Poet and writer Violeta Garcia-Mendoza’s essay, Two Names for Every Beautiful Thing, is included in Suzanne Kamata’s collection of essays about multicultural mothering, Call Me Okaasan. No stranger to multicultural life, Violeta was born in Madrid, Spain, and raised between Madrid and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her poetry and prose have appeared in a variety of literary venues. Currently she is a Columnist for Literary Mama, and she teaches several online writing workshops.
I first (virtually) met Violeta when she was a guest lecturer in an online Parent Lit workshop I took with Susan Ito. This Spring I took Violeta’s online Creative Nonfiction workshop. I appreciated her insight and skill as an instructor and was thrilled to see that her essay was included in Call Me Okaasan. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Violeta some questions about her experiences with multicultural mothering as well as her experiences writing and publishing this essay.
Growing up as a Spanish-American child, you have first-hand experiences in what it means to be a multicultural child. Now, as the mother of three children born in Guatemala, you are experiencing the “other side” of multicultural parenting. Is your new perspective as a mother providing insight into the experiences your own parents may have had?
Violeta: Oh, yes! I think, from my perspective as a multicultural child, the biggest insight I was missing was the the fact that the difficulty in growing up with two languages and two cultures and the phases I went through, especially those in which I preferred one language/culture over the other… was not my parents’ fault! Through my teenage years in particular, I often wondered if my mother, who raised me basically by herself, could have done things differently once she moved us to the US. My suspicion was that she could have and that that would have magically made me able to avoid all the rough stuff I went through before arriving at a comfortably expressed Spanish-American identity. My new perspective as a mom has shown me I was being naive and unfair in that. From where I stand now, I see that long phase I experienced of torn loyalties and half identities and the general dread of not belonging, that was just an inherent part of growing up as a multiculti kid coming to America in that generation. I think having experienced that will make me more proactive and compassionate towards what my kids may experience, in a way my mother’s own history didn’t allow her to be, but it will not make me perfect. I do also think the situation for hyphenated American kids is improving, as there are more multiculti families, better representation, and less prejudice, and the babies of today are growing up into a much more global world. I feel positive that my Guatemalan-American children will have a slightly different, and better experience. I think Okaasan reflects this in that it is a map to the future as well as a snapshot of the present and recent past for multiculti families around the world.
Part of what I enjoyed most about this collection was the variety of experiences the contributors had – culturally, linguistically and geographically. Was there any particular essay in the collection that resonated with you, or that made you think differently about multicultural mothering?
Violeta: I loved Susannah Pabot’s “Eleven Snapshots for Your Baby Book, Reconstructed in Blues” for the aching, multi-generational history it presents. It manages to be sobering but, finally, hopeful and that resounds deeply with me. Also, Kate McVean’s essay really interested me because she is an American mom, married to a Spaniard, raising children in Spain, and her story offered me a bit of a glimpse of what my own mother’s perspective might have been when she began a family abroad…and because it’s sort of a foil to my experience, having grown up in Spain, but having married an American and now living and mothering in the US.
You say so much in the line, “One day. If I give them anything, may it be the chance to call forth all the beautiful things they deserve.” This line resonates with me as a mother of children who aren’t multicultural, in that I also hope to equip my sons to call forth all they deserve. In what ways do you try to help create this chance for your children even now, when they are relatively young?
Violeta: That line is my favorite one of the whole essay because I feel like it’s my recurrent prayer as a mom, that I will be able to prepare my children, that they will become happy, independent people. Honestly, it’s hard to know what I’m doing presently that will help this, but my husband and I are trying to raise them with an excess of resources- not of material things- but of those resources that have gotten the two of us through hard times in our own lives- family, community, a sense of identity, history, faith. We consciously make an effort to put these things in their lives and to show them how they can access them. And of course, in our family, language and culture tie into basically all of these.
As a writer who writes about mothering your children, how do you determine what you should or shouldn’t share about your family’s personal experiences?
Violeta: At the stage our family is in now- our children all fairly young- I usually share more than not. It’s a matter of sharing enough to make my experience of motherhood vivid and particular, and of coming across as a trustworthy narrator to my reader, but not sharing so much that I’m going to embarrass or over expose anyone in my family. Personally, once I meet someone in person I usually act like I’ve known them forever and share accordingly, but I respect that my husband is not like that and I don’t know whether my kids will be or not. For me, the key in not crossing any lines when writing about others has been to process before the page (I won’t write about someone with a cruel intention) and to ask myself whether or not something is really my story to tell. My childhood, my travels, my motherhood…I see those as my perspectives and my stories to tell. But there are subjects that are mostly “off limits” for me- my parents’ relationship, my husband’s family of origin, my children’s specific adoption circumstances… I’ve made the decision not to write about those because, even as they touch my life, I am not at the center of those stories and as such I don’t feel I have the right or the right perspective to render them in writing.
Please tell us about the writing of this essay. Did you write it specifically for this anthology, or was it something you had crafted previously? How did you learn that Suzanne Kamata was seeking work for this collection?
Violeta: Shortly after I started writing my “Multi-Culti Mami” column with Literary Mama, Suzanne Kamata emailed me to tell me about this project and to ask if I’d be interested in contributing. I was not only interested, I was honored to be asked; I knew this anthology would be so valuable for multicultural families, especially. Like so many of my other pieces, “Two Names for Every Beautiful Thing” combines some old, unpublished material, particularly, an old free write, and a lot of new material written specifically for Call Me Okaasan.
I’m also curious about your writing process and how you arrived at this final piece. Did your work begin with a word prompt, a free write, or an image in your head, maybe an assignment in a workshop?
Violeta: This piece started with freewriting on gardens. I wanted to explore the garden origin myth as it applied to myself and my kids. Basically, the whole first and next to last paragraphs (largely unchanged) were what came out of that exercise. I wrote those sections, I think, about two years ago now, but every time I tried to expand upon them for an essay, it didn’t work. Some versions stalled at the drafting stage, others I thought worked well enough and I sent them out only to have them rejected. I think the problem was, I was trying to rush the journey, the discovery of the piece. Freewriting those sections was like the door cracking open of really processing and making peace with my two cultures, two languages, two countries- in that writing, I began to change my view from my life being split down the middle, torn, to being enriched by these varied experiences, and the two languages that could conjure them up. I needed a couple more years of letting that really sink in, and some practice of writing my column, before I could sit down and successfully write the piece for Okaasan!
Finally, for those of us who are writers seeking places to publish our words, what advice do you have for finding editors who are collecting essays on a specific topic?
Violeta: Both of the opportunities I’ve had so far for contributing to anthologies have come from direct request of the editors based on other pieces I’ve written. For The Maternal is Political, Shari MacDonald Strong asked me based on my cnf piece “Wanting, Waiting,” and, as I said, for Okaasan, Suzanne Kamata asked me based on my first couple of columns. So my first piece of advice is to just focus on getting your writing out there in every way you can, because you never know who is reading and what doors might open because of it. I’d also suggest writers get into the habit of checking out either a blog (like Literary Mama’s blog) which publishes calls for submissions regularly or the blogs/websites of their favorite anthologists on a regular basis. Poets and Writers also lists anthology projects in their classifieds section. And, of course, it never hurts to have any kind of literary connections who know your style- other writing friends, editors, writing workshop teachers- who might be willing and able to suggest a venue for your work.
Thank you to Violeta for sharing her thoughts about writing, multicutural mothering and publishing here at Motherlogue!