LATINO VOICES
09/17/2014 06:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Daisy Hernández Talks About Writing The Kind Of Book She Needed When She Was A Kid

Beacon Press

Daisy Hernández's new memoir, A Cup Of Water Under My Bed, is full of sentences that linger with you long after you've finished reading -- the kind of weighty, satisfying phrases that stay ringing in your ears. “Over and over again this truth: Writing is how I leave my family and how I take them with me,” she writes.

Hernández describes how, as a child, she moved further away from her Colombian-Cuban family by entering the world of English, a language they didn’t speak. Now, with lucid prose, she comes back to them, painting a portrait both affectionate and raw of growing up in a working class immigrant neighborhood in New Jersey. She examines the warmth and pain she found in her relationships with her family, the varied reactions they had when she came out as bisexual, and the cognitive dissonance she experienced as she became upwardly mobile.

Throughout, she talks about the power of reshaping your experiences through narrative, of taking the past apart and putting it back together in a way that makes sense to you and makes it truly your own.

Hernández spoke to The Huffington Post about the thought process behind her book, her coming of age as a queer woman of color, and the joys, as well as the challenges, of living between different worlds.

What moved you to write a memoir?
I tried it as a book of short stories at one point, but it didn't work. I think I had to make sense of a lot of experiences I had growing up and in my young adult life, including being a reporter at the New York Times -- that was the main impulse, the need to make sense of my experiences.

What were some of the obstacles to telling this story?
I think making sure that members of my family were well-rounded characters on the page and that readers would understand my attachment to them even in difficult situations. That, and all the crying I did (laughs). I was reliving some hard things. So I think that was difficult in a personal way, but it was a challenge getting the family members as well-rounded characters and as people that were separate from me, so that readers could connect with them.

How did your family react to the book?
My family has not read the book. They only speak Spanish and the book's in English, so there's a whole language between us. I translated about three chapters that I gave to my mother and my auntie, and my auntie made grammar corrections to my Spanish. I think they see it as very separate from them -- they see it as part of my professional world and my work. I didn't give it to them to read beforehand, and I don't know it will make it back to them in any way. They live a very traditional Latino life in a primarily immigrant community in South Florida, and I don't know that my book will necessarily even make its way back to them.

How did the lack of narratives that resonated with your experience affect you, growing up?
I think that that's part of the reason that I wanted to write this book, that I didn't see myself in books or in TV or on the radio growing up. Toni Morrison has that famous line, "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." This feels like the book I wanted to read, and I think of myself oftentimes as a teenager, as a 16-year-old -- I was angry and isolated a good chunk of the time, and this is the kind of book I would have wanted to have with me. I would have wanted to see someone who is like me, but is further along the road, who would help me make sense of my life. Luckily I was able to meet many of those kinds of women along my journey, and if I hadn't met many of those women, I wouldn't have written this book.

In the book, you mentioned the conversation about welfare and poverty going on in the '90s, and how that conflicted with what you saw in your neighborhood. Before you wrote this story, what outside narratives were you pushing up against that were imposed on your life?
Well, I think for any woman of color in this country who wakes up and turns on the news, you're constantly bumping up against these narratives. You had the conversation about welfare going on in the '90s, and you had the dot-com bubble happening at the same time. It was very strange to be surrounded by people who were part of the dot-com period, and at the same time reading all these newspaper stories about how we need welfare reform, how poor people are just living off of the government, all these disparaging images that were coming through the news.

Then I would go back home and I'd see factories were closing down because Washington had signed NAFTA, and companies realized they could go exploit people in Mexico. It was a huge dissonance between what I was seeing, at the employment agency with my parents, seeing those rooms filling up. It was a very different story, what we were seeing on the news and what we were living through during that time.

What kinds of coming out stories were available to you around the time you came out to your family?
I feel so fortunate because I grew up already having the books of Audre Lorde and James Baldwin and Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga. So I had these wonderful, amazing books in addition to real life people as well. I was really fortunate at my college, we had a feminist collective, I was surrounded by people who were really positive about their sexuality. And I felt very supported, I knew that it was possible to be a queer person of color and to be a writer and to be making a difference in the world -- that part of it I was really clear about.

In terms of coming out to my family, I remember the day after, calling a friend because I was kind of shocked that I had come out, and that it was over now, and that my family knew and they were having a whole range of reactions. And I remember saying to my friend, "Why didn't anyone tell me that it would be this way?"

She said something really important that I never forgot: "Everyone's coming out story will feel and look a bit different, it will be so unique to you and your situation." That was the right thing to say, and even though I had those coming out narratives, my experience felt very intensely my own. Whether you're coming out at 14 or 40, whether you're coming out to friends or family, it feels like a very personal experience. I had agents who said to me that the whole "coming out thing" has been done, and I was like, "Really?" People continue to have really intense coming out experiences. I knew what she meant, of course.

But I think what happened to me is typical of people of color and Latinas in particular, in the different sorts of reactions my family had -- I'm going to stop talking to you, or I'm going to stop talking to you for a short time and then pretend nothing happened, or expressing sadness like my mother did.

My story also gets complicated because I'm bisexual, and my family gets really hopeful at one point when I date a cis man, and then gets really sad again when I date a woman. I haven't even talked to them about dating trans people. I was like, you know what, I can honor the "don't ask, don't tell policy" here (laughs). It's not even so much my family, but my own exhaustion of going through this process with a relationship that's still in its infancy. So I think, you know what, I don't need to talk about my romantic life until things get really serious.

daisy hernandez

When you write about your experience at The New York Times, you talk about the stories that don't make the news, particularly the stories of the structural forces that shaped the communities where news is taking place. How can journalism do a better job telling those kinds of stories?
A lot of times we either don't send reporters to these places, or we send them for very short periods of time, so that we don't necessarily allow journalists to become part of a community. When we do, I think it can be really amazing -- I think what happened in Ferguson, Mo., was a good example, having all these journalists show up there and do really amazing work. But there should have been a journalist there on the ground who was already writing these stories. Maybe that person does exist, but they're not getting to the national news level and showing up in a bigger way. I think that's the kind of investment we have to make.

Journalism has also been in the space of gossip and entertainment for a long time -- those have been really driving forces -- and I think that has to change and is changing. That is where social media plays such a significant role, and when I talk to college students about media representation, I always remind them how much power they have through social media to change these narratives, to bring stories in their communities to the attention of the internet landscape. I think a lot of times we forget and we just look at Twitter as Twitter, at Facebook as a place to put cat photos, but it's such an incredible place to put stories, stories we're writing ourselves -- the more we do that the better chances we have of changing the infrastructure that exists.

I also feel really excited because I just feel like as time passes, I see more and more people who've come from all backgrounds of life -- whether it's coming from working class communities, whether it's people of color, immigrants, people from the LGBT community -- I see more and more of us slowly coming into positions of power in greater numbers in larger institutions as part of the "browning of America." And when I say that, that includes issues of class and queer issues as well. I think we'll be looking back 20 years from now and say, "Oh, of course the editor of this prestigious publication came from a working class immigrant community."

You touch a lot in the book on your family's problematic views about sexuality and race. Can you talk about how we can "take people with us", particularly family, even if we're not on the same page about key things?
Oh yes -- I talk about this often. Because I lecture at colleges a couple of times a year and this is something that people really have on their minds. The first thing I tell people is: stop trying to change them. I know you think you're right, I know your politics are right, but stop trying to change them, it only makes everything worse. Especially as a woman of color, I feel I have to be really careful about coming back to my community having had access to higher education and these institutions, and saying, now I know it all, I know how to fix you. I think we have to be mindful of that, and we can still have those conversations but we can't have them with expectations.

My family of origin doesn't read English, so it's not like I can say, "Here's a news article you would enjoy." With my parents or other elder relatives, it's a lot about calling them out in the moment in a way that's still respectful. For example, my dad's cousin was badmouthing Ricky Martin being a gay dad, and I shared with her, "Well I know two amazing women who are married and raising children and they're just spectacular parents." And she says to me, "Oh, Daisy, it's so different with two women." I was like, what? How does that homophobia make sense?

She was also badmouthing the Affordable Care Act, and at the same time she has kids who are going to benefit from Obamacare. When her great-granddaughter is going to be born, she's going to be paid for collectively -- her granddaughter is a young single mom. But I go into it with no expectation that she'll agree with me at the end of the conversation.

Silence from your family members sometimes can be golden (laughs). It can be a sign you've made an inroad of some kind.

So many times in immigrant communities and working class immigrant communities, we've bought into the idea that we have to be quiet and play it safe and even, my God, vote Republican -- my father votes Republican. That's something that we as another generation get to engage with and change. It doesn't necessarily mean we're going to change our parents and grandparents and cousins and so forth, but maybe other kids in our family, cousins our own age.

And of course your elders will surprise you. I have an auntie who's more and more progressive every year and she's actually at the point where she's now very comfortable telling people she lived in this country as an undocumented immigrant. In the past that's not something she would have admitted to, but undocumented people right now are speaking up and creating a new narrative for us. Before all of the activism around immigration reform, I wouldn't have identified my mother as undocumented even though she was when she first came to this country. I feel very hopeful because I see the narratives changing, and changing at the grassroots level, then coming up to those of us who work in journalism or as teachers or politicians.

We often hear about the (very real) challenges of being between worlds, and you explore those challenges in your book. Could you talk a bit more about the benefits of being between worlds?
Yes, my new tagline is "bicultural, bilingual, bisexual" (laughs). I think there's a lot of joys to belonging to multiple worlds. I think part of it is we become really good at finding our tribe, finding the right people to support us in different spaces and to be in community with us. I think that's a huge benefit. Whenever I talk to someone who's in college about feeling like an outsider -- usually they're adolescents or in college -- I tell them, you're growing older and that's the best thing you can do as a woman of color, to get older. Because we're meeting more and more women like us and finding our tribe.

We have perspectives that are different, in places that people feel are very familiar to them. That's why I wanted to write about my experience at the New York Times as well. I showed up there as a queer person of color coming from a working class community where Spanish is only spoken, and I think not many people have heard this perspective. We can make connections that other people don't see as clearly. The book is written in the form of collage, it has a narrative arc but it's not linear. I see all these intense connections in these multiple worlds I'm part of, and I experience a lot of joy bringing them to the forefront.

Living in these multiple worlds is also why I enjoy writing traditional journalism, memoir, fiction. Negotiating multiple genres is part of negotiating multiple worlds. I feel like narrative non-fiction makes the most intuitive sense for me because I've navigated so many different worlds -- it's as elastic as I feel my own identity is. And I'm not sure if this is true for everyone, but it's true for me and it's true for other people I've seen growing up negotiating multiple worlds: I think we have a great degree of compassion and empathy and acceptance because we've been outsiders so many times over.

Why did you dedicate the book para todos las hijas, to all the daughters?
The book is definitely not for my own family -- the book is how I came back to my family with a lot more love and generosity than I experienced as a teenager or a young person. When I thought about who this is really for, I thought, it's for the 16-year-old who is pretty isolated and having questions about her experience, and the more I thought about it the more I realized everyone is a daughter, everyone has an older generation that they're coming up against, butting heads against. And everyone is a daughter in terms of trying find our way in life -- what of my crazy childhood do I take with me and what do I leave behind? So I realized this is for that young woman who's trying to find her way, and I hope I gave her some ways of finding her own experience, of understanding her own experience a bit further.

Also, I think that when I talk about finding our tribe, finding people who understand and guide us, I think we initially connect around being daughters, around those experiences of coming of age we don't quite understand. Coming of age isn't just the age around twelve to sixteen, it's also, especially for women of color, coming into your twenties and being out in the professional world for the first time and thinking, wait a minute, everything from home doesn't match this new world I'm seeing. Coming of age for women of color is like from ten to thirty (laughs).

Then again, I received a wonderful email from someone this week, from a reader who said "I'm a 72-year-old white man and I really liked your book." So you think you know who your audience is, but they can surprise you!

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