a year of Blue Portugal

book and fish

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.

a dark path at Blue Portugal launch

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.

“How long could we live before we were found in a place no one expected us to go?” (from a work-in-progress)

At the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, I had the privilege of talking to a large audience about the novella — my own and others. It was so gratifying to have people come up to me over the next few days to tell me their own favourites and to ask more questions about this most lovely of literary forms (and perhaps least appreciated on the critical and just plain publishing front).

I’ve just spent an hour (one of the small hours) working on my current novella, The Marriage of Rivers. Well, maybe not working on it exactly but re-reading, changing a comma here and there,  moving a sentence to its true place. There are barred owls calling out in the darkness — and the stars! The night is dense with them, the long path of the Milky Way right above our house.

When we drove over the top of Pavilion Mountain that day, I got out to open the gate. James drove through and I hung on the gate for a moment, over the cattle-guard, swinging briefly back in the direction we’d come from, and forward, gently towards Clinton, the wedding, the rest of our lives. And his death. It was the axis of symmetry, a notion I remembered from high-school math, the perpendicular line between a parabola, a two-dimensional, mirror-symmetrical curve: before and after. It was warm, we’d had ice-cream, but I shivered. My world (or his) was about to change. I actually thought this. Carefully closing the gate, I thought we should just stay in the kingdom of grass, find an abandoned cabin, set up housekeeping together. We could grow hay, oats, collect spring beauties to dry for winter, we could gentle a pair of the wild horses that ran through the Chilcotin, train them to carry us even farther away, runaways in the Pantheon Range. I wanted my brother all to myself. Never mind the wedding and confetti, the western band on its low stage at the front of the hall with streamers and balloons rising to the ceiling like lost souls. The couples dancing in their summer finery. How long could we live before we were found in a place no one expected us to go?

(O you gates, you who keep the gates because of Osiris, O you who guard them and who report the affairs of the Two Lands to Osiris every day; I know you and I know your names.)


the shells of morning

I want to write about the light and cool of this August morning, how I looked just now at the shells John hung above the summer table, how they have something of heaven in them as they shimmer together– their sound echoed in the Adagio of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which I am listening to before going out to do the watering, the vegetable gathering (beans! Savoy cabbages like Dutch still-lifes! Cucumber skins opaque with dew!).

shells of morning.jpg

Last night we returned home from the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts to hear something large crashing over on the other side of the garden and this morning we know that it was an elk breaking down a small chestnut, gorging on the leaves, shattering the branches, and then disappearing into the darkness. On Thursday, in the afternoon, we saw a huge bull elk up at the edge of the grass, eating ocean spray. He had the biggest set of antlers I’ve ever seen, six points on each side, and still covered in golden velvet. In the particular light of mid-afternoon, his antlers seemed to be growing out of the copper beech between him and us, the copper beech under which my parents’ ashes are scattered (beech for Bukovina, my paternal grandfather’s place of origin; and for book; the book of my own origins). I could smell the elk from where I watched on the upper deck. The bulls are readying themselves for the autumn rut and in the past I once heard two of them bugling at each other in our woods, vying for harems. And this morning you can smell him again in the cool air, his breath green with chestnut leaves.


“I say, ‘Regicide.’ I say, Help!'”

From An Exaltation of Larks, by James Lipton:

An Herde of Wrennys, The Book of St. Albans. Hodgkin says, “The wren was probably allowed the term of ‘herd’…because it was the king of birds.” I say, “Regicide.” I say, “Help!”

It’s been slightly more than a month since the boxes of my novella Winter Wren arrived at my door. Readers of this blog might remember that my friend Anik See and I have begun a small literary imprint, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, to publish novellas for now and perhaps other innovative prose forms in the future. It’s been an interesting process so far. I wrote Winter Wren, Anik designed the cover and text, and the wonderful team at Printorium in Victoria printed the beautiful hand-sized books. People are sending the nicest notes or calling me to tell me their impressions. So far, so good!

winter wren.jpg

It’s a word-of-mouth endeavor at this point. We don’t have an advertising budget so we’re relying on email newsletters and the kindness of friends and strangers. Anik doesn’t even have copies yet but will receive hers when she’s in Canada next month. After then, she’ll fill orders for European customers and those from other parts of the world. (I’m filling orders for North, Central, and South America. And have mailed books to the UK and a few other places far afield.) But we both believe that readers will be interested in novellas and will somehow find us and our titles. (More are in the planning stages.)

Several reviews are forthcoming and I will post information and links on my News and Events page once I have them. I look forward to reading from Winter Wren when I participate in the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts on Friday, August 12th at 2:30 p.m. (I plan to talk about novellas in general and to also  read from my Patrin, which isn’t even a year old yet!) There will also be a proper launch for Winter Wren, probably in September. (If this sounds a bit vague,it’s because, well, life is busy right now! The Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, which I’m involved with, is coming up on the weekend of August 18-21 in Madeira Park; some of my children are coming for a couple of weeks later in summer; and there’s a third grandchild due in late August. But watch my News and Events page for a book launch date and if you’re in our area, come to help celebrate its regicide — without giving too much away, that word has a kind of eerie truth for this tale of wrens and the solstice and the passing of the old year.


And if you want to support independent publishing not just in Canada but internationally (because Fish Gotta Swim Editions is located here on the west coast as well as in Amsterdam), please consider ordering a copy of Winter Wren. You can order from me. Or Anik. Several bookstores here on the Sechelt Peninsula carry the book and others can order it for you. If you are interested in a review copy, please let me know.