COLUMBIA FICTION FOUNDRY MEMBER CATARINA ABREU INTERVIEWS JULIETA ALMEIDA RODRIGUES
September 25, 2020
CA: Congratulations, Julieta, on publishing Eleonora and Joseph: Passion, Tragedy, and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment. I was present at most of the Columbia Fiction Foundry sessions when you workshopped your book. As any Columbian knows, the Fiction Foundry is a Shared Interest Group of the Columbia Alumni Association. Can you tell us what made you join, and describe your experience?
JR: Catarina, this is a great opportunity to express my thanks to the members of the CFF who read and commented on my work. You, included. You can imagine how wonderful, how reassuring, it was to have another Portuguese woman part of our group! Your novel-in-progress, which takes place during the Salazar regime, is full of significant details about that dark period of Portuguese history.
I joined the CFF after I attended one session to see what members were discussing. I found everyone to be committed, serious about the craft of writing, and working towards publication. This is all I needed to know. I highly recommend joining, for both seasoned and younger writers. As you know, writing is a lonely enterprise, and it is a privilege to have an audience ready to read your work. At the CFF, participants give oral as well as written comments about the submissions. So, you can always return to those comments at a later time and find new insights.
I presented a lot of my chapters in those sessions; as I walked home afterward, I always knew how to rewrite the pages we had discussed.
The keyword here is inspiration, and I always felt it at the CFF. I remember that at first I attended only the Saturday sessions, but soon I was attending the Wednesday sessions as well. The two groups, equally talented, usually had different participants.
CA: Eleonora and Joseph is a work of historical fiction about three main characters at the end of the eighteenth/beginning of the nineteenth century. One is Eleonora, the main protagonist, who lives in Naples and comes from an aristocratic Portuguese family. The other two characters are Joseph Correia da Serra, a Portuguese priest/botanist turned diplomat, and Thomas Jefferson, with whom he shares a close friendship. I would like to ask you a few questions about your novel in relation to contemporary events. Eleonora is a woman who lives in a monarchy⎯the Kingdom of Naples⎯and shares many of the ideals of the American Founding Fathers, including that of equality. In 1799, clearly ahead of her time, she is hanged for being a revolutionary. Since then, women have made huge strides. They continue to make them today, with the "Me, too" movement being one example. Was Eleanora a feminist, a precursor to the progress we see around us?
JR: This question deserves a nuanced answer. Feminism is a modern concept and Eleonora lived in the late eighteenth century. In the newspaper Il Monitore Napoletano, of which Eleonora was editor-in-chief, she fought to implement the ideals of the French Revolution in Naples, a cause dear to her heart. Besides, she was particularly concerned with the living conditions of the poor and destitute. She wanted the lower classes to be literate, to know how to read and write.
Despite what others might say, I don't see Eleonora as a feminist, that is, someone who is advancing the cause of women alone. Aristocratic women and men in the eighteenth century engaged in different spheres of influence, and this was accepted by all. What Eleonora showed us was that women could perform equally well the work that men did. This is the legacy of Il Monitore Napoletano. Here, she engaged in a realm of life almost exclusively reserved for men.
On the other hand, feminism starts and ends with the way that we, women, position ourselves in the world. And it is clear that Eleonora sees men and women as equals. However, she suffers domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. It is remarkable to read the court case, where she succeeds in separating from him, something unusual at the time. Women were supposed to bear in silence mistreatment from their husbands. But, with the help of her father, she asks the Neapolitan court to return to the family home. The court grants her permission, rather than sending her to a convent (the equivalent of prison, at the time), as her husband insisted.
I have a scene in the novel in which a group of Neapolitan Republicans visit the French Admiral Latoche-Tréville's fleet anchored in the Bay of Naples. It is 1792, years before the Republic of Naples is declared. Eleonora says she goes on board because she wants to know firsthand what's happening in revolutionary France. She decides to bear witness to her sex. She could have gone disguised as a man, but she chooses not to.
So what appears most relevant about Eleonora's life is her capacity to position herself as an equal to men. She crosses paths forbidden to women. This is remarkable in the eighteenth century.
CA: Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement has come to the forefront with the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, shining a spotlight on the impact of systemic racism in the United States. Thomas Jefferson, one of your protagonists, was a planter in Virginia, and his slaves worked for his benefit and that of his family. How do you see him, and how did your views influence the way you handled his character?
JR: Jefferson, whom I've always loved for being a visionary, is a controversial figure, and this is the way I portray him in the story. Here is a privileged white man who writes about us all being born equal. But all, here, refers to men, not women, and to white men, not black men.
Jefferson had an unparalleled interior world, something he eagerly cultivated. But his is an interior world full of ambiguities, which explains, in part, his close friendship with Joseph Correia da Serra during his retirement. I believe Jefferson eventually stopped speaking about the emancipation of slaves for his own convenience and benefit. Plantation work in Virginia, despite being a doomed financial enterprise, required the use of cheap labor. Moreover, Jefferson never conceived of an America where whites and blacks coexisted. He supported the idea expressed by the Society for the Abolition of Slavery that blacks should go back to Africa. He preferred to see the two races separated, not integrated. The America of Thomas Jefferson is not an interracial society.
And yet Jefferson, as a widower, fathered several children with Sally Hemings, a mulatto slave and his former wife's half sister (they shared the same white father, and Sally's mother was also a slave). At the time, it was a crime in Virginia for a white man to sleep with a black woman. But he does it with impunity, within a relationship that lasts decades.
I have in the novel a dialogue between Thomas Jefferson and Correia da Serra about Sally Hemings, the tone and content of which, I must admit, I like a lot. Correia da Serra⎯who had heard the gossip in Philadelphia⎯tries to unveil Jefferson's secret, but of course to no avail.
Jefferson measures his words carefully during all his life, but his deeds speak volumes. That shortly after his death, the family had to sell his slaves in a public auction in order to pay off his debts, is evidence of his shortcomings.
CA: It is interesting how the lower classes of Naples⎯the so-called lazzaroni⎯wanted the monarchy back when the republicans seized power and formed a government. The Republic wanted a society where everyone⎯everyone⎯was granted the same fundamental rights. Yet, the lazzaroni didn't share such ideals. What explains this in your view? Did they prefer the past to a new, brighter, future?
JR: The Neapolitan Republic of 1799 lasted for only five months and was, perhaps, the first republic of philosophes ever created. This term is used in the eighteenth century to describe a network of philosophers, intellectuals, and scholars⎯in this case, the elite of the Kingdom of Naples.
The lazzaroni wanted the king back simply because they didn't know any better! They didn't want change, they didn't understand how it could improve their lives. Ferdinando, the king of Naples, was a popular figure. For instance, he enjoyed going to the fish market along the wharf to talk to the vendors. Once in a while he even disguised himself as one. The people loved this, they felt the monarchy close to them. This explains why, upon Ferdinando's return from exile in Palermo, in Sicily, the popular acclaim was extraordinary. Aboard Nelson's warship The Foudroyant, the king was moved to tears at the sight of hundreds on shore welcoming him back, waving white handkerchiefs. The people believed in the divine right of kings. This was a prevalent belief during the ancien régime, before the French Revolution. Illiterate, ignorant, and uneducated, the common folk were also superstitious. As such, preserving the status quo was better than facing an unknown, and uncertain, future. There wasn't enough time or manpower to educate the lower classes about how the Republic, and citizenship, could bring well-being and progress. It takes time to implement durable change, and five months wasn't enough.
So, there was a large chasm, a deep divide, separating the elite from the masses. The elite supported the French Army entering Naples, thus making the Neapolitan Republic possible. The lazzaroni saw the French as an occupying force, which had usurped the power from the king.
Vincenzo Cuoco⎯someone who played a minor role in the Neapolitan revolution and lived in exile after the Republic was defeated⎯wrote a book about the period. He describes the Neapolitan revolution as a passive revolution, where intellectuals were in charge, opened the gates of the city to the French, but didn't connect emotionally to those that they wanted, purportedly, to liberate.
History teaches us many lessons. Does this seem even remotely similar to you to the division we currently see in the United States? It does to me.
CA: Thank you for your time in providing your thoughtful answers. I would like to end this interview by asking about your publishing process. For authors, and particularly aspiring ones, the journey to publication can seem daunting. Can you give details⎯and perhaps some advice⎯to the authors who may be reading this?
JR: I hope my experience with publishing helps other CFF writers. As I finished Eleonora and Joseph, I contacted about twelve literary agents to see if they could represent my novel. There are writers who send their books to one hundred, two hundred agents. It seems the rejection process doesn't bother them! Well, it did bother me. And it bothered me not because I thought my book was in any way inferior to the books published by major publishing houses, but because I saw this search for representation as a huge waste of my time. I didn't have the necessary connections for an agent to seriously look at my book. Also, English is my second language, and I needed an agent able to go beyond language and see the great story that would require some editing.
I am a writer, I want to write! So it is beyond description how I hated the process of searching for an agent.
After several rejections (or no replies), I decided to approach New Academia Publishing (NAP), which had earlier published my two collections of short stories. NAP is a prestigious small publishing house, founded in 2003, with an average of fifteen titles per year and a current backlist of more than two hundred titles. The editorial board is headed by Anna Lawton previously a professor at Georgetown University, where the two of us first met⎯I also was teaching there. Anna is originally Italian and immediately understood my story. I felt elated. NAP is a print-on-demand press and peer reviewed. An author pays a small printing subsidy, which happens with many university presses as well as with hybrid publishing houses. Authors, of course, collect royalties.
With NAP, I am in charge of promoting my book, but major publishing companies are currently depending more and more on their authors for this work.
Additionally there is the self-publishing market, a very good way, it seems, to take charge of your writing career. If you are a techie, nothing seems easier than using Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). But this approach requires the author to follow the platform's protocols, and not all writers have the time or willingness to learn them. Nevertheless, I love how the digital world has given authors the possibility to be independent from the corporate world. It was about time!