A Hero for the People: An Interview with Arthur Powers

Nicholas Ripatrazone

I was happy to discover the fiction of Arthur Powers, an author familiar to many Dappled Things readers, who has published two noteworthy books this year. Powers’s two fiction releases include a novella, The Book of Jotham (Tuscany Press), and a short story collection, A Hero for the People (Press 53).

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A Hero for the People: Stories of the Brazilian Backlands is available from Amazon.com.

The Book of Jotham makes excellent use of the compressed novella form through imagistic prose, resulting in a story that reads as Powers is a practical stylist. He’s got a keen sense of situation and plot, with each of his fictional narratives unfolding quickly, but containing enough emotion and complexity to carry forward to the final moments. One of my favorites is “Cláudio.” The tale is about a woman named Maria das Dores, and how desire unfolds from imperfect reality. Maria’s husband is João, and her imagined lover, Claudio.both a parable and fiction. A Hero for the People is a collection of linked stories of the Brazilian backlands, each story working individually yet also contributing to the thematic whole. The collective emotional thrust of the book is equal to that of a novel, but actually leaves the reader with more narrative possibilities than a single volume can typically offer.

Here are a few snapshot paragraphs from the story to give a sense of Powers’s prose:

The brown palm-straw broom set aside; dust still rising from where she’d swept the dirt floor, hazing the afternoon sunlight. Carefully, she set the small chipped mirror on the wooden table and looked into it. Hazel eyes, smooth browned skin, small nose, square chin. Pretty—they’d all said she was pretty when she was seventeen, but that was five years and three children ago, and who ever said she was pretty now? Except this afternoon . . .

Glyph

João sat silently on the stool, eating his supper, one huge hand cradling the tin plate, the other clutching the spoon as it dug into the rice and beans and shoveled them into his mouth. Click of the spoon on the plate, whish of lifting, chewing; click of the spoon on the plate, whish of lifting, chewing.

Glyph

She lay awake in the hammock, sleepless in the black night. Cláudio. They’d called out his name, Cláudio. He would be standing in the front room. He would reach out and gently touch her cheek.

Glyph

The small statue of Our Lady of Aparecida stood on the tiny wooden shelf against the bare adobe brick wall, her black face looking sightlessly at Maria das Dores, her black hands held palms forward, her blue robe decked with glass jewels.
“Mother of God,” Maria des Dores whispered. “Mother of God . . . ”

It was a pleasure to talk to Arthur about his wide-ranging mission experiences, his conversion to Catholicism, his writing life, and his books.
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Nick Ripatrazone: You converted to Catholicism on the Easter Vigil of 1976, when you were 29 years old. What led to your conversion?

Arthur Powers: I was raised in a wonderful, loving home, but religion was not really part of our lives. My parents respected religion, but were not active in it. I felt a certain tugging toward faith (occasionally attending Episcopal services in high school and, later, when I was an exchange student in England). I even at times thought of being a minister (two of my college friends entered Episcopal seminary—one later converted to be a Catholic priest). But, when I went to Brazil, I was an agnostic—I thought of religion as wishful thinking, something people would like to be true but just isn’t—a fairy tale.

In Brazil, I worked with people for whom religion was woven into their lives. Most Latins do not separate the “natural” from the “supernatural”—it is all one. This caused me to question my agnosticism. By the time my first two-year Peace Corps stint was up, I recognized there is a God.

Then I met my wife: Brenda is a life-long, dedicated Catholic. We got engaged, and I began attending Mass with her. We married in 1973 (we needed a dispensation because I wasn’t baptized). We were very active—taught high school catechism, participated in Church social justice programs, helped with Vietnamese refugee resettlement.

In the beginning, the only part of the creed I could recite was “I believe in one God . . . ” As I grew in faith and understanding, I was able to agree with more and more. When I reached the point that I could recite and believe in (if not entirely understand) the entire creed, I told Brenda I thought it was time for me to be baptized and enter the Church.

NR: You have spent most of your adult life in Brazil; first as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and later working for the Catholic Church in the eastern Amazon. It’s an incredibly varied and meaningful career of service. What advice do you have for young Catholics interested in a life of pastoral work, particularly in international communities? 

AP: A young person interested in serving should first consider whether she or he has a religious vocation. Those with a religious vocation—and we worked with many sisters, brothers, and priests —can serve in a special way.

But there are opportunities for lay people also. The Catholic Mission Association puts out a publication—Response—that is now also online.

To work in an international setting, one should feel a special calling. One needs to be truly interested in other cultures and languages—open to challenges and ambiguity. One has to work to understand the core of orthodox beliefs, as opposed to the cultural expressions of them—as St. Augustine said: in essentials, unity; in all else, diversity.

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The Book of Jotham is available through Amazon.com.

NR: You had two books published in 2013: The Book of Jotham, a novella that received the 2012 Tuscany Prize from Tuscany Press, and A Hero for the People, your debut story collection from Press 53.

I’d like to start with your excellent novella, which is told in imagistic, almost dream-like prose. Why did you choose the name “Jotham” for the main character?

AP: As I mention in my afterword to the book, the story was a gift. But the protagonist needed a name. I wanted a Biblical name, but one that didn’t have too many associations for most readers (as would, for example, Joshua or Jacob). I looked through the Bible and found the name Jotham—and it rang true.

Recently, at a book signing, one of the audience [members] told me that Jotham means “God’s perfection” or “the perfection of God.” I’m not sure whether I ever knew that (Jotham was named over thirty years ago), but it fits. Jotham—who is seen as flawed by human eyes—reaches toward perfection in God’s eyes.

NR: In the preface, you mention that this was a “story born . . . in prayer.” The Book of Jotham was completed in 1989 but not published until 2013. What is the story behind the book’s release?

AP: In 1989, the story was too literary for Catholic presses and too Catholic for literary presses. I was in mission in Brazil, and lived there (with the exception of one year) until 2006. Publishing the story didn’t seem very viable, or even a priority.

In 2012, when Tuscany put out the first call for literary Catholic manuscripts, I sent them several pieces. Then, in almost the last month of the contest, I remembered Jotham and realized it would fit their novella category. I took out the typewritten pages, reread them, realized that it was a really good story, scanned the pages, and sent the book to Tuscany.

NR: Jotham is mentally challenged, and, in writing this story in second person, you introduce many interesting ontological, theological, and narratological considerations. What did you learn, in the empathetic sense, from writing this story and imagining Jotham’s character?

AP: When writing, I become the character I write about. Seeing the world through Jotham’s eyes was a tremendous learning experience. It helped me fully realize that intelligence (as we normally define it) is not the center of our being—that there are many forms of intelligence, that we really see with what the Hebrews would call our hearts.

Jotham helped me to see Christ—and, as a result, all things—with new eyes.

NR: The Book of Jotham is an artistic representation of Christ and his disciples. As a Catholic, and as a writer, what amount of latitude did you have in dramatizing these events?

AP: In writing about Christ, one has to write with care—with awe—finding the angle between banal piety, on the one hand, and over familiarity. It helped that I was seeing Christ through Jotham’s eyes, because Jotham doesn’t wear the filters that many of us do. He can see the person in Christ—authority combined with humor and playfulness; distance, yet closeness and warmth; masculine strength, with tenderness and caring.

The apostles are like us. In the New Testament there is something very homelike and, at times, comic about them. They are always missing the point, always going off the path—then finding it again. One of the strengths of our Church is that we are founded on Peter—impulsive Peter who starts walking on water, then sinks; who babbles about building booths in the face of transfiguration; who denies Christ three times, then confesses it (who but Peter himself could have related the story of that denial?).

NR: Let’s talk about A Hero for the People. How did you come to publish this story collection with Press 53, and how did you choose to arrange these stories as a book?

AP: I discovered Press 53 when I moved to North Carolina in 2006, and was very impressed by the quality of their books—they specialize in short story collections. They have an annual open contest with a feature I like very much—they allow you to submit stories that have already been published in magazines. (Many of my stories had been published in St. Anthony Messenger, Liguorian, or other venues, and several had won awards.) I began submitting, and was three times a finalist. I also published stories in Prime Number (Press 53’s online magazine). When Press 53 put out a call for manuscripts, I entered and the manuscript was accepted.

I didn’t spend time agonizing over the arrangement of the stories. Although I moved one or two of them around a bit, the flow of the stories as they are presented seemed to work well. There is an aspect of writing which is like composing music—being aware of rhythm, tonality, timing—and this, of course, extends to putting together a collection. But for me it is more instinctive than thought out.

NR: In the tightly-paced story, “The Bridge,” I appreciated the narrator’s thoughts of the missionary priest: “The futility of it all hit me again—how for every woman you help find food, every farmer you help stay on the land, there are a hundred, two hundred, five hundred more you can never help.” Did those thoughts ever enter your mind while on your own mission work in Brazil? If so, how did you work through them?

AP: Every person who works in a country like Brazil feels this. There is so much that needs to be done, so many people to be reached out to—one can work 24 hours a day and still reach only a fraction of the needs. Some workers—both in the churches and out of them—are overwhelmed, end up burnt out or having a nervous breakdown.

There are two ways of dealing with this: one can close one’s heart to the problems, or one can recognize that the basic work is the Holy Spirit’s and each of us can only do what she or he can—Mother Teresa: God asks us to be faithful, not successful. Still, being faithful requires us to be as skillful as we can—to gain knowledge of situations, use tools, discern what is helpful and what is not (and to realize that we will make mistakes).

To be honest, most of us close our hearts at times—but one strives to be open to the Holy Spirit as much as one can.

NR: Although it was a difficult choice, “Cláudio” was my favorite story in the collection. It’s a tale about desire unrealized, delivered in prose that catches the reader’s emotion without becoming sentimental. What’s the single story in this collection that you enjoy the most, that you perhaps feel the closest to as a writer?

AP: That is like asking a parent which is his favorite child—I love them all. I am also always very interested to hear from readers as to the stories they liked best, and why.

NR: In “Stone,” and many other stories from the collection, bad things happen—attacks, murders—but many of your violent characters retain a curious sense of guilt. What is the reason for this residual remorse? 

AP: Every person I’ve ever known who has done bad things bears some guilt—whether they consciously realize it or not. We are made in the image of God—when we do things that are not good, it distorts us—just as eating junk food distorts our digestive system. It dirties our souls, pollutes us.
This is true whether we recognize it or not. One purpose of confession is to allow us to recognize this guilt and clean it out. In “bad” people it remains hidden, but very forceful—perhaps even more forceful. In “Hate,” for instance, a truly bad man has guilt almost foisted upon him, but it is very real.

NR: Several stories are concerned with land ownership and boundaries, including the collection’s titular story, where Brother Michel’s protest is clear: “Keep the people on the land.” What led you to consider this theme in your fictional work?

AP: Land was one of the chief reasons the Franciscans asked us to work in the Amazon. The Church is very concerned about small farmers being forced off their land. Just before we arrived in Caseara (our mission site), the State Secretary of Public Safety had gone into an area of small landholders, accompanied by men armed with machine guns, had told the landholders that they were on the land illegally, and had forced them to sign away their rights. The action was entirely illegal. Those farmers were in Caseara when we arrived—two of them were later murdered when they tried to go back onto their land.

I believe strongly in small landholding. It is one of the few viable answers to poverty throughout the third world. Small holdings have been shown to be more productive in many areas of agriculture, and more sustainable in almost all. (In 2010, I completed a Ph.D. at University of New Hampshire in natural resources policy—sustainable rural development, with a focus on land reform).

Of all the stories, Brother Michel most closely mirrors the work that Brenda and I did in mission.

NR: Shorter stories like “Four Liters of Wild Honey,” “Two Foxes,” and “Colors” are interspersed throughout the collection. Their brevity and power suggest a deliberate placement and form. How did you approach these stories (first, as a writer; and then, as one arranging them within a collection)? 

AP: Stories have their own structure and length. When I start a story, I frequently do not know how long it will be—but each story has its organic structure. As mentioned above, there is a musical quality to writing and to putting together a collection—these stories flowed into the collection in a manner that seems to work well.

NR: A number of stories in the collection contain priests as central characters. There’s certainly a tradition of complex representations of Catholic clergy in fiction: Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, John Reimringer, G.K. Chesterton, George Bernanos, Jon Hassler, Willa Cather, Erin McGraw, Tom Bailey, and, of course, J.F. Powers. What was enjoyable, and perhaps challenging, in writing about priests?

AP: You have to realize that we worked with priests. They are our colleagues and friends. They are Tom and Joe, Longinho and Zé Afonso. (Even now, in Raleigh, I have to remind myself to say “Father” when addressing our pastor.) Priests are people—as varied and interesting as any other group of people. One writes about them just as one would write about anyone else.

NR: “The Healer” is an excellent representation of the contrast and interaction between Catholicism and evangelical denominations. In the story, you use the contrast of “a picture of a blond Jesus and framed quotations from the Bible” within an evangelical home versus the “dark-haired Mary and framed saints” of a Catholic residence. In your own experience in Brazil, how did you see the denominations interacting?

AP: Very much as they do in the story. The Evangelical sects fill a need. In the urban slums—and increasingly in small towns—men are often marginalized, can’t support their families, and are demoralized. Frequently their wives have more marketable skills (as cooks, housemaids, chambermaids). The temptations for these men are drinking, drugs, gambling, fornication, sloth.

The Evangelical sects that became most active in Brazil forty-plus years ago were very conservative ones that not only banned drinking, but dancing, playing cards. They strongly emphasized the dangers of Hell. While this may not be good theology, it is very effective. As it says in the story, what slum woman, seeing her drunken, lazy, philandering husband turned to a sober, hard-working, faithful man is going to question the theology?

NR: In “Come into My House and Stay,” the third-person narrator notes that the “ripples of the Second Vatican Council were reaching out to the parishes, bringing with them a feeling that perhaps one did not have to be a priest or nun to be religious.” Do you view writing as a vocation, as a form of liturgy? 

AP: Definitely not a form of liturgy. Anything that one does well is a vocation: making furniture, playing baseball, being an accountant. Writing is a craft.

NR: 2013 was certainly a banner year for your fiction. What projects are you working on now, or have planned for the future?

AP: I have learned from experience not to talk about my writing in advance. If I talk too much, the steam fizzles out and the story fades. So I will just say that I am working on helping our parish institute an immigration program, heading up the Parish Diversity Committee, doing my job at work, and helping to raise our ten-year-old granddaughter.

Comments

  1. Dena says

    I got a copy of Arthur’s collection last summer at the Catholic Writers Guild Conference, but I’ve just now gotten around to reading it. I think it’s terrific–the stories are great, and I love Arthur’s voice, his ease, and naturalness. Most modern literary fiction is shrill, taut, and ultimately wasted on obsessiveness with technique–the writer is more visible than the work. Arthur’s fiction is a breath of fresh air.