This month, Writer’s Round-About welcomes Melissa Hart, a talented memoirist and freelance writer as she tours the Web with her new book, “Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood“. You’ve already heard from Melissa with her fabulous guest post, “Writing, Romance, and Child-Rearing: A Critical Balance“, and Cindy Hudson reviewed Melissa’s book for us sharing the warmth and insight of the book and giving us an eye into Melissa’s world.
Melissa, thank you so much for joining us this month. It’s an pleasure to have you with us and I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me today. Lets get down to finding out your answers to some of my burning questions, then we can open up the floor to let others ask theirs.
1. In “Gringa“, you write about “a lesbian mother”, how do you think your relationship with your mother, and her inter-personal relationships, affected the way you develop characters as a writer?
My mother came out when I was a pre-teen, but I didn’t know what being a lesbian meant. For a few months, there was all this secrecy around her moving in with a woman; my father and his mother whispered about it and told me my mother was “ill.” He took us to a social worker who grilled us about where my mother and her partner slept and whether they hugged and kissed in front of us.
I learned to analyze people both for how they presented in public and for their hidden motivations. I don’t mean to sound paranoid; we all hide our motivations, and the emotions driving them, on occasion. I learned to develop multifaceted characters by studying both the public and private persona of my family members. Every other Friday and Sunday night when I traveled up the Pacific Coast Highway with my mother, we discussed how we’d been separated by the legal system and why. She was studying psychology at the time, and I remember talking about our family with respect to Freud and Jung and Rogers, and later–when I took psychology classes in college–to my social psychology professor Eliot Aronson.
In Gringa, I’m particularly proud of resisting the temptation to portray my father as simply a homophobic bully. Many reviewers have noted that I don’t place blame in the book. While I’d disagree that I don’t blame my father for some of the events in my childhood, I’ve tried hard to show his side of the story, as well.
2. The Latina culture is considered deeply sensual and erotic, how do you feel that culture and “a deep desire to be a Latina” influences your writing?
My perceived lack of culture shaped my writing for years. Growing up as a minority in multicultural schools, and visiting my mother who lived in a Latino neighborhood in Oxnard, I felt inadequate in terms of my skin color, food and music choices, lack of religion with its white dresses or Buddhist shrines. I didn’t perceive the Latina culture to be “deeply sensual and erotic” until college, however, when I was still figuring out who I was as a sexual person with an older, very sexually-secure Latino boyfriend. I’ve got a story coming out in The Los Angeles Review in a few months that illustrates my struggle to be erotic without really knowing what that meant.
3. You’ve had the opportunity to travel to other countries, each with a unique culture and people. What do you feel is the most significant lesson you’ve learned about the people and relationships in other countries that finds its way into your writing?
There’s a lot of hype about how people from other countries don’t like Americans. I’ve been traveling internationally for a couple of decades, and I haven’t found this to be true. I think when you approach a new country and its people with an open mind and an open heart, with humility and curiosity, people welcome this.
I went to Amsterdam a few years ago to present a paper on training a permanently-injured Snowy owl for the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators; here, touring the Artis Zoo and sharing our various bird-stories over meals, I felt so much mutual interest and respect. I work as a travel writer for newspapers and magazines on occasion, and I try to approach each new location and its inhabitants with this same interest and respect.
4. In a review of “Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood“, Booklist writers, “LGBT families and immigrant kids will want it for honesty, humor, and love. Every lively chapter ends with a detailed recipe that mixes food and feelings.”
Food is such an integral part of life. How do you feel these things, honesty, humor, love, food, and feelings, come together when writing?
Cooking is just so much fun, and so meditative when you’re chopping vegetables or beating egg whites or shelling peas. I always remember Laura Esquivel’s novel “Like Water for Chocolate” and how whatever emotion the protagonist, Tita, was feeling while she cooked somehow made it into the meal she served. I’m careful to think kind, loving thoughts when I cook, just in case I’m imparting emotions along with my enchiladas and carrot cakes.
When you get to cook with people, creating a meal all together, opportunities for intimate dialogue abound. I grew up cooking with my mother and her partner, my grandmother and my sister, both in the kitchen and around campfires. We talked constantly during these hours, and since my family comes from show-business stock, we did plenty of dancing and singing and joke-telling, as well. Now, we tell stories about memorable holiday meals–the time Mom and Annie dropped the cooked Thanksgiving turkey on the kitchen floor, the first time the man who would become my husband dropped a beautiful unbaked pie on the floor–and just howl with laughter. One of my great pleasures in life is to visit my mothers in Southern California and help them cook a big meal. It’s very easy to recall the emotions inherent in cooking together when I need to write a scene involving food and/or cooking.
5. Conversation is vital when developing relationships. It is what makes dialogue such a key element in fiction. When writing memoir it is very rare that a writer has transcripts or recordings of actual conversations. What tips do you have for writers writing memoir dialogue?
This will strike some writers as shameless, but I make the point in the workshops I teach on memoir writing that we do not go through our lives carrying around a digital recorder and video camera, and so we sometimes need to create dialogue. If you can’t recall what your great-grandmother said word-for-word when you were six years old, does that mean you shouldn’t give her a voice in memoir? I believe there’s an understanding between the memoirist and most readers that dialogue has been created out of memories which stay true to the character. For Gringa, I relied on journals I’d kept since age 9, as well as photographs, conversations with my mother and sister, and in one case, a recording I’d actually made of my grandmother.
There are other ways to approach dialogue as a memoirist, of course. The writer might craft something speculative, such as “Although I can’t recall her actual words, my great-grandmother might have said, ‘Why, yes, honey, I had a Latino boyfriend in the circus.’” (That’s true of my great-grandmother, by the way, but I find such speculative sentences awkward, with the effect of pulling people out of a narrative story.
I’m interested in how David Sedaris refers to his work as “stories” rather than “memoir.” I think he saves himself a hell of a lot of trouble in making this distinction. To close on this controversial subject, I think it’s all right to recreate dialogue if you stay absolutely true to your characters and their situations, but I don’t admire those memoirists who make up entire pasts for themselves for the sake of sensationalism.
6. You teach a wonderful memoir writing course with U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program that is open to the public. Is there anything you learned while writing “Gringa” that you share with your students?
I share my views on dialogue, and I urge my students to experiment with a blend of narration and dialogue, plus vivid sensory description and subtle characterization. I encourage them to play with the form of memoir; one student eventually turned his memoir about being a boxer-turned-tap-dancer into a one-man show in San Francisco. Another student wrote her final memoir in stream-of-consciousness narration similar to Dorothy Parker‘s short story “The Telephone Call.” I thoroughly enjoyed writing Gringa, even when the process felt painful, and I teach my memoir students to approach their memoir with the same levels of honesty, commitment to emotion, and humor.
7. One of the aspects of our upbringing which shapes the adults we become are our family. Family is also a defining factor in your memoir. What do you think makes family moments memorable for readers?
If they’re written well, family moments in memoir trigger the reader’s own notable family interactions. I hope readers of Gringa will relate to some of the absurd, whimsical family moments with my mother that made our situation bearable (I’m thinking of dressing up in Halloween costumes and driving in her VW bus to Sambo’s for nighttime pancakes). I know, too, that some people who read the accounts of my father’s volatile outbursts will recall similar instances in their childhood. I’ve received lots of fan mail which either commiserates with my position as his daughter, or celebrates the humor that provided salvation during the four days a month I got to spend with my mother.
8. Finally, you have a family of your own now, juggling the roles of mother and writer as many of WRA’s readers do, what do you think is the biggest benefit, and what the greatest pitfall, of being a mother-writer?
Before my husband and I adopted our young daughter, my writer-friend Jamie Passaro told me that becoming a mother would make me much more efficient as a writer. I didn’t believe her at the time, but now–a year and a half into being a mother–I see that she’s right. I carve out hours between caring for my daughter to write. Gone are those daylong stretches of free time during which I could just wander in and out of a chapter or essay at will, going for a long run in between, and maybe meeting a friend for lunch. Now, I have to write down and dirty during naps and preschool. Honestly, I don’t mind this at all; I think it’s made me a better writer.
The pitfall, most definitely, is having to be away from my daughter and husband while I’m on book tour or teaching workshops. I’ve done an awful lot of traveling since Gringa came out in October, and I’m scheduled to do much more in the form of writing conferences and classes. I adore teaching, and while I’m in the midst of interacting with students, I’m fine–but I hate telling my family goodbye before even an overnight trip. I guess I need to bring my laptop and Skype with them!
Thank you for sharing so much with me today, Melissa. It sounds like you live a full and busy life. I’m in awe of all you’re doing for yourself, your family, and the greater community. I’d like to take this opportunity to open the floor up for others if they have any questions.