More than a travel writer


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Phillip Graham never planned on traveling across the world.

“I’m not very good at planning, and I think if I’ve ever tried to plan something, it has fallen apart,” he said and chuckled. “So you just sort of adapt to what life gives you.”

The 58-year-old has hitchhiked in Japan, canoed on the Yukon River in Canada, and lived in Africa, where he once contracted malaria. Most recently, the University of Illinois creative-writing professor spent a year living in Lisbon, Portugal, writing a series of travel dispatches for the literary magazine McSweeney’s.

This material eventually made its way into Graham’s latest book, The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon, from which he will read at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St. The author has written several other books, including a travel memoir about his time spent living in Africa called Parallel Worlds.

UI Nonfiction Writing Program Director Robin Hemley uses Graham’s writings in his current travel essay class.

“I’ve admired his work from way back,” Hemley said. “He combines memoir and travelogue really well. He writes very sensitively, but also with a sense of humor, about Portugal.”

Graham said that Lisbon was one of his and wife Alma’s favorite cities. He described Lisbon as being filled with white-washed Mediterranean-style buildings with salmon tile floors, wide open spaces and parks, and a “sparkling crystal clear blue sky.”

In the collection of stories, he often comes back to the Portuguese term saudade — “a complicated feeling that combines sorrow, longing, and regret, laced perhaps with a little mournful pleasure” — to describe the mindset of the country and its people.

“The term is actually in everything,” Graham said. “It’s in their literature; it’s in their poetry. It’s in every kind of music that the Portuguese make, and they make wonderful music, called fado.”

Despite all of this scenic detail, the main portion of The Moon, Come to Earth focuses on Graham’s observations of daughter Hannah trying to adjust to life in Portugal and his wife’s anthropological research.

The books title story discusses an experience the family had while going to a Lisbon arts festival.

“It was [Hannah’s] second week of being at a Portuguese school,” Graham said. “It was a very difficult experience for her, and when she saw the Moon, she just really bonded with it… In many ways she saw herself as that Moon. Something that was out of context, isolated, and stared at. She felt the same way around crowds and in her Portuguese school.”

The author said it wasn’t until this experience that he realized his dispatches could be made into a full-length book, focusing more on the observations around him rather than just the scenic beauty of Lisbon.

“Being a parent is actually far more adventurous than canoeing on the Yukon River or being a crew member on a schooner,” Graham said. “That was action. Drama, drama is family. The greatest adventure for me has been the personal adventure of my family, and I think that is kind of put in perspective through my writing.”

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