By John Weeks
Special to The Star
“I didn’t realize until later that chef life was part of my training as a writer.”
So reflects Brendan Basham, author of “Swim Home to the Vanished,” a novel released Aug. 22 by the top-drawer publisher HarperCollins. Basham was previously the chef of Rincón’s La Copa Llena at a time when his culinary touch elevated the beachside restaurant to consideration by many to be among the island’s finest.
“Cooking became my art,” Basham recalls in a post for Literary Hub on the similarities between chef life and writerly life. “I was absorbing a sensory vocabulary, inventing new language. I saw flavors before I tasted them. I could smell how three items on a plate bloomed in front of a customer before I even poached the pears or braised the pork belly or reduced the balsamic. The texture of crispy duck begged for the dark red sweet of roasted cherry tomato.”
Richly tropical sensory experience
This richness of language and the distinctly tropical sensory experience flavor Basham’s novel. One reviewer opined this way: “The prose is lush and evocative, and there’s an almost erotic charge to Basham’s writing about food.”
Puerto Ricans will certainly relate to the specificity in Basham’s acknowledgment of what he sometimes did when his work as a chef stressed him: “Chefs rarely mean anything personal when they scream at you through the server window; we’ll always drink Medalla and whiskey after the shift.”
It’s not just the cooking and drinking choices that infuse “Swim Home to the Vanished” with Basham’s Rincón experience.
Most surf lovers know moments when they feel part fish. Basham’s magical realistic prose invites us into such transformation, only at a more elemental level. One reviewer alluded to “Swim Home” as “an epigenetic exploration of how trauma and grief shape who we are.” Amidst the propelling desire of the main character, Damien, to reunite with his brother, who has died of an apparent suicide by drowning, Damien discovers he is growing gills.
An internal-external journey through loss
The compulsion of Damien’s search is core in the author’s own life. Basham lost his beloved younger brother, his closest friend, in like circumstances.
Damien’s obsession with the death launches a tangled internal-external journey of discovery and potential redemption. An eccentric, aged and oddly wizened goat herder who Damien encounters by a strangely bucolic lake suggests to Damien that he might find healing in a certain seaside village. There, a demonic matriarch presides over the town and three daughters who are wrestling with death in their own family system.
Amidst the intimacy of the sea in and around this quartet that also shows signs of cross species transformation, part-fish Damien finds both surrogate home and employment in the family’s seafood cantina.
The tale swirls. A hurricane that Basham “describes in terrifying detail” -- as one reviewer put it -- plays a dominant role. (Basham’s multi-sensory portrayal of that power and chaos merits a warning for those with post-Maria stress syndrome.)
From chef to touring novelist
Basham was writing poems and short stories while in Rincón. Some were published in small journals and collections. He yearned to take the plunge into full-time writing.
I met him one evening during this period when he was making rounds among the tables at La Copa Llena. We reported supreme happiness with the fare and were intrigued to discover both that he’d gone to college in our off-island neck of the woods, the Pacific Northwest, and was a poet. We developed a friendship that included sharing poems, and Medalla, until late at night on more than one occasion.
I learned in the process that he was Diné, from an indigenous people of the American Southwest who came to be called “Navajo” by the Spanish. Basham remarked in an interview for the book that he had an instinctive connection with the quietly present and pervasive colonial blanket that can darken Puerto Rico’s chances. The constitutional traumas Basham’s own people faced inform Damien’s passage.
Since 2015, when Basham finally wrenched himself free of the kitchen and plunged into writing, his life has been a series of whirlwinds.
The first preparatory swirl included a master of fine arts (MFA) degree, fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust, Tin House, and Writing by Writers, followed by academic positions, grant awards and residencies. Poetry Northwest selected him to the inaugural James Welch Prize for Indigenous Writers.
Then came the shock of success: the Harper contract – essentially a sudden jump from Class A baseball to the Major Leagues. With that, a need to finish the book and fulfill his promise. The publication some three and a half months ago and the tour since stirred a next whirlwind in which he is caught up to this day.
It’s been a heady time for the ex-chef. “Swim Home to the Vanished” was chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle in a summer roundup of top new titles. The influential Brooklyn Rail and Electric Literature each invited significant interviews. The renowned Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon named Basham’s book a top pick. He has read from the book and lectured in scores of venues across the United States. Former United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo joined him onstage for a public dialogue.
I read everything I could find online on the book’s reception. A synopsis I found particularly useful for potential readers is this: “For fans of poetic story-telling, Basham’s narrative will prove a challenging yet cathartic read.”
For me, it was so. I managed the challenges from the novel’s magical realistic world by taking deep breaths, a practice that benefits one upon entering any cross-cultural space. Familiar habits and assumptions can subside. The new can enter.
In “Swim Home,” images and entire scenes emit brilliantly from grief’s pressurized, subterranean seas.
I was lost and happily found and lost and found again multiple times amidst the novel’s layered realities, dense language, and twists and turns. Was Basham trying to do too much in this tour de force of a first novel? Despite the book’s grand finale, I was reminded of how playwright Sam Shepherd builds a tale then distinctly refuses to lead his audience to a tidy ending.
I found finishing “Swim Home to the Vanished” – what an evocative title! -- less a termination than an invitation to imagine the world Basham might next birth after this first ambitious creation upon release from his Rincón kitchen.