Daisy Hernández is the author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir and coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. She has written for The Atlantic, ColorLines, The New York Times, and NPR's All Things Considered and CodeSwitch, and her essays have been published in the Bellingham Review, Dogwood, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, and Hunger Mountain. She teaches creative writing at Miami University in Ohio.
“Our Shared Language,” an Interview with Daisy Hernández
This interview was conducted in person at the Nonfiction Now conference in Flagstaff, Arizona by Interview Editor Leah Newsom. Of the process she said, “Daisy’s memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed is engaging and intelligent. I am so fortunate to have had to opportunity to talk to her about it, as it is a very necessary piece of writing.” In this interview, Daisy talks about the role of memory in nonfiction, the role of sharing stories via social media, and the potential concern of writing about other people.
Superstition Review: In the essay “Before Love, Memory,” you talk about the concept of flawed memory. You write, “There are, however, missteps in memory, places where emotion has distorted people, sights, even cuerpos.” You talk about your kindergarten teacher and how you remember her in comparison a photograph of her. I was wondering if you could describe ways that you sculpt memory and use that to your advantage.
Daisy Hernandez: Sculpt is a beautiful verb in this context. I think every memoirist has that moment when they realize that their memory is flawed in a very visceral way. That is a great example from the memoir where I realized I was so attached to the memory. I was so attached to the way I thought of my kindergarten teacher, how she looked, her physical embodiment. That’s where research comes in; it’s place where you can start to match up what you remember and what actually is there. It was this incredible moment, kind of a jolt. I would say, “Oh, I was really wrong.”
Sculpting memories was the device I used in that essay where I took a step back. So basically, for those who haven’t read it, I wrote a scene of that first day in kindergarten and, I think in the original version, I just moved on with the narrative, and then when I went back and had found the photo, I needed to take a step back. Essays and memoir allow you to do that, to take a step back and speak directly to the reader and to acknowledge that I’m making some choices here as a writer. I could have gone back and could have made her androgynous person a part of the narrative but that wasn’t how I remembered it. It wasn’t how I went forward in my life thinking about her. I did not think about her as this androgynous white woman in kindergarten. I don’t think I was, at that age, reading gender in that way. It was important to take that step back to talk to the reader and acknowledge that I’m making deliberate choices as I go forward in this book. It is also early on in the book that the reader goes forward and with that in the back of their mind. They are aware that this writer is making choices about which memories to bring forward and how they are presented.
SR: Do you think that makes readers more invested?
DH: I do hope that it establishes trust with the reader, definitely. I have not written several memoirs, so I don’t know if, for another memoir, I would do it totally different. I felt like it was important for me to establish that trust with the reader, the acknowledgement that I’ve done some research on these memories. At the beginning of any book, the author and the reader are establishing a sort of shared language for that book. Another memoir writer, were they to write that scene, may have chosen to skip that memory flaw, or not make a big deal out of it. The author Cristina Garcia says, “The beginning of every book is a promise of some kind to your reader,” and I think it’s a shared language also.That we’re going to start shaping a language together for the course of this book. For me, it was important to know that it’s going to be nonlinear, I’m going to admit to mistakes in my memory, I’m going to acknowledge that I’m shaping it, and this is a big part of our shared language for the time that we will share together during this book.
SR: In one of my favorite essays, “The Candy Dish” you write, “This is our home: Jesus and his chest cut open in the living room, a candy dish in the basement, a man with open sores on the kitchen table, and that rooster, always that tin rooster with gray eyes, way above our heads in the kitchen, a constant companion.” How did growing up in a home with Catholicism and Santaría shape you as an adult? Do you feel like it had an impact?
DH: Girl, I wish I knew. I think it absolutely had an impact in the sense that I am completely fascinated by the spiritual life and, not only the practices that I have, but those of others. I find it fascinating how people develop faith, people who continue practicing the faith that they grew up with, those that go in totally different directions. It is a point of endless fascination. Actually, the only other real thought that I’ve had for another memoir in the future has been about the spiritual journey. Because I grew up with two religions, I went on to explore Buddhism, and I checked out other things along the way. I also hung out with some Quakers for a little bit. I don’t think I understand how it’s shaped me necessarily because I haven’t written a memoir about it. I touched on it in this memoir, but I feel like I didn’t completely unpack it. It’s definitely a pretty big part of my life.
SR: I’ll have to ask you again after your next memoir.
DH: Yes, I’ll write another one and we can do this again.
SR: There was an interview that you did with the Huffington Post where they asked you about your family’s reaction to your book. You mentioned that because it’s in English, they haven’t read it, other than a few chapters that you translated. While you were writing the memoir, were there were any concerns of how your family would react to it? What does it feel like to have a language between your work and your family?
DH: Because of that, I had no concerns while I was writing the memoir. My family completely functions and lives in Spanish, and I would say Spanglish, but not in English. While I was working on it, I never had that concern about how they would react, and part of it is because I grew up divided. It was Spanish at home and English was the public language, so the two hardly ever met. When they did, it was with me, the child translator. When you grow up in that environment, it never occurs to you that the two shall ever meet, that there will be any kind of intersection. While I was writing, it’s so silly to say, it never occurred to me that my mother is going to read this at some point, or that I’ll translate it for her. It came so much later in the process, and that was the best thing, because for many writers that I meet, that can stop them. This was a memoir that I very much needed to write. It’s not dedicated to my family, it’s dedicated to the daughters. I wrote this for my younger self, the 16-year-old that didn’t have the language that I have now, and the capacity for understanding a lot of these situations that I have now. I wrote it for everyone else who has been in similar situations, and everyone who has been a daughter. It’s so much about being a daughter of immigrants.
I never thought about my family interacting with the work. It’s been very strange because the book did come out, and I’ve told them “People are very curious about your reactions.” They say, “Well, we’re very proud of you, you’ve done good work.” To them, it’s not only the combination of the language, but it’s a combination of the class experience. My parents are both working class immigrants, and they have a very deep respect for the work people do. Even if they don’t understand it, they understand that you wake up every day and you do this work. They see it as a very separate thing. Actually, I think my mother said at one point, “Why would we be upset? It’s not about us.”
The equivalent of Saturday Night Live in the Latino and Latina community is called Sábado Gigante, and also a variety TV show. I tell people, unless the book and I were on Sábado Gigante, it just wouldn’t register, so we’ll see. If the book comes out in Spanish, I might be back here, talking with you again, saying, “Wow, all hell broke loose and no one is speaking to me!”
SR: It seems like almost every panel that I’ve sat in so far this weekend has been about writing about other people ethically. The reaction is what everyone seems to be afraid of.
DH: I will share a beautiful lesson, not from my own life, but from Terry Tempest Williams, a beautiful writer of memoir and nonfiction who often writes about her family. She came to visit our class, and one of the things she shared with us was the way she handles that conversationally with family members who have strong reactions. She says to them, “What are you afraid of?” She did that with a family member who was very resistant at first. She kept saying, “This is fear. What are you afraid will happen?” He was able to be honest with her about how he was afraid of it affecting his standing at his place of work basically, how his coworkers and employees were going to see him as less of a man. She didn’t say this, but I was sitting there thinking, “Wow, this creates another layer of intimacy in your connection with this family and person.” She also, like a lot other writers, shares openly that some of her family members pulled away. That’s a reality of the work that we do.
I always tell people, write it first. Writing is not publishing. They’re two different things. Separate the two experiences. If you get to the point where you can share it with family members before it’s published, you can get their reactions and make that a part of the work.
I actually talked to someone else when my book was getting close to coming out because I was worried it might have a negative consequence. I spoke to this writer whose parent said, “If you publish this, I’ll never speak to you again,” and she didn’t care. That’s where they were in their relationship. I think sometimes we assume that we also have these loving, devoted relationships with family members, but then sometimes you find out you don’t, and you’re willing to sever ties for however long because this feels very urgent and important to you.
SR: In the introductory essay to the memoir, you write, “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.” In an era where few people read the newspaper, where many people feel they can’t trust media outlets, where Facebook feeds are the source of most current events, what is the best way to get other people’s stories into the public? Where does journalism fit into our world now?
DH: I think that there’s ways to use social media to your advantage. Let’s say you’re reading an essay that you’ve just fallen in love with. In my case, I know there’s many people in my online community who will not read it. They will not click. That’s the place where I feel like I get to share in a tweet or a Facebook message in one very tiny little phrase regarding why it was so important to me or what I took away from it. Sometimes it can’t be done. I posted something yesterday that was just said, “This one is a must read.” But it had a headline. Part of what’s also happening in the world, and this is more on the media side than more of the literary side, is that editors are coming up with headlines that will sum it up so people will grab onto it when they don’t want to read the whole story. For example, “The Four Reasons Blah Blah Blah.” I used it to my advantage when I wanted to compare Scandal to telenovelas: “Four Reasons Why Scandal is a Telenovela.” Hopefully that will bring you in.
With literary work, I don’t personally think we’re facing anything different than in the past. I think there is this romantic idea that there was a time in history where the masses were sitting around reading the literary essay. I don’t think it’s ever been that way. There has always been an intimate community of readers for different genres, so I don’t think social media has necessarily disrupted that. In fact, one of the things it’s done is, for those of us who are in that community or want to engage with it, easier now than ever. You can hop on Twitter and start following a writer, an editor, or a literary journal, and see what they’re pushing, what they’re putting out. It’s a lot easier to find people now than ever before.
SR: There’s a talk on your website that had to do with what you called “the rise of the memoir,” and I was interested in the part where you say, “it reflects the need of our country to hear real stories and speak directly to one another.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about why memoir is a more effective means of social change or why our country needs to hear these stories now.
DH: I could be wrong, but I think I talked about social justice movements in the 60’s and 70’s and the way that personal narratives were really critical to those social justice movements in a lot of ways. This gives rise later on to blogs and other social media spaces where people can speak to one another. In a lot of ways, because of social media, many of us have the illusion that we have a lot of contact with people when, in fact, we don’t. I think social media can be a tool for connecting with people or to finding new people, but it’s not the same as someone directly speaking their experience to you. It’s not the same thing as picking up a memoir and seeing how someone makes sense of a time in their lives. Memoir has a certain kind of intimacy that social media doesn’t have, and I think it creates a much deeper craving for it as well.
Media organizations are in such an incredible time of transition. They have been for a while now actually. We’ve been talking about this transition for nearly 15 years now, but it’s just going to continue. It’s not like we’ve reached a plateau and newspapers and other media outlets continue to change. There’s definitely more personal essays now than ever before in these news outlets. There was a failure, before, in terms of the kind of connection and intimacy that you can have with a person that they’re also inviting now in a great degree.
SR: I feel like I’ve been reading personal essays in major news outlets more than I ever have.
DH: It seems to me like such a contradiction because a lot of the push now in media is to have those headlines that grab you, like “Four Reasons Whatever” or “Five Reasons Blah Blah Blah,” but then at the same time we’re having more and more personal narrative as well, as though the two are trying to balance in some strange way.
SR: It makes sense that basically everybody wants clicks, so you have to have a headline to get a click. At the same time, I feel like we live in a world where nobody just wants to read some factual statement, they want something maybe a little more editorial or interesting.
DH: Or crafted in some way to have meaning.
SR: One of the most suspenseful parts of this memoir, for me, was the scene with Howell Raines talking about the plagiarism scandal. In reflection, you write, “I’m thinking again about a white man confessing to his own people that he cared about the black community, that he thought he could single-handedly change a hierarchy. I’m thinking about the whiteness of the news organization and how that whiteness reproduced itself with every hire, every promotion, but that is not a scandal.” Could you talk more about the racial hierarchies in large, American institutions like The New York Times?
DH: What can I say about racial hierarchy in America? It exists. It’s so incredibly painful, I think, this week in particular with what’s happened in South Carolina regarding the police officer’s brutal treatment with a young girl. It’s so heartbreaking and so indicative of that racial hierarchy. The way we’ve set up the education system in this country is set up on racial hierarchies, but we don’t talk about that. It seems much harder for us to have conversation about making decisions about our resources and where we devote them. Education alone is not about throwing money into a classroom or at a school and just saying, “Here’s a bunch of money now.” Actually in this case, South Carolina, the student’s in foster care. We don’t talk about their family life or all these other things. I was talking to an educator recently who was telling me about a school where they’re bringing doctors and nurses to the school so they can do exams for the kids, so they can provide healthcare because so many of the parents are working two jobs. Between that and getting their kids to school, when do they have time to take their kid to an appointment? They don’t have time to take off. This school in Ohio that’s trying to look more holistically at every child’s life, and not just, “What did you learn in math?” All that is a part of racial hierarchies that we never talk about and never unpack.
SR: What do you think the best way to unpack it would be, if we were to have some kind of utopian way of fixing our problems?
DH: I don’t believe in utopias and ideals. I feel like we should try to move closer to treating communities more holistically, so I thought that was a fabulous example. I’m doing a lot of work right now on this parasitic disease that primarily affects the Latina community. It’s primarily found in Latin America. One of the things that comes up a lot in medicine is the question of if you are just treating the disease or if you are treating the whole community. It’s a disease associated with poverty. So, how do you treat just for the parasite but you don’t deal with the fact that they’re living in very poor housing conditions? Or you don’t deal with the fact that there’s been more encroachment into these rural areas, and so it disturbs the ecosystem that’s already existing. We don’t look at the whole picture of the community. It’s interesting, I’m in the process of meeting doctors who think more holistically about communities and about individuals, and that’s a step in the right direction. However, we’ve been there before, even within medicine, at the same time, we had a move towards social medicine that ended up getting curtailed as we went into the germ theory. Anyway, it’s fascinating to go into the history of some things and realize that we’ve been trying to move towards these utopias, whether it’s about race or other issues. It’s three steps forward, five back, twenty forward, fifty back, but you don’t sit down. You keep moving forward.
SR: How did you go about writing and revising the non-chronological structure of your memoir?
DH: It was extremely organic. I’m a very associative writer, a very intuitive writer, so it’s easy for me to make these leaps, and I don’t struggle a lot. I feel like that’s an important thing, because there are writers that are really linear who want to do something a little bit more nonlinear and they really struggle. If it’s not intuitive to you why even do it? I understand because I’ve tried to do more linear storytelling and then I always fall flat. It doesn’t work because it’s not intuitive to me. I didn’t wake up one day and say, “This book shall be nonlinear.” It wasn’t a crafted decision.
This is the way my mind naturally works and so I started with the middle section. I had fallen in love with a woman and I didn’t know how to make sense of that. I did not grow up thinking that I was queer in any way. I identify as bisexual, and so to me, it was like this huge moment in my life and I turned to writing as a way to make sense of it. I had grown up in a working class, immigrant family that only spoke Spanish, so my association of loving women only happened in Spanish. It was never something that was going to happen in English. There were all these things about language as well, and so I started writing about love and sex. That’s sort of where the memoir started. The second section that’s all about sexuality, part of that is actually where it began, and then I just kept writing. I got a job writing for Ms. Magazine, so I had a reason to come up with other ideas and then I just kept going.
That’s my process too as a writer in general. You start here and then it keeps sprouting and growing in different ways. It was never challenging to organize it, because it was always going to be in three parts. When I did a little inventory of what I had, that was how it fell. The first part was going to be much more about family and spirituality and our complicated religious community, the second part was always going to be about sexuality, and the third was going to be about work. It didn’t always have that order necessarily. I thought I was writing a collection of essays, but once I realized it was a memoir, I had to think about the structure. So, I realized the work part needs to be at the end because it’s a coming of age story, so we need to go in that direction.
SR: I’m curious how teaching creative writing now has changed your writing, coming from a background of journalism.
DH: I do have a background in journalism and then I did my MFA in fiction. Now, I am teaching nonfiction and fiction. I think it’s made me much more attentive to imagery and to details, because that’s something that I’m always asking my students to do. They’re usually much more abstract or usually trying to cast a very wide net, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, and they’re always trying to go big. Somebody was saying today at one of the panels about worrying the idea which I just thought was a beautiful phrase. Worry the detail, really go around it. That’s been showing up a lot more in my writing process.
I also think that earlier in my writing, I was much more exploratory about what I was writing. I was much more open to sitting down and writing whatever. I would have a question about something and it would just be the start, but I’m always encouraging my students to have clarity about what they’re doing at the outset. Are you writing a short story? How long is it? That’s going to dictate some things. If you are doing an essay, are we doing a lyric essay or a little memoir essay? How long are we talking about? I’m asking them to be aware of perimeters, so I’m noticing now that I’m more aware of perimeters. I think there’s good and bad to that. I think there’s some days when it’s fabulous because then I have this piece done, it’s beautiful, it gets to go out into the world and connect with people, and then there’s other times where I miss the more exploratory side. I think I’m in this place where I’m trying to balance the two kinds of approaches.
SR: My last question for you is a traditional question that we ask everyone. What does your writing space look like?
DH: Everyone must get excited about answering this question! I have an IKEA desk, because it’s adjustable and I’m short so I have to have it adjusted to a certain height. I’m very picky about the height and about where the keyboard is, but it’s this sweet spot between where my keyboard is going to be and also my journal. I want to write in my journal at the same time at the same desk, so that’s a very important part of it. I have a lot of toys, little Hello Kitty toys and anime toys. There’s a set of porcelain owls that I inherited from an auntie. I think there’s a little elephant in there. I just love my toys. They’re my little army of creativity, I don’t know why. I think it’s just everytime I look at them, it reminds me to be playful. It reminds me, “Don’t take yourself so seriously.”
For the first time in my life I have a second room that functions as an office, it’s very strange. I’m only used to having a desk, so I’m realizing I’m only talking about my desk, but my writing space has other things in it, like posters and books and so forth. I’m realizing I still think of it as my desk.
I really like windows, especially right now, because in Ohio I’m watching the season change. I was staring out the window, and I thought, “Oh, look at the yellow and that shade of yellow, it’s just really gorgeous!” Then I remembered, “Oh, that means it’s going to be dead soon.” I love the outside world being some kind of part of my writing space in some way. That part is really important to me, and that was true at my parents’ home when I was kid. I had a very untraditional upbringing. I don’t know if that came through as much in the memoir because it wasn’t as important, but I lived at home until I was 27. So, my writing space for a very long time was on the second floor of a little house with a lot of other people around me. Maybe that’s why I always focus on the desk. I still had a little window and I still got to see people. I also like people watching through my window. I don’t get that at my current place because it’s facing a backyard, but I love having people come through. Then it feels like your writing space has people in it, even though it doesn’t necessarily.