Saudade ( sow • dahd) is a Portuguese word that has no English translation. If you have ever known yearning so intense that it becomes part of your being then you know the meaning of saudade. If you have ever longed for an absent person, time, or place so thoroughly that the absent person, time, or place has become the most profound presence in your life then you know the meaning of saudade. The word proposes a rich paradox. This is the only Portuguese word that I know, but if I speak, write, or sing this word, I fall under its spell.
Saudade is also the title of a novel by Katherine Vaz, a beautiful and beguiling tale that pays homage to transcending sorrow. This novel has encouraged me to quiet down, slow down, and turn inward. As a writer who is not published or paid, has few readers and is not enrolled in any program or group, I do realize that the solitary dimension of my work might easily trick me into stagnation. I know solitude is necessary for writing, but at the same time, my continuing solitude almost seems to put me at risk of halting in my growth as a craftsman and thinker. In the stage I am in now, I could assure an imaginary reader that I am skillful at building suspense, creating an exotic atmosphere, and peopling narrative with memorable characters. I am not so confident when it comes to character and plot development or closing revelations. Vaz’s accomplishment with her novel Saudade urges me to confront my own weaknesses as a writer. But rather than throwing up my arms and saying, “I give up!” in the face of literary work as accomplished as Vaz’s, how can I read Katherine Vaz’s novel and respectfully ask it to bestow its blessing, ask it to help me become a better writer?
In this essay I will discuss writing intentions that I hope to return to over and over, intentions that will insist that I continually evolve my writing craft. I venture to pose this analogy: The process of improvement in the craft of writing without relying too heavily on strengths and habits is very similar to the process of learning to grieve without falling into despair. When I reread the previous sentence, it is a mouthful; that’s why I write this essay. I wish to explore how the writing process and grieving process commune.
There is an important scene in Vaz’s Saudade in which the protagonist, Clara Cruz, is receiving a lesson in how to grieve. A woman named Caliopia is a professional mourner from Portugal now living in Lodi, California. Her mourning skills are never needed at Americanized funerals. Instead, she is called upon to use her mourning cry to scare gophers out of the ground so that exterminators can shoot the pests. When Caliopia cries, the exterminators jeer, but she’s got to use her grieving skills somehow. A lonely Caliopia teaches Clara that the world is made of lace and sometimes a body falls through the holes. She tells Clara that eggs offer lessons in how life works. An egg itself is a fragile world with its own insular sun. “You have to go so far into pain that you hit an end that must be seen as a beginning if you are going to survive.” Caliopia regards the egg as “a land of trying to find birth out of death.” Clara will carry this lesson with her when she must deal with being robbed of land she owns, when she must mourn the death of her infant, and when she must mourn the loss of the love of her life. Clara cracks eggs, separates yolks from whites, and dyes eggs at Easter. She becomes more familiar with the lessons of saudade as she gets older. Throughout the novel, Clara grows stronger by growing more delicate. Katherine Vaz is expert at illuminating paradoxes. A delicate aura implies that someone has learned to turn agonizing absence into profound presence.
How do Clara’s lessons apply to what I need to learn as a writer?
Until now I have always tried to write fiction that attempts to be gorgeous, excessive, queer, and not quite decent. I have labored at coming up with funny phrases and situational drama. Now I am becoming more interested in trying to make my writing offer readers their own opportunity for explorations into profound mystery, humanity, and psychological complexity. Vaz’s portrayal of Clara and her trials might guide my writing to more equilibrium. Keep my prose poised. I will strive to make my work a solid balance between the narrative and the lyrical. My imagination must do the work of lifetimes unfolding, characters growing stronger as they grow delicate, characters embodying paradox.
Vaz is masterly at creating worlds full of a mixture of tender humor and immense sadness. Hens wear bonnets. A baby can be born with his heart exposed. Characters might repeat Portuguese sayings, “If shit were money, the poor wouldn’t have assholes.” This narrative mixture of humor and sadness takes a skilled craftsman. Also, Vaz can show two characters working to avoid despair are perfectly matched to fall in love. Vaz will sometimes juxtapose a short, bitter dialogue with a haunting lovemaking scene. I intend to attempt to deal with more fresh juxtapositions in my own writing.
Vaz’s masterly way of conveying masturbation and sexual fantasy makes me wonder about the differences between literary and erotic portrayals of sex. How do I know that Katherine Vaz is not writing erotica? I can tell that Vaz’s prose is literary because the erotic passages always return to the pressing human paradox of mourning and rebirth.
As a writer I have been dealing with this quandary for some time. Should I write erotica or mainstream fiction that might break me into print because it will sell better, or do I labor through writing whatever constitutes literary fiction because I feel that it fulfills my yearning? This is a difficult question for me. Why are market forces having as much a hold on me as literary development? Both forces are likely to make me crack if I am not careful. Alas, I grow egg-like and delicate. Is it safe now to admit that I consider myself a literary writer who once thought erotica might be my best shot at breaking into print?
Did Katherine Vaz ever have this dilemma? Her protagonist Clara envisions intercourse with elephants and rubs her ghostly clitoris in the mirror. Clara drips the kind of seepage that ghosts leave in places where they haunt. In one scene, Clara’s lover Helio ejaculates between Clara’s breasts. Clara does not wash herself clean. The next day she rescues a chipmunk that falls into a pitcher of ice water. Clara warms the trembling creature between her breasts until it stirred the patch of Helio’s come alive and wet as if Helio were coming between her breasts again. “She breathed in the reborn salt water just as the pulsing creature washed it away.” Here, again, the paradox emerges from text to sex, from physical image to the profound idea. Sensual images seem to be literary when they are mixed with the twists in the plot and they implicate or challenge the characters. They work even better when they can surprise a reader, challenge a reader’s assumptions, offer the reader inconclusive detail that is as urgent and biting as the clues sniffed out by a jealous lover. I hope to write with this level of urgency. But is this earnestness possible while I still also indulge in an occasional attempt at portrayals of sex scenes like those of more light-hearted writers, such as Plum Sykes or the hilarious episodes enjoyed by Tom Robbins’ Casanovas? I intend to write from a spirit both earnest and playful.
How does a writing spirit that yearns to be earnest and playful deal with despair? Clara is born with her hands covering her ears. Either she is deaf and mute or is refusing to make the words and sounds of this brutal world. From the way other characters respond to Clara, it is unclear whether she is dumb by choice or by fate. The language she learns is a sugar language. She understands her father when he sings into seashells and she feels their vibration. Things change for Clara when her parents die and she must leave Azores with Father Eiras. In America she learns to speak; she graduates from high school, and seduces Father Eiras to try to regain ownership of her land. She falls into trances to spirit the priest away from the rectory. But she is pregnant and has a baby who is born with an open chest, his heart exposed. After the baby dies, Clara reaches her deepest despair, has nightmares that people are shit. Then Helio comes along to say “Yes” to her.
The revelation: Yes. In the context of all this human drama, the agony and eroticism turns into the revelation, “Yes.” It is a Yes that can hold all seriousness and play.
Doctor Helio Soares turned down his job on whale hunting ships because he didn’t want to use his whale-spotting ability to hunt whales. He loves whales. He grafts plants. He keeps bees. He is in the quiet grieving stage for his lost family. Helio wants to solve the mystery of darkness. Clara needs the word “Yes.” repeated to her, arms to grab her out of the darkness of her nightmare. She embodies darkness. Helio embodies light. The narrative has been working up to these two characters immanent coupling. Yes.
I won’t expose any more revelation in this novel, in case you have not read it. I will only say that passion, whether it be requited or unrequited, resonates again and again with saudade. I need to infuse my writing with more human passion and a clearer sense of paradox, longing, and joy.
Like the characters in Saudade, I too am impulsively grabbing toward my chest where there may live an anemone, a gull, a tiger, a whale, or a rabbit. And there must be a chicken here somewhere with all these eggs around. I vow to allow writing to teach me the skill of being both courageous and delicate. Like Clara, I will be the spider navigating the filament, careful not to fall through the holes. Every piece I write should contain the energy I might use to turn grief to joy.
My imagination must do the work of lifetimes unfolding, embrace paradox, and seek fresh juxtapositions. Prose can attempt to fuse image, language, and music in both earnest and playful explorations. This will be a great mountain for me to climb, but here goes. I regard Katherine Vaz’s Saudade as a delicacy. I have eaten this text, and it’s given me nourishment.
If you have read books that offer beautiful paradoxes at their core, I am open to your reading recommendations. Thank you for reading this essay.