Every once in a great long while, you encounter a student whose devotion to reading and writing, to the language itself, leaves you humbled and speechless.
Brian Sousa was not that student. Brian was pretty much the opposite of that student. He was one of those students where you just think to yourself: man, I hope Subway is hiring. It’s not that Brian was dumb. He was just, shall we say, distracted.
I was skeptical (to put it mildly) when I learned that Brian had decided to pursue writing, and not terribly hopeful when his new book, Almost Gone, arrived on my doorstep.
Rather than pursue a traditional bildungsroman, the novel offers a kaleidoscopic investigation of the immigrant experience, deftly weaving the stories of four generations of Portuguese-Americans, young and old, mostly working-class, haunted by the past even as they seek to build a future. The prose, like the characters, is spare and elegant, moving without ever dipping into sentiment. It was a shock to read—the best kind of shock.
So there’s the bona fides. Let’s do this thing…
The Rumpus: Please tell the readers what grade you received in my class, and why.
Brian Sousa: You gave me a B-, after warning me I’d probably get a lower grade if I didn’t fucking revise my shit. I told you that my thesis (a creative nonfiction book on traveling in Australia, that I’m not sure anyone will ever want to read) was sucking up too much of my time, and you informed me that you were writing a book too, and that was no excuse. “Gotta get the writing done,” you said, which I find myself saying to my students now.
You also ordered us to buy Playboy, because your story had just come out in it, and right after class I went to 7-11 and bought it, and then my girlfriend came home and found me intently reading it, as the story was funny and sad and hypersexual, and made me want to write. I told her it was my homework. She did not believe me and may have broken up with me.
Rumpus: When you say “order,” I think you mean “begged.”
You gave me a B- because you thought I was a slacker. And to be honest, I was. You know, I knew we were gonna do this interview so I e-mailed my old buddy Ben Ritzo, who was in the class with me, to ask him what he remembered. Ben and I would get five-shot, espresso-laced iced coffees and skateboard to your class all jacked-up on caffeine.
This is what he said: “We were shitheads—me especially—I just remember showing up like forty-five minutes late with no writing utensil, and carrying on full-volume conversations while Almond was trying to teach… And laughing my ass off…it was probably my favorite class….tell him I’m sorry, and thanks for not failing me!”
Then he said: “Dude, I’m actually shocked he still talks to you…”
So, based on the evidence, I guess I should be pretty happy with a B-. Put it this way: I don’t think, right now, I would want to have my twenty-one-year-old self in my own class. I would probably want to punch myself in the face.
Rumpus: Almost Gone manages to tell the immigrant story in a new way. Was that your intent from the start?
Sousa: Not my intent, but if it does approach that, then I’m stoked. My grandfather was born in Portugal, and my father spent time there as a kid, but I didn’t set out to write anything other than a set of stories that are linked together and hopefully draw in the reader. The book began as a single story about a Portuguese-American man, Nuno, who was obsessed with a younger woman. Turned out, in the next story, that his son had a similar attraction. Then I just started writing about other characters and over time, the entire family climbed out, claiming their own chapters, and the grandson, Scott, emerged as an indirect protagonist.
I didn’t set out to write an immigrant story, but I was able to close my eyes and revisit places and scenes from my childhood, so that helped. The more I got into it, the more I realized that a lot of fiction that focuses on immigrants is only about memorializing the past. I’d rather use the culture of assimilation as an origin of character and conflict; as a point to move forward from, rather than backward.
Rumpus: Do you identify as a “Portuguese-American writer,” or a writer who happens to be Portuguese-American?
Sousa: The second one, but I’m happy being called either. I’m actually just really stoked to have anyone call me a writer. I’ve debated that idea for a long time, and never know what to say when people ask what I do. I’ve been called a barback, a parking lot attendant, a snowboard instructor, a student, musician, starving artist…but now, with the book out, I think I can finally say that I’m a writer. So I’ve got that going for me. Still a starving artist, though.
We’ve all got stories to tell, and unique perspectives. I would say that our families and backgrounds definitely color the stories we make up, and that my dad being Portuguese has influenced mine. But at least half of the stuff that I write has nothing to do with Portugal, or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Rumpus: In the chapter “Jerusalem,” you write: “I close my eyes tightly and watch the colors. Someone told me in college that the red splotches that you see are actually your own blood, flowing beneath your eyelids. It was one of those stoned conversations that I don’t remember much of.” Do you really not remember the conversation? Because my recollection is that we got into some very deep shit.
Sousa: We did indeed get into some deep, deep shit. I thought that was you who told me that! Is that why you “resigned” from BC? That was one hell of a workshop. Were you practicing Rastafarianism at the time? It seemed like it. Maybe this is why, when I looked back at my transcript to find the grade you gave me, entire classes seem to have disappeared from my memory.
Rumpus: How has your family reacted to the book?
Sousa: This brings up something funny that’s been happening to me lately:
My sister: This book is good but dark. And, you know, we had a pretty idyllic childhood…
Me: But…this is fiction. I made it up.
Sister: I think you need to remind Mom that this is not you.
Me: But…it’s all lies. That’s what I do now. I lie for money.
My friend’s dad: But how does Brian know so much about domestic abuse?
My cousin: Why are you so well-versed in snorting painkillers?
Rumpus: There’s a rumor out there that you’re going to resign from BC if I’m invited as a graduation speaker. True?
Sousa: Can adjuncts actually “resign?” I don’t think they let us. They tell us when we can leave, maybe, or show us the way out. Actually, I wish you’d resigned in protest of Tommy Thompson speaking at my graduation in 2001. That was a nightmare. I’m glad I fell asleep.
I actually tell your resignation story to my students all the time. Some are inspired, some are indifferent, and the other day, one woman said, “Well, that’s a little extreme!” I think you scared the J. Crew right out of her! So, there you are. You are now officially extreme. In all seriousness, those Jesuits need to be shaken up every once in a while. Man, do I get freaked out by that tiny Jesus in every classroom, just staring down at me. I just want to say, “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” and send the old carpenter on his way.