A year ago this week, the courier left a box of Blue Portugal & Other Essays down by the gate that leads to our neighbours. It was raining that day and when our neighbour Ted drove up our long driveway and said he had something for us, I suspected it was books but I also hoped they hadn’t been sitting in the rain for too long because our neighbours are back and forth to another home on the mainland. Would the books be ruined? By process of deduction we figured out they’d only been there for a hour or two and the courier had put the box in a big plastic bag.
Blue Portugal is my 16th book. Or maybe 17th. (Each time I count I get a different number.) But the actual moment of opening a box and seeing something I’ve worked hard on, first the writing, then the editing, then copyediting, proof-reading, some of this entirely on my own (the writing), and some with excellent people such as the whole team at the University of Alberta Press, anyway, that moment is extraordinary. In the box, nestled in white packing paper, were the blue books filled with my meditations of this life of mine. A life that is shaped and shadowed by a wide network of family members in the present and in the past. My parents are in the book. My father’s parents, and what I know of the long line of Kishkans and Klusovas stretched along the spine of the Carpathian Mountains as they extend west to the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic. As they travelled by boat from Europe to North America. As they made rough homes and planted gardens and grew potatoes. (My mother’s parents are mostly unknown to me, though I tried to trace them in an earlier book, Euclid’s Orchard.) My children are in the book, and theirs. There are rivers, brushes with serious illness, memories of fractures and sorrow, a fall on ice resulting in damaged retinas, an overnight train ride from Kyiv to Chernivtsi before Covid, before the Russian invasion. And there’s a lot of blue: the cyan of Steller’s jays; the indigo I dye cotton and linen with to make quilts inscribed with eelgrass, clouds, snow-angels, migrating salmon; the namesake wine of the title, Modry Portugal, that I first drank in my grandmother’s country; the hallucinatory blue of entoptic phenonema.
In the past year, Blue Portugal has made friends. In the British Columbia Review, Michael Hayward said this:
The essays in Blue Portugal seem to talk to each other; they interlace in interesting and thought-provoking ways. The book is a fine example of the personal essay at its best.
Michael Greenstein, in the Miramichi Reader, concludes his review with this:
Her elegiac rhapsody in blue recurs in “Blueprint” where we follow the construction of her house in British Columbia. Her web of essays are palimpsests covering and uncovering hidden roots and rhizomes. From Dante to duende, and the melancholic saudade of fado, Blue Portugal cultivates grapes and vintages. Follow Kishkan closely along many paths of anatomy and destiny.
On her literary blog, Pickle Me This, Kerry Clare is generous:
But it’s the stunning craftsmanship of the book, the fascinating threads that weave the pieces together and also recur throughout the text, that make this book such a pleasure to discover
Friends and readers I’ve never met took the time to write beautiful letters. A few sent little gifts. And in return, we made some small gifts. My husband John is a letterpress printer and he printed keepsakes on our 19th century Chandler & Price platen press which I embellished with fragments of indigo-dyed cotton, shell buttons, and red silk thread: a number of bookmarks were given out when the book was first published (local bookstores tucked the keepsakes into copies of Blue Portugal they sold and I mailed bookmarks to people who told me they’d bought the book); and a second keepsake was given to well-wishers at a book launch at the Arts Centre in Sechelt last September.
There were some readings, online and in person, some interviews (including this wonderful conversation with Joe Planta: https://thecommentary.ca/ontheline/2044-theresa-kishkan/ ), some talks given to interested groups via Zoom, and there are more events in the future, including a brief reading and two workshops on the personal essay at Word on the Lake Writers Festival in Salmon Arm later this month, and an event at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in August. (Talewind Books always sells books at this Festival and John will print a 3rd keepsake to be given away with copies of Blue Portugal sold at this time.)
A year ago this week, the courier left a book of books at the neighbour’s gate. I remember sitting by the fire with a copy, reading my words on Alan Brownoff’s elegantly designed pages, actual pages after the many hours of working on a screen with Kimmy Beach and others, and thinking that maybe the pieces in this book get closer to what I hope to do when I begin to write an essay. I’m learning all the time. This is what I wrote in the Preface:
Some essay collections are unified thematically or chronologically around a writer’s life so that a reader understands the book to be a form of memoir. Blue Portugal does not aspire to memoir exactly. There are connections between the individual essays, yes, there are times when they talk among themselves, refer the reader to others in the group, but my intention was not to create a unified set of texts, with a logical flow. What the essays share is a sensibility—mine, of course, but also I know that I am interested in ideas and terrain which often share something in common. The rivers of my home province echo the venous system of my body. The indigo powder I turn into dye in turn shares a palette with entoptic phenomena. The title essay remembers a wine I first drank in my grandmother’s homeland. These are personal essays after all, not rhetorical or expository ones, so I’m at the heart of each one. Mine is the voice that invites the reader in, welcomes you at the door. My heart is on the sleeve of each essay. I’m the woman on the raft in the Thompson River and in the restaurant in Prague, in the PET tunnel in the B.C. Cancer Centre, portioning out her parents’ ashes on a beach on Vancouver Island, in a kitchen on the Sechelt Peninsula sewing a quilt from indigo linen she’s dyed on a cedar bench by her garden while pileated woodpeckers teach their young to fly nearby. Her (my) own children have flown but she remembers them on the trail down to the school bus, shadowed by the dog whose pelvic bone sits on her desk, a reminder of injury, recovery, and the precarious nature of our lives.
Here I am at the launch, showing the quilt that accompanies “A Dark Path”, the path that leads back, way back, to the year I was 14 and was injured in a riding accident and found myself on a path through bitter privet at the Gorge Road Rehabilitation Centre, learning to walk again, walking into a future I could never have dreamed. Blue Portugal & Other Essays is a book I’ve been writing all my life, through all the years that have led to this one, stitched from scraps of beauty and difficulty and love.
PS–two things. For some reason, not all the links are working. I keep adding them and they disappear. Sorry! And the second thing is that I should explain that couriers in their wisdom seldom follow instructions on how to find our house for deliveries. Once they left a car-seat, arriving for a visiting grandchild, down a neighbour’s driveway (the neighbours keep their gate locked when they’re not here so there was a small window of opportunity and the courier took it boldly) and it was only when the company sent a screenshot to prove they’d “delivered” the item that we recognized a particular element about half a mile away and went to collect our parcel from under someone else’s sign. Books by the gate are a common issue and they won’t listen when I tell them, If you reach the gate, you’ve gone too far. The only company that ever gets it right is the one that delivers cases of wine from to time. Thank goodness.