Friday, May 15, 2015

An interview with Daisy Hernández

A Cup of Water Under My Bed: Daisy Hernández

“A wonderful, heartbreaking, necessary story… Hernández writes with honesty, intelligence, tenderness, and love. I bow deeply in admiration and gratitude.”
-Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street


An interview with Daisy Hernández
conducted by Amanda Castañeda

A Cup of Water Under My Bed tracks the life of Daisy Hernández with the lessons she learned from her family, work, and discovering her sexuality. This coming-of-age memoir details the balancing act of translating from one culture to another, exploring her sexuality for the first time, and using lessons from her family to make sense of the world. She researches to understand her father’s candy dish and beliefs that can be traced back to Africa. Hernández talks about her experience as one of the few Latinas at the New York Times. It extends to her journey to San Francisco where she reflects on her life as she creates a home for herself in the community.

This memoir resonated with me because it is a journey of trying to discover oneself in the midst of different cultures, generations, and goals for the future. My parents are from Mexico, and I can see that there are generational as well as cultural gaps between us. In Hernández’s memoir, and the lives of many young adults stuck between two cultures, it is not a question of how “Latina” or “Americana” you are, it is just a constant state of being an inseparable blend of the two.  This interview explores the memoir in-depth to learn more about Hernández as a writer and individual. We also talk about some of my favorite passages and their background.
-Amanda Castañeda, University of Notre Dame (class of 2017)


[Amanda Castañeda]: What was your inspiration to write this memoir? What was the process like, reflecting on your life and choosing the most important lessons you learned growing up? Plus, is there any additional message you would like your readers to go home with after reading this memoir?

[Daisy Hernández]: When you’re young, you might not have the language to describe social injustice but you see it all around you. I remember being a kid at public health clinics and noticing that we were all women and girls and poor. The language and lass theories, come later, so the memoir gave me a chance to revisit what I had experienced as a child and to make meaning of it, to name it for what it was. I hope A Cup of Water Under My Bed gives readers insights into their own families and journeys.

[AC]: When your Tía Chuchi takes you to see the woman who is going to read your cards, you mention that your family talks about your future in the plural sense, including your whole family. Was it frustrating to have this pressure from your relatives? Do you think this pressure propelled you to achieve success in the different aspects of your life?

[DH]: I never found the “we” of my Latina home frustrating. It’s always been a blessing because even when it’s been hard I’ve always felt that my own life was part of a larger tapestry. That’s helped me to find a queer chosen family and also a family of writers. The pressure didn’t push me forward (I was writing as a child) but it told me to expect big things of the world.

[AC]: The memoir is split into three major sections. I was wondering why you decided to break it up in this way. Does it follow three different, important periods in your life? Or perhaps each section focuses on the different kinds of lessons you’ve learned?

[DH]: Yes, the book is arranged into three sections: family, sexuality and work. Of course, my family shows up in every section but in the first one the stories are about them are tightly focused on language, migration and religion. I didn’t arrange the book this way. I feel like the book chose its organization. When I sat down to inventory my writings, the essays organically fell into these sections.

[AC]: Speaking of lessons, your memoir is full of well thought out opinions on racism, hatred, Spanish language and Latino culture, and the conflict of living between two cultures. So, did you formalize these thoughts as you were growing older, or are they current interpretations of your major life events?

[DH]: In my early twenties, friends introduced me to the work of Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, James Baldwin and Cherríe Moraga. Between what I began reading and meeting women and men who were politically engaged as writers and artists, I started reinterpreting my childhood and my family and community. So it’s definitely been a process over many years.

[AC]: When you confirmed your sexuality to your family, your mother and aunts, specifically Tia Dora, appeared to be particularly insulted because you told them. It was clear that there was a conflict between the culture they grew up in and your sexuality. Do you believe that in most cases there is a conflict between Latino culture and sexuality? How do these two forces interact and manifest in your daily life? What do you think the young Latino community can do, if anything, to bridge the gap between culture and sexuality?

[DH]: I think those of us who can be out – who have the support, the spiritual sustenance—we have an obligation to be out. I think we forget what courage it takes to be our true selves when our sexuality and gender expression don’t match up to the world’s expectations. There isn’t so much a conflict between Latina culture and sexuality as there is an evolving of the conversation. My auntie didn’t speak to me for 7 years but I also failed to speak to her. We are works in progress. 

[AC]: One of my favorite quotes from the book is when you are leaving for the airport to fly to San Francisco:

“My mother’s hair, her face, the wrinkles at her eyes, the cars and the shadows, all of it was dipped in silver, and I cried and stared at her for a long time and finally hugged her, because I was taking the three suitcases and leaving my mother.”

This section resonated the most with me because it shows all that we leave behind in search for a fresh start. So, what do you believe was the most difficult part of moving across the country? Also, can you talk a little bit more about finding some of your old home in San Francisco? Was it more difficult to initially move away, or is it more difficult to be away from home for so long?

[DH]: The most difficult part of the move was being far from my family. I didn’t grow up thinking that I ever would leave my family. They were all I knew and so was New York City. So in a way the actual jolt was finding out that my life was going to go in a direction for which I did not have a map. I had never planned to really leave Jersey. I had never planned to leave my mother. It was quite a surprise. That said, yes, in California I found santeros like my father. I found women who reminded me of my aunties. I found also that I just fit in better in the San Francisco area. There’s a tenderness to the land itself there – I’m thinking of the Redwoods – that I find to be more home than my actual home.

[AC]: When you were younger, you saw a clear path that was set out for you, one where English was the only language and your family should have been left behind. Coming from a Latino family, I understand how confusing it is to be immersed in one culture at school and another at home. I’d like to know how you define yourself as a Latina. What aspects of your Latino heritage do you admire? What aspects of yourself do you think would classify as “Americana”?

[DH]: I’m so happy that you resonated with that part of the story. When I was a little girl, my father used to say to me: Are you Cubana? Colombiana? O Americana? I knew the right answer was the last one but apparently I couldn’t manage the word and screamed: Mericana! That said, I generally resist the idea that “X” thing about me is Americana and “Y” thing is Latina or Cubana or Colombiana. The way I see it, I am standing in one room and the world and cultures and languages – they are waltzing through the door and crawling through the windows. I don’t think of myself as a woman with a foot in two worlds. I think of myself firmly planted with both feet in the places where those worlds meet.

[AC]: At one point you talk about how, through writing, you were able to truly understand and love your father while keeping him in your heart as you moved forward in life. How do you think writing has helped you when reflecting on your life? In general, how do you think art can be used to make sense of our own worlds? To explain our events in the past or to think about solutions for the future?

[DH]: I tell writers to think of memoir as two drafts. First, you have the emotional draft. You are writing toward insights, toward a deeper understanding of what happened and the many ways you could look at a single event. The second draft is about craft. In the emotional draft, you do not need to get a reader to love your papi. You know you do despite everything that’s happened. In the second draft though you need to take the reader into account. They don’t love your father. You need to make decisions there about how to win the reader, to show them the complexity of the situation. In the process of working on craft, you learn things about your father and yourself that you didn’t access even in the emotional draft. So yes, I think of art as this amazing door that is always available for us to open and walk through.


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