by Claudia D. Hernández
An excerpt from Knitting the Fog,
Winner of the Louise Meriwether Prize 2018
The Feminist Press and TAYO Literary Magazine are honored to award the second Louise Meriwether First Book Prize to
Claudia D. Hernández.
In Knitting the Fog, Hernández shares the story of her family’s migration from Guatemala to the United States through a fusion of poetry and narrative essay. The book will be published by the Feminist Press in 2019.
Read more about the prize here.
Mamá was always running away from something, someone. Her present, her past, the hunger that chased her, Papá’s drunkenness and obsessiveness, her mother’s abandonment, the heat of Mayuelas or the coldness of Tactic, her beauty— her long hair.
I remember when Mamá would bathe Consuelo and me together in the Pila, a washbasin made out of cement. I was four and Consuelo was six. We didn’t have hot water; our pila was out in the patio surrounded by the shade of the tamarindo trees. The water came straight from the river, cold and fresh. Mamá never allowed us to drink it.
“It’s stale! You’ll grow a solitaria, a tapeworm, in your tummy,” she would say.
The washbasin was filled with water. It had one sink on each side. One sink had a ribbed surface and it was usually used for hand-washing laundry. The other sink was for doing dishes. Its surface was smooth. Mamá would sit both Consuelo and me on the ribbed sink so that we wouldn’t slip. The pila was high off the ground.
“Sindyyyy!” Mamá would yell. “Help me rinse the girls.”
Sindy was my oldest sister—eight years older than me. She acted like my second mother whenever she babysat me and later on when Mamá left. There were times I hated Sindy for that.
Mamá’s fingernails were always long and sharp. She scrubbed my head furiously with the cola de caballo shampoo. The Mane ‘n Tail always burned my eyes. We hadn’t heard of baby shampoo in those days. Sindy’s job was to pour buckets of water over me. I felt like I was drowning every time the water would hit the crown of my head. I somehow managed to breathe through my mouth as the see-through, soapy veil of water covered my face.
After the bath, Mamá would dress us up in summer dresses to keep us fresh in the scalding heat of Mayuelas, where the ceiba trees and mango trees bloomed with tenacity. Mamá kept us clean. She fed us three times every day: huevitos tibios, soft-boiled eggs, and sweet bread with a cup of milk or a Coca Cola. Sometimes she fed us Nestlé Cerelac by itself—completely dry. It was my favorite.
I remember Mamá was always moody. I never knew why. “You two better not get dirty!” she’d yell after bathing us. I loved playing outside in the mud.
One summer day, the mud felt especially cold and refreshing on my skin. Nobody was around to keep an eye on me. Sindy and Consuelo were inside the house with Mamá doing chores. I decided to taste the mud.
I grew up listening to stories about how four-year-old Sindy loved to eat clumps of dirt from Tía Soila’s kitchen’s adobe walls. I was four, and I wanted to see for myself why Sindy loved it so much. Tía Soila was Mamá’s aunt, but we also called her Tía.
I knew exactly what I was doing, and I knew it was wrong. Sindy got beat up many times for eating dirt. I looked around one more time before picking up a handful of mud. I was nervous. I was terrified of Mamá.
I hid my dirty hands behind my back, and before I knew it, I found myself grinding rocks with my baby teeth. Two seconds later, I spat everything out and ran to the outhouse. No one saw me. I couldn’t get rid of the salty-chalky taste in my mouth.
I spat and spat everywhere, in the darkness of the toilet, all over the dirt floor, until my mouth felt dry. Eventually, I began to appreciate the petrichor scent trapped in my mouth. I finally understood why Sindy desired clumps of dirt in her mouth. It was a different type of hunger we both had.
Knitting the Fog:
An interview with claudia Hernández
with Editor Melissa R. Sipin
Please tell us a little more in detail about your own writing journey. How did you find your way to words?
I’m not the writer that says, “I was born a writer,” or “I’ve been a writer since I was a kid”. When it comes to writing, I’m a late bloomer. I grew up in a household where there were no books, pencils, or art supplies. I grew up on the streets playing soccer or by the riverbed playing with clay. There were no libraries. It wasn’t until I came to the US, at the age of ten, that I was exposed to a library and even then, my mother wouldn’t take us to the library. My mother has a second-grade education and reading and writing intimidate her. She never read to us before we went to bed. When I arrived in the US, I was impressed with the schooling system, how everything was provided: free pencils, paper, and books. In Guatemala we had to purchase everything. Nothing was free.
I struggled throughout middle school, and high school trying to learn English as a second language. Writing was not my priority. Not until I had my daughter, Alexa, at the age of twenty that I began to fall in love with books. Reading to her every night made me fall in love with literature. It was then when I decided that I would write, that I would become a writer, and I did. I began writing children’s stories. I illustrated my own stories. Bound my own books.
After I had Alexa, I decided to go back to college and earn a degree in liberal studies and a minor in art. This fueled my need to create and produce more art whether it was writing, drawing, painting, or making ceramics. I needed all of the above in order to survive. I was a young wife with a daughter going to school fulltime and working fulltime. I needed an outlet and art became just that.
I continued to write children’s stories and those eventually turned into poems. I became obsessed with poetry and then a poet was born. I wrote poetry in Spanish. I began translating my own poetry and submitting it to journals. Ultimately, these got published and I began my journey as a published poet in my early thirties. Simultaneously, I also began writing short stories about my childhood and my journey to the US. In my mid-thirties, I got accepted to a low residency MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. This is where all my short stories/ narrative essays took root.
What was the genesis of Knitting the Fog? What we loved most about this book was its hybridity. Your insight on your journey from Guatemala to the States and back shines an imperative perspective on what's going on today in the migrant crisis. What compelled you to write this hybrid memoir in poetry and nonfiction?
Knitting the Fog began when my mother immigrated to the US the first time, she was fleeing domestic violence and she found a safe haven in the US. I was seven years old. Three years later, she went back for us, her three daughters and brought us here illegally in the late 1980s. I was ten years old. I know first hand what the asylum seekers are experiencing with their journey; it took us a month to cross over to the US. This is why it’s important to tell our stories so that people can relate and understand what it is to go through a dangerous journey. A journey where you don’t know whether you will make it alive or not to the other side; what it’s like to cross over to the Río Grande on a small boat crammed with people; what it’s like to sleep on flophouses and be guided by coyotes; what it’s like to ride on buses and walk for hours on dangerous roads where people get killed or mugged.
Knitting the Fog also began with poems. When my socially conscious poems about immigration got published it lit a fire within me inspiring me to continue to write about this topic, which eventually evolved into short stories, or narrative essays about my childhood. Immigration is always a critical subject, and it’s all the more important now especially with the way our government is dealing with the immigration situation at our borders.
This story was written for all of those who have crossed to this side and have experienced similar conditions as I did. We all have seen the cold nights where the stars seem distant, but they’re there regardless, guiding us from afar. I wrote this book for all of us who have crossed the silent desert with its dry bushes and bare rocks. For those who will cross it tomorrow. I wrote this book for my family, I wrote it for my daughter Alexa, I wrote this book for myself—to heal.
Narrative memory and fragmented memory work in an intense and almost magnetic way in the manuscript, and we were taken by the memoir's structure of escaping to returning. How did you come to find the structure of the book?
Every time I have been asked to write an epilogue or a book introduction or an essay, I speak in poetry. I can’t help it. Poetry comes uninvited all the time. It was the same for this book. Poetry was weaved between the narrative essays as if that was its initial purpose. It happened organically and just felt right. I didn’t think twice about it once I added them. I just knew it had to be done in this manner. I had a poem for every other story as a continuation or explanation or closure. What I appreciate the most is how the Feminist Press welcomed the Spanish version of each poem in English. I wanted to cry realizing how my manuscript had found the perfect home where I can express myself in both languages just like I do now in real life.
Tía Zoila’s words, "Your mother never shed a tear out of self-pity. Those tears were not of anguish, or fear. They were rather cries of anger. Tears of hunger," struck a great chord to me as the family prepares to return home. Throughout the manuscript, a mantra was taught to women, a mantra I believe my own Filipino, matriarchal family also taught us girls: the refrain of "nothing ever hurt." Can you speak more about the lessons of struggle and resilience that are taught to women of color from our families, and why this refrain, "nothing ever hurt," feels like it comes from an ancient rage?
Yes, I have never heard my mother tell me, “Girls don’t cry!” unlike some machista men who tell their young boys, “Boys don’t cry”. On the contrary, we girls were allowed to express our anger and emotions to the fullest. But as we matured into womanhood, we learned to cry out of anger. I remember my mother defending herself from my drunken, abusive father. She didn’t stay still and take the beatings quietly, instead, she fought back with her fists, with her high heels, and with whatever item she could find in her way. She did this in front of us. She had no option. I know that’s traumatizing for young children, it’s domestic violence, but at the same time, I see it as resilience and women empowerment. It’s somewhat poetic, if you ask me. To my mother, nothing ever hurt. She took it like a woman.
I saw it with my grandmother as well during the time we were living with her the three years when my mother immigrated to the US. Her husband was an alcoholic and one day he tried to hit her with a machete. I remember clearly how she took charge of the matter quickly. She grabbed a broom and hit him with it until she kicked him out of the house into the backyard. Later that day, she built him a room made out of long wooden boards outside on the patio. She literally kicked him out of her bedroom, the house, and stopped talking to him. It’s been more than thirty years since that incident and she still doesn’t talk to him. He still lives outside in the patio. This is how strong the women in my family are. They don’t forget and they don’t forgive, either. But nothing ever hurts.
My Tía Soila on the other hand, never married. She never had to deal with a drunken or abusive husband. She was there to help my mother. She raised her two sons on her own by washing other people’s dirty clothes in the river and selling numbers in the arid streets of Mayuelas. She gathered her own leña from the monte to cook her meals in the comal. She lived in solitude most of her life, but I bet that didn’t hurt, either. These women taught me the true meaning of resilience and hunger. “No te dejés de nadie,” they would say. We all learned to pacify that hunger at the end—the ancient rage you mention.
And lastly, who are you reading, and who would you recommend to us to go to the bookstore and buy their book now?
I’m currently re-reading A Life On Hold, Living With Schizophrenia by Josie Mendez-Negrete. In this book, the author shares the devastation and hope a family experiences when dealing with mental illness. Tito her son, who I have met, struggles with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Josie describes the progression of the disease from her point of view as a parent depicting the problems of the US mental health system. This book spoke to me because, I too, suffer from a mental illness: cyclothymic disorder. I know what it’s like to be criticized and stigmatized. I’m highly functional because I take care of myself with the right medications. Perhaps one day I will write about my condition. I’m not ready for it now. In the meantime, I read about it to inform myself and become an advocate for it.
I’m also reading Gayle Brandeis’s, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, which deals with physical and mental illness. I think we are living in a time where mental illness is not being discussed enough or diagnosed on time. I believe these books are important and they need more exposure so that people can learn more about mental illnesses. Once again, this book hits home with me because I got diagnosed with my condition in my mid-thirties after I had a mental breakdown. Things have been under control now because of the right medication that I take. I absolutely love this book!
Another book that I’m reading is GRACIAS by Alma Luz Villanueva. This is a collection of poems that take you to a journey into the heart of Mexico, home to her Mamacita’s spirit, Alma Luz’s Grandmother. Alma Luz has a way with words and music; it entices the reader with her indigenous rhythm. I highly recommend this book full of heart and love.
Claudia D. Hernández was born and raised in Guatemala. She is a mother, photographer, poet, translator, and bilingual educator residing in LA. Hernández holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is the founder of the ongoing project Today’s Revolutionary Women of Color.
Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, California. She co-edited Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology on Philippine myths (Carayan Press 2014), and her work is in LitHub, Salon, Black Warrior Review, Prairie Schooner, Guernica Magazine, and Slice Literary Magazine, among others.