The Ms. Q&A: Daisy Hernandez on Writing as Fighting Back

Daisy Hernandez—author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism and former editor of ColorLines magazine and columnist with Ms.—has spent her life expanding narratives for women of color. Her work has smashed together queerness, issues of class, the magnitude of gender and political resistance.

Hernandez took some time to chat with Ms. about her take on the political climate, activism and her latest project.

How have you been coping with the political climate? 

In a lot ways it’s not a single political moment, it’s a political time that has different stages to it, so immediately after the election that was a very specific time period. I think it was the shock, for me it really helped to go to protests. I went to the Women’s March in Washington and that was life changing. It’s very necessary, and in January I think there was till that shock that this had happened. For me, it was also focusing on love, on the people in my life, on the fact that hundreds of thousands of women showed up in D.C. It was also on focusing on goodness. It kinda felt like that [June Jordan’s title of her book “Some of Us Did Not Die”], like okay let me focus on the fact that we’re alive, we’re here, we’re in this whole thing together. Now, that shock has given way to the reality of the situation and to being shocked on a daily basis, which was really different than the election shock. It really helps that I’m focusing on a new book project and it has to with healthcare and immigration. It really gives me a lot of sustenance right now. Sharing on social media is actually one of the ways I cope. One of my ways of coping actually has been to make those calls to my Congress members. A way of coping has been hearing my own voice say ‘you know, this is why I think it’s important to keep the Affordable Healthcare Act.’

One of the things I’ve said to women is that you have to really allow yourself to have whatever reaction you’re having to this political climate that we’re in now. You have to prepare yourself.

What’s your take on the importance of women of color activism under Trump and his administration?

Women of color activism is central during his administration. It definitely feels more urgent now because his agenda targets families of color—whether it’s Muslim families or Latino immigrant families, his administration is very much targeting communities of color, so our activism has a very intense new sense of urgency.

How can “newcomers” to feminist activism get started?

I don’t think that there is a prescription for how to get started as a new feminist. What works best is starting with what you are most passionate about both in terms of issues and in terms of how you want to contribute, how you want to play a role. For people like myself, who are writers, it really makes sense to be writing op-eds, using social media with our words, but then there are people like my sister who’s more of an organizer. I think she’s come to politics, activism and feminism by being involved with questioning voters, getting involved in her local democratic party and she signed up for a course devoted to  women who want to run for a political office. I think you have to think about both what issues you are passionate about and what really appeals to you. You can get involved as a new feminist in every way possible right now.

Your memoir covers the topics of identity and sexuality. How do you feel about current media coverage and representation around LGBT issues, race and gender? Did you hope that you could change its course?

It’s a work in a progress. I think what stands out to me lately is how many celebrities are coming out about their own sexual orientation. That has been really moving for me just to see different actors and actresses say you know “I’m going to come out because I want you to know that you’re not alone.” There was a teacher in Kentucky who came out because she was hearing about students that were struggling with their sexuality. She came out as a way to encourage them so they wouldn’t feel alone and she ended up being fired. There’s a representation that we see in pop culture and there’s also the representation that we see in our small communities across the country that are just as important.

I think initially, part of writing the book was that I don’t have a book like this to read and I heard Toni Morrison say that she wrote the book she needed to read. I wrote the book that I felt like didn’t exist, that I hadn’t seen. For me, all writing that’s published, that goes out in the world, has the potential to change the national conversation. It has the potential to touch others and to get them to think differently about communities they don’t know about.

How has writing empowered you? How do you think your work has empowered your readers?

Both on the national stage and my day to day life, people can ignore me for whatever reasons—’cause I’m Latina, ’cause they have ideas bout me—but when I’m on the page, no one ignores the page. It’s me in my computer typing away and whatever I wrote is out in the world and touches people and I see that from readers who write to me and say “you know this book was my life story too.” The connection with readers is so incredibly empowering. There’s a visibility.

The main response that I hear from readers is that the book gave name to experiences that they themselves have had. Not every reader grows up with a crazy, Cuban-Columbian family, but I’ve heard from readers who are Haitian, Korean and different ethnic groups. They really feel like the book has given a name to the experience of translating for their immigrant parents, or to the experience of being the first one that goes to college, or gets that big job that their parents don’t fully understand.

Colonize This! has inspired many women to make drastic changes in their lives. Did this happen to you as well?

Any time you work in a book, you are changed in the process. That book definitely changed my life because it was my first book. I was around 25 or 26 when I worked on that, and all of a sudden over the years, everywhere I went, across the country I would meet women who had read the book and dramatically changed their lives. They had changed their majors. They came up to me and they’re like “I finally understand my mom so much better because I read Colonize This!” and I met men who were also reading the book and saying “you helped me understand my mom, my girlfriend.” Seeing the impact on readers, I think, just gave me so much encouragement. For me, it gave me deep confirmation that writing and the written word are a very critical form of activism. I think it also changed me in the sense that me and my co-editor and I didn’t know what we were doing. We had this amazing opportunity, but we had not worked on an anthology before. I’m very grateful because the women whose work we picked for the anthology were all willing to work on their stories with us. There were a lot of late night phone calls, and my co-editor and I put our own lives on hold for about two years and that’s just where it all begins.

We were just very driven by the need we felt for the book. My experience with Colonize This! is that you find your way. People did show up and support us. Cherrie Moraga agreed to write the follow-up.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a new book about healthcare, infection diseases and immigration. I’m trying to answer the question “how do we choose who we take care of?” because there are a lot of infection diseases that you’ll never end up seeing in the United States that get very much ignored globally and there are other diseases that do show up in the United States that get more attention. It’s very much tied with the questions that are coming up now under the Trump administration—who do we let in, who do we keep out? Which at the end of the day, is really the question of what it means to be an American today.

Meliss Arteaga is an editorial intern at Ms. She studied at California State University Northridge and has a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism and minor in gender and women studies.

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