, as far as I’m concerned, I’m home now, having not so much immigrated as returned to the place where my soul always belonged.  I have pinned to my corkboard the following quote, which says how I feel far more eloquently than I ever could:

“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place.  Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage.  they may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known.  Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves.  Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history.  Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.  Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth.  Here at last he finds rest.” — from The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham 1919

We’ll take that huge quote bit by bit, shall we?  “I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place.”

As far back as I can remember — and that’s pretty far back, as I remember lullabies sang to me only before I was one — I had that feeling.  I was one of those kids who invented elaborate fantasies to explain that displacement.  It wasn’t, mind you, that I felt above my environment.  I was born to a solidly middle class family in what was then functionally a village — a pretty one, with stone houses and vineyards and stretching fields, all surrounded by a pine forest which, from its name, dated back to Roman times at least — about an hour by bus and/or train from the center of the second largest city in Portugal.  (The city itself was quite beautiful, with percipitously climbing streets, reminiscent of San Francisco and stone buildings suffering from definite London influence.)

If you picture an idillic childhood, in what was functionally a small farm (though some of the fields were quite far away) surrounded by chickens and rabbits and ducks and cats and dogs; with the occasional trip — usually in a yellow trolley car — to the nearby city with its noise and excitment, you won’t be very far off the mark.

My family was educated — I don’t know if there was anyone who could not read in living memory.  If there was, no one told me about her or him.  This was unusual for the time and place, where the old generations often could not read — particularly the women.  And most of my family read for pleasure or edification.  Mom’s dad and my dad were both history and literature buffs.

There is no reason — none — that I felt I didn’t fit in.  And it wasn’t even that, really.  For the longest time, I didn’t have a name for it.  It’s just that body language and movement, ways of being in the world, things I thought of, all seemed to be slightly askew.  I had to exert continuous vigilance on myself not to give myself away.

It wasn’t till I was older and traveled to countries like Germany that I identified it.  I was a stranger, trying to meld in.  No explanation for it, realy.  A turn of the mind?  A recessive strangeness?

I tried to fit in — honest, I did.  I tried to love the country so much that I think I fooled a lot of people.  I never fooled myself.  I remained alienated and incompatible, envying the people to whom “fitting in” came naturally.

”  Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history.”

Considering where I ended up, this is highly unlikely — to say the least.  OTOH, there’s other subtelties there.  From very young, and before I learned it in school, I learned some English from songs overheard and from reading subtitles while watching the occasional movie at the home of family friends.  (We didn’t own a TV till I was eight.  Don’t picture economic deprivation.  Mom just disapproved of TV.)  But when I was fourteen I learned English in school.  By the end of the first year, I could think in English and — and this is hard to explain — my mind eased into it with relief.  Why?  I don’t know.  The feeling was like that of wearing a tight suit all your life, and then finding one that fits.  I started thinking in English when I didn’t strictly have to speak Portuguese or speak it fast.  I started writing — atrociously spelled.  Some things don’t change — notes to self in English, instead of Portuguese.

To the extent that America is a reflection of British culture — or an offshoot of it — it is possible old Maugham was onto something there.  That a Portuguese from the North should have English ancestry isn’t that difficult.  In fact, given the diplomatic and commercial relationships between the two contries stretching back 900 years, it is pretty much a sure bet.

However, I’d like to plead right here this is one of those notions that “even if true should be resisted.”  (more on that tomorrow, as I’m reading a book that ties in to it.)  There is this idea, enshrined in all of the “your political interest is the same as your gender/race” push these days to make us prisoners of our genes or body shape.  I happen to believe that while the flesh chains do influence us, we do have a mind and a will power.  Not all women are of necessity “oppressed” — I’ve known my share of them, my friends, who were very much oppressors.  Same goes for all skin colors, body shapes.  All of it can be overcome by the brain.  We are all human and humans are, to paraphrase Heinlein, all monkeys with an overgrown, aching brain.

So, sometimes a little Portuguese girl is born with a propensity to English, and that’s probably a quirk of the brain and not of ancestry.

“Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves”.

Here, I should point out that in every generation of my family — both sides — at least one child wanders away to foreign parts.  That at least might have a genetic component, although you’d think sheer genetic weeding out would have taken it out of the gene pool by then.  My grandmother Carolina said I simply took after my grandfather Alvarim, who wasn’t happy unless he was roaming the world and who — incidentally — loved English.  This is possible, or at least not unlikely.

” Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs.  Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth.”

At eighteen I became an exchange student and met Dan.  We didn’t date and we didn’t decide to get married till four years later.  The story is too complex — and drastically unbelievable, in that way only reality can be — to tell here.  Get me drunk at some con and I will tell all. 🙂  It is arguable, at least if you squint, that I fell in love with Dan at first sight.  At any rate, when we decided to get married four years later, I’d been back in Portugal for four years, and it was possible — at least on paper — for us to live in either country.

There realy wasn’t a choice.  Dan was an American and I was at best a woman who felt a stranger everywhere.  So we married and moved to Charlotte North Carolina and, after Dan found out I had a bad habit of writing — something I’d never considered as a career, even in potentia — he encouraged me to try for the gold ring of professional authorship.  (Yeah, sometimes it DOES take a good man. <G>)

Faced with various how to write books and clue zero how to go about selling — and I made every mistake possible, not just in writing but in marketing.  I might have invented new ones.  It’s what makes me a good mentor.  There’s no newby faux pas you can make that will shock me.  Ever — I heeded the advice to write what I knew.

A spate of short stories with Portuguese settings, characters and supernatural underpinnings made their way to various magazines and came back just as quickly, rejected.

Now, part of this was sheer inexpertise in writing, natch, although I’d like to point out my very first short story, sent out, got me a personal rejection from Interzone, pointing out they simply did not publish THAT TYPE of story, and a free mag so I could see what they did publish.  (No, I never tried to submit to them again for years.  Stupid.  Very.)  So the inexpertise wasn’t that bad.

After a while I realized, from the tenor of the rejections, that I simply didn’t have the knowledge to make what I knew plain to other people.  Having grown up in Portugal I KNEW quite a few unlikely things were so, so I saw no point refuting what was already in the readers’ minds.  In fact, being new in the US, I had no idea what was in the readers’ minds.

(For my European readers — your picture of the US and what the Americans think and believe is al wrong.  Don’t argue.  I know you read American books and watch movies and all.  It’s still all wrong.  Furthermore, it would take you years in the US to see that it’s wrong.  Some things are pretty obvious — among the inanities of life that I cherish is a Portuguese shopkeeper telling us that she would never move to the US because the crime is so high here.  That in a country and area where houses windows are protected by metal shutters at night; there’s walls around every house; cars all have removable stereos so they won’t be stolen.  I tried to explain to her that the area I live in, near the center of a fairly large city, is so peaceful that my next door neighbor doesn’t HAVE a front door key.  I couldn’t.  She has seen movies you see?  And seen our statistics.  Eventually I will write about statistics and national character but that is a rant for another day.)

This brings up the other side of strangeness.  I feel at home in the US.  Very.  The first time I came back after getting my green card, coming through New Jersey, the customs’ gentleman who stamped my passport said “welcome home” and I realized it felt like home, all of a sudden.  It felt like it had never felt before.  So I started crying and hugged the poor man, and might have kissed him.  I’m not absolutely sure.  I just know he was very, very amused and patted me on the shoulder in a very paternal way.

However it took me years — years — to fully get the mental furniture of Americans who grew up in America.  In that, I don’t think I’m much different than a child of a military family raised abroad.  Or someone raised in a community out of the way, with no magazines and/or TV.  The truth, ladies and gentlemen, is that every country has the wrong idea about every other country.  Heck, some countries have the wrong idea about themselves, too.  American reference points and mental map in my generation are composed of a lot of shared mass media.  (If Alvin Toffler is right, and I think he is, this will be more splintered for the current upcoming, tech-computer generation.)  It took me years of reading and watching to build that picture.  I now do know it to an extent.  Enough to game the publishers/editors and sound native to them.  Do I sound native to the readers?  I don’t know.  This is one of the reasons I write a lot of science fiction, fantasy and history.  Any strangeness will sound like a function of the setting.

The other strangeness remaining is that I will never have an American childhood.  NOTHING can give me that.  For years I was afraid to write american characters.  I think the first one I wrote was the pov in my short story, Lost.  I felt better about that once I figured out Americans have such wildly differing childhoods that I was not exactly alone.  I also read enough biographies — of famous people, but also the self-published bios of nobodies (which were more helpful, really.) — to acquire a feel for what a stereotypical childhood was in everyone’s mind.  That’s what I would play with.

All this said — that feeling of being “not quite right” means I don’t know Portuguese mental furniture.  The Portuguese stories I write/could write are the sort that would infuriate “real” Portuguese.  The same looks of extreme shock I got when I was litle and said something no one else would say in that situation would pursue all my such stories.  To make it worse, to have them be accepted, I have to tailor them to American mental furniture.  The conjunction of what I don’t understand about Portugal and how I must tailor things for American taste is not pretty.  So to the readers wanting me to write stories set in Portugal — how much of a funhouse mirror do you want?  Really?  Because that I can do.  But I garantee you won’t like it.  And my American audience will take no more away from it, than if I set it in Medieval France, say.
Frankly, you’d be better serviced by having my husband write Portuguese stories.  He has in the past.  As a frequent visitor to Portugal, who already sees things through an American trained mind, he tends to perceive things superficially enough that they ring “true” on both sides of the Atlantic and offend no one.

Now, briefly, Portuguese History — I don’t know now.  As I pointed out in the first of these little mental excursions, I know next to nothing of Portugal in the last twenty years.  Oh, I visit, but not enough to even know what people are thinking, much less to replace mental pictures of how things were when I was growing up — at least when I was growing up was grossly deficient, at least at a level that the average person could read.  There were history books and manuals and, later in schol, the startlingly strange deconstrutionist views.  There was not the vast amount of historical books — history as entertainment — available in the US.

(This is not a complaint about Portugal.  The market is so much smaller, that of course, the small percentage of history buffs will have a much harder time supporting the market.  At the same time, to people like my brother — kindly believe me when I say that these books are available — in multitudes — in the States.  I don’t care if your media and a vast amount of our own tells you all Americans are stupid and ignorant.  Our public education might suck — I’m not impressed by my kids’ experiences so far, really — but the amount of knowledge available [and cheaply too] to the would be self-taught is massive.  You can make yourself an expert in just about any subject with time and a library card with perhaps a small addition of used books from thrift shops.  Recently I read somewhere that 4 million was the number of Americans who believed that they were receiving mental-rays from the stars.  That number sounds low to me.  In the same way, if you have an obsession with eighth century Tuscany, there’s probably a book club catering to all two million of you.  [This worries me considering some of the books I have — notably on Kit Marlowe — had printruns of 80])

This means that I often catch amazing insights into Portuguese history from reading books having very little to do with Portugal — for instance, glimpses into the ancestry of Phillipa of Lancaster  (Wife of John I for those of you who are Portuguese history buffs.)  Or reading a Roman History I find that Sertorius was one of Catalina’s followers, escaping that debacle.  All well and good, except that there isn’t ENOUGH and not enough background there to verify whether this is true or this author’s deranged view.  I simply don’t know enough about Portuguese history specifcally to write convincingly about it.

The most difficult time period I’ve ever written in is the Musketeers because poor Louis XIII was saddly overshadowed by his son.  I have a bio of Anne of Austria, a couple of Richelieu, the memoirs of a few noblemen, and a few general books on tech, innovation and society at the time which I ordered directly from France.

The best studied Portuguese period I could write about is ten times sparser than that.  I would have to rely on historical fiction (and long-dead writers’ research) and “gut feeling.”  And then I would have to explain every bit of it that wasn’t obvious to American minds — in a way that didn’t disrupt narrative.  And that… that… right now, is still a bit difficult.  Maybe the time will come.  I’m not saying it won’t.  G-d willing, I have another forty to fifty years of productive life ahead of me.  Maybe in twenty years I’ll have a great need of writing something set in Portugal.  Maybe I will tomorrow.  Who knows?

HOWEVER and this is very important, so listen up — I don’t feel guilty about not writing things set in Portugal.  Not even a little bit.  Not anymore than I feel guilty about not writing things set in Mongolia or Ubzequistan.

I am not ashamed of having been born in Portugal — I see no reason I should be.  If I hide it at times it’s because I’m tired of the two standard American reactions: 1) — and rare these last ten years — “Oh, my, you’re so lucky to have escaped grinding poverty.”  2) and more and more ubiquitous every day — “You are so lucky to come from such a culture.  Much better than ours.”

The assumptions there are both crazy.  1– not all the world is in grinding poverty.  Beyond that, my family surely wasn’t poor.  2) Yeah, sure.  Portugal is much better than the US — coff — Are you high or something?  If that were true, why would I choose to live here.

To avoid slapping total strangers I tend to evade telling people where I’m from or even that I was born abroad.  Besides I don’t FEEL as though I was born abroad, so it feels like false advertising.

OTOH, I’m not PROUD of having been born in Portugal.  Why not you ask?  Why should I be?  No, wait, before you puff your chest and blow the house down — WHY should anyone be proud of having been born anywhere at all?  What does that have to do with the price of potatoes?  Portugal is okay.  Lots of worse places to be from.

Oh, ancestry, you say?  race?  Very funny.  The Portuguese are a race like Californians are a race.  Portugal was the welcome mat of Europe.  For millenia every European, African and possibly alien, came by and wiped its genetic material before proceding to go into Europe.  Yes, this hodge podge once, through accident of genetics, history and geography, achieved some remarkable things.  (My friend Dave Freer would say that’s hybrid vigor for you.)  HOWEVER see above.  Genes and ancestry don’t make the person.  At best, they imbue certain tendencies, but tendencies can be exploited in good or bad ways.  The same compulsiveness that leads me to ruthlessly study a period of history before I venture to write in it could very well have turned to substance abuse, excessive washing of hands, or endless knitting.

I refuse to give the notion that my genes obligate me to some race or place more than a cursory and rather disgusted glance.  That way lies racial supremacy.  And we all know where that leads.  As for my ancestry — shrug — friends, I miss my grandmother Carolina and my grandfather Angelo.  I miss the look of my grandmother’s yard in the fall.  Some days I could kill — kill — for sardines grilled over charcoal.  Money and time permitting — as they haven’t — I’d like to see my parents again before we’re all much older.

But those great ancestors and heroic deeds that you allege are my patrimony for having been born in Portugal? I never met them.  I wasn’t there at their doing.   I’m going to misquote Heinlein again.  He said something like “The sad little lizard told me that he was a brontosaurus on his mother’s side.  I did not laugh.  People who are proud of their ancestry rarely have anything else to be proud of.”

I claim instead the deeds of humanity.  If geneticists are correct we’re all related no more than a blink of geological time back.  I’ll claim humanity as my patrimony.  And I’ll claim the US as my country — the land that I love, the blended, innovative, quarrelous and entrepreneurial people where I fit in, and which I will defend with my life, my liberty and my sacred honor.

“Here at last he finds rest.” 

The rest is history.

Why I don’t write fiction set in Portugal

For those of you who have no idea why I’m answering this — there is a rather long (if polite) question in Portuguese a few entries back and because it is a polite question — for Portugal almost excruciatingly polite — it deserves an answer.

Considering I write historical fiction and that, if history were oil, Portugal would buy and sell the rest of the world, I imagine this looks odd to people from Portugal or of Portuguese descent.  Unfortunately I have many reasons not to write fiction set in Portugal — and this is not strictly true.  I sold a Portuguese History story to The Book Of Final Flesh and I sold a Henry the Navigator story to the Mammoth book of Historical Detectives (#3, I THINK.)  And one, very recently, to Universe.  And I’ve written several others.  I’ve just never published them.  But no, I haven’t tried to sell novels set in Portugal.  Unfortunately because, of course, if Portuguese History were oil, I’d have a fast track to becoming a multi-millionaire.

So, this post will set out, in generality, the reasons I don’t write fiction set in Portugal.  I will expand on this in other posts.  In fact, this post is little more than an outline.  There will be a post immediately after this expanding on point 1.

1 – Because no one will buy it.  And no, it’s not those racist Americans.  (First of all, get a grip on reality.  Which self-respecting racist sets out to hate whites belonging to the mediterranean sub-race.  Gee.  There are cogent reasons it doesn’t sell in the US, unless literary or small press and they would apply to practically any other country not Portugal.  Well, maybe Portugal too, but I doubt it.  You could knock me with a feather when I found out recently Portuguese are a protected minority.  To anyone out there intending to protect me, kindly stop it.  I have hands and feet and a nasty disposition.)

2- Because sources of reference for Portuguese history purely SUCK.  They’re better in the US than they are in Portugal as are most purely historical scholarly books — unless you’ve tried to buy in both countries, kindly shut up — but they still SUCK.

3 – I don’t write things set in Portugal in general because I know nothing of current day Portugal.  I’m fairly sure my parents think I abandonned the country.  I’d like to submit to them and you that the country left me behind.  I truly don’t recognize most of the places I grew up in — they’re paved and covered in stack-a-prole apartment buildings.  The only way for me to go home would be a time-traveling machine.  If anyone has one of those speak up.  I’d give ALL my current worth and a good part of my future for another hour with my grandmother.

4- I don’t generally write about past Portugal because I know nothing about past-Portugal.  I don’t mean historical.  One of the advantages of historical writing is that no one can pop up and say “I lived through the Spanish takeover, young lady, and the Spanish takover was nothing like that.  We didn’t FEEL like that, and that’s not what it was like in Freixo de espada a cinta.”  They CAN do this for my lifetime — the last almost half-century.  And they would be right and I would be wrong.  Part of this is that i left Portugal very young — 22 — and never lived in it as a self sufficient adult.  Part of it is that, while still in Portugal, I bought Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land on the title alone as “Oh, Lord, that’s how I feel.”

Okay, part one after I shower and have coffee.  Part one I’m afraid will have to go into “What a writer has to do in terms of where you set up the story and themes for it to make cogent sense and sell.”  Or “Sarah’s little book of secrets about marketing to editors.”  Mind you, given my track record of marketing to the public, the well-informed will take it with a barrel of salt, but this has been my experience as a professional writer.  Your mileage may vary.

Be Right Back.