Called a “fresh voice in Latin American literature” by the New York Times for her debut novel TheTree of Red Stars, Tessa Bridal is about to enter new territory with a second novel, River of Painted Birds. Slated for release in mid-October in both English and Spanish language versions, this new novel follows the adventures of an 18th century Irish woman who marries an abusive husband at fifteen and boards a ship westward-bound ship after accidentally killing him six years later. Rather than landing in Boston as expected, she ends up in the country known today as Uruguay where she joins forces with a wealthy half-Indian smuggler and a renegade priest determined to save the native people from slavery.
TZ: How much of this your new novel is grounded in historical events, and how much research did you do to write it?
TB: River of Painted Birds was largely inspired by my very real Irish great-grandmother, who boarded a ship from Cork bound for “America” only to discover when she was on the high seas that it was bound for South, not North America. At a time when many emigrants boarded whatever ship would have them, and unscrupulous captains looked only to profit, these errors were not uncommon. Jesuit priests met ships coming into Buenos Aires particularly to assist young women, since brothel keepers also frequented the docks with offers of accommodation and employment. My great-grandmother was fortunate enough to be found by a priest first, who found lodging for her in a convent until the nuns found her work.
The rest of the novel is entirely fictional insofar as her story is concerned, but firmly grounded. In historical events that I researched for decades. I also travelled to almost all of the places that are part of this story.
TZ: River of Painted Birds is in many ways a story of outsiders, particularly fugitives, outcasts, and immigrants. How much does your own history growing up in Uruguay and then living in London and various U.S. cities throughout your adult life draw you to these characters?
TB: Being the descendent of immigrants in Argentina and Uruguay was nothing special – in Uruguay, about 99% of us were in that category. What was difficult for me was that my Irish ancestors had married Englishmen, and they considered Uruguay a British colony, even though officially it was certainly not. They spoke of England as “home,” and during the First World War my mother’s father was one of the foremost leaders of organizations devoted to raising funds for the Allies.
By the time I came along, my mother’s efforts to teach her children English led only to frustration in my case. I wanted no part of England or the English language and much to her embarrassment when the time came to register me at the British School I had to be placed in the non-English speaking kindergarten. While I had no doubt as to my identity as an Uruguayan, doubts were cast on it on every side. My family was appalled when a British passport was offered to me based on one of my grandfathers having been born in London and on my own father’s service in both World Wars, and I refused it. It was inconceivable to the British community that I didn’t want to be British.
I didn’t really recognize personal and cultural identity as being an issue until I came to the United States. I am light skinned, with light brown hair and blue eyes. When I say I am from South America, people hear South Africa and often proceed to tell me of their experiences there. I am often asked if I am the child of missionaries. So questions of identity are very much a part of River of Painted Birds, where one of the principal characters even prays to a god whose native name is Tupá, or Who Are You?
TZ: Many of the novel’s concerns involve evading the strictures of the 18th century Catholic Church and Spanish colonial powers. Do you think readers will see any contemporary parallels?
TB: I feel that the significance of the setting, time frame and circumstances of River of Painted Birds are unique in terms of place and time period, but universal in terms of circumstances. River is a story of humans and power, that which is theirs to exercise and the power others have over them, even at vast distances. From Spain and the Vatican came dictates on how to rule, to engage in commerce, how to treat native peoples, and how to conduct oneself in relation to all of these. While circumstances have changed, outcomes have not. We are still ruled by powerful entities we are not part of shaping or controlling, and in place of colonial or religious powers we now have commercial ones. Just as the characters in River of Painted Birds do, we also choose the degree to which we want to become aware of injustice and whether and how we are willing to confront it.
TZ: What led you to decide to publish River of Painted Birds (Río de Los Pájaros Pintados) simultaneously in both English and Spanish?
TB: The decision to publish River in both languages simultaneously was inspired by my publishing consultant and fellow writer Patti Frazee. Once she voiced the idea it made perfect sense. The translation was done and only needed revising. I am fluent in both languages and so could speak to those interested in the book in either language. It also occurred to me that I had never heard of a simultaneous release before and that this would be my way of recognizing Latino readers.
TZ: How closely related are the two versions, and what challenges did you face creating two versions of the same work? Do you think that both versions have the same power, and did you have to make any trade-offs to create the two versions?
TB: The English and Spanish versions of the book are the same. Only forms of address and colloquial phrases may be different. Thanks to the two talented and dedicated professionals (Gustavo Camelot and Renee Millstein) who worked with me on translating the book into Spanish I have every hope that the book has equal power to the English version. Renee Millstein regularly consulted Spain’s Royal Academy (of the Spanish language).
I don’t consider it a trade-off, but one of the choices I had to make was to modernize some of the Spanish so that it would be accessible to today’s readers. Formal and informal forms of address were also simplified.
TZ: Over the years you’ve worked in a variety of artistic genres, including fiction, non-fiction, and theatre. What’s up next?
TB: I am at work on three books. One is finished. It’s called Disappeared! and is the result of interviews with the mothers and grandmothers of over 500 children who disappeared during the Cold War under the secret Operation Condor pact between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile, with the United States as a ‘silent’ partner. The other two books are novels in progress, one set in 17th century Peru and the other during World War II in France. Issues of identity, displacement, and social justice continue to motivate me.
Tessa Bridal, currently based in Minnesota, was born and raised in Uruguay. As a leader in museum education. she authored two books on the use of theatre in museums, Exploring Museum Theatre and Effective Exhibit Interpretation and Design. Her first novel The Tree of Red Stars won the Milkweed Prize for Fiction, the Friends of American Writers Fiction Prize, and was translated into several languages.