Letters to a son: Calgary author offers meditations on fatherhood with memoir Trust The Bluer Skies

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Paulo da Costa was not planning on writing a memoir.

The Calgary-based author has written non-fiction before, but his six-month stay with his family in Portugal in 2015 was initially meant to allow his children to immerse themselves in another culture before they reached school age.  His youngest child, Amari, was a baby. But his oldest, Koah, was four at the time. As they left the safe confines of their quiet Victoria neighbourhood, Da Costa was struck by how Koah was reacting to the very different world around him. He thought he should jot down some observations for posterity.

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“As Koah was navigating the culture shock, the language and all of that, he was coming up with such amazing responses and there were some incredible poignant moments that I started noting them down,” says da Costa. “When I realized I had a pile of them I thought I better put this together and see what happens.”

He sent what he had to the Queen’s Quarterly in Kingston, an academic and cultural journal, and received a response in 24 hours saying they wanted to publish.

“I realized I must have struck a chord and it could be something important,” da Costa says.

Trust the Bluer Skies: Meditations on Fatherhood was born from those observations. It’s a memoir that chronicles Koah’s growth in a different culture over six months. Written in second-person narrative in the form of letters to his son, da Costa explores not only his son’s wide-eyed response to the world but also the changes his childhood home of Vale de Campra has undergone since he left decades ago.

What emerges is not only a tender ode to his son but a meditation on his own childhood, passing time and the changing expectations of masculinity, all set against the backdrop of the “terraced and grape-growing hills of Portugal.”

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While it has changed, there is still a quaintness to the village where da Costa had spent his childhood. Koah noticed it right away, even if his four-year-old vocabulary couldn’t always put it into concise words,” da Costa says.

“Something that touched him deeply was the sense of community and the sense of connection to lineage or heritage or history,” da Costa says. “Something he thought was amazing was that people in the town would just take him in their arms as if he was one of them all along, that sense of belonging. He would say things like ‘Papa, people here actually talk to you and pay attention. In Victoria, they pay more attention to dogs than children.’ People would just start talking to him, where, here in Canada, people generally don’t just start a conversation with a child.”

The house where they stayed was full of pictures of their ancestors. Storytelling tended to revolve around great-aunts and great-grandfathers. So much so that Koah, not particularly well-versed in the idea of mortality, felt he needed to meet them.

“He said ‘Let’s go and meet them,’” da Costa. “So I took him to the graveyard and we hung out there and he was just like ‘Woah.’ That sense of belonging was so unexpected, I think. He felt it in his bones.”

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Rural Portugal is a family-oriented place and very traditional. Da Costa said he was taken by how Koah would challenge the traditions.

“He was quite free in terms of some of the cultural expectations that older cultures might have about how to behave like a boy,” da Costa says. “He would challenge some of those. He wanted to embrace his uncles and his uncle would say ‘No, no. Men don’t hug here, they shake hands.’ He wouldn’t go for that.”

Studying the changing views on masculinity is hardly new. But seeing how a child navigates these expectations in a traditional culture was powerful, da Costa says. As with many European countries, allegiance to various soccer teams is a rite of passage for boys. Koah was not particularly interested so, at times, it seemed to his father that he was ostracized.

“It’s amazing to have that focus and awareness,” he says. “Since I was attuned to it, I got to see the struggles and how invisibly he was being forced to conform to the cultural mores or norms. I could feel the pain and the confusion and how if a boy is not supported then he could succumb to some of those harsh expectations we have for boys. I have an essay on sports where boys are taught to deny or swallow their feelings and be competitive and win and not be vulnerable. Witnessing that is different because you see it raw. You see with a child of four or five, if they are allowed to speak up and say exactly how they feel — with Koah it was like ‘No, I don’t want to be a part of this game if that’s how you are going to play it’. I wonder what we would be as men or boys if we were allowed to be what we feel rather than constantly being forced to conform and not being supported in those differences.”

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The trip had a lasting impact on Koah and his younger sister, who is now nine. The family has made the trips home an annual event. Now living in Calgary, the da Costa’s have been proactive in immersing themselves in the culture.

“Just recently they have decided they want to learn Portuguese, so I have to drive them across town to the Portuguese school every Saturday,” da Costa says. “It was totally their demand: “You have to take us there.”

“I’ve been writing for a couple of decades and I know when my first book came out and I was doing lectures at the University of Toronto and the new generation of Portuguese-Canadians at the time were very ashamed of their heritage and many of them would say they were Spanish or Italian. So it’s interesting to see that both Koah and Amari are so proud of their heritage. There is no hiding or wanting to fit in. For them, it’s completely normal to want to speak the languages and embrace those values, which is very different from the Calgary when I arrived in the 1980s. It was not as multicultural.”

A translator, editor and bilingual writer, da Costa’s debut work of fiction – 2002’s The Scent of a Lie – won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book and the W.O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize. He has also written a book of essays about sports called Beyond Bullfights and Ice Hockey, Essays on Identity, Language and Writing Culture and a book of Portuguese poetry called Notas-de-rodape.

While the culture and narrative are specific in Trust the Bluer Skies, Da Costa thinks it will resonate with all Canadians.

“I think it might find an echo with readers in Canada and probably elsewhere,” he says. “We have such movement around cultures and questions about identity and cultural identity and how we are made up as citizens of Canada and how do we integrate those heritages.”

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