Finding Goa, via Arizona (an interview)

FROM the desert state of Arizona in the U.S., a researcher was drawn to the printed word emerging from this small region called Goa. Donna Young tells Frederick Noronha what made her look at the literature of this distant land, and why she found Goan writing (primarily in English, which she studied) to be interesting.


From Arizona to Goa is a long distance. How did you get interested in the literature of this small region?

Actually I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia and moved to Arizona recently. As a small child I lived in a neighborhood of many Cuban refugees. I learned Spanish and became interested in Latin America. I pursued this interest and majored in Spanish at the Georgia State University.

Then, I went on to get a Masters in Spanish in California. I was not happy with the Doctorate programs at any of the universities in languages. I felt that they emphasized too much on literary analysis. I wanted to analyze literature according to the people who wrote it and how they were influenced by their history and society, rather than what metaphors, similes, and symbolism there were.

So, I decided that I would have to switch departments and went into history instead.

At Georgia State when I was taking some background classes, I decided that it would be fun to branch out and take other areas instead of Latin America alone. I took classes on Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

The South Asian professor, James Heitzman, convinced me that I would be the ideal person to do research on Goa. He explained that Goa had been a Portuguese colony and it wouldn’t be hard to learn Portuguese. True, it was quite different than what I had done in the past, but I do love to learn new things.

I went ahead and applied to graduate school there and did my thesis under his direction. Dr. Heitzman liked my idea of using literature to analyze the people, their history, and culture, and felt that I had the background that most students didn’t have for combining those fields.


How does Goan writing compare with that from other `foreign’ cultures you’ve encountered?

In some ways, Goan writing in English is very different from Latin American writing. A lot of Latin American writing has a great deal of magical realism, whereas Goan literature has only a small amount. 5B I know the book Skin by Margaret Mascarenhas, and Dust by Heta Pandit has it, but most Goan literature doesn’t. Goan literature tends to focus on history and culture. It’s like looking through a mirror and seeing the past.

You can feel the issues of colonialism, the struggle for independence, and the clashes in deciding which language should be the State language. It does remind me of Mexican literature, in the way that Mexican literature gives you the feeling that you are re-living the Revolution. It provides a great deal of insight into Mexican culture. Of course, I haven’t read any literature in Konkani or Marathi so I don’t know if that literature is different.


What do you see as the strong points, and weak ones, of Goan writing in English?

I think that Goan literature is just starting to blossom. The first strong point is that there are some very good writers.

Another is that when you read this literature, you get a strong sense of what it is to be Goan. There is a strong sense of the Goan Identity. The third strong point is more Goan literature is being published. I had a hard time keeping up with all of the new literature that was coming out. I finally had to cut it off and start writing.

As I see it, on the other hand, some writers aren’t fully developed yet. As a writer, I know it takes time to develop that maturity. The reason I say this is because, in some of the literature, the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue seems stilted, and plots need more developing.

Also, while this literature is interesting, it is mainly interesting to Goans. It would be wonderful if more writers could write literature that would have a broader appeal. That way, people who aren’t Goan would be able to relate to Goa and their literature would be better known around the world.

The third weakness that I can see is that Goan literature isn’t well known outside of Goa, with the exception of Goans who are abroad.

I had a terrible time trying to find sources for my research. I didn’t find any Goan literature in my university library, and only found a handful of literature through an inter library loan.

The next thing I tried was having a friend’s brother, who lives in Mumbai, order books for me by phone. He then sent them to me through a relative who was flying to the US. That helped, but I really needed more sources. Finally, I went to Goa and bought out almost all of the bookstores!

I do think that broader exposure would greatly help Goan writers because it would enable them to grow through an unbiased criticism of their work.


From all you read, which work impressed you the most? Why?

There were two books that I enjoyed the most.

The first was Skin by Margaret Mascarenhas. Maybe it’s my past Latin American studies that drew me to it. But I feel that it has universal appeal. A lot of people can relate to a character who is trying to discover who she really is.

Another book that I loved was Tivolem by Victor Rangel-Ribeiro. I loved his sense of humour and the different characters in the book. There were a lot of people in his book that everyone has known in their lives — such as the town thief, the snooty rich lady, the newly rich who flaunt their wealth, and the local priests.


Tell us more about your work on this topic.

This research was for a Masters of Arts in South Asian history at the Georgia State University. I started my degree in 1998, but did not start researching my thesis until 2001.

In 2001, I went to Portugal to study Portuguese, then I returned to the US and started my research. In 2002, I went to Goa and finished my research there. It took me until December of 2005 before I finished writing.

It took me a long time because of several factors, one is that I have health problems, the other is that I wanted to make sure that I was writing a true depiction of the subject matter.

As for the number of works that I read, there were probably at least a couple of hundred. I didn’t read just literature. I also read anthropology, sociology, history, travel and political science books about Goa. I read anything that I could get my hands on, with the exception of books in Konkani and Marathi.

I tried to read books in Portuguese and could figure out some of it, but not all. I also read newspapers, magazines and (cyberspace-based) message boards. Anything that would give me insight about the people and the culture.

Many people helped me with my project. The first person to help me was my thesis advisor Dr. James Heitzman. He has several books and many articles published about India. He also was my editor and didn’t hesitate to tell me when my work was not up to par. Dr. David McCreery, a specialist in Latin American history, also read and critiqued my thesis.

As for Goans who helped, my first contact was author Victor Rangel-Ribeiro. He advised on sources to read, gave me lots of suggestions and let me interview him as well as graciously setting it up for me to stay with his sister, the late Dr. Camila Ribeiro da Costa, and her husband Frank. Their knowledge and contacts were invaluable.

Author and professor Peter Nazareth at the University of Iowa also helped me a great deal by suggesting sources and answering questions.

In Goa, I also met with writer Margaret Mascarenhas and we discussed her work, in particular her book Skin. I also received assistance from Prajal Sakhardande at Dhempe College, who gave me a personal tour of Goa and answered all of my questions.

So many people helped me with this research. I couldn’t have done it without them.


So, did you enjoy it? Or was wading through all those pages tiring?

I love to read! Reading was the easiest and most enjoyable part of the research. What was tiring was the writing. I had serious writer’s block and really struggled to get it down on paper. Finally I checked myself into a hotel room and away from everyone, and I then got it written.


Tell us about your preferences in world literature, and reading?

I think it’s obvious that I love Latin American literature. Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are two of my favorites. But I also love mysteries.

Lately, I have been reading Tony Hillerman’s books about two Navajo — a Native American tribe here in Arizona — tribal police officers who solve murders. Now that I live in Arizona, I am trying to learn more about the Native American tribes here. I enjoy reading books that broaden my horizons.


Tell us about yourself.

I enjoy other fields too such as history, anthropology and sociology. Well, you know I love to read and I read all types of books, fiction and non-fiction. I also have an interest in textiles and fiber arts. I really enjoy learning about different people’s costumes and types of daily dress, both historical and modern day.

I went crazy in India with all of the gorgeous saris and salwar kameezes. I think I bought a dozen or so outfits to take home and I wear them proudly here in Arizona. As for my work, I have joined a writer’s association here and I am learning about the business end on how to get published. In the future I want to return to Goa and do research on women in Goan history.

After having done it, what do you see as the unfinished work — which others need to take up, related to Goan writing?

I really wish someone would write a complete history of Goa. That would be great! I felt like I had to read a dozen books to get all of that information.

As for literature, how about a good mystery? That would be intriguing and it could include a lot of Goan culture. And maybe someone could do a literary analysis that includes Konkani and Marathi works. I really wished I could have read Konkani or Marathi literature, or at least had them in translation.