What Philip Graham Knows: An American in Portugal

Philip Graham is a writer and professor at the University of Illinois. Friend of the World's Fair Oronte Churm recently interviewed him. (Mr. Churm, aka John Griswold, also teaches at Illinois and is also a writer -- check out his beautiful new novel Democracy of Ghosts.) It's a good interview, right here at this link.


Graham wrote a series of dispatches over at McSweeney's about his sabbatical year in Lisbon. His new book brings them together as The Moon, Come to Earth. That would be fascinating just on the face of it since Graham's a fellow dispatcher at the McSweeney's website (as is Oronte Churm, before both Graham and me in fact). But what's even more amazing to me is that his entire series amplifies and makes more poetic the same theme I discussed in the Days at the Museum series. So, for example, here's some banter with Churm:

OC: As you well know, there are a couple of schools of thought on attempting to write other cultures. Many admire the attempt and even feel that being an outsider provides an opportunity for important insights. Others think the dangers of misrepresentation are too high. How do you try to avoid the pitfalls, especially when writing wryly ("the whole country qualifies as the shrimps of Europe--only the island of Malta boasts smaller citizens") about some aspects of Portuguese life?

PG: I think the dangers of misrepresentation when describing a conversation you had five minutes ago with a family member or friend are high, too. Because the thoughts of others are unavailable to us, humans have to make do with varying skills of interpretation. We're all fiction writers of a sort, throughout our lives shaping characters out of the selected and often misleading signals we receive from the people we think we know. A spotty business at best, this. But what's the alternative except deepening isolation?

The same goes for travel, since every country on the globe shares a second, secret name of Pitfall. Yet sometimes where you live doesn't give you what you need or want or whatever you're secretly searching for, and when you find a place that does, that becomes the most rewarding travel, the kind where each footstep on the outside is accompanied by an echoing footstep within. These steps are necessarily tentative. In The Moon, Come to Earth, I tried to separate from myself any notion of being an expert. I was and remain simply your run-of-the-mill flawed fellow, awkwardly nosing about another culture, never quite sure what I might come upon, what might resonate inside me, attract or appall me.

And here is me, from Days #4 ("International Week"):

"[During this summer, I've been] wondering why some people see things right off when away from home, while others look blankly past. It's now a binding theme for this entire museum experience, the tension I saw from the start (in No. 1) between those who are supposed to be in a place and those who are not. Now I talk about it as that difference between how we see things when we're home and when we're away (another country, another city, another museum)."

And by way of conclusion:

"[There's ultimately] a weird triangulation going on: not just the cultural views that differ--the Japanese tourist and the French researcher and the German-American artist and the Italian and Spanish food in Chinatown--but the temporal ones, the changes over time, that stock in trade of the historian. That "the past is a foreign country" is a top-tier historian's cliché. Everyone looking to make sense of the past sees it as a foreigner. Fair enough. But that isn't really different than how I see things everyday right now."

My point here is that if you want a lot more of that theme of cross-cultural observation, today or historically, but told from the pen of an accomplished and widely praised writer, check out both the interview with Graham and his new book. To further encourage both, here is the ad copy from his publisher:

"In The Moon, Come to Earth, Philip Graham offers an expanded edition of a popular series of dispatches originally published on McSweeney's, an exuberant yet introspective account of a year's sojourn in Lisbon with his wife and daughter. Casting his attentive gaze on scenes as broad as a citywide arts festival and as small as a single paving stone in a cobbled walk, Graham renders Lisbon from a perspective that varies between wide-eyed and knowing; though he's unquestionably not a tourist, at the same time he knows he will never be a local. So his lyrical accounts reveal his struggles with (and love of) the Portuguese language, an awkward meeting with Nobel laureate José Saramago, being trapped in a budding soccer riot, and his daughter's challenging transition to adolescence while attending a Portuguese school--but he also waxes loving about Portugal's saudade-drenched music, its inventive cuisine, and its vibrant literary culture. And through his humorous, self-deprecating, and wistful explorations, we come to know Graham himself, and his wife and daughter, so that when an unexpected crisis hits his family, we can't help but ache alongside them."


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Personally, I think you want to encourage as many possible view-points as you can manage, both insider and external. After all, misinterpretation by an outsider is balanced by internal assumptions that go unchallenged.

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink