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.

“it will all become clear to me”

Yesterday we left the Word on the Lake Festival in Salmon Arm after two intense days of workshops, conversations, much merriment, some interesting connections and reconnections. Myrna Kostash, for instance, read from a work-in-progress about her Ukrainian grandparents and old photographs and the urgency she felt to find out and record what she could of their lives. It was beautiful work. We talked afterwards about the stories we never heard as children but how we feel compelled to tell them now, though they’re in tatters and fragments.

John and I drove to Canmore for a night and then along Highway 1 to Cochrane, taking quieter highways until Olds and the journey north to Edmonton where our sons were gathered with their wives and children, ready for a building project that will happen this week. John’s family drove often from Calgary to the mountains in the years after their arrival in Canada from England in 1953. The road was windy and slow. It’s a route I took also as a child, though in the opposite direction, with my parents and brothers, traveling from Vancouver Island to my father’s parents who lived by then in Beverly and a little later to Edmonton itself after my grandfather’s death when my grandmother went to live with one or another of her daughters. My father would drive us to Drumheller to try to make peace with his earlier life there and there was so much he didn’t say, didn’t tell us, though the past hovered in the air as light and as fierce as mosquitoes. Once we stayed in the Rosedale Hotel and my mother made us sleep on top of the beds on our sleeping bags because the sheets were stiff with dirt. This wasn’t the Rosedeer Hotel in nearby Wayne, a little gem where John and I stayed for a night in the honeymoon suite last April and woke to frost on our window and the sound of magpies. For ages I didn’t think much about those earlier years but now it seems I am haunted by them and the decades that preceded them, when I was not yet born or even imagined.

I keep thinking that if I just pay attention, it will all become clear to me, the old house, how close it was to the Red Deer River, who slept where within its small dimensions, and how to find my own way to it, dreaming or awake. The place on the bridge where my father fished, his line taut in the current, his eyes green as the water. Dragonflies stung the surface of the river, wings like nets. — from “West of the 4th Meridian: a Libretto for Migrating Voices”, part of Euclid’s Orchard, forthcoming in September 2017.

I looked over from my dinner under the maples in Brendan and Cristen’s backyard to see my older son Forrest playing with his niece Kelly and her cousin (Forrest and Manon’s son Arthur).

Forrest, Kelly, and Arthur

The lumber behind them will become a porch and a deck this week, if all hands are willing. And we will eat our dinners under the trees while overhead the magpies in the nest Manon and Arthur spotted yesterday in a big spruce make their sociable chatter. We don’t know how many there are but maybe by the end of the week we’ll see more of them.

Long walks through the ravine where we went today to see frogs (who remained hidden) in a tiny pond surrounded by lily-of-the-valley. Stories — I read five bedtime stories to Kelly (Arthur had already gone to bed at the little apartment his parents are staying in for the week) and looked over to see Brendan reading to Henry:

brendan and henry

These are the days, the nests, the babies and young children, the meals under leafy shade, and an urgency to record it also. To keep it all alive.

“the long roots of her mother’s mint”

great grandmother's mint

First thing tomorrow, we’re heading off into the wild blue yonder. First stop: Word on the Lake in Salmon Arm for a weekend of readings, workshops, and editorial sessions with aspiring writers. From there, to Edmonton where most of our tribe (we’ll miss Angelica!) is gathering for a week-long building project at Brendan and Cristen’s house. The lumber’s been delivered, the sand for settling foundations, John has filled the trunk of our car with tools (because most mathematicians don’t have power saws, assorted levels, a plumb-bob, crow-bars for prying an old porch off the side of a house, and various other implements collected and used in the long process of building a home here on the Sechelt peninsula). Forrest, Manon, and Arthur are coming from Ottawa so it will be a week of animated conversation, many bottles of wine (we’re bringing some of those too), and, for some, mojitos. I think of cocktails as Mother’s Ruin (it doesn’t take much) so won’t partake* but my contribution will be 2 pots of mint. As I’ve weeded this spring, I’ve kept the volunteer mint to take to Edmonton. Some of it already travelled to Ottawa and is part of a garden there where a small boy will be told one day, “Your grandma brought this and guess where it came from originally?” John’s mother used to visit and in the trunk (or boot, as she called it) would be many cuttings and roots of plants from her garden. I’ve written about this in “Ballast”, one of the essays in Euclid’s Orchard.

She carried rooted shoots of the original family wisteria in turn from her mother’s garden in Suffolk, wrapped in damp paper in her suitcase after one of her annual summer visits to her mum. Have you anything to declare, I imagine her being asked, and like me (who carries acorns and interesting cones and seeds from everywhere I visit), she took a deep breath, keeping inside every important reason for children to continue their parents’ gardens, and said no. In her suitcase, the long roots of her mother’s mint, the perennial geraniums.

And it will be a week of little trips too to places that speak to me — to us — of our family connections. Two springs ago, John, Brendan, baby Kelly, and I drove out to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, east of Edmonton. I don’t know many details about my grandfather’s life in Bukovyna but somehow seeing the Nazar Yurko house gave me some insights into the domestic culture of his village (Ivankivtsi).


We’re planning to drive out the open-air museum again this trip, with all the grandchildren strapped into their car-seats. They’ll see the house with its adjacent garden, where I remember drifts of ferny dill that the young woman weeding told me self-sowed everywhere. (I wanted to lift a little clump and tuck it into my pack. Maybe this time I’ll be bolder.) They’ll see the church

church at Ukrainian Village Museum

and I’ll show them a photograph of the church in their great-great-grandfather’s village and they might hear the echoes that I hear when I enter these buildings.

church in my grandfather's village

And then their fathers can muddle the mint that came from their great-great-grandmother’s English garden (via their great-grandmother, and then their grandmother) and make a jug of mojitos. So the world is remembered, mint and rum and the bells of old churches.

*I mean cocktails, not wine. I’ll drink more than my share of the Wild Goose Pinot Gris but mixed drinks catch up on me sooner than I’d care to admit.