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. The former editor of ColorLines magazine, she has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, and NPR’s All Things Considered and CodeSwitch, and her essays have appeared in the Bellingham Review, Fourth Genre, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, The Rumpus, and Tricycle. She is an Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing Program at Miami University in Ohio.
EB: What first attracted you to writing nonfiction?
DH: It’s interesting because now that I teach nonfiction [at the college level], I start with the premise that we don’t really teach students in high school and elementary school to look at nonfiction as a genre. We’re big on fiction and poetry, but we don’t look at nonfiction in the same way, and yet we have young students engaged with nonfiction all the time through essay-writing—torturing them with it.
EB: That’s so true. All of my former middle and high school students groan would groan whenever I brought up nonfiction, because all they associated it with was boring five-paragraph essays about Macbeth.
DH: The first thing that comes to mind for me when I think of nonfiction is writing essays in elementary school. I went to a Catholic school, and every Sunday we had to write essays based on the sermons. They were kind of like little cultural criticism essays, and I just loved writing them because it was this incredible opportunity every week to hear someone’s interpretation of a religious text, and then to think about both the text itself and what this old white guy said about it, and then to think about my thoughts about it. I felt like it was the most brilliant activity in the entire world. It was engaging with ideas, with culture, with religion, and then getting to write about it. And my teacher loved what I wrote which is always a bonus.
At that same elementary school I was writing for our school newspaper. At some point I remember a teacher saying to me, oh, you’re a good writer, so you should be a journalist. And that gave me the idea that nonfiction was how writers made money. My father works in factories, and so does my mother, so I knew I needed to earn a living. I didn’t have the luxury of thinking about what would be fulfilling.
I was also attracted to nonfiction because in my 20s, after college, I realized how little I knew about the countries and regions that my parents came from. I wanted to learn a lot more about Latin American culture and history. My dad has a third-grade education, my mom dropped out of high school when she was around fifteen, and they both had such pain about their countries [Cuba and Colombia], that they didn’t have the knowledge about the history, the culture, that I wanted. So I began a dual program in journalism and Latin America studies at NYU. That kind of writing allowed me to engage with true stories and ideas, and, for me, there was always a personal narrative in there. I was studying journalism, but I was writing essays, too. For me, memoir and journalism are not in opposition to each other.
EB: Do you approach writing memoir and journalism differently?
DH: When writing memoir, I really engage with the collage form, and I’m driven by images, so I’m thinking in terms of the associative leaps that my mind makes. I’m trusting what comes forward.
With my journalism, there are two forms: literary journalism and traditional journalism. With traditional journalism, I am thinking more about information and audience. I cannot get attached in any way to the language, because I have no idea what the editors will do. Which is sometimes really satisfying, because sometimes you just have important information you need to share with the world! But with literary journalism, it’s a giant juggling act—you’re juggling imagery with the need to be accurate about the information you have. It’s incredibly orchestrated—I’m working with memory, like I am in memoir, but all of it needs to be fact-checked. It’s a different beast.
EB: Talking a little bit more about your memoir-writing process, I love how in A Cup of Water Under My Bed you tell your mother you are writing about her life and then ask her what she wants you to include about her. How do you approach writing about people you are close to?
DH: [In my memoir] I wrote about my parents and my aunties because I had a lot of questions about my relationships with them. These were the people who had shaped me, and I wasn’t always happy about that. I had questions. For me the most satisfying nonfiction writing comes from writing out of questions and writing towards—or at least in circles towards—answers. With my family, though, it took me a long time—until after the memoir was published, actually––to see that my parents and my aunties had not valued their stories, and the world had told me as I was growing up not to value my parents and my aunties and the knowledge that they had. There is also a language gap––I’m writing in English and they don’t read English. But after the book was published, I realized I had never thought to ask their permission or engage with them too much, because I felt a lot of ownership of their stories and the stories of our relationships, because my view of them had been so shaped by white America. I never asked my mother if it was okay to disclose that she had been undocumented. The memoir came out and I realized that was wrong, so I asked her after the fact, and she said, okay, why not! I got lucky there. So now I use that to remind my students that when you are going to write about other people, you are going to make mistakes. You cannot possibly see everything and predict everything, so you need to anticipate that you will make mistakes along the road and you will rectify that when the time comes.
EB: Such a good point. It’s always funny to me to how you really can never predict people’s reactions to what you write about them—things you thought were going to be giant problems, they don’t even care about, and then the littlest word choice can cause a blow-out fight.
DH: It was a very humbling moment when I realized that. Though now it’s interesting because I’m in a relationship with someone who is English-dominant—English is their only language—and I recently wrote an essay about how when they, my sweetheart, told me that they use the pronoun “they” and how conflicted I felt about using that pronoun. The essay is less about my feelings and more about the history of the word and arguments among copyeditors about using “they” as a singular pronoun, but it was really interesting to share the essay with my sweetie. It was the first time I shared an essay about someone I am dating, with them while we are still dating—usually I wait until the break up and then write about them—and it was so beautiful to have the other person’s perspective. It was like when I asked my mom what she wanted me to include in the book, and she said make sure everyone knows I love gardens, and I thought, who are you? Gardens? That is not how I see your life. But it reminded me that we all have our own views of one another. My sweetie thought the essay I wrote about them was very loving, and I had been so nervous to share it because I thought it must be incredibly strange to date a writer who writes memoir, because you’re going to end up in their work and it’s going to be awkward—which I don’t know about, because as far as I know, none of my writer friends have written about me. I guess I’m not that interesting. But I think that it can really bring you closer to the person you are writing about.
EB: It does feel very intimate to write about someone else and then share it with them. In one of my MFA classes, we had an assignment to interview and write about another member of the class, and I felt so vulnerable during that process—both as the writer, and as the subject. But afterwards I felt especially connected to the person I had written about and who had written about me.
DH: Yes. Definitely. I wrote a flash nonfiction piece that was in Brevity about a woman I was interviewing for my book project, and I was interviewing her about something totally different, but in the interview she kept talking about these insects she remembers from growing up in El Salvador, and I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I became obsessed, and wrote this piece. It was one of the most satisfying writing experiences, because she loved it, and it made her cry and she said it reminded her of her childhood. I shared it with her before the piece was published to make sure it was accurate, and it felt good to hear from her that I had done her story justice. Later she told me that she often pulls that story on Brevity up on her phone, and that rereading it makes her feel good. It felt amazing to have that power as a writer.
There’s that whole Janet Malcolm idea that journalists and nonfiction writers are always manipulating their subjects or getting away with something… but that’s just never been my experience. I ask sometimes, am I lying to myself? But I don’t think so. I wrote that Brevity piece just because I was so obsessed with that image. I felt this need to create that thing, it was almost primal. And isn’t that what art is? Becoming obsessed with something and creating art from it? There’s a great Ani DiFranco line—are you old enough to remember Ani DiFranco?
DH: Oh, yay! The line is: “Art is why I get up in the morning, my definition ends there.” Writing about someone else’s life, connecting with them like that, it feels like some amazing magic experience—it feels spiritual and intense. But I also recognize that because I am a Latina, because I am queer, all of my nonfiction writing is coming from a very deep sense of purpose and a deep sense of loving my community and wanting to create work that speaks to our experience, that is also aesthetically pleasing and invigorating and makes us think about our lives.
EB: Do you think writing nonfiction is a useful tool for women—especially young women, women of color, and queer women—to reclaim their own stories?
DH: It’s a useful tool, and it’s a very necessary tool. We are given so many contradictory narratives about our own community. Growing up, I watched both English-language and Spanish-language television—I was a news junkie as a child. On the Spanish-language news, it was always all about immigration laws, but when you went to English-language news, there was nothing about immigration. If you did hear anything about Latinas in the United States, it had something to do with crime, or maybe in a television show where a Latina woman would be the maid. It felt like I was living in two different countries. And then I had my father giving me this narrative of white supremacy—that we had nothing to do with any black community, whether in the U.S. or in Cuba, but when I was in elementary school, reading about the history of slavery, I identified more with the marginalized groups. So when you have all these contradictory narratives, nonfiction becomes an absolute necessity in terms of making sense of those narratives and creating new ones that feel more honest, more empowering.
EB: What do you find most challenging about writing nonfiction?
DH: For me, right now, I think it’s the intersection of writing nonfiction and publishing nonfiction. I am working on a book proposal for this project, and it’s my first time creating a book with a proposal, and I find the whole process of having the business side of things involved this early on in the process to be very challenging. Some of the challenges have been incredibly rewarding, but I find it creates a lot of confusion and noise. At the same time it gives me a lot to think about, and it pulls me out of my writing world, which can be very isolated. But it’s an incredibly mixed bag.
EB: Yeah, they don’t really warn you in MFA programs about the business side of writing. The publishing world is hard to navigate.
DH: The other thing that they don’t tell you in MFA programs is that you’re going to have to make a decision about how you want to earn money, and also that you don’t have a ton of agency around it either. What I mean by that is, let’s look at Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Let’s say, I decide I want to be a writer who makes money, I think, okay, I’ll write another Eat, Pray, Love—but you can’t sit down and decide to write a book that will be a bestseller. You might think you are doing that, and maybe Toni Morrison does think that, but for most mortals, we can’t actually say ahead of time that this will end up on the bestseller list. If you’re Hillary Clinton, right, yeah, your book is going to end up there. But I don’t think Elizabeth Gilbert sat down and thought, yes, this will be a bestseller. It’s so unpredictable. Even if I think I’m setting myself up to be exactly like Elizabeth Gilbert, I can’t be Elizabeth Gilbert. I haven’t had her exact same experiences and connections. For example, take Atul Gawande. I love his writing and would love to write like him, but in order to write like him I would have had to grow up in Ohio, gone to medical school, worked at The New Yorker for twenty years, had every same social interaction he has ever had. What they don’t tell you in MFA programs is that every single social contact you have will determine your accessibility to publishers, editors, agents, and it will affect your ability to get your work out there. I’m sorry, I don’t think I am answering your question, but I think this is really important.
EB: Oh my gosh, no, thank you so much for bringing this up. So often people only want to talk about the artistic, creative side of being a writer, but figuring out how to support yourself is perhaps the biggest obstacle of trying to be a writer. I read an excellent piece by Ann Bauer on Salon a couple years ago, about how writers never talk about where their money comes from, and how problematic that is. In the piece, she admits that the only reason why she can afford to write is because she is “sponsored” by her successful husband. The only reason I can afford to write as much as I am doing right now is because I live in an apartment owned by my grandparents.
DH: Yes, money is part of the process. We don’t hear about all the writers who get a significant advance and never make it to the bestseller list—because they’re not on the bestseller list. You can’t rely on your book being a bestseller, so not only do you have to make a decision about what kind of writing you’re going to do, how commercial, how literary, but you have to figure out how to earn money too. A lot of us can create more effectively when we have a steady source of income and health insurance.
EB: And it’s so hard to figure out what works for you, in terms of making money––something that both gives you enough time to write and also doesn’t leave you completely drained.
DH: My mentor from my MFA program once told me that you should always pick the thing that is going to give you the most time. That, too, is really different for different people. For example, for me, I know I can make teaching work, but that is because I have very strict boundaries. But for my friend, she knows can’t do the boundary thing, so it doesn’t make sense for her to go into teaching, even though it would give her a chunk of time in the summer. It works better for her to have a job from nine to five, and when the job is done, the job is done. You have to learn your own temperament and what works well for you. What works for you, may not work for your best friend.
EB: Seriously. Nina MacLaughlin found that working as a carpenter is the perfect compliment to her writing, but I don’t think that would ever work for me.
EB: Thank you again for bringing this up. Despite the challenge of all the money and business elements, what do you find most rewarding about writing nonfiction? Why do you keep doing it?
DH: I love how vast of a territory nonfiction is. Whatever catches my attention, I can pursue in nonfiction from different angles. For example, that essay I wrote about my sweetheart and the pronoun “they”—I initially had such a personal resistance to using the plural pronoun, so I wanted to write about it at first to get into the personal aspect. I wanted to use nonfiction to interrogate my own mind—why do I have such resistance? What’s up with that? But then I wanted to go out and learn about the history of this singular plural pronoun, and I learned so much about gender. And as I was writing about all that, I remembered this moment when my sweetie read to me a bedtime story one night from this book about herbal medicine and plants, and I became really obsessed with burdock, which a lot of people consider to be a weed, but it’s really an incredibly resilient plant. So now I have this essay with all these references to historical clippings from the Boston Globe and sections about burdock and other sections about having sex with my sweetheart, and the essay is a beautiful mess, and I just love it. Wherever my mind goes, making connections between things that on the surface have no relationship, the essay makes room for that, and I love that.
The other thing I love about nonfiction is that there is also something really satisfying about being able to say this is true when you come from a marginalized community where often there are so many false narratives about your experience. To be able to say, here, I interviewed someone, and I’m quoting them directly, there is something so rewarding about being able to say, no, I found this information, it is true. Here it is.
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
DH: Can I give two answers?
EB: Of course!
DH: The first is a poem that I always read as nonfiction. It’s June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights”.
The second is “Grip” by Joy Castro. I love the intensity, the brevity, and all it has to say about motherhood, misogyny and resiliency.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.
Photo of Daisy Hernández by Jamaica Gilmore.