Book Review: A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernández (2015)

October 9th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

The Personal is Political – and Also Poetic in Hernández’s Deft Hands

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. Trigger warning for child abuse.)

Journalism: A fancy word to say that I spent days with my hands in other people’s stories, asking and telling, because nothing happens in isolation, especially when it has to do with language. Nothing is more vulnerable than the words in our mouths, because nothing has more power.

It will take years to understand that writing makes everything else possible. Writing is how I learn to love my father and where I come from. Writing is how I leave him and also how I take him with me.

It is a story as old as time, that we always find what we needed was right at home.

But, therein is the riddle: a child has to leave to return. My mother had to. She says it often. She only appreciated her mother, only understood her mother, after she had left home.

I had to leave, too. It was me, not my mother, who needed English, who needed the stories and feminist theories. Without them, I might never have come back to her.

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, and a former editor of ColorLines magazine. A queer (she identifies as bisexual), second-generation Latina (her mother and father immigrated from Colombia and Cuba, respectively), she speaks and writes about feminism, race, and the media. Her memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed, began way way in 2000, when she was hired to pen a regular column in Ms. Magazine at the tender age of twenty-five.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed features eleven essays (which often have the feel of stories, so lyrical is Hernández’s writing) organized not by chronology, but loosely by topic: assimilation and language; sexual identity; and work and money. Whether she’s calling out the state of New Jersey for its switch to an automated telephone system to manage unemployment benefits in the ’90s (ostensibly for the convenience of its recipients, but really to hide the scope of the problems created by NAFTA), or writing about her aunties’ reactions to her romantic partners (rarely favorable, save for Alejandro – the trans man they all assumed was cisgender, on account of he was built like a linebacker), Hernández writes deftly and with both insight and wry humor.

Normally I save the chapter-by-chapter summaries for collections of short stories – where each piece is an island of sorts, self-contained – but here it seems appropriate, almost inexplicably so. While the threads of each story bleed into the others, forming a whole that’s even greater than the sum of its parts, each is lovely and stands defiantly on its own.

ONE

“Before Love, Memory” – Hernández writes of her early love/hate relationship with language; how mastering English proved both a source of pride for and alienation from her family. Becoming fluent in English – and eventually earning a living with her words – was both a culmination of her parents’ dreams for her, and a rejection of them: “You betray your parents if you don’t become like them […] and you betray them if you do.” Words are power, in more ways than one.

“Stories She Tells Us” – As a child, Alicia told her daughters Daisy and Liliana stories: Tales of leaving her small village Ramiriquí for factory work in Bogotá, and later following a friend to New Jersey, where money supposedly grew on trees. As in Colombia, life in the U.S. involved labor in textile factories; grueling, tedious, uncertain – and sometimes unpaid. These were not tales of adventure, but woe; stories populated by monsters and best spun in the dark of night.

“The Candy Dish” – While Hernández attended Catholic school and the family went to church every Sunday, her father Ygnacio never accompanied them. Only years later, after experiencing her own break with Catholicism, would Hernández understand why: her father practices Santeria, and the little “candy dish” that she’d raided as a child was actually a sacred clay pot. Hernández skillfully shows how her parents’ differing approaches to religion are actually two sides of the same coin: her mother’s saints and her father’s orishas, the public and the private that developed as a response to slavery, as a means for enslaved people to survive and retain their culture.

“A Cup of Water Under My Bed” – Wondering why her family and acquaintances were willing to hand their fates over to spiritualists and taro card readers (Hernández even consulted one after her move to San Francisco, to soothe her homesick heart), Hernández concludes that “they teach us to make the cage tolerable.” Remembering a time in her childhood when her father beat her so badly with a belt that it left cuts all over her legs and brought police officers to their door, she recalls Juana, Ygnacio’s santera, who arrived later and admonished the five-year-old for upsetting her father. The women her mother chooses are so very different from the women her father chooses.

TWO

“Even If I Kiss a Woman” – As a teenager, Hernández dated and eventually moved in with Julio, a coworker at McDonald’s – and a Colombian, much to her mother’s and aunts’ horror; they all hope she’ll end up with an (white) American. It isn’t until college that she even considers that kissing another woman might be a viable option. When she finally comes out as bisexual to her family, the initial shock and disgust gradually gives way to a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at home, thus creating more barriers between Hernández and her kin. For someone to whom language is paramount, Hernández writes, “the absence of language can feel like death,” especially when it comes to sharing with “the first women I loved.”

“Queer Narratives” – Hernández begins with an anecdote about her experience teaching high school kids about the LGBTQ community – and the enormous pressure to get it right, since anything less could have dire consequences. Such as the murder of Gwen Amber Rose Araujo, a trans woman who was killed by four men, two of whom she’d been intimate with; several of the defendants later employed the “transpanic” defense. Gwen’s story is interwoven with Hernández’s own, including her experiences dating trans men. She feared for those who didn’t easily pass, and reveled in the unfamiliar feeling of “normalcy” that dating those who were able to pass provided. (See: Alejandro, above.)

“Qué India” – When Hernández started dating a woman, her Tía Dora stopped talking to her; the silence lasted seven years. (Ironically, it was broken when Hernández began dating Alejandro.) She uses this as a jumping-off point to explore her aunt’s racism, particularly against Indians, even though she married one (from Peru) and may have been one herself. In Hernández’s words, racism is “defined by contradictions.”

THREE

“Only Ricos Have Credit” – On earning money, stealing money, and borrowing money. Hernández recounts her struggles with credit card debt and materialism. While her aunts blame it on her Americanism, Hernández traces this thirst for things back to an early childhood visit to Colombia, and the fear she felt when she encountered the street kids begging money for milk.

“My Father’s Hands” – Born in Cuba in 1932, Ygnacio fought against Castro and immigrated to the U.S. when the Havana embassy closed in 1961, swearing off oranges forever. As the economy shifts, he goes from factory work to odd handyman jobs to dishwashing and janitorial services. Hernández remembers the pressure put on a young kid to translate her parents’ unemployment forms; one mistranslated word might cost them that week’s check. When not working, Ygnacio could often be found in the basement, drinking; “He’s found a store on Bergenline Avenue where the price of beer seems to drop every time unemployment rises.” Among the most beautiful and touching pieces in the book, Hernández struggles to understand her father and come to terms with their troubled (and abusive) relationship.

“Blackout” – Embarking on what she thinks is her big break as an intern at The New York Times, Hernández is disillusioned by the overwhelming whiteness of the place. The racism is both overt – especially so in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, to which Hernández was a witness – and more subtle, such as in how certain stories were deemed newsworthy and the ways in which Hernández was steered in reporting on them.

“Después” – Technically an afterward, but every bit as trenchant and self-aware as the ten preceding essays. Shortly after leaving the Times, Hernández lands a job at ColorLines – necessitating a move to San Francisco. Incidentally, the change of zip codes comes at the same time Gavin Newsome begins marrying gays and lesbians. Her mother and aunts refuse to visit her in this city of sin.

Hernández’s departure heralds the “unraveling” of her family, though not always for the worse: her parents relocate to Florida, where her mom takes an ESL course and starts her own alterations business, while dad returns to Cuba, in a sense. Tía Dora passes away, but the two are thankfully on speaking terms when it happens.

When asked by a lover, “Why do you still talk to them?,” she turns to President Obama’s speech on the Reverend Wright for wisdom. “Some stitches cannot be undone.” A Cup of Water Under My Bed represents Hernández’s journey away from her family – literal, metaphorical, linguistic – and her return to it. Full circle, and with understanding, if not acceptance.

A Cup of Water Under My Bed isn’t just informative and challenging; it’s also a damn engaging and entertaining read. Hernández channels the maxim “the personal is political” and imbues it with her own form of literary magic. Her words dance, storm, and sulk off the pages, demanding to be heard. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a memoir that felt so much like a poem, a song, a piece of artwork. Her prose is a thing of beauty, an occasional Trojan horse for the harsh truths and bitter observations it encapsulates.

I’m pretty certain that I subscribed to Ms. at about the same time Hernández was working there. I enjoyed her memoir enough that I’m actually considering pulling my old copies out of storage to see if I can find a few of her columns. If you could see how many boxes of books and magazines I’ve hoarded over the years, you would understand just how sincere a compliment this is.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. The author is a queer (bisexual), second-generation Latina (her mother and father are from Colombia and Cuba, respectively) who writes about her struggle to assimilate, and the impact it had on her family; coming out as bi; racism, inducing during her internship at The New York Times; the impact of slavery on religion; the effect of NAFTA on the economy, as illustrated by her parents’ experiences in the work force; her father’s alcoholism and the physical and verbal abuse he subjected her to; and more.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really.

 

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