Katherine Vaz

The problem with books, and literature in general, is that the author can only try to do so much with their writing to evoke an emotion that the rest is left to the reader. However, at a reading, the author is able to take full control of the situation by really putting the plot into perspective. Such was the case at Katherine Vaz’s reading of Our Lady of the Artichokes. We were on campus all day and were told to arrive sharply at 6:30. We decided it would be best to arrive ten minutes early and went on our way. We turn into the hall, facing the auditorium and the room was packed. It became harder to pay attention from the benches outside the room, yet we managed to get a good vantage point.

The first portion of the reading wasn’t actually a reading, as much as an introduction to the topic and some background information on Katherine Vaz. She came on stage and briefly advertised her new book Below the Salt, which focuses on the impact of the Civil War on a young man’s life.

What I liked about this portion was that she described her methods and techniques, which is similar to a behind the scenes peek. She explained how ideas don’t just manifest themselves in her mind, but she actually has to dig for them. It is incredibly painstaking for her to even get started but just as difficult to keep the fluidity going. It made her seem less of a figure and more human.

She went into detail into what really inspires her. Her spark comes from actually feeling something, a feeling that should take you back and appreciate where you have traveled. It was a trend that seemed to appear frequently in her works such as Our Lady of Artichokes and her coming book, Below the Salt.

Credits to Baruch

Credits to Baruch

Unfortunately, I was only able to listen to her reading for a brief amount of time before I had to leave. The reading overlapped with a religious holiday for me. However, while ending this piece, I wanted to focus on the strength of her voice in helping the text have a stronger effect on the reader.


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Powerful Words

For our class, we read Our Lady of the Artichokes throughout the semester. After reading it, we quickly realized that her style of writing offers multiple perspectives behind historical events. She presents this in the form of the actuality of an event and compares it to the perception of the event by certain people. This is a method she frequently uses as in her new novel named Below the Salt, she is able to provide a rich background of information in her telling of the story.

Her visit was primarily a reading but I found it amazing how she was able to take out a passage and read from it in order to demonstrate her ability. Her voice was able to resonate in my ears as she went on to describe tragic moments with beautiful imagery and words. This really helped to paint a picture in my head as I soon found that the story was easy to follow and it was quite memorable. I think that technique is extremely valuable. Being able to paint a picture in the audience’s head is one of the first steps in creating a great story. Doing so without the audience knowing is incredibly difficult and requires expertise in writing which is something the 29th Harman writer has no problem with.


Image provided by disquietinternational.org

Image provided by disquietinternational.org

She gave some insight on how she is able to create stories. She explains that images come to her. It is like a song and how words come to the someone who is creating a song. For her, sometimes stories just come to her which definitely show off the creativity of the writer.

The day was an interesting day for me as I left with a story in my head but also I left with advice from the talented writer herself. We all have great ideas so coming up with an idea is simply step one. After that, you ask yourself “how can I make this thing blossom out?” It includes the branching out of what you want to say and the refinement of all you have to say. In the end, she gives off a vibe that encourages everyone to write.

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Two Realities

Everyone perceives reality differently, and Katherine Vaz is able to add a unique twist to it in her novels. After reading her book, Our Lady of the Artichokes, I realized that there are two sides to every historical event. One side is the actual event, while the other side is how people involved see the event. In Katherine Vaz’s new novel, Below the Salt, she narrates a story of how John perceives his surroundings. As a writer, she places herself in her characters’ shoes and does extensive research on the events that occurred during the time period.

Katherine Vaz, the 29th Harman Writer-In-Residence, discusses the journey of creating her novel-in-progress. During her reading, she uses strong, descriptive adjectives to portray a realistic setting throughout the passage. Furthermore, these words are strung together to invoke emotions in her audience. In one passage, she narrates, “Twilight is a paint spill…and here you are, here you are born” to describe the birth of John Olves in the jail cell. By creating this beautiful picture, she is able to turn a tragic event into a dreamy one. Her writing style is different from any that I’ve come across before.

In Our Lady of the Artichokes, she uses the same technique to incorporate the two sides of Catholicism. She also includes elements of the New World’s culture into this Old World religion. Through her stories, I am able to have a better understanding of how children from the New World perceived the traditions of Catholicism in Portugal.

Vaz juxtaposes two realities through her writing. By comparing the two, she is giving her audience two perspectives of the story. Also, as a reader, I find myself immersed in her novels because of the effective descriptions she continues to use to develop her story.

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Beautiful Words Create Beautiful Images

As the 29th Harman writer, Katherine Vaz, stepped on to the stage, she was greeted with polite applause. She began with an introduction of herself, what brought her to Baruch on that rainy evening, and a short description of her works. It could be clearly seen that she was very comfortable in this type of a situation, and was rather enjoying herself. The audience, now full of food, was ready to hear this reading.

This was the first reading I have attended, and I felt intrigued by the anticipation in the room, as it seemed that everyone else knew what was to be expected.

It looked as if a spotlight had been placed on Ms, Vaz, with her yellow dress illuminating her surroundings. She spoke clearly yet casually about her newest work, Below the Salt to be released in January. This is her fifth work in her collection of publications, which also includes Our Lady of the Artichokes, a collection of short stories.

Her most recent work has some striking similarities with the ones that preceded it. For example, there is religious aspect that is prevalent in many of her short stories in Our Lady of the Artichokes as well. Below the Salt, in which she read excerpts from important sections, tells the story of a mother and a child during the time of the Civil War, banished from their homeland due to the fact that they did not wish to convert to Presbyterianism.  The main character is the child, John Olves, and the story tracks his progression through life’s stages.

Ms. Vaz used her powerful voice to provide the audience with images of what was happening in the story.  As I looked around, I saw many people with eyes closed and brows furrowed, trying to picture the beautiful words she spoke. Describing the mother and John’s time in captivity, she read the phrase “He ate nothing but the music of birds” before explaining that his mom taught him how to sing. She also went on to speak about the religious significance. The guards in the prison were using John to “break her”. The mother’s response to this behavior was “I’ll go hungry but feed my baby”. This speaks to the religious backdrop of the story and the moral lessons that most religions provide, such as respecting other human beings and taking care of children.

Katherine Vaz was able to seamlessly transition between reading her story and anecdotes from the time she wrote the novel. As she read about John going to fight in the Civil War, there was a very powerful line which caught my attention. “’We are all condemned to this world,’ John said.” She continued on to describe some of the horrors at which point she started to explain how she acquired the knowledge to some for the details she used, such as the starving at Vicksburg. She studied letters of soldiers from the Library of Congress. After sharing a quirky story about Lincoln and a librarian, she continued to read her story as if she had never stopped. This allowed the reading to be smooth, and easy to follow.

Overall, I was not only impressed by Katherine Vaz’s ability to read to an audience, but also with her writing technique. Her description of a love scene involving spoke to me greatly. The setting was described as “The sun flattens on to the river. Red meets blue”. The sun and water converging is not only symbolic of the two lovers meeting, but is, simply put, beautiful. As she said herself, she believed that she should not “hang a tassel off every sentence”  but let the words speak to the reader.  Both her words and personality were a joy to be around, and I look forward to the release of Below the Salt.

Credit: Christopher Cerf

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“The Story Just Came To Me”

I wish stories just came to me. I, normally, have do some serious thinking before I can write long essays or even shorter ones. Coming up with a good idea can sometimes take me ages…

This is not always the case with the author Katherine Vaz. She described the story of her new book at the Fall 2012 Harman In-Residence. Her book is titled Below the Salt, and it follows a young man whose life surrounds the Civil War. If you want anymore of the plot, then read the book. All that I am going to say is: you won’t be disappointed, its great. 

The book didn’t start out that way though.

“I wrote for about a year, stuff that was so terrible that I threw it in a box.” We all have those moments, don’t we? I know that I may be writing an essay and decided to scrap everything that I’ve done because it sucks. But hey, it happens. Move on. Keep writing. Which is exactly what Katherine Vaz did and if she didn’t, then we wouldn’t be able to read her great work. And her work is great.

Vaz’s writing is very immersive. When she sets a scene, the setting comes to life.

“I am a big believer of going to the place and feeling it on your skin … And that’s important.” First, she goes to the setting of the book and experiences the setting. She feels it on her skin. But then—and here’s where the magic happens—she writes about it, and the reader can feel it on his/her skin. Many writers strive for that skill and few succeed, Katherine Vaz being one of them.

She is an extraordinary writer and an interesting speaker; Vaz has forever influenced my writing.

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Imagery– the Most Powerful Yet Invisible Technique

I first heard of Katherine Vaz from my IDC class. We had to read a book named Our Lady of the Artichokes, a collection of short stories for homework. As always, I resisted the reading. When I was reading, however, I was captured by her wild and rich images, and was quickly overwhelmed by every single word of the book. So of course, it was exciting to hear that she was going to be the 29th Harman Writer in Baruch College.


As a class, we went to her Sidney Writer-in-Residence Reading in October 23rd. After warm welcome, Katherine Vaz began her reading. She was reading a part from the third book she wrote, named Below the Salt. She said that she had never read it in public, so that was her “debut”. As she began reading, her writing style appeared right from the first word that came out her mouth.  It was clear that this book and Our Lady of the Artichokes shared many things, from themes to techniques. The one thing that caught my eyes, however, was the same thing that inspired me the most during my reading—her use of imagery.

The whole time, the powerful images she created through those spoken words jumped right into my head. Before I noticed, my brain was full of different scenarios from the story. The scenes connected and composed a movie within me, as if it was right before my eyes as the reading went on. The experience was amazing. I always thought imagery was the basic component of a story, so I had never paid enough attention to them. And I had to say—it wasn’t an experience that you could realize it right away. Maybe it was because of the author’s voice, or maybe for some other reasons, Vaz’s voice pulled me into her story. As soon as the reading began, I was dissolve into my own imagination triggered by her low and magnetic voice.

She later had a Q&A section. She said that the stories were created based on her own events, and that she was a big believer for “going to the place and feel the place on your skin”. Hum… “Feel the place on your skin”… This might be the reason for her success in creating such dominant details. After all, if I have to make a comment on her fiction, I would have to agree with one of her reviewers—that they “glow with a fairytale magic—yet uniquely”.

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Eating Songs, a Story of Brilliant Magical Realism

I was honored to have Katherine Vaz, the 29th Harman Fellow at Baruch College, as the guest reader for a very special reading of her soon to be published new novel, Below the Salt, on the evening of October 23rd. It was a peaceful evening of joy and reunion. Miss Vaz seemed to be enjoying herself as she conversed with her friends and perhaps new acquaintances before the reading. Clad in an elegant yellow dress, she gave off an aura of grace and friendliness.

Katherine Vaz – Credits to Baruch College

After a light snack, the room seemed to be filled with anticipation for Miss Vaz’s reading of Below the Salt, a book that she had been working on for the past eight years. Her previous works followed a similar theme of mother, love, sadness, and share Portuguese ancestry; and so it was no surprise that this book, Below the Salt, and the one we read, Our Lady of the Artichokes and Other Portuguese-American Stories, also shared those themes. Below the Salt is set during the Civil War period, a time of tumult and breaking bonds between families in the North and South. The breaking of bonds, shared sadness and music are but some of the magic ingredients that help shaped the tragic yet loving story of John Olives, the protagonist. Although the pace of the reading was slow, it gradually gained momentum. The story’s tension and beauty vacillates as Miss Vaz builds the context through her firm voice, increasing speed during tension and slowing down as climax approaches.

Miss Vaz’s use of metaphors of music and songs add a spectacular effect to her story. Particularly in the beginning, John and his mother are starving in prison as they are not given food. Having nothing but air for her son to eat, John’s mother offers her son a kind yet cruel reality, “We’ll eat some songs, John …, eat the chattering of little birds.” More to John’s cruel fate, he was ultimately separated from his mother after being both rescued by Americans from prison. And when John finally found a lover, Mary, Civil War broke out and he had to leave to war. The battle scenes were incredibly detailed and the realities of war, all too vivid. Due to starvation, he ate a man and a horse. He couldn’t escape reality by eating songs like he did with his mother. And when he returned after the war, Mary was already engaged to another man.

John’s tragedy seemed to be boundless and too real; yet at times, it feels like a fantasy. That is the magic of Miss Vaz’s novel. She is able to tie closely through vivid descriptions and soothing metaphors to create a sense of magical realism. Of course, as she explained after the reading in the questions and answers section, she did not come up with those metaphors and descriptions on a whim. She did a lot of research that focuses on what might apply to the characters and their personality/history, sitting in libraries and living in the towns that John was in. She, however, was hesitant to write this novel. She playfully explained, “I don’t want to do that much research.” But before she knew it, she was reading and writing a lot about her topic; after a year, she finally found the determination to write the novel. To future aspiring writers, she told us that her motto was, “No one knows where to start, simply put anything down.” To start, it’s about finding “the heart of the material and character.”

In the questions and answers session about Our Lady of the Artichokes, it was clear that stories greatly impacted Miss Vaz’s life and writing style; she grew up hearing stories about saints, religious rituals and death. Some of the stories included a particular practice of Latin Catholicism where people were allowed to be angry at status if something bad happened and should thank the statues by decorating them if it helped them. Hence, she integrated those stories into her book. It made perfect sense then that the book, Our Lady of the Artichokes, was composed of several stories about.

Cover of Katherine Vaz’s book, Our Lady of the Artichokes.

This was the first time I attended a public reading of a book. Frankly, I used to think all public readings were boring because it made me think of lectures. Katherine Vaz’s reading, however, spirit away that thought. The detail and meticulous effort dedicated to her works is admirable; her enthusiasm and pace of reading made the story of Below the Salt extremely enjoyable.

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Below The Salt was Above The Standard

I have never been to a public reading before. I didn’t know what to expect. But Katherine Vaz, 29th Harman Writer-In-Residence, did a stellar job!

Vaz read excerpts of her work in progress, Below The Salt. The story revolves around John Olves before, during, and after the Civil War.

In the prologue, the audience learns that John as a three year old was in prison with his mother in a different country. The prison guards were holding the son as “collateral” and they tried to starve them. But the mom appealed to the guards by telling them “I’ll go hungry, but feed my son.” In addition, the parent and the son sang with the birds. As Vaz describes, “They eat with songs.”

In my opinion, the most powerful scene had to be when John was in the Civil War. After the Union victory at Shiloh, the battlefield is described as gruesome with the “sameness of death.”

During the question-and-answer session, Vaz revealed that she did extensive research at the Library of Congress (LOC) on the Civil War. This transitioned to one of her anecdotes about LOC when she asked if she could look at specific documents on John Olves. The librarian was relived because she looking at research and “not checking if they are somehow related to Abraham Lincoln.”

As stated before, the main character was a real person. Vaz took the historical evidence, but spinned it to create the story. In addition, it was interesting to know that she “needed to feel the setting.” She spent six months living in Jacksonville, Mississippi. It just shows me how difficult it is to write a book. It took Vaz eight years to compose this masterpiece.

Her voice was clear and powerful. When I closed my eyes and heard her, I could picture myself standing there with John as he is surveying the dead bodies or as he is drinking his first hot chocolate. It was magical and surreal to visualize all this.

I do have one regret though. It is that I should have given her a question. It was my first book reading so I didn’t know what kind of question was appropriate to ask. I am hoping that next time, I will be braver to go up to the microphone!

Katherine Vaz

Katherine Vaz


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A Beautifully Abstract Writer

Katherine Vaz, the 29th Harman writer-in-residence was thrilled to be at Baruch to give readings from her new work, Below the Salt. After eight years of work, this would be her 5th book, based on a true story about the Civil War. Similar to Our Lady of the Artichokes (which she also discussed during the questioning portion of her visit), her new work has some abstract ideas and family ties, and it sounds like a very interesting read.

Photo Credit to Christopher Cerf

The prologue to her story begins with John, and his mother who is sentenced to death. To avoid hunger in jail, they sing and eat their music, surviving off their voices, and the music around them. They feed off the chattering of the birds, and the songs of other villagers who sing for John and his mother. The prologue shows strong family ties and love as John’s mother protects him and cares for him while in prison, refusing cake so that John may have it. She says, “I’ll go hungry but feed my baby.” At the end of their struggle, John’s mother is spared and fined, rather than executed.

The story progresses and John goes off to fight in the Civil War. Vaz did extensive research on the war to find stories that she could incorporate in her book. The details she finds are chilling, such as killing off horses and burying them, but they provide a very clear image of the horrors that happened during this time. She uses many similes, metaphors and personification that add to the power of her writing. She even used her own personal experiences, which provide great details, such as using a wheelchair orchestra to close the love scene in her book. It was easy to follow her writing because her voice and reading were so well done. Her pace, volume and phrasing allowed any listener to visualize the stories of the Civil War she was portraying.

After the reading, she was very receptive to questions. She discussed her process, and writing, but mainly focused on her research. Traveling to places like the Library of Congress, she spent a lot of time searching for and reading first hand documents. Taking stories from these transcripts and using them in her writing for accurate history gave it a very authentic feel. “I’m a big believer in going to the place, feeling it on your skin,” Vaz said. All of her efforts and searching for that feeling paid off in her writing, as the reader gets a very realistic depiction of the feeling of the Civil War.

When asked about Our Lady of the Artichokes and where some of the odd religious rituals came from, she replied that her family had influenced those stories. She grew up hearing the stories of the saints and those superstitions so she was able to write about them in detail. And to aspiring writers, she says, “no one knows where to start.” But she emphasizes finding the heart of the material and going from there. I think using personal stories and history to enhance writing like she did is a successful way to get writing flowing. Her enthusiasm and detailed/abstract writing made for a very entertaining presentation.

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Katherine Vaz: A Dreamer who created Reality

On the evening of October 23rd, Katherine Vaz came to speak on behalf of her experience as the 29th Harmen writer and her upcoming publication of her 5th literary work.  Her book, entitled Below the Salt, is a novel that is placed in the mid 19th century.  The main character, John Olives, is imprisoned with his mother, who was arrested for heresy.  Her novel explores the interdependence of a mother and her son as they journey to America, and eventually wind up in the state of Illinois.

In her piece, Vaz expresses her fascination with New York through the thoughts of the mother.  To quote John’s mother, “In the beginning, there was New York.”  The mother marvels at the various skyscrapers and wonders what it was like to be a part of the construction of New York City.  Throughout the rest of the novel, they travel to Illinois, where they encounter a group of life changing missionaries.  However, Vaz’s work would not be complete without the thematic twists of love and war scattered throughout.

When the mother and son become closer with the missionaries, they run into the Catholic sacrament that is the Eucharist.  The mother does not believe that the “communion bread” is truly the body of Christ, himself.  Here outpours the internal conflict of reality and religion, with which many people of society struggle.  As a young child, Vaz grew up a devout Catholic, but was deeply scarred later on in her life.  “People get tired of the magic and want the real,” Vaz commented after her reading.  She enjoys delving into the ideas of reality and dreams, which she frequently transitions back and forth from in her writing.

At the conclusion of her reading, the floor was opened up for a question and answer.  One of the initial questions asked by a member of the audience was how Katherine comes up with the thought provoking ideas for her writing.  To answer that question, she compared the way ideas come to her to the way that songs come to the everyday person.  Then, an aspiring writer from the audience claimed she had an idea on a future writing piece.  She was having difficulty finding a starting point, so she asked the Harmen writer for some advice.  “Less is better than more when starting to write,” Katherine gently told the student.  It allows the writer to key in on one focal point, rather experience an array of confusion with countless ideas.

Since her first publication as a writer, Vaz’s career has taken off.  She has given talks to the Library of Congress, and she even spent six months in Jacksonville to conduct research.  “Research is mostly about how it might apply to my characters, not what they do, but who they are,” she noted.  When carrying out studies, Katherine Vaz looks for signals that will give her a better understanding of both her characters and herself.

Photo Credit: Baruch.cuny.edu

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In the Spotlight

A series of close-up, 360° views of guest artists and speakers. The goal here is to weave together direct quotes and background information about their lives and work to create  vibrant portraits. Let us see them, hear them, understand what makes them tick!

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