Since 1981 the Drew Heinz Prize has been honoring diversity, originality, and a spirit of exploration in short story writing—qualities that themselves have marked the short story as our most vital literary form. The 1997 winner, Katherine Vaz, and the even dozen stories that make up her collection, Fado & Other Stories, are a good representation of the special character the Heinz winners have shown collectively.
The short story is especially conducive to ethnic and minority voices, and Vaz expresses a background rich in literary possibilities, but one I don’t remember encountering in fiction before: the Portuguese-American, or Luso-American (for Lusitania, the name the ancient Romans gave to Portugal).
"My father once explained to me the solitude of the Portuguese," the narrator of the first story tells us. "We would rather go out to sea alone in a small boat than fish together on a big one....We bought land for power but mostly for isolation."
The yearning for the sea, for the solitude of water, runs throughout these stories, voiced in the fados that turn up in story after story—Portuguese songs of fate, "a kind of possession by love and sadness that must start below the diaphragm and reverberate in the throat before leaving the singer’s body."
Vaz’ stories cover a variety of times, settings, moods. One is set in 19th-century Hawaii and reveals the origin of the word "ukulele." Some, like the aptly titled "Journey of an Eyeball," explore what she calls "the marriage of real and imagined things." Her stories often embrace elements of magical realism: a girl with large, ugly hands turns out to be miraculously good at ironing, and her ironing cures sicknesses, redeems bad luck.
In the opening story, "Original Sin," a young girl seduces and disgraces the priest who swindled her dying mother out of her land. The scene is Castroville, an artichoke-raising town in north central California, practically in the heart of Steinbeck realism. But even the most literal of Vaz’ stories can’t be called simple realism, or magical realism, either.
After her mother has taken to bed with lung cancer, the girl in this first story says, "My aunt helped me make wax lungs, complete with realistic veins. They looked like butterfly wings when we put them in the sun."
These are figuras de cera, figures of wax left out to melt, their rainbow of running colors intended to catch God’s eye—wax stomachs left in the fields during a flu epidemic, wax hearts left behind the church by wives of men with heart ailments.
These figuras and the variations of them shape this story, in the same way that the book itself is shaped by repeated and overlapping images—like the medallion that figures in the second story, painted over so many times that it’s now black. "The simplicity of the painting was an improvement," says the narrator of that story, "in that it showed a willingness to wade through images until a single one that contained all the others could be found."
In my favorite story, "My Hunt for King Sebastiao," the situation turns, and a son of Portuguese-American parents travels for the first time to his parents’ town in the Azores to settle a family property dispute.
"I tasted the clean air greedily, the way Californians do," this narrator says, "here sweet, there smoky. The streets were knobby with black and white cobblestones, and the houses were low and whitewashed, with religious tiles set like jewels over the doors."
It is in such compact, beautifully crafted passages that we see Vaz’ strengths as a writer. She has an excellent eye for detail, and very distinctive, expressive material to work with. Like many first story collections, hers shows her range rather than her focus as a writer. But Fado & Other Stories is interesting for many more reasons than its ethnological and sociological virtues, and is especially interesting for its imaginative use of melody. There are some merry fados, we learn in the concluding story, but most are songs of longing, originally sung by the widows of fishermen who did not return, or perhaps by the prostitutes of Lisbon.
"The fados wailing from our record players remind us that without love we will die," the narrator of the title story tells us, "that the oceans are salty because the Portuguese have shed so many tears on their beaches for those they will never hold again."
Vaz plays upon—and plays against—this solemn romanticism, and her fados are like the ones sung by the students at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, who she tells us went around in black robes that they ripped whenever they made a romantic conquest: "Handsome fellows, rushing about in their proud tatters!"
Fado & Other Stories defines its author’s themes, tests her technique, brings her voice into play—everything that a good first story collection should do; and this is the very kind of first book that readers prize, for its reaching as much as for its settled accomplishments—for its sense of what the writer may yet have to bring.
David A. Walton is a short story writer and freelance book critic.