Daisy Hernández on Writing a Memoir, Bisexuality, and “The Kiss of Death”
Author: Julie R. Enszer
December 7, 2014
Daisy Hernández’ new memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed (Beacon Press) is garnering praise from readers at Goodreads for its “honesty and vulnerability and strength,” and its author is gathering new fans for her poignant prose and luscious writing. Booklist described the memoir as “a coming-of-age story that dives into the complexities of language, sexuality, and class.” I spoke with Hernández about her book and the writing life for Lambda Literary.
Daisy, it is such a pleasure to talk with you about your wonderful new memoir. How did you decide to write a memoir as opposed to an investigative or narrative nonfiction book?
A Cup of Water Under My Bed started with the chapters on sexuality. I was in my mid-twenties, dating women, realizing I was bisexual and feeling like I didn’t have a road map. Writing about my own life was my attempt to answer the questions I had. What did it mean to be bi coming from a Cuban-Colombian home? What did it mean that I longed to be normal? I actually tried to write it as a book of short stories, but I wanted the kind of elasticity that memoir and personal essays offer. By elasticity, I mean that I can move freely between scenes and dialogue; and social criticism and observations. As a journalist, I needed that in writing about my own experiences.
One of the striking things about your book is its intimacy. You tell great personal stories with startling revelations. Are there things in particular that you were nervous about having people read?
No. Everything in the book has a) been deeply processed in therapy and b) gone through a lot of revisions. When I write first drafts, I excavate an experience. I unravel the memories to reach insight. Every draft after that is about craft: word choice, organization of the memories and introduction of characters.
I was very moved by the story you tell about reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands and describing it to your mother, who is an immigrant. You tell her, “We are neither here nor there.” Then, you recognize that your mother already knows this experience. What does Anzaldúa’s work mean to you?
When I read Borderlands, I had no idea that you could move from one language to another on the page without translation or footnotes or nada. It was a deeply affirming experience for me, since I grew up with institutional practices that kept English and Spanish in separate spheres. Just seeing what she did on the page with language changed my idea of what was possible as a writer. Reading her work was also one of my early encounters with memoir as social criticism. Anzaldúa moved with tremendous grace between personal and communal narratives, and she did so while being critical of our country, as well as of Latino communities.
I also immensely appreciated the chapter, “Only Ricos Have Credit.” In it, you speak honestly about money, particularly in the lives of young women in the U.S. It is rare for someone to write so truthfully and forthrightly about this topic. Tell us a bit about the experience of writing that chapter.
Yes, this has been the surprise chapter for a number of readers. They could see the queer chapters coming, but not the money one! I initially wrote it to understand what the hell got me so hooked on using credit cards. My auntie is always like: “How did you turn out this way?” I wrote this chapter to find out. Part of what I found was bell hooks’ book on class issues, which helped me to understand that in a lot of ways, I was trying to “buy” the experience of being middle class. The more I wrote that chapter, the more I realized that I was also using credit cards to close the gap between the working class background I came from and the middle class life I found myself in during college and after. Money is a sensitive issue in the U.S., but it is an incredibly taboo subject for communities of color. I think we’re so used to having labels slapped on us that are about race but expressed as class (welfare queens, for example) that we have shut the door on talking about money in any form.
An important part of the memoir is your coming-out story. Did you know sexuality was going to be a prominent issue in your book?
Yes. It was where the book started. Initially, I thought I was writing about sexuality to understand what it meant to be bi, and then, I realized that I was actually still writing about familia! I wanted to understand how to bridge the gap between the family I came from and the queer life I was finding myself in.
You write about bisexuality with great candor. I love the story of you in Provincetown [MA] at the age of twenty-four. A woman picks you up at a bar, and after some “clumsy sex,” you decide to come out to her as bisexual. As it turns out, she wants to meet “a normal lesbian.” This story captures issues around sexual orientation within the bi community. What do you want readers to take away from the book about bisexuality?
I want readers to see a bisexual woman, for starters. I think that’s really important. When I came into the LGBT community, I learned that Virginia Woolf was bi, and so was Frida Kahlo and all these other famous people, but they were dead and somehow, the stories felt erased by that fact. What did it look like to be bi now? I hope writers see one picture and that other bi writers feel encouraged to pen their stories.
Since reading A Cup of Water Under My Bed, I have been trying to think of a memoir that deals so forthrightly with women and bisexuality, but I have not been able to come up with another title. Are there any you recommend?
Jennifer Baumgardner’s Look Both Ways, and of course, the famoso anthology Bi Any Other Name. But I agree with you that we still have a ways to go. I do love Maureen Seaton’s memoir Sex Talks To Girls. She doesn’t identify as bisexual, but I love that her memoir tracks the movement from marriage to a man to love with a woman, and it doesn’t cancel our her experiences with men.
The memoir is in three parts. How did you find a structure for it?
It happened organically, from the start. Even before I had these chapters, the ones I had just fell into the three parts of familia; sexuality; and class and race.
Tell us a bit about your writing practice. Do you write everyday? How did you approach writing your memoir?
At first, I just wrote what came up for me and when I had time, which was mostly at night after everyone in my family had gone to bed. Then, I was living alone and working full-time, and I compressed my schedule at Colorlines so I could have a full weekday to write. At another point, I worked a regular full-time schedule and got up an hour early to write. I think that the best writing practice is what works at the moment. At one point, I did create an Excel sheet to track the time I spent writing. A friend of mine had done that, and I thought it was an excellent way to make the time I put into the memoir more tangible. I’ve also found that I love having a four-hour chunk to just type away without leaving my chair to even pee. That is not healthy, but I do like it and indulge in it.
My current practice has been to read poetry before I start writing. The author Cristina García recommended that to me as a way to enter the writing process. You steep yourself in language first. The funny thing is that Adrienne Rich is now making her way into my writing, so I’m not sure if that will happen with every poet I read.
Were there any particular books that were a guide to you in writing this memoir, or that were touchstones for you?
I looked at a lot of memoirs that were composed of stand alone chapters or essays, like Luis Alberto Urrea’s Nobody’s Son, Brenda Miller’s Seasons of the Body, Julie Marie Wade’s Wishbone and Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now.
I would love to hear you talk more broadly about writers that you admire and books that have been important to you as a reader and writer.
Yes! I actually did name eight books that “shaped the memoir” for Colorlines. That said, I think that different books shape you at different times in your life. I haven’t been able to shake F. Scott Momaday’s The Way To Rainy Mountain, and more recently, I fell in love with Oliver de la Paz’ Names Above Houses and Sven Lindqvist’s nonfiction book Exterminate the Brutes. I took a class with Chris Abani that helped me to see how crazy in love I am with nonlinear structures. When Sandra Cisneros talks about The House on Mango Street, she mentions finding Borges’ collection Dream Tigers and hence gravitating toward stories that were sometimes no longer than a paragraph. I am having the same experience as a reader-writer at the moment, but who knows? Next week, I might be in a different space.
Much of your professional work is as a journalist. Will you talk a bit more about your work with Colorlines?
Yes. I spent six amazing years at Colorlines. I got to work with a national, multiracial newsroom that included professional writers, emerging writers, academics and advocates who wanted to put their experiences on paper for a wider audience. From a reporting perspective, we not only covered issues but we covered the intersections between issues. For example, I wrote a story about the role that race and racism plays when a trans person of color transitions. We also covered stories like the Gulf Coast post-Katrina and immigrant detentions long after the mainstream press had abandoned those issues. For all this, we won the Utne Award for General Excellence. I especially love that I got to do a fiction issue by writers of color, and that we made space for both thoughtful essays and blog posts about race and politics.
Are there other things you want readers at Lambda Literary to know?
I’ve been reporting on a disease known in Spanish as “the kiss of death.” It’s officially called Chagas disease, and it’s essentially a parasite that’s transmitted by a bug that is said to “kiss” because of the painless bite it delivers. Doctors and patients are trying to raise awareness about Chagas disease here in the U.S. because it can lead to sudden heart attacks and kills about 11,000 people every year, though that is probably an undercount.
I wrote about the kiss of death, and about my auntie who had it, in A Cup of Water Under My Bed. That experience left me wanting to know more. You can read about why the disease is now cropping up in Virginia of all places in a story I wrote for The Atlantic.