For Daisy Hernández, growing up was a continual process of leaving her Spanish-speaking Cuban-Colombian immigrant family. “I left them at the age of five to learn English, and I started leaving them through the process of acquiring an education,” Hernández says of her childhood in New Jersey. As she pursued her professional and personal pursuits, she had to work at reconciling the growing distance, and the sense that she was not just leaving her family, but also leaving them behind. “How did these two worlds match up? They looked so different to me that they were almost in contrast to one another.”
In “A Cup of Water Under My Bed” out September 9 from Beacon Press, Hernández, a visiting writer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the former editor of the print version of Colorlines, narrates her journey making sense of it all while navigating language, race, her queer identity, and religion. She dedicated her book para todos las hijas, “for all daughters,” women she’s met through the years who, like her, have questioned “their relationships with their families, with their communities, and who have really mixed feelings about leaving home, literally and metaphorically, through their creative or activist work,” Hernández says.
Colorlines asked Hernández to share the books that inspired her own writing life and literary sensibilities. While many of them were being published as she was growing up, none reached her in “Daisyland.” She came to many of her treasured works as an adult when she joined a community of other Latina artists who saw, Hernández says, “that art was very much part of how we create social justice.”
Here in her own words are the books that shaped Hernández:
“Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde
The important part of this book to me was her voice, this incredible, powerful voice on page after page after page. It was really the first time I read that the lives of women of color matter and poetry was not something extra for our lives–that it was actually necessary. And I took poetry to include all of the arts, so that book deeply inspired me. She taught me that writing could both be an investigation of the self and the community and a call to action at the same time.
“Hunger of Memory” by Richard Rodriguez
I’m going to include my politically incorect book on this list as well, even though I admit that I hesitate! This book was absolutely seminal. People are always shocked to learn this about me. He was the first Latino author I read that was working in the form of memoir and essay, and I really identified with the experience that he had of having a private world that was about language and family, and a public world that was about English and education.
It was also important to me that he was writing about his parents who were not these Mexican intellectuals. They were not connected to his graduate degree work. I really identified with that because my parents are not these Cuban-Colombian intellectuals who introduced me to my literary history from those countries. It was that sense of alienation and the contrast of belonging to multiple worlds.
“Borderlands” by Gloria Anzaldua
“Borderlands,” of course. This was such a turning point for me as a writer for two reasons. In terms of content, she described living in that in-between place. Those of us who belong to multiple worlds, we have our own worlds between these others. That was a first time I was hearing someone articulate that on the page. And in terms of the craft, this book was the first time I saw someone writing in multiple languages, not translating, not including footnes, not apologizing for it. It was the first time I saw someone moving so fluidly among her different languages in the way I experienced them in my own world off the page, that it gave me curiosity and hope about what I could do on the page as well.
“Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin
First of all, he’s James Baldwin. So it’s like James Baldwin, period. He was able to write from that intersection of the personal and the political in a way that is breathtaking. I’m always reading his work and wondering: how does he balance the narrative with the searing social criticism where one doesn’t take precedence over the other? And at the same time he’s so willing to investigate himself. I’m always drawn to the title essay in part because of the ending of that essay where he’s like: how do we accept that injustice exists and yet we fight like crazy against it? How do we hold those two truths? For anyone who’s committed to making this world a better place, that’s a fundamental question. And at the level of the line, his prose is stunning.
“Nobody’s Son” by Luis Alberto Urrea
I see this book as being so directly related to James Baldwin, of course. This book helped me think about my book actually, about what I was trying to do in the different chapters and how to structure it as well. He describes his beautiful, crazy white mom, and a beautiful, crazy Mexican dad, and growing up in his home with so much love and also with abuse, in a community that loved him and hated him at the same time. He gives so much attention to detail, to details of the landscape and the inner landsape of his family home. He touches so well in one particular chapter on an experience I had, where our parents or immediate family are going through whatever they’re going through, and other people are able to step in and raise us.
“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros
This book about a young Chicana in Chicago defies genre. Is it a novel, is it vignettes? Is it a young adult, “YA” book, or an older adult book? Is it a collection of prose-poetry or a novel? It can be read in all these ways but [Cisneros] is able to bring into prose a veneration for sound and for image via the voice of this young girl who’s expressing the world and questioning it without an analysis. She may have been the first Latina author I read, and so to see on the page how she was working with both Spanish and English–because I grew up reading books all in English–was quite powerful.
“In the Land of Green Plums” by Herta Müller
This novel is set in Romania during the dictatorship. It is so imagistic and engages really directly with the political situation that was happening in that country. At the same time, it’s a story of four friends who meet in college, all of whom are artists trying to do their art in the context of this dictatorship that’s happening. There’s chilling parallels between what they are doing and the kind of creative work people were doing in social justice movements in the 1960s and 1970s in the U.S. and all over Latin America during dictatorships and civil wars sponsored by the U.S. Not many American readers know her even though she won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
“The Way to Rainy Mountain” by N. Scott Momaday
This is a must-read book for every person of color. He’s Native American, of the Kiowa tribe, and his book is structured on three points of view. He tells the story of his community through these three points of view: myth, the academic voice and the personal story.
You open the page, and it’s like three vignettes across two pages. I feel like he managed to do on the page what I feel every person of color’s experience is, especially in this country specifically, which is: we grow up with the deeply mythical understanding of where we come from, of who we are as a people. Whether it’s Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native people. And inevitably we interact with an academic world and there’s this whole different language that’s used to tell the same story about us. We’re analyzed, we’re digested, we’re reproduced in all these academic books–“Oh, let’s look at the exotic Cuban!” And of course there’s the personal story. The book has really touching vignettes about his relationship with his grandmother, who was the carrier of both the myth and the personal story. Seeing these three languages on the page, I still have a dream of writing a book with the structure he employed in that book.
For more on “A Cup of Water Under My Bed” and Hernández’s upcoming book tour, visit daisyhernandez.com