Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston by Sarah Cortez, including a brief interview with the author

Walking Home: Growing Up Hispanic in Houston (Texas Review Press, 2012) by Sarah Cortez is a slim book composed of prose and poetry; thus the back cover tells us it is a mixed-genre memoir. The short prose chapters come first, where the author sorts her memories by colors related to a beautiful stained glass window. Nothing is chronological here. Stepping into her mother’s wish for babies yet to be born, her father’s vivid hopes for a son or her grandmother prayers, Cortez skillfully evokes the family she loves. She imagines their inner lives. Yes, this is a memoir, but in these prose chapters, rarely does Cortez use the first person to tell her story. Instead we plunge deeply into both the myths and inherited memories of her past. Brief as some of these memories are, they have a rich, soulful quality. As for genres, besides memoir and poetry, I was reminded of theater and can well imagine certain chapters morphed into a play consisting of dramatic monologues.

In the second section, the air feels lighter, full of childish delight, awe or disgust. We are in the sure hands of a poet who has successfully strung together a collection of miniatures into a masterpiece. Often the subjects are deceptively simple: costume jewelry, a donut shack, fishing with her father at Hermann Park; yet much is revealed about life and its beauty, its illusions. A few of the poems takes us further into the poet’s young adulthood. And the last poem is one I found hard to close the cover on. “Walking Home” is both intensely personal and achingly collective. This poem softly, wisely reminds us to remember each detail of the past, to “walk yourself home, then back here again.” That is indeed the journey Cortez has made, one I felt privileged to share.

Years ago, I took a writing class with Sarah Cortez at the Houston Jung Center. Then a couple of weeks ago, I attended a lecture she gave and reconnected with her. Later we did a short interview by email:

1. When you wrote these poems and stories, did you know you wanted to use them as a group in one book? Or did you go back and collect them together from a larger body of writing? I was lucky enough to be awarded a position as a visiting scholar in order to both teach creative writing at UH and to write this book. So, I knew the time period I was aiming for in the memoir and wrote poems to accomplish the project.

2. As a teacher of memoir writing, what would you say is the most empowering concept you try to transmit to your students? Yes, I've been teaching memoir for about a decade or more. It's a writing form I adore -- teaching, writing, listening to, and pondering. As a teacher, I love introducing or furthering the student's process of going deep inside his/her own life and finding meaning, then writing that meaning.

3. Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? Almost "always." My mother was an ardent elementary school teacher who began teaching me to read at a very early age. I fell in love with words early on. That love continues.

4. Who are your favorite memoir writers? Patricia Hampl is my hands-down favorite in both the writing of memoir and in the writing about writing memoir. This past year I found Kathleen Norris' work. I admire the memoir writing of Vivian Gornick, Scott Momaday, Donna M. Johnson.

5. What's next for you? Gosh, I don't know. I have several book proposals that are out. Whichever is under contract first will be the next book.  I hope you and your readers will stay tuned to my website for the upcoming book launches of my next two books. One is an anthology of essays about U.S.-Mexico border violence, a timely topic if there ever was one. The title is The Lost Border: Life Amid the Narco-Violence. The second is a book of poetry that is about the work of police officers and firefighters. Its title is Cold Blue Steel, and the publisher is Texas Review Press.

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