It was spring 2006, and I’d just completed my MFA in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. My partner was working on her MLIS, so we knew we’d be staying put for a while. In the interim, I was looking for a good local job that allowed me to do what I love most: teach and write.
My advisor encouraged me to apply for an adjunct position in Women’s Studies at Carlow University, where I would teach Introduction to Feminist Studies to undergraduates, a course I never took or even imagined until I entered graduate school. When Dr. Katie Hogan hired me for the job at Carlow, she said, “You have free reign over your syllabus, but there’s one book I recommend that has helped our students connect with feminism more directly, more personally, than any other. It’s called Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism.”
For two weeks, during the hottest part of the mid-Atlantic summer, I sat every day in the air-conditioned coffee shop near my apartment and read this anthology, edited by Bushra Rehman and Daisy Hernández. My margins were soon crowded with notes, questions, asterisks, ideas for in-class exercises. I questioned how I ever completed a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies without reading this book, its urgent, thoughtful, inspiring women’s voices—some of whom didn’t even embrace the word “feminism,” many of whom regarded it with the same suspicion and apprehension as my future students would. This was “socially lived theorizing” at its finest, I marveled, thinking of the term coined by Catharine MacKinnon in 1991 to describe writing that used personal narrative and reflection to examine the real-life implications of feminist concepts—concepts like privilege, intersectionality, and horizontal hostility.
From that moment forward, along with Bushra Rehman, Daisy Hernández was on my radar as the feminist superhero I most wanted to emulate in my teaching and writing life. She remains a writer of vision and purpose who listens as well as she speaks and who has created, in a culture that still prefers its women complacent and quiet, a space for young women’s most authentic and powerful voices to be heard.
I’m always interested in origins, so let’s go back in time to the early days of Daisy Hernández. Do you recall the first time that language made you feel powerful?
Ha! How about the first time that language made me feel totally powerless? That’s the start of my memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed. I grew up speaking Spanish at home, but I went to school in the early ’80s in New Jersey when the educational policy was full immersion in English. I learned very quickly that some languages have more power than others. The white lady’s English at Holy Family School? Power. My mother’s Spanish? Not so much. That said, the power difference woke me up. I remember sitting in class, watching my teachers and being like, I want what they have. They didn’t just have verbs in English. They had good jobs and fancy hairdos and shopped at Macy’s. They didn’t have to worry about sitting out too long in the sun. So early on, I learned that language is intimately wound up with experiences of race, class, and ethnicity.
But ok, you asked about the first time language made me powerful. I was about ten, maybe a little older, and a teacher read my essay aloud to the class. I had written about aliens on other planets and how they had to exist and how it would be human-centric of us to think our species was the center of the universe. She read the piece aloud and all the other kids started nodding their heads. They agreed with me! I couldn’t believe it. We were in a Catholic school, so I was like: Wow, this must be how God feels all the time—influencing people!
And then I won $25. That’s right. I wrote a pro-life essay for a writing competition hosted by the diocese of Newark, New Jersey, and I tied for second place and won $25. Talk about power! My mother was probably making $5 an hour sewing at the factory at that time. I’d just made a billion times that amount—and with language. That was powerful.
I’ve been reading your memoir, and right there in the introduction, this passage hovered above the page: “Journalism: A fancy word to say that I spent days with my hands in other people’s stories, asking and telling, because nothing happens in isolation, especially when it has to do with language. Nothing is more vulnerable than the words in our mouths, because nothing has more power.” As a journalist, a memoirist, a teacher, and a feminist, what words have been most essential in the lexicon of your life? And a related question: what fellow writers’ words do you reach for, or have you reached for, as touchstones along the way?
I once interviewed a teenager in a suburb of New York who was an amazing sculptor. He was also undocumented. He’d won a local arts contest by shaping a bowl in the form of two hands cupped together. The hands were old and wrinkled and proud. He was only around sixteen, but he’d created these old man’s hands. It was amazing. And he told me how at the ceremony, he was called up onto the stage to receive his award from the town mayor, and walking up to the stage, he felt like he mattered. “I was somebody,” he said to me.
This kid had no papers, no money—nada. He slept some nights in bus stations in town. His dad argued with him all the time because he wanted him to quit school and work construction and make real money. The kid wanted to make his art. So, his words—I was somebody, I mattered—have always stayed with me. How making art gave him that. Art can be many things for many people, obviously, but for many of us, art is how we connect with our dignity when the world is telling us that we don’t belong here because we were born in another country or because our parents were born in another country, or because we’re queer or broke or our family’s just been split up by the courts and addiction. By the way, his art teacher ended up taking him into her home, giving him the spare room and trying to figure out to get him into an arts college.
Thank you for noticing that line from the memoir. It’s one of my favorites. It’s also one of those lines that came to me whole and felt absolutely right, like I’d been trying to say that for years. In terms of touchstone writers, I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent weeks, because I’m heading to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill soon to be a visiting writer for the next year, and I’ll be teaching intro to creative nonfiction, so I’ve been poring over my books, and one of the unexpected joys has been reconnecting with the feminist writers who changed my life fifteen or seventeen years ago. A few favorite lines:
“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” —Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
“What kind of lover have you made me, mother…” —Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years
“Being a writer feels very much like being a Chicana, or being queer—a lot of squirming, coming up against all sorts of walls. Or its opposite: nothing defined or definite…” —Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands
We’ve been inspired by some of the same writers! Lorde, Moraga, Anzaldua. Also Sandra Cisneros, whose words provide the epigraph to your collection: “What does a woman inherit/that tells her how/ to go?” How would you answer this question, or how do the essays in your book help you to answer it? What have you discovered through the process of writing A Cup of Water Under My Bed that has allowed you to go where you need to go as a woman, a Latina, a queer person in this world?
Initially, I had memories, moments really, that I wanted to interrogate on paper and make sense of. What did my mother’s stories about migration teach me about her? About life as a woman? About Colombian women and current immigration debates? How could I explain both loving my father and being terrified of him? These were some of my questions and impulses, all of which are about inheritance. But in the process of writing, I found another question, too. How do I leave my family and take them with me? I didn’t know I had that question and it was only through writing that I found it and came to understand that it wasn’t a private pregunta. I lecture at colleges every year and talk with young people about feminism and race and media representations, and I soon realized, Oh, this is the coming of age question, isn’t it? How do I leave home—the people who made me—and take them with me? It’s not possible to go home again (and many of us don’t want to go home again!) but denying the people and places that shaped us is like denying that we have brown hair or cracked nails. It is who we are. When I talk with college students—especially the ones who are keenly aware at young ages that they don’t fit in in their communities, maybe because of race or class or sexual orientation or immigration—they’re asking: Where do I go from here? How do I move forward in a way that affirms the complicated community, or family, I come from and the person I am trying to become?
For me, the answer did come in writing this book. Writing about my father, I came upon this line—is it this way for you in your writing process? Do you feel like you’re writing one moment and the next you’re stumbling across these lines, as if they existed and were just waiting for you to find them? Pues, I came up on this line: Writing is how I leave my father and how I take him with me. It’s the entry point to love, this writing. It’s how I learn to love where I come from and it’s also how I take those people and places with me. This was my biggest discovery in writing A Cup of Water Under My Bed. I had always felt that I had to choose between where I came from and where I wanted to go. I see this in students too. We’ve been so steeped in the idea of assimilation, of passing, of becoming “all that we can be,” as if the past could be washed out. But it doesn’t have to be that way and ultimately it never is that way. Faulkner, right? The past isn’t even past.
Yes! It is that way for me as well, which is probably why I underlined and starred the passage in your memoir where you realize that writing is a way to have it both ways: to leave what is behind you and also carry it with you at the same time. There’s a feminist thinker at the University of Chicago, Linda Zerilli, and she writes, “Because it can be neither forgotten nor changed, the past must be redeemed.” I have treasured that line for years, and eventually it became a section epigraph in my first collection of poems.
I’m wondering if this impulse to redeem the past—to welcome the past into the present rather than having it follow you there unacknowledged—has informed your style of writing as well as your themes. Even in your response above, there is a seamless weaving of Spanish words into English sentences, a pattern that persists throughout your book. As a reader, it feels entirely natural that you should say “a private pregunta” rather than a “private question.” We feel no impulse to translate “pregunta” into “question.” Instead, we experience the meaning of the word in context and as an essential part of your multilingual identity.
How conscious have you been about the mingling of Spanish and English in your essays? Do you feel as though you deliberately switch codes in certain instances, or is the experience of reaching for the right word—the writer’s eternal challenge—one in which you draw from both Spanish and English somewhat reflexively? I’m also wondering whether you have you encountered objections from editors or publishers—or conversely, affirmations—in the process of bringing your multivalent and linguistically layered writing into the world?
It’s a wonderful question. What language does a writer turn to? When and why? I’m trying to imagine how it must feel to reach for only English words, but of course, that’s a fallacy, right? There is academic English and the English of our intimate relationships and the English we use at Home Depot when we’re trying to choose between paint chips labeled Cloud White and Eggshell.
At the moment, I work with English and Spanish in three ways. In early drafts, it is all gut. I reach for the word that feels right, whatever language it’s in. In later drafts, I am making conscious choices based on how the sounds work together and on what kind of impact the shift from one language to the other makes on the sentence or the scene or the overall tone of the writing. I never formally studied Spanish, aside from a few heritage speaker classes, so the language has largely been an oral one for me and that makes this part of the writing really important to me. I might not be able to tell you the linguistic reasons why a shift to Spanish doesn’t work in a particular line, but I absolutely trust my ears. Related to this, sometimes I notice that I repeated a word three times in a section, and I wonder if it would help to use the word in Spanish. I’m sad to report that this solution hardly ever works out for me, but I find it fun to try.
The third way I write with the two languages is when I play with definitions and etymology and how cultures dictate those. For example, in English we talk about street children, or neglected children, but in Spanish, in Bogotá, we call them gamines. We don’t need the adjective “street,” because of that city’s history with children. I love engaging with the two languages in this way. Sound becomes very important here.
All that said, one copyeditor pointed out to me that the first part of A Cup of Water Under My Bed has the most Spanish because it’s focused so tightly on my relationship with the culture and with my family of origin. She joked that Part 2, which is about sex, had hardly any Spanish by comparison to Part 1! So, clearly there’s more at work below the conscious three reasons I wrote here!
I have not had any objections from editors about my bilingual writing. I’ve had copyeditors who have wanted to insert some explanations to the Spanish or add more context, and I take that very seriously. I don’t want a lost reader. That said, I trust my readers to download thewww.wordreference.com app and to use it, like I do.
The big issue for me has been the italics question. I have friends who see italicizing the Spanish as the vestiges of colonization, and I have other friends who believe they speak in italics. It’s a politically charged conversation, or at least it seems that way to me—and I think it’s wonderful! It’s a sign for me that public discourse (not just literature!) is changing, expanding, being reinvented. Junot Díaz’s work here has led the way, of course, but it’s also the impact of social media on literature since bilingual speakers don’t tweet in italics.
I decided to keep the italics in my memoir for two reasons. First, that’s how I wrote it. When I tried to remove the italics, the writing looked almost strange to me. The page, I mean. A part of me was like, Where are the italics? I like the feeling of looking at the page and being able to easily spot all the Spanish words. Second, I found that when I was reading aloud, the italics signaled me to switch. They were visual signals and I really appreciated them. I think this works for my writing too because I’m not switching between Spanish and English in every sentence, like I think only used Spanish once in this whole response. I’ve written fiction where characters are moving back and forth frequently and I stopped using italics then. It didn’t make sense to italicize that often.
I’m so glad that you mention writing fiction because I wanted to ask you about another kind of hybridity in your work—the movement between and across genres. Recently, you completed an MFA in Fiction at the University of Miami. I’m curious to know about your fiction thesis project and how “cross-training” as a fiction writer has strengthened your work in creative nonfiction, and vice versa. What did writing your memoir teach you as a short story writer and novelist, and what have you learned as a fiction writer that fuels your work as an essayist?
My thesis project in fiction was born from reporting I did about immigrant women whose lives were deeply affected by detentions and deportations and also by losing their children to the foster care system. Those stories stayed with me over the years, and writing about them in fiction gave me the chance to write them in an intimate way. It’s strange but I feel that fiction is more intimate than nonfiction, even more intimate than memoir. Why is that? Fiction feels to me like bone marrow. Okay, I’m being a little dramatica here. Back to your question.
Fiction taught me to slow down in nonfiction, to develop a sense of place. Remember that I came to memoir from traditional journalism. So my approach was quick—get to the story and do it quickly. Only what’s necessary gets to stay. But writing fiction taught me to slow down, to savor the scene. It also taught me to focus more on the sensory experience. I already had a draft of my memoir done when I started the MFA program at the University of Miami, so all this helped me in revising the manuscript and writing the last chapter. Conversely, I naturally tend toward vignettes in memoir and fractured, nonlinear narratives, and I learned that this works for me in fiction, too.
Fiction has affected me deeply as an essayist. I have a new essay about a tropical disease and I was able to personify parasites and the body’s nerve cells, and I don’t think that would have been possible before writing fiction. I also gave myself permission to imagine what my maternal auntie felt and thought in those days when she was first diagnosed with the illness—all with notice to the reader of course—and that’s a direct result of writing fiction.
Not only do you tend toward vignettes, but in one of my favorite essays from your memoir called “Queer Narratives,” you actually describe yourself as a vignette! In this same essay, in your complex portrait of a young transwoman named Gwen, you explain, “She felt like a girl, not a boy. She was not a sestina. She was a prose poem.” Could you share a bit about your relationship with poetry, how it informs your writing as well as your worldview? Charles Baudelaire wrote, “Always be a poet, even in prose,” and from my perspective, you are indeed a poet-in-prose. Are you also a poet-in-poem?
You’re my favorite new person! Seriously, you’re very generous. No, I don’t identify as a poet, not prose, in pink boxers or any place else. I have a complicated relationship with poetry. I always saw it as work other people did, a relationship with language that other people developed sometime soon after birth. In Spanish, I associated poetry with José Martí, which is lovely but also left me thinking that experts wrote poetry. My lit classes in high school and college were (or seemed to me!) about analyzing the poems of dead white men. I couldn’t relate. So, I am one of those people for whom spoken word was created. The first time I heard Staceyann Chin’s poetry on stage, I couldn’t tell if I was in love with the work, the music, the story, or her. Flooded. I felt totally flooded by emotions I couldn’t name. Then, I met Bushra Rehman. We co-edited Colonize This! together, and I remember liking her right away because I understood her poetry. That sounds so silly now but it’s true. It wasn’t spoken word. It was like she had crawled into the whole English dictionary and brought back an armful of songs, canciones.
Despite that, I kept my distance from poetry. I thought of poets as another type of person. Fiction writers, essayists, reporters even—we lived in one country; poets did the heavy lifting across the border in their own land. I visited every once in awhile. But about three years ago, the novelist Cristina Garcia recommended reading poetry at the start of every writing session. That’s what I do now, and I love the way this practice immediately brings me to sound and image and prepares me to write. And books like Valerie Martínez’s Each and Her, Jennifer Clement’s Widow Baquiat, and Oliver de la Paz’s Names Above Houses have taught me a lot about how to braid vignettes in my work. In fact, I’m teaching the first two at UNC this year in an introduction to creative nonfiction class.
One of the assignments I give my own creative writing students is to uncover poetry in unexpected places. They surprise me with their close readings of newspapers and menus, billboards and bathroom graffiti, and I think as a consequence of this assignment I’m always on high alert for poems. Often in the margins of your book I jotted “found poem!” Here’s one: “My mother, now in her late sixties, begins an old dance, one from Colombia, from when she wasjoven and beautiful, she says. Her left hand lifts the edge of a long imaginary skirt. Her right hand reaches into the air as if to call forth a lover or the stars. Her feet tip to the left and to the right and her body follows.” And another: “It is an empty room, that afterwards, a soledad, and it sits there at the center of a person’s life and waits to be filled.” That feeling you describe of being flooded by emotion in the presence of a poem is something that happens for me time and again as I read your memoir.
And then I come to a line like this one, which strikes me more as a thought: “As much as I hate to admit it, books have limitations.” It’s true. They can’t tell us everything we need to know or answer all our questions or repair all that is wrong with our lives or our world. More and more we’re told that books as we know them are declining, disappearing, and that literature doesn’t matter the same way anymore. Despite the naysayer within (we all have one) and the naysayers at large, why was writing this book important for you to do, even essential? And what about the next one? What comes after A Cup of Water Under My Bed?
At first, I wrote to make sense of experiences, like why my father prayed to a candy dish and why I stole money as a teenager and why the brutal death of the transgender teen Gwen Araujo haunted me. Writing provided me with a starting point for unraveling feelings and facts and perceptions and cultural commentaries. And then, while writing, I realized I was also reaching for love y cariño, for a way to love the broken places of my life and my community’s. And by the time I finished the book, I knew I’d done it for my younger self, that 16-year-old girl in New Jersey who didn’t have a book like this.
Part of what helped to make this book essential for me, too, was meeting young women and men who read Colonize This! and told me it changed their lives. They changed degrees, created new job positions at their colleges, better understood their relationships with their mothers. They read that book and reported that it changed their lives, and that gave me tremendous encouragement.
I’ll know what the next book is when it’s done, but I am writing about the kissing bug disease, or as they call it in Latin America: the kiss of death. The official name is Chagas disease and it’s incurable, leading usually to heart failure. It’s a tricky time to write about disease and immigrants with the virulent backlash right now, but it’s also necessary. There are amazing doctors and patients advocates here in the U.S. who are challenging the stigma associated with the disease and the image of it as a disease of pobreza, or poverty. I also have a personal relationship with the kissing bug disease because my auntie had it, and in many ways, I grew up in the shadow of this illness. So, it’s an extension of writing from those intersections of personal and collective experiences. This past summer, I reported about the rise of patients with Chagas disease in Northern Virginia for the Atlantic, and I also interviewed a German scientist so I could craft a lyric essay about the disease that I hope will be in print very soon.
–reprinted with permission from the author
–from The Rumpus December 26th, 2014
- Interview with Debra Dean - January 30, 2017
- Interview with John Dufresne - January 16, 2017
- Interview with Daisy Hernandez - January 5, 2017
- Interview with Susanne Paola Antonetta - December 29, 2016
- Interview with Paul Griner - December 22, 2016
- Interview with Les Standiford - December 8, 2016
- Author Inteview Series: Julie Marie Wade - September 30, 2015