Prolific Vaz introduces Americans to 'Mariana'

November 30, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

The latest book by Katherine Vaz, associate professor of English at UC Davis, has been picked up by publishers in England, Italy, Greece, Germany, Spain, Argentina and Portugal - everywhere, it seems but in the United States, the one place she especially wanted readers to know about "Mariana."

Mariana Alcoforado was a 17th century Portuguese nun.

When she was still a young girl, her father, a Portuguese nobleman, put her in a convent where she lived out the rest of her long life. Wealthy landowners didn't want too many sons-in-law fighting over inheritances, so convents could turn into handy dumping grounds for extra daughters. This doesn't mean Mariana's father didn't love her. In fact, she had close relationships with everyone in her family including a much younger sister who was placed in the same convent at age 3.

And, being placed in a convent didn't prevent Mariana from having a torrid love affair with a French cavalry officer. At the time, the French and Portuguese were allies against Spain. Mariana's passion, however, was largely wasted on Capt. Noel Bouton. He returned to France without her and allowed five fiery love letters she wrote him to be published. These letters were published in France during her lifetime and smuggled into Portugal. The original letters were never found.

Vaz has no doubt that Mariana was a real historical figure and no doubt that she wrote the love letters.

"A lot of French people say she did not write the letters and was a fiction," said Vaz. But in Portugal, Mariana is cultural heroine of the highest order.

At first, Vaz thought she would simply translate the letters into English. But when she visited Mariana's convent and learned more about the woman's life and family and times, she knew she had to write a novel.

"As a novelist, when you get handed something like that, you just say thank you very much," she said.

No one knows what this mysterious woman looked like, but the idea of a woman like Mariana captured the imaginations of Matisse, Braques and Modigliani, all of whom painted representations of her.

"I became quite enamored of her," admitted Vaz. But the last 60 years of the nun's life were not documented. In writing the novel, Vaz said she needed to make educated guesses and respectful inferences in order to fill in the blank spots.

For instance, how did her love letters find their way into the hands of a 17th century publisher?

Vaz guesses that Bouton himself passed them around the chic salons of the day, probably in order to show himself in the best possible romantic light. Apparently, he cut a dashing figure on a horse and could speak eloquently about the battlefield, but as time went on he became a bit of a bore.

So when someone offered to publish the love letters, he didn't object.

A few copies of the British edition of "Mariana" are available at the UC Davis Bookstore and at The Next Chapter in downtown Davis. Vaz hopes an American or Canadian publisher will pick up "Mariana" but she's not dwelling on it.

She is working on two new projects and is still enjoying the success of her first novel, "Saudade" (St. Martin's Press, 1994), and her first book of short stories, "Fado & Other Stories" (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), which won the '97 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. These three works, two novels and a collection of short stories, mark an impressive beginning to her academic and literary career.

"Some of these things, like the stories, were things I'd been working on over a period of time so they weren't complete when I came here but I came with a lot of material," she said in a recent interview. "Certainly all my research was long done for 'Mariana' and I was in the process of figuring out how to tell her story. They seem to be hitting (publication) all at once, which is nice because it makes it look like I've been just churning them out."

Vaz' fiction features Portugal in one way or another. Either the characters are Portuguese or Portuguese-American or the action is set in Portugal. Her father is Portuguese and her mother is a Portuguese-Irish mix. Vaz says she grew up in the Bay Area (her parents still live in the house she grew up in) imbued with Portuguese traditions and culture, so when she started writing it only seemed right that she should turn to these subjects.

She and her husband moved to Davis in 1995 after she earned an advanced degree at UC Irvine. Now she divides her time between teaching and writing. Her two current works in progress also feature - guess what - Portugal. She laughs. It's a subject she isn't ready to say goodbye to yet.

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